Category Archives: US Politics

Somali citizens count cost of surge in US airstrikes under Trump – Jason Burke.

The Guardian has investigated scores of reports of US-led strikes targeting al-Shabaab, which have risen to unprecedented levels.

Dozens of civilians have been killed and wounded in Somalia as US-led airstrikes against Islamist militants increase to unprecedented levels, a Guardian investigation has found, raising fears that Washington’s actions could bolster support for extremists.

The escalation in strikes is part of the Trump administration’s broader foreign policy strategy in Africa and the Middle East. There have been 34 US airstrikes in Somalia in the last six months – at least twice the total for the whole of 2016.
Regional allies active in the campaign against Islamic extremists in the east African country have conducted many missions too. These appear to be the most lethal for civilians.

Almost all the strikes target al-Shabaab, the al-Qaida affiliated extremist movement fighting to establish an Islamic state in Somalia for more than a decade.

The Guardian collected and investigated scores of reports of airstrikes over the last 12 months, checking claims in local media with western and local officials, medical staff, witnesses and relatives of victims.

In five attacks since July, more than 50 civilians appear to have been killed or injured. At least two involved US aircraft.
Further casualties are likely to have been caused by other strikes but have gone unreported.
Five civilians were killed and two wounded in an airstrike on a village on 6 December, witnesses and hospital staff said.

In another incident, in October, residents and medics reported up to eight civilians being injured in an airstrike during fierce fighting in Lower Shabelle province.
The previous month, four herders were injured when a water hole near the border with Kenya was bombed.

In August, seven members of a family including small children died in a strike in southern Jubaland, relatives said. Officials said all those killed were extremists.
A month earlier, four people, including three children, were killed and eight wounded in an airstrike on a village near the southern port city of Kismayo, relatives and witnesses said.

The strikes have also killed large numbers of livestock and caused extensive damage done to agricultural infrastructure.

Though the intensity of the recent strikes is unprecedented, the use of air power in Somalia has been steadily increasing since before Donald Trump became US president.

A recent UN analysis described 74 airstrikes between January 2016 and October 2017, resulting in 57 civilian casualties. Only 14 of these strikes were “US supported”, and the report blamed Kenyan forces in Somalia for 42 of those casualties.

Kenya contributes troops and three attack helicopters to Amisom, the 22,000-strong African Union military and policing mission in Somalia. Kenyan forces are also believed to have conducted their own strikes in border areas, though Nairobi denies this.

Most airstrikes hit deep into the territory held by Islamist militants and confirmation of claims of civilian casualties, even when made by relatives of those hurt or killed, is difficult.

Some of the dead or injured may be fighters with armed tribal militias who are technically civilians, though sometimes align with the militants.

Al-Shabaab also routinely exaggerate the number of civilian casualties, and communities are sometimes tempted by the prospect of compensation to support such claims.

The sudden increase in the use of air power in Somalia by the US come after the relaxation of guidelines intended to prevent civilian casualties and a decision by the Tump administration to give local military commanders greater authority in ordering attacks.

A huge bomb that killed 500 people in Mogadishu in October – the latest in a series to target the Somali capital – has added extra impetus to the new US efforts.

Senior humanitarian figures have expressed growing concerns about the potential humanitarian cost of the offensive.

Michael Keating, the UN special representative in Somalia, said: “All those who are using military means in one way or another [in Somalia] claim that they have standards when it comes to the protection of civilians but are not translating their principles into practice. All actors could do more to protect civilians.”

In a phone interview, Ibrahim Mohamed Abdullahi, a resident of Illimey village, which is about 80 miles (130km) south-west of Mogadishu, said a projectile killed five people and injured two others on 6 December.

“Farmers had gathered at a tea shop … when the drone begun to fly over … Some of the victims were passing on the road while some were inside drinking their afternoon tea. Five died on the spot. They are not killing al-Shabaab. They are killing civilians,” he said.

Hospital officials in Mogadishu confirmed two casualties – an 18-month-old girl and a 23-year-old man – had been brought with shrapnel injuries because a clinic nearer Illimey was without electricity.

A five-year-old girl, a 17-year-old girl and three men were killed.

A US spokesperson said there were no US airstrikes in Somalia on 6 December.

The strikes in October in Lower Shabelle took place during fierce fighting between government forces and al-Shabaab. A number of militants were killed, but eight civilians in the village of Awdhegle were also injured, locals said.

Muse Xirey, an elder, said three women, a child and four men were transported to Daru al-Shifa hospital in Mogadishu when their house was hit.

“They were herders and farmers, not al-Shabaab ,” the 56-year-old said.

A doctor at the hospital said two men and a woman injured in “an airstrike between Awdhegle and Barire” were treated.

US officials say a single strike was carried out, 35 miles south-west of Mogadishu.

A third incident took place at the village of Talaka near the border with Kenya after Kenyan troops withdrew. Al-Shabaab fighters moved in shortly afterwards and were bombed, witnesses said. A watering hole some distance away was also attacked. Twenty camels were killed and four herders injured.

Kenyan forces have been blamed for the strike, but deny responsibility.

Between 16 and 17 August, the US conducted three “precision airstrikes against al-Shabaab militants, killing seven fighters” in the Middle Juba region, where there has been heavy fighting between government forces and militants, officials said.

Residents, local media and al-Shabaab-linked outlets reported seven civilians killed by explosions in Ahmed Yare village, about 15 miles outside the town of Jilib, an al-Shabaab stronghold.

In a phone interview from Kismayo, Halima Sheikh Yare said her cousin Sheikh Mohamed, a “renowned cleric”, was killed along with his wife and five male relatives.

The 47-year said her cousin was a farmer as well as religious teacher and local imam, and not, a Somalia officials claim, a local leader of al-Shabaab.

“ Al-Shabaab members are armed, but these were family members who stayed in their house and were not armed,” she said.

Hassan Muhumed, 31, a resident of Jilib who visited Ahmed Yare to check on relatives shortly after the drone strike, said al-Shabaab fighters had visited to address locals a day before the attack but had left shortly afterwards.

“All those killed were civilians,” Muhumed said.

A spokesperson for the US military said an internal investigation had found allegations of civilian casualties near Jilib at this time were “not credible”.

The final incident investigated by the Guardian occurred during the evening of 18 July, in the village of Qabri Sharif, west of Kismayo.

Residents describe “a huge bomb [that] hit several houses”, killing three children and a man. Eight injured adults were transferred to Kismayo hospital, they said.

Muhumed Kuusow, a local elder, said the children were playing inside their house when hit by shrapnel.

“They all died on the spot. The bomb was huge and the whole place was like a deep cave in the ground,” he said.

Dr Hassan Sheikh Ali, who was director of Kismayo hospital at the time, said four casualties – all herders – were brought in.

“They told us there was an airstrike on the village on 18 July, killing several people and many animals,” he said.

Abdinur Mohamed, the provincial information minister, said officials in Kismayo were aware of civilian casualties in the strike, which he said was carried out by Kenyan planes.

A US official said there were no US air strikes in Somalia on 18 July.

The recent UN report found that al-Shabaab killed 1,223 civilians and injured nearly 1,500 others between January 2016 and October 2017. This accounted for 60% of the 2,078 documented civilian deaths and 2,507 injuries in the period reviewed.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said civilian casualties caused by regional or international forces, though only a small proportion of civilian deaths, were of utmost concern because they undermined the Somali population’s trust in the government and the international community, and that this helped extremists.

One problem for the US is that its forces are often blamed for air attacks even when not responsible.

Tricia Bacon, a former counterterrorism expert at the US Department of State who is professor at the American University in Washington DC, said airstrikes have a potent “disruptive effect” on militant organisations, but also risked alienating civilian populations “you needed to turn against them”.

A Kenyan military spokesperson referred the Guardian to Amisom when asked about Kenya’s operations in Somalia. Francisco Madeira, the head of Amisom, said the force had “not been responsible for any airstrikes” in ..Somalia in 2017.

A US military spokesperson said its forces complied “with the law of armed conflict” and took “all feasible precautions … to minimise civilian casualties and other collateral damage”.

The Guardian

Let’s wrench power back from the billionaires – Senator Bernie Sanders. 

Here is where we are as a planet in 2018: after all of the wars, revolutions and international summits of the past 100 years, we live in a world where a tiny handful of incredibly wealthy individuals exercise disproportionate levels of control over the economic and political life of the global community.

Difficult as it is to comprehend, the fact is that the six richest people on Earth now own more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population – 3.7 billion people. Further, the top 1% now have more money than the bottom 99%. Meanwhile, as the billionaires flaunt their opulence, nearly one in seven people struggle to survive on less than $1.25 (90p) a day and – horrifyingly – some 29,000 children die daily from entirely preventable causes such as diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia.

The American people – not Big Oil – must decide our climate future.

At the same time, all over the world corrupt elites, oligarchs and anachronistic monarchies spend billions on the most absurd extravagances. The Sultan of Brunei owns some 500 Rolls-Royces and lives in one of the world’s largest palaces, a building with 1,788 rooms once valued at $350m. In the Middle East, which boasts five of the world’s 10 richest monarchs, young royals jet-set around the globe while the region suffers from the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, and at least 29 million children are living in poverty without access to decent housing, safe water or nutritious food. Moreover, while hundreds of millions of people live in abysmal conditions, the arms merchants of the world grow increasingly rich as governments spend trillions of dollars on weapons.

In the United States, Jeff Bezos – founder of Amazon, and currently the world’s wealthiest person – has a net worth of more than $100bn. He owns at least four mansions, together worth many tens of millions of dollars. As if that weren’t enough, he is spending $42m on the construction of a clock inside a mountain in Texas that will supposedly run for 10,000 years. But, in Amazon warehouses across the country, his employees often work long, gruelling hours and earn wages so low they rely on Medicaid, food stamps and public housing paid for by US taxpayers.

Not only that, but at a time of massive wealth and income inequality, people all over the world are losing their faith in democracy – government by the people, for the people and of the people. They increasingly recognise that the global economy has been rigged to reward those at the top at the expense of everyone else, and they are angry.

Millions of people are working longer hours for lower wages than they did 40 years ago, in both the United States and many other countries. They look on, feeling helpless in the face of a powerful few who buy elections, and a political and economic elite that grows wealthier, even as their own children’s future grows dimmer.

In the midst of all of this economic disparity, the world is witnessing an alarming rise in authoritarianism and rightwing extremism – which feeds off, exploits and amplifies the resentments of those left behind, and fans the flames of ethnic and racial hatred.

