Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Wendy Davis's Filibuster Was Admirable, But I'm Not Sure It Was the Best Thing for Democracy

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

Let me start out by saying that I have nothing but respect and admiration for Wendy Davis, the Texas state senator who filibustered the draconian anti-abortion bill the Texas senate was about to pass last night, and I fully agree with and support her opinion on the issue. I could not back more strongly a woman's right to choose. And there is something especially odious about a group of mostly men telling women what they can and can't do with their bodies. The Republican war on women, which has extended beyond Texas, including the party's obsession with abortion, is truly sickening.

But I strongly disagree with Davis when she said, referring to her successful filibuster and the protest at the capitol that helped push the vote beyond the midnight deadline, "Today was democracy in action." Because while I am happy with the practical outcome (abortion clinics not being closed in Texas), I don't think what happened last night in Austin is a victory for democracy.

Before I explain, I want to make clear my purpose in writing this piece. I am afraid that the courage and conviction of one remarkable woman has overshadowed the larger issue of the values the Republican party has been trying to legislate, especially since the party's victories in state and federal elections in 2010. I think it is clear that the GOP's war on women, minorities, unions, immigrants and essentially any citizen who is not among the nation's wealthiest is a threat to the country's democratic essence.

The Republicans seem to realize they can't muster a majority nationally for their far right, serve-the-wealthy policies, so they have resorted to trying to suppress votes from groups with whom the party does not do well, as I discussed with regard to the Supreme Court's Voting Rights Act decision.

But in conservative states like Texas, the GOP agenda is in full bloom. And it's not like Davis's victory will stand in the long-term. As the state's lieutenant governor said about last night's events, "It's over. It's been fun. But see you soon."

So Davis's actions, while a short-term victory, don't address the moral rot at the heart of the GOP agenda, including the party's all-out assault on a women's right to choose what happens with her body. In the long run, it is more important to focus on what the Republicans are trying to do to our country, and why it is so important to let them do it in places where they are the majority.

With that in mind, let me explain why I don't see Davis's filibuster as pro-democratic.

First, regardless of my beliefs on an issue, I think it is important to consistently support the democratic process. I have written about how Republican obstructionism and abuse of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate has hurt the country and subverted democracy, and I would feel hypocritical supporting a filibuster in Texas, just because it's now being employed by someone who shares my viewpoint on the issue under consideration. If the filibuster is wrong in Washington, it's wrong in Austin.

Which brings me to my second, larger point: I believe strongly in democracy, and I think part of that is understanding that electoral choices have consequences. The people of Texas elected this group of legislators, and a draconian abortion bill is exactly what the people of Texas should get (I don't mean that punitively, but rather as the function of democracy, to enact the people's will).

This is a state that twice elected Rick Perry to be governor, watching him veto a bill supporting equal pay for women but signing a bill protecting people who want to say, "Merry Christmas." This is a state that is so abortion-crazed, it banned any state money going to Planned Parenthood, even though the organization primarily provides women with health care, performing few abortions. This is a state that rejected federal money for expanded Medicaid solely for ideological reasons. And this is a state that regularly boasts of a lack of health and safety regulations as part of a pitch to lure businesses to Texas.

Remember, this is also a state that handed the far-right, glass-bubble-dwelling, nutjob Ted Cruz a senate seat by an overwhelming 56.6 percent to 40.5 percent margin. It is a state that sent Louie Gohmert to Congress five times, even as he says things like sex eduction reminds him of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier are members of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a state where a state representative said rape kits "cleaned out" a woman if the attack resulted in fertilization, so no rape exception to an abortion ban was necessary. And this is the state that sent Ron Paul to Congress and gave him a national platform for his anti-government beliefs. I could go on.

Let's face it: The politicians chosen by a majority of Texans hold some pretty extreme right-wing views. And it's pretty safe to say, given the publicity around the elected officials' actions and their popularity, the people know for what they are voting.

So when Davis said last night about the protesters at the capitol, "You all are the voices we were speaking for from the floor," the "voices" she was talking about were of the minority. The people of Texas, speaking through their votes, asked for that crazy abortion bill. And if we believe in democracy, they deserve to get it.

If the state wants to make a political show of rejecting free money to help provide healthcare to its less-well-off citizens, all because it is attached to a health care law they don't like, then the people of the state deserve to watch as 1.5 million Texans go without health insurance, all as they have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars more in health care costs. If the state wants to play politics and ban Planned Parenthood, then its citizens have to watch as up to 200,000 women go untreated and unchecked. And if the state wants to lure businesses with promises of lax health and safety regulations, sometimes fertilizer plants will blow up and kill 15 people, while the governor continues to brag about the state's lack of regulation.

Simply put, the people of Texas have spoken loudly and clearly about what they want. It may be odious, but subverting the will of the voters isn't democratic.

My goal here is not to protect the people of Texas. That is, I don't feel any moral outrage that they have been denied the right to essentially close most of the state's abortion clinics. The pursuit of the Texas government is so amoral, I don't care that they are not getting what they want.

But rather, I am interested in preserving democracy, and I mean that in two ways. In the literal sense, the people's representatives should be able to legislate consistent with the ideals they espoused in their campaigns. But also, as a democracy, we cannot function if there are no consequences for policy decisions based on those ideals. We have to know, if we legislate X, Y will result.

Policy choices without ramifications that are visible do not give voters a true basis on which to make decisions.

Davis's filibuster is a victory, in the sense that for however long she and her allies can keep the abortion clinics open, women in Texas will keep control over their bodies. But her courageous stand did not change the hearts and minds of the citizens of the state.

