Friday, August 16, 2019

'Invasion' claim based on belief that immigrants would 'replace' Americans

Gordon L. Weil

Is America facing an invasion?

The right-wing forces in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 thought so. The El Paso shooter thought so. Fox News commentators think so. President Trump thinks so.

The "invaders" are people arriving at the border, trying to become immigrants. Some opponents claim their real intent is to undermine America.

If you thought they only seek refuge here, you may have missed what their furious critics see. You may have been puzzled by the chant of the Virginia crowd: "You shall not replace us," they yelled. "Jews shall not replace us."

Their tirade was not merely an overly dramatic way of warning unwanted immigrants. It was an expression of a new theory with old roots, called the "Great Replacement."

This theory claims that a conspiracy exists to "replace" white people with black and brown people. Europe and North America would end up dominated by people of color who would most likely segregate white people.

The latest version of this theory comes from France, somewhat cleaned up. Its author dropped claims that replacement is a Jewish plot or white people are necessarily superior – the core belief of "white supremacy."

This theory cannot be dismissed as simply the dream of a small group of right-wing "kooks." The German composer Richard Wagner, who inspired Hitler, and France's World War II leader Charles de Gaulle, who fought Hitler, both believed it.

"I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion," Wagner wrote. For him, the invaders were Jews. For de Gaulle, the invaders were Muslims.

In Europe, countries prided themselves on their distinct, national cultures. With few immigrants, they could maintain a "pure" identity. Their cultures unified people. Emphasizing national uniqueness and superiority allowed rulers to take people's minds off their poor economic condition.

The history of the U.S. differs from countries like Germany, France or even Britain. This country was created by waves of immigrants. On arrival, many faced discrimination by those who themselves had earlier passed from being refugees to become citizens.

There have always been people who wanted to pull the ladder up after themselves. Each wave of immigrants faced opposition to their free entry into America, though all became Americans. But anti-immigrant sentiment grew and, in 1924, a tough new immigration law was passed.

That law gave those former immigrants already in the country the belief that they could maintain what was the special American culture. The common culture was not so much based on centuries of history but on a selfish sense of liberty.

There was one obvious problem. Many in the American population had never been immigrants. They did not cross seas to gain entry into a country intending to deny them the pursuit of liberty. They did not ask to come. They were Africans, slaves.

Some advocates of the Great Replacement theory may have historical links to the white people who imported black people to work their fields. There was no international plot to replace whites.

All Americans are of immigrant or slave stock, clear evidence that replacement theory has no place in America. Its advocates use it to dress up their effort to exclude non-white immigrants who would supposedly undermine a society built by white people.

African-Americans and each wave of immigrants have changed the culture of the country. Possibly, the only American culture that remains constant is found in the Declaration of Independence and the amended Constitution. They embody America's values.

James Baldwin, a notable American writer and an African-American, once wrote of how the country needed to develop, if there were to be domestic peace. He urged "a consciousness of others." The culture of each group should become part of the culture of all.

The result would be a national culture, always changing, that could not be used as a barrier against new arrivals. National strength came from a continual process of adding to the culture without claiming racial supremacy.

There has been one obvious case of the Great Replacement on this continent. When white men invaded, people were already here. Deploying more powerful weapons and greater numbers, Europeans replaced Indians.

The victors seized the territory of the defeated. They forced Indian children into schools intended to eliminate their languages and culture. Invasion led to replacement.

Invasion is an act of war. Talking now of invasion is war talk, beyond racism or even "domestic terrorism." Pleasing the crowd, Trump may not even realize the implications when he speaks of "invasion."

The 22 dead in El Paso were war victims. This is serious.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Congress should recapture the powers it gave to president

Gordon L. Weil

Last week, a Washington Post editorial cartoon showed an elderly couple celebrating a man's birthday. Nice.

His name is "U.S. Constitution." His wife tells him, "Some people are whispering about whether you are too old for the job."

A lot has changed since he was born in 1787. But the Constitution has stopped being updated and amended for fear that changing anything in it may open the way to repealing some its best parts, like the First Amendment.

Though some people, calling themselves "originalists," want the Constitution to be interpreted just as written centuries ago, it has changed and will keep on changing.

Take the president. The Constitution's drafters worried about the power of the new chief executive, because of America's harsh treatment under the British king. So they gave Congress the first seat in government and supplied it with the ability to place checks on the president.

Could they have imagined that the power of Congress "to regulate commerce with foreign nations" would result in it turning over to the president complete authority to raise and lower tariffs on billions of dollars in trade? That's what happened.