Now, more than ever, those of us who believe in democracy and progressive government must bring low-income and working people all over the world together behind an agenda that reflects their needs. Instead of hate and divisiveness, we must offer a message of hope and solidarity. We must develop an international movement that takes on the greed and ideology of the billionaire class and leads us to a world of economic, social and environmental justice. Will this be an easy struggle? Certainly not. But it is a fight that we cannot avoid. The stakes are just too high.

As Pope Francis correctly noted in a speech at the Vatican in 2013: “We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.” He continued: “Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalised: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”

A new and international progressive movement must commit itself to tackling structural inequality both between and within nations. Such a movement must overcome “the cult of money” and “survival of the fittest” mentalities that the pope warned against. It must support national and international policies aimed at raising standards of living for poor and working-class people – from full employment and a living wage to universal higher education, healthcare and fair trade agreements. In addition, we must rein in corporate power and prevent the environmental destruction of our planet as a result of climate change.

Here is just one example of what we have to do. Just a few years ago, the Tax Justice Network estimated that the wealthiest people and largest corporations throughout the world have been stashing at least $21tn-$32tn in offshore tax havens in order to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. If we work together to eliminate offshore tax abuse, the new revenue that would be generated could put an end to global hunger, create hundreds of millions of new jobs, and substantially reduce extreme income and wealth inequality. It could be used to move us aggressively toward sustainable agriculture and to accelerate the transformation of our energy system away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources of power.

Taking on the greed of Wall Street, the power of gigantic multinational corporations and the influence of the global billionaire class is not only the moral thing to do – it is a strategic geopolitical imperative. Research by the United Nations development programme has shown that citizens’ perceptions of inequality, corruption and exclusion are among the most consistent predictors of whether communities will support rightwing extremism and violent groups. When people feel that the cards are stacked against them and see no way forward for legitimate recourse, they are more likely to turn to damaging solutions that only exacerbate the problem.

This is a pivotal moment in world history. With the explosion in advanced technology and the breakthroughs this has brought, we now have the capability to substantially increase global wealth fairly. The means are at our disposal to eliminate poverty, increase life expectancy and create an inexpensive and non-polluting global energy system.

This is what we can do if we have the courage to stand together and take on the powerful special interests who simply want more and more for themselves. This is what we must do for the sake of our children, grandchildren and the future of our planet.

• Bernie Sanders is a US senator for Vermont

The Guardian 

The president is a disgrace to his country at so many levels. The Observer view on Donald Trump. 

It is almost one year since Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th US president. Will he last another 12 months? Day after tumultuous day since 20 January 2017, Trump has provided fresh evidence of his unfitness for America’s highest office.

It is not only that his politics and policies, from tax cuts and climate change to Palestine and nuclear weapons, are disastrously wrong-headed. It is not just that his idea of leadership is divisive, confrontational and irresponsible. Nor does the problem lie solely with his blatant racism, misogyny and chauvinism, though these are indeed massive problems.

His latest foul-mouthed outrage – describing developing countries as “shitholes” – is appalling even by his crude standards.

The fundamental failing underlying Trump’s presidency is his wilful ignorance. His frequently petulant, childish behaviour combines with a staggering lack of knowledge and contempt for facts to produce serial, chronic misjudgments. Trump, in power, cannot be trusted. He has been exposed as lacking in empathy, shamelessly mendacious, cynical and unversed or uninterested in the enduring human and constitutional values his office is sworn to uphold. Trump is the first and hopefully the last of his kind: an anti-American president. He is a disgrace and a danger to his country. The sooner he is sent packing, the better.

How much longer will Americans tolerate his embarrassing presence in the White House? His tenancy runs until November 2020, when he could seek a second term. But the problem is getting worse, not better. A series of scenarios, fuelled by his endlessly damaging, unacceptable words and actions, is beginning to unfold that could bring about his early departure.

The first and, democratically speaking, the most desirable scenario is that the electorate will simply reject Trump. This process is already well under way, if opinion polls are to be believed. Trump’s personal approval rating has averaged below 40% over the past year, a record for presidential unpopularity. More telling, perhaps, were the findings of a Pew Research Center poll last month that debunked the myth that Trump’s “base” – his core support – is impervious to his daily blundering. Trump’s backing among key groups that helped elect him – white men, Protestant evangelicals, the over-50s and the non-college educated – has fallen significantly across the board. At the same time, a Gallup survey found the number of voters redefining themselves as uncommitted “independents” rose to 42%.

Trump’s fading electoral appeal was cruelly exposed in shock defeats in Virginia and Alabama. Anger and disappointment with Trump among white voters was said to be a decisive factor, assisted by record turnout among African Americans. Nationally, evidence that the Trump rump is shredding is on the rise. A Monmouth University poll last August found that 61% of Trump voters said they could not think of anything he might do that would turn them against him. A poll last month put that figure at 37%. It is plain that many ordinary voters who trusted Trump to make a positive difference have been repelled and disgusted.

Pollsters and pundits are looking to November’s midterm congressional elections. Forecasts suggest a stunning repudiation of a “toxic” Trump, with the Alabama upset being replicated nationwide. The GOP could lose control of the House of Representatives, where large numbers of moderate Republicans are retiring, and its grip on the Senate may be loosened by an anti-Trump tsunami. No party since 1950 has hung on to the house in a midterm poll when the president’s approval was below 40%.

A humiliating nationwide slap in the face from voters this year, coupled with the loss of Congress, could bring Trump’s presidency shuddering to a halt, leaving him wounded, deserted by most Republicans and doomed to one-term ignominy. Meanwhile, another scenario prospectively leading to his political demise is playing out simultaneously. Nobody knows, as yet, whether the federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russian agents in 2016 will ultimately irretrievably compromise the president himself. But claims that Trump conspired to obstruct justice by putting pressure on the FBI and firing its unbiddable director, James Comey, appear to have substance and are potentially fatal to his presidency. Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is proposing a formal interview under oath.

It’s not over yet. Supporters of Trump point to what they see as a string of successes. They cite a stock market that has added $7tn in value, 2m new jobs and radical tax reform. They credit Trump with defeating Islamic State (a vain boast) and reducing illegal immigration. The number of Americans saying the US economy is in “excellent shape” has jumped from 2% in November 2016 to 18%. About 48% say the economy is “good”, up 11% in the same period. By these measures, his trademark vow to “make America great again” may be beginning to work – and this is likely to slow the pace of desertions from his electoral base.

Elsewhere, conservatives will point to some significant triumphs that give the lie to the idea that Trump has been a hapless figure unable to bend America to his will. On many fronts, his administration is landing significant blows to the Obama-Clinton legacy. The environment secretary, Scott Pruitt, has effectively disembowelled the Environment Protection Agency, sacking scores of advisers and scientists. He is intent on scrapping many Obama-era regulations on water, climate, pollution and more. There has been a bonfire of environmental rules. New rules on chemicals previously declared toxic are being relaxed.

The president is busy appointing predominantly young, white male, conservative judges to federal appeal and district courts. While the supreme court hears only a handful of cases a year, it is in these lower courts where America’s settlement on issues of gender, race, work, relationships and much more is decided.

Meanwhile, the interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, is shrinking America’s national monuments. Part of the Obama-designated Bears Ears in Utah (1.3m acres) and the Clinton-designated Grand Staircase-Escalante (1.9m acres) will likely be opened up for mining and other industrial pursuits. (Trump was lobbied by the uranium mining company Energy Fuels to open up Bears Ears for its uranium rich deposits.)

Then there are the quiet revolutions under way by Betsy DeVos at the education department, while former presidential candidate Ben Carson, at the department of housing and urban development, is slashing government spending on affordable housing. And on and on. These are some of the wins that conservatives are happy to bank while tolerating the intolerable in the White House.

The overwhelming impression of Trump’s first 12 months is not of steady progress but chaos. Tantrums, tears and irrational rage dominate the reality TV scene inside the White House, according to Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury. On the national stage, Trump has displayed open bigotry over migrant and race issues. His lowest point, among numerous low points, was his implied support for white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Internationally, Trump made nuclear war with North Korea more likely, dismayed the entire world by rejecting the Paris climate accord, insulted and threatened the UN over Jerusalem, did his best to wreck the landmark 2015 treaty with Iran and did next to nothing to halt the terrible conflicts in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and Afghanistan. Worse still, in a way, he has scorned US friends and allies in Europe and cosied up to authoritarian leaders in China, Russia and the Middle East. Britain has been treated with condescension and contempt, as in his abrupt (but welcome) cancellation of next month’s London visit.

Is this dysfunction evidence of an unhinged personality, as many people suggest? Rather than invoking the 25th amendment and dumping Trump, it would be better if he was held responsible for his actions. For his wilful ignorance, his dangerous lies and his unAmerican bigotry, Trump must be held to account. Perhaps 2018 will be the year.

The Guardian 

Fire and Fury confirms our worst fears – Jonathan Freedland. 

What did you think would be the Republican reaction to the latest revelations about Donald Trump? Did you expect the party’s luminaries to drop their collective head into their hands, or to crumple into a heap in despair at the state of the man they anointed as president of the United States?

They’d certainly have had good reason. In the book Fire and Fury, which on Thursday received the greatest possible endorsement – namely a “cease and desist” order from Trump’s personal lawyers – the journalist Michael Wolff paints a picture of a man whose own closest aides, friends and even family believe is congenitally unfit to be president.
The Trump depicted in the book is ignorant: the adviser who tried to teach him about the constitution could get no further than the fourth amendment before Trump’s eyes glazed over. He doesn’t read, or even skim, barely having the patience to take in a headline. Some allies try to persuade Wolff that attention deficit disorder is part of Trump’s populist genius: he is “post-literate – total television”.

The Republicans have predicted many times that Trump would change. They’ve been wrong every time. He won’t change

He is also loathsome: we read that a favourite sport of Trump’s was tricking friends’ wives to sleep with him. He is weird, especially in the bedroom: having clashed with his secret service bodyguard over his insistence that he be able to lock himself into his quarters (Melania has separate accommodation), he demanded the installation of two extra TV sets, so he could watch three cable news channels at once. He heads back under the covers as early as 6.30pm, munching a cheeseburger as he soaks up hours of Fox and CNN. If there are crumbs, the chambermaid can’t change the sheets: he insists that he strip the bed himself.

We learn that Trump believes Saturday Night Live is damaging to the nation and that it is “fake comedy”; that daughter Ivanka wants to be president herself and that privately she mocks her father’s nature-defying combover. 