I know writing a piece like this throws a wet blanket over the joy many are experiencing over Davis's stand. My Twitter and Facebook feeds were filled with support for her filibuster. But I am afraid it is a Pyrrhic victory, only obscuring the larger problem associated with what Davis was fighting, mainly the backward-looking, hateful, anti-democratic agenda being pursued by Republicans.

A feel-good moment is great, but it should not allow a false set of satisfaction to set in. Defeating the Republican anti-women agenda isn't pushing a vote beyond midnight, it is electing representatives who wouldn't vote for the bill in the first place. And as the lieutenant governor said, the supporters of the bill will be back. Probably soon. And that is the real story.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

SCOTUS's Gutting of the VRA Is the Fulfillment of Lewis Powell's 42-year-old Battle Plan

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

In 1971, Lewis Powell wrote a confidential memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, urging corporate leaders to mobilize the massive resources at their disposal to set up an infrastructure to shift public opinion toward business conservative values.

Powell, who would soon become a Richard Nixon-appointed justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, but at the time was a corporate lawyer, was writing at a time when his views were not shared by those in power in Washington. Even though a Republican president occupied the White House, the previous seven years had seen the enacting of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs (the creation of Medicaid in 1965 and other anti-poverty, education and education legislation passed in 1965) and an expansion of the Clean Air Act in 1970 (signed by Nixon), and the Clean Water Act was in the pipeline (signed by Nixon in 1972).

In short, Powell recognized that the country still embraced basic New Deal values, with an acceptance that the government should act to remedy inequality, injustice and other ills that could result from corporate power (like income inequality and damage to the environment). And he (and many other business leaders) didn't like it and wanted to do something to change it.

If Powell was alive today, he would be smiling from ear to ear upon hearing that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the heart of the Voting Rights Act. Of course, Powell would be happy with the result, but what would really make him happy is that the ruling was a direct effect of the successful effort to institutionalize his business conservative beliefs in the government, especially on the Supreme Court. After all, Powell watched as a young business conservative lawyer named John Roberts spent the 1980s trying to upend the Voting Rights Act, and now Roberts is the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, sitting next to fellow corporate conservatives Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy, and in a position to rule against legislation that went against business conservative values, especially high-profile flashpoints like the Voting Rights Act.

Much to Powell's glee, I'm sure, there are now five justices on the Supreme Court who put the interests of corporations over those of ordinary citizens, and who have a distaste for government that far outweighs any concern about inequality, unfairness or injustice for any non-wealthy Americans, especially minorities.

Powell's vision of 1971 has been realized, as his beliefs in empowering corporations at the expense of ordinary citizens is no longer a powerless minority view, but rules the mainstream of the Republican Party, and thus controls the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, as well as commanding the 40+ votes necessary to stop the Senate from doing business.

I think it is safe to say that today's ruling gutting the nearly-50-year-old Voting Rights Act cements the idea that Powell's ideals now rule the country (or at the very least have the power to prevent opposing policies from being adopted).

All of this would be fine if the rise to power of Powell's view of America came about by popular vote. That is, if a majority of Americans clamored for the institution of Powell's policies, it would be hard to argue that democracy had worked.

But the problem is that the rise of business conservatism has come despite a lack of majority support. Republicans don't have a majority in the Senate, and yet the party can block anything Powell wouldn't have liked from getting through the chamber. Republicans control the House thanks to gerrymandering, as the party's candidates got more than a million fewer votes in 2012 than Democrats did.

And when Americans were offered a clear choice in 2012 between a presidential candidate who was the classic business conservative with disdain for government and one who offered the government as a partner in solving America's problems, the electorate made a clear choice against the business conservative.

But most of all, the Court's decision today to gut the Voting Rights Act was, by definition, anti-democratic. That is, the legislation was designed to help make it possible for as many people to vote as possible--and to have their votes count in a meaningful way, and by striking down the law, the Court made it easier to suppress votes.

After all, the challenge to the VRA didn't come in vacuum, but rather it is part of the Republicans' ongoing effort to suppress minority votes, most visibly through enacting voter-identification laws that serve no purpose other than keeping groups who traditionally do not vote for the GOP's platform of business conservatism (minorities, the poor) away from the polls (something that Republicans have admitted to in less guarded moments).

So don't get bogged on the legal arguments offered by Justice Roberts. First of all, in effect, what the Court did was reject Congress's interpretation of voting data in favor of its own (even though the House voted 390-33 to reauthorize the VRA in 2008). This is Roberts and his business conservative colleagues inserting their far-right interpretation of the law ahead of 48 years of the act being accepted as being well within the bounds of the constitution.

But even more importantly, the legal argument is pretense, an excuse to allow five business conservatives to undo a key piece of legislation that did huge work in giving more Americans the power to vote and govern themselves, but made it harder for business conservatives to win elections.

Today's Supreme Court decision is just the latest blow to American democracy and the ability of ordinary Americans to try and make their way in a country increasingly controlled by corporations and beset by income inequality that funnels all the financial gains of the country to the very wealthiest Americans. Where once the U.S. was a symbol to the world of social mobility, we now lag behind most Western democracies in that regard. And it's due to the rise of Powell's business conservative vision over the last 30+ years.

As long as Americans allow their representatives to look out for the wealthiest at the expense of the rest of the country, Powell's vision of America will be able to thrive. And with devotees of his ideology established in the Supreme Court, business conservatives will be able to protect their interests at the expense of the rest of us for years--maybe decades--to come.

Today's ruling on the Voting Rights Act is just one of many in this regard. There are surely more to come.