Could they have imagined that a president, elected by less than half the voters, would pack the federal courts with partisan allies, giving them lifetime appointments subject only to automatic approval by a Senate majority representing less than half the people? That has happened.

The American president is closer to being king than the constitutional drafters wanted.

Meanwhile, American voters came to play a larger role in the system of government. National issues like slavery, world wars, and economic depression with news of them spread by better communications led to broad expressions of public opinion that could not be ignored.

Constitutional change without changing the Constitution. That's the theme of the past three columns in this series. The proposed changes would increase the ability of Congress to better check the presidency and strengthen the power of popular democracy over the federal government.

The proposals are (1) to increase the size of the House of Representatives, (2) to ensure that Senate majorities include senators representing half the population, and (3) the election of the president by national popular vote. The governing rule: one person, one vote.

In a deeply partisan system, these measures would at least ensure that federal decisions are made by leaders – from the powerful president to the rawest representative – who represent a majority of Americans.

These changes would make compromise necessary, reducing partisan wars. The people demand decisions from their government, which is only possible through compromise. The system itself is threatened if government cannot make decisions the people support.

Beyond these modest reforms of federal institutions to make them responsive to the will of the majority, members of Congress themselves can restore constitutional checks and balances.

While voters may give low marks to a president, they have almost completely lost confidence in Congress. Its popularity in the latest survey is 17 percent. People may like their own senator or representative, but they dislike Congress.

Why? Their representatives and senators help resolve personal government problems, bring in federal money and show up at local events. But Congress does little. Its members often avoid responsibility by shifting it to the president and bureaucracy. They seek to get re-elected by leaving few fingerprints.

The fact that the Senate won't ratify a treaty on any subject clearly makes the point. President Obama joined with other world leaders in an agreement to forestall Iran's nuclear development. It was not a treaty, allowing senators to avoid taking a position on it. And Obama avoided rejection of the deal.

That made it easy for President Trump to withdraw from the agreement. He simply made use of the power the Senate ceded to Obama rather than keeping for itself. Trump repeatedly uses powers previously granted to presidents, but without observing the understandings about their use Congress thought it had.

The most important goal for many members of Congress is getting re-elected. They avoid taking leadership and pander to the lowest common denominator to hold onto their seats. They cater to interest groups that finance their campaigns. Such groups exist mostly to oppose government action.

Political leadership means taking risks, even the risk of losing re-election. The problem is that members regard being in Congress as their permanent profession and not as a limited period of public service.

The first reform is for Congress to recover its lost powers, carelessly given to the president, and stop the practice. That reform should start now.

Note: This is the fourth and last of a series on how to reform the federal government without amending the Constitution.

Friday, August 2, 2019

'One person, one vote' can't happen in presidential elections

Gordon L. Weil

In a presidential election, should a vote in Brunswick, Biddeford or Bangor, Maine, carry less than half the weight of a vote in Cheyenne, Cody or Casper, Wyoming?

That's what happened in 2016. And Wyoming wasn't the only state with more influence for each of its voters than Maine. By the same token, a Maine voter had more influence than those in some other states.

The rule of "one person, one vote" does not apply to presidential elections.

A popular vote counts each person's vote the same. But people don't vote for president. They vote for Electors, members of the Electoral College, a mythical institution not found in the Constitution.

The Constitution's drafters created a separate presidential election in each state. A state is assigned a number of Electors equal to the total of its U.S. senators and representatives. The result is not the same as votes distributed proportional to population.

Voting by state was meant as an inducement for states, then powerful political forces, to ratify the Constitution. Voting by Electors would keep government under the control of a few wise citizens, not average people who could be swayed by political campaigns.

Since 1787, the central, national power of the federal government has grown at the expense of states.

Also, the people, not a few wise men, have come to elect their leaders. The amended Constitution requires a Senate elected by the people, not by state legislatures. It now says that voters include members of all races, women and young people.

Despite such efforts to better align congressional representation with the popular will, more reform is needed, as discussed previously in this series.

But nothing at all has been done to improve the expression of popular will in the election of the increasingly powerful president. In five national elections, the president had fewer popular votes than the loser. Two of the five most recent elections produced a minority winner.

The presidential election is now a national process to elect a national leader, not separate state elections. Yet the preservation of the electoral vote serves mainly to override the will of the people. That is likely to happen more often.