And, perhaps most amusingly, we get an answer to the question that has long enraged Trump: the identity of the mystery leaker behind the stream of stories of White House chaos and fratricidal dysfunction that have appeared since he took office. It turns out that the president rants endlessly on the phone to his billionaire friends, who feel no duty of confidentiality. In other words, the leaker Trump seeks is … himself.
Given all this material, you’d forgive congressional Republicans for being glum. Alternatively, you’d understand if they tried to denounce the book, perhaps joining those who question Wolff’s methods, believing he too often strays from corroborated facts and cuts journalistic corners. But that has not been the reaction.

Instead, the official campaign account for Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, tweeted a gif of McConnell grinning mightily. And that smirk captured the mood of many of his colleagues. What do they have to smile about? They’re pleased because they believe Fire and Fury marks the downfall of Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist to Trump and source of some of the book’s most scathing lines. It was Bannon who told Wolff that Trump had “lost it”, and Bannon who described the meeting Donald Trump Jr had with a Russian lawyer – convened for the express purpose of receiving dirt on Hillary Clinton – as “treasonous”.

Trump’s response came in the form of a long and furious statement that loosely translates into New Yorkese as “You’re dead to me” – which delighted establishment Republicans who have long seen Bannon as the enemy within.

It would be nice if this loathing were rooted in ideological principle, with Republicans despising Bannon as the apostle of an ultra-nationalist isolationism and xenophobia that could tip the US and the world towards a 1930s-style catastrophe. (Recall that Bannon once promised Wolff the Trump administration would be “as exciting as the 1930s”.)

But the truth is that Bannon posed a threat to McConnell and his ilk, vowing to run insurgent, Trump-like candidates against establishment Republicans in primary contests (just as he did, in vain, in Alabama last year). If Bannon is broken, they can sleep more easily.

Some go further, believing that, as Bannon dies, so does Bannonism. They speculate that, with the ties to his onetime evil genius severed, Trump might now moderate, becoming a more conventional, focused occupant of the Oval Office. This is delusional, twice over.

First, it’s true that things look bad for Bannon now: he has apparently lost the financial backing of the billionaire Mercer family, and it’s possible he stands to lose control of his far-right Breitbart media empire. But he understands Trump and knows that, if you’re ready to grovel and flatter, a rapprochement is always possible. Hence Bannon’s declaration on Thursday that Trump is a “great man”.

But the more enduring delusion is that Trump is poised to moderate. Republicans predicted he would change once the primaries of 2016 were under way. Then they said he would change once he’d won the party nomination. Or when the presidential election campaign proper began. Or when he’d won the election. Or once he’d taken the oath of office. They were wrong every time. He won’t change. Trump is Trump.

The sheer persistence of this delusion points to another one: the hope that Republicans will finally decide enough is enough and do the right thing by ousting this unfit president. The Wolff book has prompted another flurry of that speculation, focused this time on the 25th amendment of the constitution, which allows for the removal of a president deemed “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office”.

In an article this week, Wolff provides arresting evidence of mental deterioration. He writes that Trump would tell the same three stories, word-for-word, inside 30 minutes, unaware he was repeating himself. “Now it was within 10 minutes.” He adds: “At Mar-a-Lago, just before the new year, a heavily made-up Trump failed to recognise a succession of old friends.” 

But the 25th amendment requires the agreement of the vice-president, a majority of the cabinet and, ultimately, both houses of Congress. We are, once again, up against the sobering truth of the US constitution: it is only as strong as those willing to enforce it. And, today, that means the Republican party.

These latest revelations prove – yet again – what a vile, narcissistic and dangerous man we have in the Oval Office, wielding, among other things, sole, unchecked authority over the world’s mightiest nuclear arsenal. But the reaction to them proves something else too. That he remains in place only thanks to the willing connivance of his Republican enablers. As culpable as he is, they share in his damnation.

The Guardian 

Dispatches, A War Correspondent’s Vietnam Story  – Michael Herr. 

BREATHING IN 
There was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon and some nights, coming back late to the city, I’d lie out on my bed and look at it, too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. 

That map was a marvel, especially now that it wasn’t real any more. For one thing, it was very old. It had been left there years before by another tenant, probably a Frenchman, since the map had been made in Paris. The paper had buckled in its frame after years in the wet Saigon heat, laying a kind of veil over the countries it depicted. Vietnam was divided into its older territories of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China, and to the west past Laos and Cambodge sat Siam, a kingdom. 

That’s old, I’d tell visitors, that’s a really old map. If dead ground could come back and haunt you the way dead people do, they’d have been able to mark my map CURRENT and burn the ones they’d been using since ’64, but count on it, nothing like that was going to happen. 

It was late ’67 now, even the most detailed maps didn’t reveal much any more; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind. We knew that the uses of most information were flexible, different pieces of ground told different stories to different people. 

We also knew that for years now there had been no country here but the war. The Mission was always telling us about VC units being engaged and wiped out and then reappearing a month later in full strength, there was nothing very spooky about that, but when we went up against his terrain we usually took it definitively, and even if we didn’t keep it you could always see that we’d at least been there. 
At the end of my first week in-country I met an information officer in the headquarters of the 25th Division at Cu Chi who showed me on his map and then from his chopper what they’d done to the Ho Bo Woods, the vanished Ho Bo Woods, taken off by giant Rome ploughs and chemicals and long, slow fire, wasting hundreds of acres of cultivated plantation and wild forest alike, ‘denying the enemy valuable resources and cover’. 

It had been part of his job for nearly a year now to tell people about that operation; correspondents, touring congressmen, movie stars, corporation presidents, staff officers from half the armies in the world, and he still couldn’t get over it. It seemed to be keeping him young, his enthusiasm made you feel that even the letters he wrote home to his wife were full of it, it really showed what you could do if you had the know-how and the hardware. 

And if in the months following that operation incidences of enemy activity in the larger area of War Zone C had increased ‘significantly’, and American losses had doubled and then doubled again, none of it was happening in any damn Ho Bo Woods, you’d better believe it . . . 

Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar. I never saw the need for them myself, a little contact or anything that even sounded like contact would give me more speed than I could bear. Whenever I heard something outside of our clenched little circle I’d practically flip, hoping to God that I wasn’t the only one who’d noticed it. A couple of rounds fired off in the dark a kilometre away and the Elephant would be there kneeling in my chest, sending me down into my boots for a breath. 

Once I thought I saw a light moving in the jungle and I caught myself just under a whisper saying, ‘I’m not ready for this, I’m not ready for this.’ That’s when I decided to drop it and do something else with my nights. And I wasn’t going out like the night ambushers did, or the Lurps, long-range recon patrollers who did it night after night for weeks and months, creeping up on VC base camps or around moving columns of North Vietnamese. 

I was living too close to my bones as it was, all I had to do was accept it. Anyway, I’d save the pills for later, for Saigon and the awful depressions I always had there. 
I knew one 4th Division Lurp who took his pills by the fistful, downs from the left pocket of his tiger suit and ups from the right, one to cut the trail for him and the other to send him down it. He told me that they cooled things out just right for him, that he could see that old jungle at night like he was looking at it through a starlight scope. ‘They sure give you the range,’ he said. 

This was his third tour. In 1965 he’d been the only survivor in a platoon of the Cav wiped out going into the la Drang Valley. In ’66 he’d come back with the Special Forces and one morning after an ambush he’d hidden under the bodies of his team while the VC walked all around them with knives, making sure. They stripped the bodies of their gear, the berets too, and finally went away, laughing. 

After that, there was nothing left for him in the war except the Lurps. ‘I just can’t hack it back in the world,’ he said. He told me that after he’d come back home the last time he would sit in his room all day, and sometimes he’d stick a hunting rifle out the window, leading people and cars as they passed his house until the only feeling he was aware of was all up in the tip of that one finger. ‘ It used to put my folks real uptight,’ he said. 

But he put people uptight here too, even here. ‘No man, I’m sorry, he’s just too crazy for me,’ one of the men in his team said. ‘All’s you got to do is look in his eyes, that’s the whole fucking story right there.’‘ Yeah, but you better do it quick, ’someone else said. ‘I mean, you don’t want to let him catch you at it.’ But he always seemed to be watching for it, I think he slept with his eyes open, and I was afraid of him anyway. 
All I ever managed was one quick look in, and that was like looking at the floor of an ocean. He wore a gold earring and a headband torn from a piece of camouflage parachute material, and since nobody was about to tell him to get his hair cut it fell below his shoulders, covering a thick purple scar. Even at division he never went anywhere without at least a .45 and a knife, and he thought I was a freak because I wouldn’t carry a weapon. 

‘Didn’t you ever meet a reporter before?’ I asked him. ‘Tits on a bull,’ he said. ‘Nothing personal.’ But what a story he told me, as one-pointed and resonant as any war story I ever heard, it took me a year to understand it: 
‘Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.’ I waited for the rest, but it seemed not to be that kind of story; when I asked him what had happened he just looked like he felt sorry for me, fucked if he’d waste time telling stories to anyone dumb as I was. His face was all painted up for the night walking now like a bad hallucination, not like the painted faces I’d seen in San Francisco only a few weeks before, the other extreme of the same theatre. 

In the coming hours he’d stand as faceless and quiet in the jungle as a fallen tree, and God help his opposite numbers unless they had at least half a squad along, he was a good killer, one of our best. 

The rest of his team were gathered outside the tent, set a little apart from the other division units, with its own Lurp-designated latrine and its own exclusive freeze-dry rations, three-star war food, the same chop they sold at Abercrombie & Fitch. 

The regular division troops would almost shy off the path when they passed the area on their way to and from the mess tent. No matter how toughened up they became in the war, they still looked innocent compared to the Lurps. When the team had grouped they walked in a file down the hill to the lz across the strip to the perimeter and into the treeline.

I never spoke to him again, but I saw him. When they came back in the next morning he had a prisoner with him, blindfolded and with his elbows bound sharply behind him. The Lurp area would definitely be off limits during the interrogation, and anyway, I was already down at the strip waiting for a helicopter to come and take me out of there. 

‘Hey what’re you guys, with the USO? Aw, we thought you was with the USO ’cause your hair’s so long.’ Page took the kid’s picture, I got the words down and Flynn laughed and told him we were the Rolling Stones. The three of us travelled around together for about a month that summer. 

At one lz the brigade chopper came in with a real foxtail hanging off the aerial, when the commander walked by us he almost took an infarction. ‘Don’t you men salute officers?’‘ We’re not men,’ Page said. ‘We’re correspondents.’ When the commander heard that, he wanted to throw a spontaneous operation for us, crank up his whole brigade and get some people killed. We had to get out on the next chopper to keep him from going ahead with it, amazing what some of them would do for a little ink. 

Page liked to augment his field gear with freak paraphernalia, scarves and beads, plus he was English, guys would stare at him like he’d just come down from a wall on Mars. Sean Flynn could look more incredibly beautiful than even his father, Errol, had thirty years before as Captain Blood, but sometimes he looked more like Artaud coming out of some heavy heart-of-darkness trip, overloaded on the information, the input! The input! He’d give off a bad sweat and sit for hours, combing his moustache through with the saw blade of his Swiss Army knife. 

We packed grass and tape: ‘Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing in the Shadows’, Best of the Animals, Strange Days, ‘Purple Haze’, Archie Bell and the Drells, ‘C’mon now everybody, do the Tighten Up . . .’

Once in a while we’d catch a chopper straight into one of the lower hells, but it was a quiet time in the war, mostly it was lz’s and camps, grunts hanging around, faces, stories. ‘Best way’s to just keep moving,’ one of them told us. ‘Just keep moving, stay in motion, you know what I’m saying?’ 

We knew. He was a moving-target-survivor subscriber, a true child of the war, because except for the rare times when you were pinned or stranded the system was geared to keep you mobile, if that was what you thought you wanted. As a technique for staying alive it seemed to make as much sense as anything, given naturally that you were there to begin with and wanted to see it close; it started out sound and straight but it formed a cone as it progressed, because the more you moved the more you saw, the more you saw the more besides death and mutilation you risked, and the more you risked of that the more you would have to let go of one day as a ‘survivor’. 

Some of us moved around the war like crazy people until we couldn’t see which way the run was even taking us any more, only the war all over its surface with occasional, unexpected penetration. As long as we could have choppers like taxis it took real exhaustion or depression, near shock or a dozen pipes of opium to keep us even apparently quiet, we’d still be running around inside our skins like something was after us, ha ha, La Vida Loca. 

In the months after I got back the hundreds of helicopters I’d flown in began to draw together until they’d formed a collective meta-chopper, and in my mind it was the sexiest thing going; saver-destroyer, provider-waster, right hand-left hand, nimble, fluent, canny and human; hot steel, grease, jungle-saturated canvas webbing, sweat cooling and warming up again, cassette rock and roll in one ear and door-gun fire in the other, fuel, heat, vitality and death, death itself, hardly an intruder. 

Men on the crews would say that once you’d carried a dead person he would always be there, riding with you. Like all combat people they were incredibly superstitious and invariably self-dramatic, but it was (I knew) unbearably true and close exposure to the dead sensitized you to the force of their presence and made for long reverberations; long. Some people were so delicate that one look was enough to wipe them away, but even bone-dumb grunts seemed to feel that something weird and extra was happening to them. 

Helicopters and people jumping out of helicopters, people so in love they’d run to get on even when there wasn’t any pressure. Choppers rising straight out of small cleared jungle spaces, wobbling down on to city rooftops, cartons of rations and ammunition thrown off, dead and wounded loaded on. Sometimes they were so plentiful and loose that you could touch down at five or six places in a day, look around, hear the talk, catch the next one out. 

There were installations as big as cities with 30,000 citizens, once we dropped in to feed supply to one man. God knows what kind of Lord Jim phoenix numbers he was doing in there, all he said to me was, ‘You didn’t see a thing, right Chief? You weren’t even here.’ 

There were posh fat air-conditioned camps like comfortable middle-class scenes with the violence tacit, ‘far away’; camps named for commanders’ wives LZ Thelma, LZ Betty Lou; number-named hilltops in trouble where I didn’t want to stay; trail, paddy, swamp, deep hairy bush, scrub, swale, village, even city, where the ground couldn’t drink up what the action spilled, it made you careful where you walked.

Sometimes the chopper you were riding in would top a hill and all the ground in front of you as far as the next hill would be charred and pitted and still smoking, and something between your chest and your stomach would turn over. Frail grey smoke where they’d burned off the rice fields around a free-strike zone, brilliant white smoke from phosphorus (‘Willy Peter/ Make you a buh liever’), deep black smoke from ’palm –they said that if you stood at the base of a column of napalm smoke it would suck the air right out of your lungs. 

Once we fanned over a little village that had just been airstruck and the words of a song by Wingy Manone that I’d heard when I was a few years old snapped into my head, ‘Stop the War, These Cats Is Killing Themselves’. Then we dropped, hovered, settled down into purple lz smoke, dozens of children broke from their hootches to run in towards the focus of our landing, the pilot laughing and saying, ‘Vietnam, man. Bomb ’em and feed ’em, bomb ’em and feed ’em.’ 

Flying over jungle was almost pure pleasure, doing it on foot was nearly all pain. I never belonged in there. Maybe it really was what its people had always called it, Beyond; at the very least it was serious, I gave up things to it I probably never got back. (‘Aw, jungle’s okay. If you know her you can live in her real good, if you don’t she’ll take you down in an hour. Under.’) 

Once in some thick jungle corner with some grunts standing around, a correspondent said, ‘Gee, you must really see some beautiful sunsets in here, ’and they almost pissed themselves laughing. But you could fly up and into hot tropic sunsets that would change the way you thought about light for ever. You could also fly out of places that were so grim they turned to black and white in your head five minutes after you’d gone. 

That could be the coldest one in the world, standing at the edge of a clearing watching the chopper you’d just come in on take off again, leaving you there to think about what it was going to be for you now: if this was a bad place, the wrong place, maybe even the last place, and whether you’d made a terrible mistake this time. 

There was a camp at Soc Trang where a man at the lz said, ‘If you come looking for a story this is your lucky day, we got Condition Red here,’ and before the sound of the chopper had faded out, I knew I had it too. ‘That’s affirmative, ’the camp commander said, ‘we are definitely expecting rain. Glad to see you.’ He was a young captain, he was laughing and taping a bunch of sixteen clips together bottom to bottom for faster reloading, ‘grease’. 

Everyone there was busy at it, cracking crates, squirrelling away grenades, checking mortar pieces, piling rounds, clocking banana clips into automatic weapons that I’d never even seen before. They were wired into their listening posts out around the camp, into each other, into themselves, and when it got dark it got worse. 

The moon came up nasty and full, a fat moist piece of decadent fruit. It was soft and saffron-misted when you looked up at it, but its light over the sandbags and into the jungle was harsh and bright. 

We were all rubbing Army-issue nightfighter cosmetic under our eyes to cut the glare and the terrible things it made you see. (Around midnight, just for something to do, I crossed to the other perimeter and looked at the road running engineer-straight towards Route 4 like a yellow frozen ribbon out of sight and I saw it move, the whole road.) There were a few sharp arguments about who the light really favoured, attackers or defenders, men were sitting around with Cinemascope eyes and jaws stuck out like they could shoot bullets, moving and antsing and shifting around inside their fatigues. 

‘No sense us getting too relaxed, Charlie don’t relax, just when you get good and comfortable is when he comes over and takes a giant shit on you.’ That was the level until morning, I smoked a pack an hour all night long, and nothing happened. Ten minutes after daybreak I was down at the lz asking about choppers. 

A few days later Sean Flynn and I went up to a big firebase in the Americal TAOR that took it all the way over to another extreme: National Guard weekend. The colonel in command was so drunk that day that he could barely get his words out, and when he did, it was to say things like, ‘We aim to make good and goddammit sure that if those guys try anything cute they won’t catch us with our pants down.’ 

The main mission there was to fire H&I, but one man told us that their record was the worst in the whole Corps, probably the whole country, they’d harassed and interdicted a lot of sleeping civilians and Korean Marines, even a couple of Americal patrols, but hardly any Viet Cong. (The colonel kept calling it ‘artillerary’. The first time he said it Flynn and I looked away from each other, the second time we blew beer through our noses, but the colonel fell in laughing right away and more than covered us.) 

No sandbags, exposed shells, dirty pieces, guys going around giving us that look, ‘We’re cool, how come you’re not?’ At the strip Sean was talking to the operator about it and the man got angry. ‘Oh yeah? Well fuck you, how tight do you think you want it? There ain’t been any veecees around here in three months.’‘ So far so good, ’Sean said. ‘Hear anything on that chopper yet?’ 
But sometimes everything stopped, nothing flew, you couldn’t even find out why. I got stuck for a chopper once in some lost patrol outpost in the Delta where the sergeant chain-ate candy bars and played country and western tapes twenty hours a day until I heard it in my sleep, some sleep. ‘Up on Wolverton Mountain’ and ‘Lonesome as the bats and the bears in Miller’s Cave’ and ‘I fell into a burning ring of fire’, surrounded by strungout rednecks who weren’t getting much sleep either because they couldn’t trust one of their 400 mercenary troopers or their own hand-picked perimeter guards or anybody else except maybe Babe Ruth and Johnny Cash, they’d been waiting for it so long now they were afraid they wouldn’t know it when they finally got it, and it burns burns . . . 

Finally on the fourth day a helicopter came in to deliver meat and movies to the camp and I went out on it, so happy to get back to Saigon that I didn’t crash for two days. 

Airmobility, dig it, you weren’t going anywhere. It made you feel safe, it made you feel Omni, but it was only a stunt, technology. Mobility was just mobility, it saved lives or took them all the time (saved mine I don’t know how many times, maybe dozens, maybe none), what you really needed was a flexibility far greater than anything the technology could provide, some generous, spontaneous gift for accepting surprises, and I didn’t have it. 

I got to hate surprises, control freak at the crossroads, if you were one of these people who always thought they had to know what was coming next, the war could cream you. It was the same with your ongoing attempts at getting used to the jungle or the blow-you-out climate or the saturating strangeness of the place which didn’t lessen with exposure so often as it fattened and darkened in accumulating alienation. It was great if you could adapt, you had to try, but it wasn’t the same as making a discipline, going into your own reserves and developing a real war metabolism: slow yourself down when your heart tried to punch its way through your chest; get swift when everything went to stop and all you could feel of your whole life was the entropy whipping through it. Unlovable terms. 

The ground was always in play, always being swept. Under the ground was his, above it was ours. We had the air, we could get up in it but not disappear in to it, we could run but we couldn’t hide, and he could do each so well that sometimes it looked like he was doing them both at once, while our finder just went limp. All the same, one place or another it was always going on, rock around the clock, we had the days and he had the nights. 

You could be in the most protected space in Vietnam and still know that your safety was provisional, that early death, blindness, loss of legs, arms or balls, major and lasting disfigurement –the whole rotten deal –could come in on the freakyfluky as easily as in the so-called expected ways, you heard so many of those stories it was a wonder anyone was left alive to die in firefights and mortar-rocket attacks. 