Not only does the country live with this undemocratic situation, but some Electors make it worse by not voting for candidates they were elected to support. So-called "faithless Electors" amounted to about one percent of all Electors in 2016. That's more influence than Maine has.

Maine and Nebraska have tried splitting their electoral vote somewhat proportionately, but electoral math shows this method cannot produce a national result reflecting the popular will.

It is difficult to argue with the rule that each person's vote should count just as much as any other person's vote. To bring the presidential election in line with this now commonly accepted rule, the winner must be elected by the popular vote across the country. It's only fair.

Each state may determine how its Electors vote. States may require their electoral votes to go to the winner of the national election, resulting in each person's vote counting the same. If states with a combined 270 electoral votes – the majority required for winning – adopt this rule, it should automatically go into effect.

The National Popular Vote campaign reports that 15 states plus D.C. with 196 electoral votes have adopted this rule. Only 74 more votes are needed. While it is unlikely to happen in time for 2020, the change seems inevitable.

Maine came close this year to signing on, but pulled back. Political opposition, nostalgia for the Electoral College and worries about losing a little voting weight were factors. Both its electoral vote and popular vote influence are less than one percent.

Unfortunately, this is a partisan matter and not only a question of good government or fair elections. The current system favors Republicans, the minority victors in past presidential elections. Its opposition to the popular vote is part of an avowed voter suppression strategy in states voting for Democrats.

The Constitution requires state legislation on the electoral vote procedure. The Supreme Court has ruled that a referendum vote, possible in Maine and in many other states, is a legislative act. When legislatures won't act, citizens may be able to find a path of their own toward popular election of the president.

The electoral vote with its "Electoral College" can be preserved. Throughout American history, states have repeatedly changed how their Electors are chosen. The obvious threat of persistent minority rule means, once again, it's time for a change.

Note: This is the third of a series on how to reform the federal government without amending the Constitution.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Simple Senate reform can end McConnell's dictatorship

Gordon L. Weil

Note: This is the second of a series on how to reform the federal government without amending the Constitution.

A single person now prevents Congress from taking almost any action, including even to consider a bill or a nomination.

President Trump?  Another constitutional leader?  No, a mere party official – the Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate – has the absolute authority to set the national agenda.  If he (there's never been a woman) decides to keep any matter from coming before the Senate, it's dead. 

By himself, the Majority Leader can kill any measure, even proposed by the president, especially when the president leads the opposing party. 

These days, Kentucky GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell wields that power, given to him by the Republican Senate majority.   

When voters elect Republican senators, including Maine's Susan Collins, who in turn choose him, they indirectly pick the most powerful person in the federal legislative process.

Can anything be done about this dictatorial system, not foreseen when the Constitution was drafted?

Of course, it could.  If senators were bold enough to strip the majority leader of power, a Senate majority could set its own agenda.

But that would give rise to an equally serious problem.  Each state, no matter its population, has two votes in the Senate.  It would be mathematically possible for senators representing states with as little at 18 percent of the total U.S. population to control the Senate and set its agenda.

Even without that extreme case, representatives of a minority of the people could always be in charge of the Senate.  In fact, simple majority votes are often decided by senators representing less than half of the population.

Originally, the House was supposed to represent the people and the Senate was supposed to represent states.  But the Constitution was amended, replacing state legislatures' election of senators by popular vote.  At that point, a method had to be found to prevent minority rule.

"Cloture" was invented to require an extra-large majority to end debate before final Senate votes.  It virtually assures that the supermajority of 60 out of the 100 senators will represent a popular majority.  And it won't allow the majority party to steamroller the minority party, insurance against their roles being reversed later.

That works, so long as the majority leader wants it.  McConnell decided he wanted to ensure conservatives got their court picks.  Confirming Supreme Court justices was changed to require only a simple majority.  Confirmation votes became completely political and increased the possibility of minority rule.

Previously, McConnell had prevented the Senate from even considering a Supreme Court nominee of President Obama.  So, he used his considerable power to prevent consideration of one court nominee while allowing two others to be confirmed for the first time by simple majorities.  Opposition Democrats shrugged off his actions, accepting the system.

Just this week, McConnell blocked election security bills, including one that would have required backup paper ballots to blunt computer vote tampering.

The power exercised by the majority leader is far removed from democracy and open government in America.  Does he have too much power for one person in this country?

If the Senate is to take control from McConnell or any majority leader, it must find a new, fair and democratic voting system.  Because the Constitution requires only a simple majority, the way to control runaway minority government remains overcoming a higher procedural hurdle before that vote.