After a few weeks, when the nickel had jarred loose and dropped and I saw that everyone around me was carrying a gun, I also saw that any of them could go off at any time, putting you where it wouldn’t matter whether it had been an accident or not. The roads were mined, the trails booby-trapped, satchel charges and grenades blew up jeeps and movie theatres, the VC got work inside all the camps as shoeshine boys and laundresses and honey-dippers, they’d starch your fatigues and burn your shit and then go home and mortar your area. 

Saigon and Cholon and Danang held such hostile vibes that you felt you were being dry-sniped every time someone looked at you, and choppers fell out of the sky like fat poisoned birds a hundred times a day. 
After a while I couldn’t get on one without thinking that I must be out of my fucking mind. Fear and motion, fear and standstill, no preferred cut there, no way even to be clear about which was really worse, the wait or the delivery. 

Combat spared far more men than it wasted, but everyone suffered the time between contact, especially when they were going out every day looking for it; bad going on foot, terrible in trucks and APCs, awful in helicopters, the worst, travelling so fast towards something so frightening. I can remember times when I went half dead with my fear of the motion, the speed and direction already fixed and pointed one way. It was painful enough just flying ‘safe’ hops between firebases and lz’s; if you were ever on a helicopter that had been hit by ground fire your deep, perpetual chopper anxiety was guaranteed. 

At least actual contact when it was happening would draw long raggedy strands of energy out of you, it was juicy, fast and refining, and travelling towards it was hollow, dry, cold and steady, it never let you alone. All you could do was look around at the other people on board and see if they were as scared and numbed out as you were. If it looked like they weren’t you thought they were insane, if it looked like they were it made you feel a lot worse. 

I went through that thing a number of times and only got a fast return on my fear once, a too classic hot landing with the heat coming from the trees about 300 yards away, sweeping machine-gun fire that sent men head down into swampy water, running on their hands and knees towards the grass where it wasn’t blown flat by the rotor blades, not much to be running for but better than nothing. The helicopter pulled up before we’d all gotten out, leaving the last few men to jump twenty feet down between the guns across the paddy and the gun on the chopper door. 

When we’d all reached the cover of the wall and the captain had made a check, we were amazed to see that no one had even been hurt, except for one man who’d sprained both his ankles jumping. 
Afterwards, I remembered that I’d been down in the muck worrying about leeches. I guess you could say that I was refusing to accept the situation.

***

from

Dispatches

by

Michael Herr

get it at Amazon.com 


DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do about It – Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens. 

More Democracy

Today the United States faces a number of daunting problems. Economic inequality has reached levels not seen for a hundred years. While the wealthy keep piling up riches, many Americans are hurting from job losses, low wages, high health-care costs, and deteriorating public services. Whole communities have been devastated by factory closings. Our public schools are neglected. Our highways and bridges are in disrepair.

Well-designed government policies could help deal with these problems. Large majorities of Americans favor specific measures that would be helpful. Yet our national government often appears to ignore the wants and needs of its citizens. It pays more attention to organized interests than to ordinary Americans, and it gets bogged down in gridlock and inaction.

No wonder many Americans are angry and alienated. No wonder there have been populist rebellions on both the Left and the Right: the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump.

In this book we argue that gridlock and inaction in Washington result from two main causes: clashes between our two sharply divided political parties and obstructive actions by corporations, interest groups, and wealthy individuals.

The many “veto points” in our complex political system (that is, the many opportunities for one or another political actor to thwart policy change) are used to prevent the enactment of policies that most Americans want. The nonresponsiveness and dysfunction of government are closely related to undemocratic features of our political system. Our laws and institutions make it hard for ordinary citizens to have an effective voice in politics. They permit corporations, interest groups, and the wealthy to exert a great deal of influence over what the government does. And they allow donors and highly ideological political activists to dominate the parties’ nominations of candidates for office, so that the two parties are pushed in sharply contrasting directions—contributing to gridlock.

Both parties often stray from what majorities of Americans want them to do. It follows that our problems can be more effectively addressed if we reform our political system to achieve more democracy: more equal opportunity for all citizens to shape what their government does and policies that better address the needs of all Americans.

If the political parties are democratized, for example, so that each of them is forced to appeal more to the voters and less to the party’s donors and activists, they will differ less sharply from each other. That will reduce gridlock. Both parties will be more responsive to the citizenry and more likely to adopt solutions that Americans favor for the problems we face. Similarly, if we reform elections so that all citizens have an equal voice, and if we mute the influence of political money and organized interests, public officials will more faithfully reflect what ordinary Americans want.

Again, if the Congress and other political institutions are reformed to represent all citizens equally, those institutions will be more harmonious—less prone to clashes with each other that result in gridlock—and more responsive to the citizenry as a whole.

Some impediments to democracy have been with us for a long time. Others have grown worse in recent years. But most, we think, are fixable.

In the course of American history, the health of democracy and the extent of economic equality have tended to rise and fall together. Each has affected the other. In the late nineteenth-century Gilded Age, for example, extreme inequalities of income and wealth—inequalities not unlike those that afflict us today—empowered the wealthy few and undermined democracy. Yet that same extreme economic inequality provoked protests and social movements, which in turn helped bring about reforms that advanced both political and economic equality.

Through such efforts, the United States has enjoyed periods of relatively democratic, harmonious, and effective government, and widely shared prosperity. We believe that we can once again enjoy more vigorous democracy and more widely shared prosperity, if enough citizens mobilize and work hard for effective reforms that promote both economic and political equality. The two types of reform go together. Each facilitates the other. Neither is likely to get very far alone.

In the following chapters we show precisely how undemocratic U.S. government policy making has become. We do our best to diagnose exactly what has gone wrong. Based on that diagnosis, we explain how certain specific political reforms could greatly increase democratic responsiveness. Finally, we explore how the formidable obstacles to reform might be overcome.

Why Democracy.

We define democracy as policy responsiveness to ordinary citizens—that is, popular control of government. Or simply “majority rule.”

This commonsense definition reflects the foundation of our Constitution in the will of “we the people of the United States.” It embodies the fundamental value of political equality, insisting that in a democracy all citizens should have an equal opportunity to influence the making of public policy. It reflects the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that all men (we would now say all human beings) are “created equal.”

It corresponds to Abraham Lincoln’s espousal of government “ of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Yet the fact is that this sort of “majoritarian” democracy—which is widely embraced by ordinary Americans—has been rejected by a number of political theorists and by many social and political elites. So we need to explain why we think majoritarian democracy is desirable.

ELECTIONS ALONE DO NOT GUARANTEE DEMOCRACY.

Some theorists have argued that all that is needed for democracy is elections that create a competitive struggle for citizens’votes. To us, however, a core element of democracy is political equality—an equal voice for each citizen. Just holding elections does not guarantee that citizens will have equal influence.

For example, even if we formally allow each adult citizen one and only one vote, some people may be left out because they are deterred or excluded from voting. (We will see that voters in the United States tend to be quite unrepresentative of the citizenry as a whole.) Other people may, in effect, get many votes—if they provide money or organizational support that is essential to running political campaigns and getting a party’s supporters to the polls. Moreover, election outcomes may not reflect the real preferences of the voters if the choices on the ballot are severely restricted. And policy may diverge sharply from the desires of the public if officials ignore those who elected them and pay attention to lobbyists instead.

One way in which elections can go wrong is if voters’ choices are circumscribed. A stark example: Iran’s Guardian Council, a twelve-member body of jurists and theologians appointed by Iran’s “Supreme Leader,” decides which candidates can get onto the ballot. In Iran’s 2013 presidential election, the Guardian Council disqualified the vast majority of would-be candidates—including all thirty women and the reformist former president. So even though many Iranians (72 percent of them) voted and could exercise a “free” choice among the six candidates on the ballot—and even though the winner of the most votes peacefully took office a few weeks later—we would not want to call that election democratic.

In the United States today, no body of theologians controls who can and who cannot run for office. Yet—as a result of much more subtle and indirect processes—we may actually have something like our own Guardian Council.

In today’s America, a relatively small, unelected set of people exerts a great deal of influence over who appears on the ballot and who has a realistic chance to win: those who supply the money. When the members of this group agree with one another, they have the power to determine that certain kinds of electoral choices are essentially off-limits for voters.

In our electoral system, private money plays a huge part. Neither major party can function without many millions of dollars. And the parties generally select their candidates in obscure, low-visibility primary elections, in which only a small, atypical set of voters participates. This process limits the influence of rank-and file voters. It empowers a few highly ideological activists, organized interest groups, and donors.

In this and many other ways, our system differs from those of most other advanced countries. Since Republican and Democratic activists and donors typically disagree sharply with each other about a number of issues, there are usually very real differences between Republican and Democratic candidates. But the megadonors of both parties tend to agree in opposing certain policies that most Americans favor. These include important policies related to government budgets, international trade, social welfare spending, economic regulation, and taxes (as will be discussed in chapter 4).

On these issues, big-money political donors can act rather like a Guardian Council. They can keep off the ballot candidates, ideas, and policies they disagree with, by giving or withholding the money that is needed to put on a serious campaign.

THE MONEY PROBLEM. 

A crucial part of this picture is that both parties need enormous amounts of money, but—under our current system—that money mostly comes from a very small set of megadonors. In 2012, for example, a tiny sliver of the U.S. population—just one-tenth of one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans—provided almost half of all the money spent in federal elections. Even more remarkably, just 132 donors to huge political action committees (PACs) known as “super PACs,” giving an average of almost $ 10 million each, accounted for more money than all of the 3.7 million small donors to the Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns combined.

It is extremely difficult to win a major government office without the backing of affluent campaign donors. The “preapproval” process by America’s “Guardian Council” of potential donors seems to be remarkably effective at screening out candidates who fundamentally disagree with the preferences of well-funded interest groups and well-to-do contributors. The result: U.S. government policy often reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office.

To be sure, the 2016 “outsider” campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump seemed to demonstrate that—at least under certain circumstances—huge contributions from the usual millionaire and billionaire donors may not be necessary to compete. But of course Sanders did not win the Democratic Party nomination, let alone the general election.

Trump was an extremely unusual case: his celebrity and communication skills markedly lowered his campaign costs by giving him an enormous amount of free media exposure. And Trump had his own fortune to fall back on, if necessary, which also helped make him unusually independent of megadonors.

We will have much more to say in later chapters about the distorting effects of money in politics. For now, the main point is that we should not think about democracy in terms of the mere existence of elections. If we want true majoritarian democracy, what really matters is whether—and to what extent—ordinary citizens can control what their government does.

Elections can effectively ensure democratic control only if a representative set of citizens votes, and only if election outcomes are not excessively influenced by party activists, interest groups, or financial donors.

But do we want true, majority-rule democracy? Not everyone thinks so.

IS THE GENERAL PUBLIC WORTH PAYING ATTENTION TO? 

The most important objection to majoritarian democracy is that ordinary citizens may be too uninterested in politics, too ill informed, too capricious in their political opinions, too selfish, and too subject to demagoguery to have their views taken seriously. What if most Americans do not really know which public policies would be good for them or for the country? Why should we pay any attention to what they think? 

In the nation’s early days, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton worried about alleged “extreme fluctuations,” “passions” and “temporary errors and delusions” of the public. Walter Lippmann bemoaned “stereotypes” or “pictures in [the] heads” of ordinary citizens, who (he said) often fail to comprehend world realities. 

Subsequently, decades worth of polls and surveys have shown that most Americans are not much interested in or informed about politics. Again and again, many or most Americans have failed quizzes about basic political facts, such as which party controls the House of Representatives or how long a term senators have in office. 

Most people have trouble identifying or locating foreign countries. Acronyms and abbreviations that are coin of the realm in Washington, DC—NATO, ICBM, MFN, and the like—are mysteries to many Americans.  

Moreover, many Americans are confused or uncertain about exactly what kinds of government policies they favor or oppose. “Don’t know” responses to poll questions are fairly common, at least when survey researchers don’t make it too embarrassing to give them. 

Repeated surveys of the same individuals over time have showed that their stated opinions about political issues tend to vary from one year to another—sometimes back and forth, for no easily discernable reason. 

Researchers have talked of “non-attitudes”and have called into question the very existence of meaningful public opinion. 

Right up to the present day, scholars continue to write that “widespread political ignorance” is a profound problem for democracy and (in effect) to counsel political leaders to pay no heed to what ordinary citizens say they want. 

An important recent book on “democracy for realists” seems to cast doubt on the idea that the public has meaningful views that should shape government policy.  

There are good reasons for low levels of political information, reasons that can be summed up in the phrase “rational ignorance.” Most people—unless they happen to enjoy being political junkies—have little reason to devote a great deal of time or energy to most political matters. To most people, work, family, and leisure are higher priorities than most aspects of politics. Why make a big investment in acquiring political information? Especially since the odds of one individual having a pivotal effect on a major electoral outcome are usually vanishingly small. 

“Rational ignorance” notwithstanding, a few members of the public are indeed political junkies who enjoy learning about politics. And a larger portion are concerned with and knowledgeable about specific issues such as education, health care, or Middle East politics, depending on their particular occupations or interests. 

Whereas most people lack clear preferences on most issues, many people do have informed views about the few issues that they care about most. And still more have general notions about what sorts of policies are likely to suit them. 

Critics of democracy are certainly right that most individual Americans lack fully informed opinions about most issues. But it does not follow that the collective or aggregate, survey-measured policy preferences of all Americans—such as the percentages of Americans that polls show favoring or opposing various public policies—have the same characteristics as the preferences of a single typical individual. The notion that whole entities must have the same characteristics as their individual parts is a fallacy, known as the “fallacy of composition.”

THE STRENGTH OF COLLECTIVE POLICY PREFERENCES. 

There is plenty of evidence that public opinion as a collective or aggregate phenomenon is very different, much more worth paying attention to, than the day-to-day opinions of a typical individual citizen. How can this be? 

There are two main reasons. The first involves collective deliberation: a society-wide process in which experts and leaders debate public policies, their views are reported in the media, attentive Americans pick up cues from those they trust, and the attentive citizens communicate those views to their families, friends, and coworkers. 

The second reason involves the aggregation process itself: when many uncertain expressions of opinion are combined into a collective whole (for example, into the percentage of Americans favoring a particular policy), random errors and uncertainties among individuals tend to get averaged out. Survey measures of collective preferences cannot overcome systematic, nonrandom errors (we will have more to say about that later), but they do cancel out random variations that occur in “doorstep” opinions offered to survey interviewers. In most cases, the results of well-designed surveys fairly faithfully reflect longer-term, underlying tendencies of collective opinion. 

The process of forming collective opinions about politics is akin to the processes that tend to make verdicts by twelve-person juries, or market judgments by thousands of consumers or investors, much more reliable than the opinion of a typical individual. Each is an example of what can be called the “wisdom of crowds.”

Most Americans do not devote a great deal of thought to politics. But they do have easy, direct access to some information that is highly relevant to public policy: the size of their Social Security checks; what is happening to their jobs and wages; the (perhaps crumbling) condition of roads they drive on; price rises or declines in grocery stores or at gasoline pumps. On some of these day-to-day pocketbook concerns—and on such matters as neighborhood crime, the challenge of holding down a job with no paid sick leave, the difficulty of finding affordable child care, or the (un) reliability of public transportation—ordinary Americans may actually have better firsthand information than elites who live more rarefied, sheltered lives. 

When it comes to many abstract, complex, or distant matters, however—including precisely what sorts of public policy might be best for reducing layoffs and wage cuts, or for curbing price inflation, improving air quality, or avoiding war casualties—collective deliberation becomes crucial. 

Experts debate the merits of alternative public policies. Commentators and politicians express their views through various media. A set of relatively attentive citizens—without having to memorize a lot of facts—can figure out what sorts of policies are favored by leaders whom they trust to have expertise and to share their own values. (This works only if such leaders exist, can be heard, and deserve the trust bestowed upon them.) Attentive citizens adopt those policy preferences for themselves, and—again without needing to learn or recite a lot of facts—communicate them to friends, families, and coworkers who also share similar values. As a result, most Americans—on most major issues—are able to form a general idea about what they want the government to do. They develop underlying tendencies of opinion. When the uncertain beliefs and opinions of millions of people are combined, the random noise is reduced. 

Collective preferences tend to be solid. They tend to reflect the underlying needs and values of the whole body of citizens, in light of the best available information from experts and commentators. This is not just a theory. It is supported by evidence drawn from close examination of Americans’ actual collective policy preferences, as expressed in many polls and surveys conducted over many years. 

An exhaustive study of thousands of survey questions that had been asked over a fifty-year period found that Americans’ collective policy preferences do not in fact suffer from the alarming defects that are often attributed to them. “Violent fluctuations” in collective opinion are a myth. The proportions of Americans favoring or opposing a given policy generally stay stable over time, except that they react in sensible ways to such big events as an armed attack or a nuclear reactor meltdown. And they gradually change to take account of new realities or new information. As unemployment declines, for example, public support for unemployment assistance declines as well; when tax rates are lowered, public support for tax cuts declines. 

Americans as a group make many definite distinctions among policies (for example, which countries should receive economic aid; under what conditions abortions should be allowed; which kinds of assistance to the poor should be expanded or curtailed). Collective policy preferences are generally coherent: they are seldom inconsistent or mutually contradictory.  

Well-designed polls and surveys typically do a good job of revealing collective policy preferences that reflect the worldviews, values, and interests of the average American. In a word, public opinion is generally deliberative—it generally reflects the best available information and the values and interests of the citizenry. It does so not because most individuals are deliberative or aware of the best information but because individuals form their opinions through a collective social process that brings deliberation and information to bear on the issues of the day. 

We need to add certain caveats. First, poll results—especially those based on confusing, biased, or inept questions—have to be interpreted with care. But even poorly worded questions, properly interpreted, can often help reveal the contours of collective opinion.  Another problem is that tabulated poll responses can underrepresent the interests of respondents who are uncertain and give arbitrary answers or say “don’t know.” Such effects (which, however, are not generally large) should be taken into account when possible. 

The more important caveat is that collective opinion sometimes does not reflect the best available information because individuals’ errors do not always “cancel out.” This is particularly true if systematic misinformation is fed to many Americans at once and is not effectively contradicted. Examples include “fake news” transmitted by social media or misleading claims about events abroad (e.g., alleged “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq) by presidents or executive branch officials who have a near-monopoly on intelligence sources. 

Our view is that successful manipulation of public opinion is not common, at least not concerning the domestic policy issues that we focus on in this book. On such issues, personal experience and competing elites can usually be counted on to help people figure out the truth. 

In later chapters, however—when we describe concrete policies that majorities of Americans favor, and advocate that the public’s wishes should be heeded—we need to be alert for any cases in which public opinion may have been manipulated or misled. As a general matter we believe that the expressed preferences of the American people deserve much more respect from policy makers than they currently get. Respect does not mean slavish adherence. The public is certainly not infallible, and majorities are sometimes shortsighted or misguided in ways that policy makers must try to recognize and resist. But in most cases, we believe that majority rule—even when we ourselves happen to disagree with the majority—tends to produce public policies that benefit the largest number of people and promote the common good. 

We believe that more democracy in the United States today would yield better policies: “better” in the sense that they would advance the interests and preferences of more Americans. 

This conclusion is strengthened when we consider the rather bleak alternatives. Who, exactly, should rule if the people do not? Most modern societies have, for good reasons, rejected rule by hereditary monarchs, landed gentry, dictators, party cadres, or theocrats. Even rule by the best-educated, most successful Americans—if it could somehow be arranged—would suffer from serious flaws. 

Our political and economic elites—who have recently stumbled into costly and futile wars, neglected economic inequality and wage stagnation, caused devastating financial crashes, and snarled up the functioning of government—appear to suffer from their own defects of judgment. Our wealthiest elites, though highly educated and knowledgeable about many things, often seem to know or care rather little about the needs of ordinary citizens. (We will have more to say about this in chapter 4, when we discuss the enormous political clout wielded by wealthy Americans.)

In short: citizens are not perfect guardians of their own values and interests. But they are pretty good guardians. And they are the best we are likely to find. 

WHAT ABOUT MINORITY RIGHTS? 

Even if majority rule does good things for most citizens, a serious problem remains: how to protect minorities. We are not much moved by Madison’s fear that the masses might use democratic control of government to seize property from a well-to-do minority, through such “wicked schemes” as the printing of paper money.  

In our view, U.S. history and, in recent years, survey data have demonstrated that most Americans have no desire to confiscate the property of the wealthy. They have never come close to doing so. In fact, wealthy Americans have been highly successful at resisting or rolling back even mildly redistributive threats to their property, such as the progressive income tax. 

But other minorities—especially racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and those who have distinctive political interests or hold unpopular views—deserve protection. Surely Madison, the French political observer Alexis de Tocqueville, and others were right that under certain circumstances (fear of terrorism comes to mind), majorities can threaten the rights and interests of minorities who live in their midst. 

We are not absolutist democrats. We accept the desirability of providing minorities with special protections in case majorities of Americans might want to use the power of government against them. We believe the framers of the U.S. Constitution were wise to append a Bill of Rights, including protection for freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, and the press; guarantees of due process; and protection against arbitrary arrest or unreasonable searches and seizures—all provisions that help safeguard minorities from unfair treatment. 