The solution can be found in reforming the cloture rule.  That can be done in a way that is both consistent with the democratic spirit of the Constitution and assures true majority rule.

The system that McConnell has installed for confirming federal judges should apply to all votes.  Debate should be ended by a simple majority – but with one essential condition.

While each issue would have to pass a cloture vote by simple majority, that majority would have to include senators representing a majority of the population, according to the latest census.  When the two senators from the same state disagree, its population should be divided with half attributed to each.

This fair, new rule would be quite similar to the traditional rule.  And, just as the cloture rule has been adopted and amended over time, this revised procedure could be included in Senate rules by a simple majority of the Senate, when it adopts them every two years.

This system is called qualified majority voting.  It is used today in the European Union, and it works.  Reforming Senate voting and toppling control by a single person could be easily done.  One-person rule in the American government would end.

Qualified majority voting would greatly increase the likelihood that votes would depend on support by members of both parties.  Using it in the Senate would force compromise and get decisions made.

Friday, July 19, 2019

U.S. House of Representatives should be enlarged

Gordon L. Weil

There was once a legislative district shaped like a salamander. Its creator was a man named Gerry and making more weirdly shaped districts has come to be known as gerrymandering.

Every ten years, the U.S. conducts a census and, in most states, the party that controls the state legislature then gets to draw the congressional district map for the next ten years. Last month, the Supreme Court decided it could do nothing when states gerrymandered for political purposes.

That's not all. Even if states stopped setting district boundaries for partisan purposes, many people would still be denied an equal vote. Combined, the practices cheat many voters.

Gerrymandering can be fixed by states. Improving voter equality can be fixed by Congress simply by enlarging the U.S. House of Representatives.

In many states, Republican legislatures skillfully packed Democrats into as few districts as possible, allowing the GOP to win more seats than their share of the state's vote would give it. The Democrats have done the same in one state.

Even in Maine with only two congressional districts, last time around the Republicans tried to reshape them to boost their chances.

Some states are moving to fix the districting process. In Pennsylvania, for example, the state's top court ruled that the GOP lawmakers had violated the state constitution. In Arizona, a referendum took control over districting away from the GOP legislature, giving it to an independent commission.

More states are likely to use their own laws to reduce political gerrymandering. And the Democrats have increased their focus on winning state legislative elections in 2020, so they can halt GOP mapmaking. Killing the gerrymander is good hunting for them.

Even with better districting, the country still misses "one person, one vote" in House elections. Each state gets one automatic House seat, no matter its population. As the population exploded in some states and the total number of House members didn't, truly equal representation across the country was steadily reduced.

At the moment, the district with the largest population has just about twice the number of people as the smallest. That means some voters count almost twice as much as others in House elections.

To come close to eliminating the excessive influence of some voters and also make progress in ending political gerrymandering, the size of the U.S. House of Representatives should be increased. That would lead to a major redistricting shakeup.

Congress sets the size of the House, but the last time it increased the number of members was 1911, more than a century ago. Since then, the American population has more than tripled.

Of course, the House should not grow so large as to be unmanageable. But with five new states added since then and huge population growth, it ought to be somewhat larger.

The best solution would be to make the target population of all House districts equal to the size of the small state that receives only the single, automatic vote – Wyoming. The preferential effect of the automatic vote would be eliminated.

The size of the House would then increase from the current 435 to 547. Britain, France and Germany each have larger legislatures.

The current system favors small, rural states, while holding down equal representation for California and Texas voters. Enlargement would add representatives in 39 states, and no state would lose a seat. It would reduce the overrepresentation of states that has given outsized legislative influence to the Republicans.

The result would be districts far more nearly equal in population, bringing the country closer to one person, one vote. Smaller district populations could bring representatives closer to their constituents. New seats would account for the growth of urban America.

More House members could lead to splitting up today's large, unwieldy House committees so that each member could become more expert and more active. They would not be spread over multiple committees. New members could give the House new power.

The effect on the national budget would be almost invisible. Even now, the entire Congress accounts for only about one-twentieth of one percent of federal spending.

Increasing the size of the House would require significantly redrawing district lines in all but the smallest states. Beyond state action, Congress might find it had previously unused powers to ensure compact districts and kill the gerrymander.

Concern about political gerrymandering is now mounting, showing the need for the states and Congress to act. But redistricting won't be enough. For the first time since 1911, the House should be enlarged to help preserve rule by "We, the People."

Note: This is the first of a series on how to reform the federal government without amending the Constitution.