The tricky part is how to guarantee that these freedoms are actually protected. The record of the U.S. Supreme Court is mixed, at best. Until relatively recently the court did little or nothing for enslaved or abused African Americans and Native Americans. It has frequently permitted harsh treatment of political dissenters, especially during wartime—or amid foreign policy crises or “red scares.”

As recently as World War II (1939–45), the Supreme Court went along with the shameful incarceration of Japanese Americans in prison camps, without any evidence that they represented a threat. The court swims in the same political sea as the rest of us. It cannot always be counted on to protect minorities whom majorities of Americans are willing or eager to oppress. 

Still, we cannot think of a superior system of legal protection. The Supreme Court and the Constitution—helped along by vigilant civil liberties lawyers—are probably the best we can do. But we believe that minorities should also be protected in ways that go beyond bare-bones constitutional rights. As we will note in our discussion of democratic reforms of the U.S. Senate, it is worth maintaining certain institutional protections for minorities of any sort who hold intense political views. 

Even the much-despised filibuster, if properly reformed, might be turned into a tool for preventing unjust government actions against minorities—instead of preventing action of almost any kind, as it does now. But that is a topic for a later chapter. 

How This Book Unfolds 

In the next chapter we note certain patterns in American history, from Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1830s onward. Democracy has tended to flourish in times of relative economic equality but has withered when there are big gaps between rich and poor. Yet periods of very high economic inequality have sometimes provoked social movements that have fought for and won amelioration of both economic and political inequality. (The same thing may be starting to happen today.) 

In part 2 of the book we examine more closely what has gone wrong and what is obstructing democratic responsiveness now. 

Chapter 3 shows how undemocratic the United States is today. Ordinary citizens have little or no influence on public policy, while affluent and wealthy Americans and organized interest groups—especially business groups—often get their way. 

When large majorities of Americans want policy changes that would improve their jobs, wages, retirement pensions, or health care—or that would combat climate change, reduce gun violence, improve public schools, or rebuild bridges and highways—they are often thwarted by gridlock and inaction. 

In chapter 4 we examine just how much political clout wealthy Americans have (a great deal), what techniques they use to exercise it, and what sorts of government policies they want and get. 

Chapter 5 documents the substantial political influence of organized interest groups and explains how they exercise it. Corporations and business associations do particularly well, while “mass-based” groups have relatively little clout. 

Chapter 6 explores the vexing problems of highly polarized political parties, gridlock, and policy inaction. It discusses how polarization has increased with geographical and racial realignments, demographic and economic changes (especially the great increase in economic inequality), and certain features of our electoral system. It notes how polarization interacts perniciously with our separation of powers and our multiple “veto points” to produce gridlock and inaction. 

We then turn, in part 3, to the question of what sorts of political reforms might be effective for making government policies more responsive to ordinary citizens. 

Chapter 7 discusses a number of “equal voice” reforms that would move all citizens toward equal political influence. Campaign finance regulation—or (even without such regulation) public funding—could greatly reduce the power of private political money. Other reforms could curtail the impact of interest groups. Still others could encourage voting by citizens who are currently not well represented in the electorate—especially lower-income people and racial and ethnic minorities. 

Chapter 8 considers how to overcome policy gridlock and, more generally, how to make our political institutions more democratic. It notes undemocratic features of Congress that our legislators could easily improve if they felt sufficient pressure to do so. It also discusses undemocratic electoral arrangements that will be harder—but far from impossible—to change. And it mentions certain particularly difficult but important-to-address problems, including the extremely unrepresentative, rural-heavy nature of the Senate, and the tendency of the Supreme Court to overturn (without, in our opinion, sound justification) certain policies backed by large majorities of Americans. 

Part 4, the final section of the book, addresses the difficult question of whether and how major democratic reforms can actually be enacted. Big obstacles stand in the way, especially the need to persuade, pressure, or replace officials who have been elected in an undemocratic system and would be happy to keep it that way. 

Major changes will likely take a long time and a lot of work. But we are optimistic that they can be achieved. 

Chapter 9 addresses the idea of a social movement for Democracy. Some important improvements can be accomplished through simple changes in rules or laws that policy makers might be pushed to adopt through conventional political pressure. Ultimately, however, we believe that the most important major reforms can probably be won only by means of something new: a large-scale, long-term social movement for Democracy. 

The chapter draws lessons from past social movements—especially the Populists, the Progressives, the labor movement, and the civil rights movement—to suggest what sorts of strategies and tactics might lead to success. And it points to groups that are already beginning to work together toward democratic reforms and might help form the core of a Democracy movement. 

Chapter 10 highlights democratic reforms that are currently being achieved on the state and local level. By building on these efforts, we believe that a successful social movement for more Democracy can eventually transform America, enhancing both the quality of our politics and the quality of our lives. 

Now we turn to concrete discussions of what has gone wrong and what we can do about it. 

TWO 

Unequal Wealth Distorts Politics 

“Among the new objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, none struck my eye more vividly than the equality of conditions.  .  .  . The social state of the Americans is eminently democratic. It has had this character since the birth of the colonies; it has it even more in our day.  .  .  . It is of the very essence of democratic governments that the empire of the majority is absolute  .  .  . there is nothing that resists it.” ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE, Democracy in America, 1831. 

To understand what has gone wrong with American democracy, it is helpful to look back at how our economy and our politics have changed since the early days of the United States. One historical pattern stands out. Economic inequality—the concentration of wealth and income in a few hands, with a big gap between rich and poor—has risen and fallen at various times. 

And democracy—popular control of government—has tended to move in the opposite direction. When citizens are relatively equal, politics has tended to be fairly democratic. When a few individuals hold enormous amounts of wealth, democracy suffers. 

The reason for this pattern is simple. Through campaign contributions, lobbying, influence over public discourse, and other means, wealth can be translated into political power. When wealth is highly concentrated—that is, when a few individuals have enormous amounts of money—political power tends to be highly concentrated, too. The wealthy few tend to rule. Average citizens lose political power. Democracy declines. 

This pattern underlies a key theme of this book: that the extreme economic inequality afflicting the United States today is a major cause of our loss of democracy. Only if we reduce economic inequality—and/ or break the links between money and political power—can we hope to make our government responsive to the citizenry

In this chapter we take a quick look at the historical relationship between economic inequality and political inequality in the United States. 

When Americans have been relatively equal economically—as they were in the early years of our country and were again during our post–World War II “golden age”—democracy has generally flourished. But when the gaps between the rich and everyone else have grown too great—as in the Gilded Age of the 1890s and again during recent decades of low, stagnant wages for most Americans but soaring wealth at the top—democracy has suffered. 

American history also shows, however, that we are not helpless in the face of impersonal forces that exacerbate economic inequality. Public policy matters. At several key moments in American history, extreme economic inequality has led to anger, protests, social movements, and government action to remedy the situation. Average citizens, working together, have been able to make important strides toward moderating economic inequality and enhancing democracy.  

Tocqueville’s Relatively Equal America In 1831, when the young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville visited the newly founded United States, he was deeply impressed by the high level of economic and social equality among Americans. He was also struck by the extent to which government policies—especially in the states—were responsive to the will of the majority of citizens. He called the majority “omnipotent” and declared that nothing could resist it.  F

rom today’s vantage point, the America of the 1830s was certainly no utopia. Equality and democracy were far from complete. As Tocqueville was well aware, the slave system in the South treated most African Americans as property, exploited their labor, deprived them of personal freedom, and excluded them from any voice in politics. 

Women were stuck in a patriarchal society, with subordinate status and no right to vote. Native Americans were being driven from their lands, conquered, and killed—under the leadership of (among others) the democratic hero Andrew Jackson. No utopia, for sure. 

Still, among white males, equality and democracy were indeed highly advanced during the Jacksonian period—much more so than in any European country at that time, and much more so than in the United States today. In the 1830s many white male Americans were farmers who owned a small piece of land and grew or raised their own food. These farmers, along with craftsmen and small merchants who lived in towns and cities, enjoyed fairly similar standards of living and had much the same modest levels of wealth. 

Only a few big merchants, manufacturers, and (especially) Southern plantation owners stood out as notably more affluent, while slaves and landless urban laborers stood out as deprived. 

Economic historians calculate that U.S. inequalities of income and wealth were substantially lower in Tocqueville’s time than they are today—though there was a sharp distinction between the highly equal North and the very unequal South, and much depends on how the calculations treat slaves. 

For the country as a whole in 1810, if one considers only the free (nearly all white) population, some estimates indicate that the top 1 percent of wealth holders owned less than 15 percent of all the wealth, much less than the 35 percent figure for the United States in 2010. 

Consider those numbers for a moment. Today, 1 percent of Americans hold fully one-third of all the wealth in the country. The distribution of wealth in early nineteenth-century America was much more equal than today. Indeed, it was much more equal than in most other times and places. If slaves—who owned virtually nothing—are included in the population, and if the market value of slaves is attributed to their owners (a grim but useful calculation), Tocqueville’s America looks considerably less egalitarian—but still more equal than Europe at that time or the United States now.  

Much the same was true of incomes. In colonial times (and presumably in the Jacksonian period as well), U.S. incomes were distributed much more equally than those in England or Holland, and much more equally than in the late nineteenth-century United States. 

THE RISE OF DEMOCRACY IN THE UNITED STATES. 

As to politics, we cannot be sure exactly how responsive the state or federal governments were to citizens in the 1830s. (There were no opinion polls to tell us which policies citizens favored or opposed.) But the judgment of most historians, bolstered by evidence on voting turnout and other matters, is that among white men, American politics were in fact relatively democratic in the age of Jackson. 

In the earliest years of the United States, the right to vote had been severely restricted. The U.S. Constitution provided direct elections only to the House of Representatives. Presidential candidates were to be proposed and winnowed down by “electors,” who were chosen “in such manner as the [state legislatures] may direct”; House congressional delegations were expected to do the final picking of presidents. Senators were chosen “by”(emphasis added) state legislatures, and Supreme Court justices were appointed. Only a small minority of Americans could vote at all. The states controlled voting qualifications. 

Most states allowed only white males who were owners of substantial amounts of property to vote, and some states imposed religious or other qualifications as well. As a result, in 1790 only about two-thirds of adult white men—and few others—were legally eligible to vote. And far fewer did so. 

By 1828, however, when Andrew Jackson won his first term as president in an outburst of popular participation, presidential and House elections had become more democratic. All but two states let their voters choose presidential electors, who were generally pledged to back a particular candidate—in effect allowing citizens a more or less direct vote for president. And more white males could take part. 

Several of the original states had loosened their voting restrictions, and many new, more democratically oriented states had joined the union, so that in 1830 only eight of the then-total twenty-four states imposed property requirements for voting.  

Levels of voting turnout rose markedly. Turnout for the first election for the U.S. House of Representatives, in 1788—as a proportion of the people who were potentially eligible to vote in terms of their age, sex, race, and citizenship—was only about 12 percent, an astoundingly low figure. It rose to 38 percent by 1812 and, after a decline, jumped up to about 56 percent in Jackson’s two elections of 1828 and 1832. 

The establishment of political parties and active campaigning made a big difference, by offering citizens choices and mobilizing them to get to the polls. The highly democratic society that Tocqueville observed reflected strong popular mobilization for the 1828 election, when frontiersman and military hero Andrew “Old Hickory”Jackson of Tennessee, and his key ally, Martin Van Buren of New York, assembled a broad political coalition drawn from much of the Northeast, South, and West. 

A sophisticated party committee worked with Van Buren’s congressional caucus in Washington, DC, to set up state campaign committees, local Hickory Clubs, and a vigorous network of partisan newspapers around the country. Rallies, parades, and get-out-the-vote efforts delivered a large, enthusiastic popular vote for Jackson, who defeated the incumbent president, John Quincy Adams.  

In office, Jackson set a tone for popular democratic control of government. His inauguration brought an outpouring of people from hundreds of miles around Washington, who lined the route to the Capitol. 

Jackson opened his White House reception to citizens of modest background, who were scornfully described by a society matron as “a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros [sic], women, children, scrambling, fighting, romping. What a pity, what a pity.” 

Conservative Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story wrote to his wife that “the reign of KING MOB seemed triumphant.” 

At least in electoral and symbolic terms, then, the American politics of Tocqueville’s time were relatively democratic. 

Inequality after Tocqueville As the nineteenth century proceeded, however, the relatively equal, small-farm, agrarian America of Tocqueville’s time turned into something else. Settlers moved West. Millions of immigrants arrived from Ireland, Germany, and then southern and eastern Europe. The U.S. population doubled, doubled again, and then nearly doubled once more, from thirteen million in 1830 to ninety-two million in 1910.

Millions of people moved into big cities. While agriculture continued to expand and move westward, manufacturing surged, with more and more big mills and factories coming into existence, owned by wealthy individuals and—increasingly—by large corporations. Economic productivity soared. The United States launched into a post–Civil War “special century” of rapidly increasing standards of living. Railroads and (later) automobiles provided swift transportation. Electricity lit up people’s evenings and later began to power remarkable new consumer appliances. The telegraph, telephone, and national newspapers (and, in the twentieth century, radio and television) revolutionized communications. Nutrition, medical care, and life expectancies all improved. 

At the same time, however, millions of urban workers suffered from dismal living and working conditions, while the owners and managers of big businesses thrived. Inequality of wealth and income grew markedly. 

In a prescient chapter on “How Aristocracy Could Issue from Industry,” Tocqueville himself foresaw that industrialization and economic development might well undermine the high level of equality that he had observed among Americans. Increased division of labor would do it. Workers, he said, become “weaker, more limited, and more dependent,” while very wealthy men come forward to exploit industries. 

“At the same time that industrial science constantly lowers the class of workers, it elevates that of masters.”

Yes, indeed. As industrialization proceeded, the U.S. population became more and more sharply divided between a few very wealthy captains of industry and millions of low-wage workers. 

During the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, inequality of income and wealth reached extreme heights. Government policies that placed the interests of businesses above those of citizens, along with Supreme Court decisions that rejected progressive taxation or regulation of business, contributed to economic inequality. 

Extreme economic inequality, in turn, created a wealth-dominated, undemocratic politics. The English scholar James Bryce, who retraced some of Tocqueville’s steps in the 1870s and 1880s (and wrote a lengthy tome on American government) found that the inequality of material conditions in the United States had become greater than that of Europe. The United States had more “gigantic fortunes” than anywhere else in the world and a remarkable “crowd of millionaires.” 

By 1910, the top 10 percent of U.S. wealth holders owned the vast bulk—fully 80 percent—of all the wealth in the country. 

That left only 20 percent of the wealth to be divided among the whole other 90 percent of Americans. Nearly half of all the wealth (45 percent of it) was owned by the top 1 percent of Americans. 

Americans’ annual incomes were quite unequal as well. The top 1 percent of U.S. income earners got almost one-fifth of all the income in 1910, and almost one-quarter of it at the end of the 1920s. 

These numbers are worth thinking about. They imply big differences between the lives of people at the top and everyone else.  

During the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century that laid the groundwork for those early twentieth-century economic disparities, the huge, unregulated “trusts” that dominated many industries extracted monopolistic prices from consumers and paid enormous profits to stockholders. Meat-packers sold adulterated food. Rapacious railroads charged farmers exorbitant rates to ship their grain to market. Workers labored long hours for low wages. Even professionals and people running small to-middle-size businesses resented the conspicuous consumption of the “plutocrats.”

An emblem of Gilded Age excess was Cornelia Bradley Martin’s lavish Waldorf-Astoria costume ball in the midst of the depression of 1897. While many Americans were struggling to make ends meet, six to seven hundred wealthy New Yorkers joined Cornelia—who was dressed as a queen and greeted her guests from a raised dais under a canopy of rare tapestries—to display their jewels, silks, and brocades, and to enjoy the Versailles-like scene of mirrors and tables laden with food. 

THE DECLINE OF DEMOCRACY. 

The extreme economic inequality of the Gilded Age brought with it a high degree of political inequality. Democracy declined. “Muckraker” journalists wrote of the “treason of the Senate”; they showed that key senators were on the payrolls of wealthy bankers or industrialists and did the bidding of their employers. 

The Senate became a graveyard for popular reforms. In an eerie foreshadowing of today’s politics, wealthy individuals, business firms, and institutional gridlock combined to prevent Congress from passing laws that large majorities of Americans undoubtedly wanted them to pass.  

The decline in democracy was also manifested in a sharp decline in voter turnout. After the pivotal election of 1896—in which the industrial conservatism of William McKinley decisively defeated the agrarian populism of William Jennings Bryan—a series of changes in election laws curtailed citizens’ participation: new, onerous requirements for personal registration; disenfranchisement of working-class immigrants; barriers against party labels on ballots or party mobilization of voters. (Many of these “reforms”were supported by Progressives, who sought to reduce corruption and shift power away from the wealthy toward middle-class professionals, not ethnic urban masses.) 

Also, voters were discouraged by a narrowing of political choices under the business-dominated politics of the day. The high, 80 percent or so presidential-election turnout levels of most of the nineteenth century fell sharply, to just 59 percent in 1912. 

THE REBIRTH OF EQUALITY AND DEMOCRACY. 

The extremely high levels of economic and political inequality during and after the Gilded Age were eventually moderated, however. Inequality itself provoked protests and social movements that pressed for reforms and—after a long struggle—enjoyed considerable success. 

The Populist and Progressive victories of the early twentieth century (which are discussed further in chapter 9) included two fundamental democratic reforms: direct election of U.S. senators (rather than selection by corrupt state legislators) and the right of women to vote. They also brought more popular participation in party nominations; government regulation of business monopolies; limits on long working hours and bad working conditions; and the beginnings of a progressive federal income tax. 

After a relapse into economic and political inequality during the 1920s, the Great Depression led to the political mobilization of millions of citizens and to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies of the 1930s, which more closely regulated business, imposed more progressive income taxes, and provided social welfare programs including Social Security. 

Most important for reviving democracy, the New Deal facilitated the organization of workers into unions that could mobilize their members and exert countervailing power against business.  

New Deal policies, together with the economic leveling effects of World War II and its aftermath, produced a “great compression” (much more equality) of income and wealth and a substantial restoration of democracy.  

THE “GOLDEN AGE.”

For a period of twenty to thirty years after World War II (from about 1946 to 1973)—which is sometimes referred to as a “golden age,” though it was certainly not golden in every respect—income and wealth were much more widely shared. By 1950, the share of wealth owned by the top 1 percent of wealth holders had fallen from 45 percent to 30 percent. The income share of the most affluent Americans was also down markedly from the late-1920s peak.  

As the economy grew rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s, the American Dream seemed realizable. Average workers could expect ever-increasing prosperity for themselves and their children. Real incomes were doubling each generation. Living standards soared. The most economically successful Americans did not seem to be impossibly far ahead; one could imagine that—with hard work and luck—one might possibly join them.

As to democracy: we cannot be sure exactly how responsive to the citizenry the federal government was during the 1950s. (Available survey data are too scanty to judge how well public policies reflected citizens’preferences.) But indications are that policy making was much more democratic during the Eisenhower administration (1953–61) than it is today. Certainly the political parties were less polarized; there was more bipartisan cooperation, less gridlock, more legislative accomplishment—including clearly popular measures like the development of the interstate highway system and the maintenance or expansion of a number of social programs.  

Today’s Explosion of Inequality 

Then, in the 1970s, things began to go badly wrong. Already during the golden age, other countries had started to undermine the global economic dominance of the United States. Germany and Japan recovered from the ravages of World War II and built vigorous new economies. Volkswagens and then Hondas began to undersell Detroit cars in the U.S. market, and inexpensive Japanese electronic goods began to appear on our shelves. 

Suddenly, in 1973–74, an embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) doubled the price of oil. Wages, salaries, and the U.S. economy as a whole stagnated, while prices rose. At first nearly all Americans suffered. Then the wealthiest began to leap ahead while nearly everyone else stayed stuck, and a period of sharply rising inequality began. 

WAGE AND INCOME STAGNATION AMONG AVERAGE AMERICANS. 

American workers’ wages stopped rising. Since 1973—including many years of substantial economic growth—median hourly wages have barely risen at all. (Half of all workers earn more than the median, while half earn less. The median wage tells more about typical workers than does the mean or average wage, which can be misleadingly high because of a few extremely high-wage earners. If Bill Gates walks into a bar, the “average”income of the customers jumps way up in terms of the mean, but there is little or no effect on the median income, nor—unless Gates buys the drinks—on anybody’s actual welfare.) 

Even now, median wages remain stuck around $16 per hour, where they have been (in “real,” inflation-adjusted terms) ever since the early 1970s. Wage stagnation is a fundamental feature of contemporary America. 

For a while, family incomes (though not necessarily families’well-being) did a bit better than wages, but only because more family members began working harder and for longer hours. And soon family incomes stagnated too. Between 1947 and 1979, in terms of real dollars, the total incomes of American families in the bottom two thirds of the income distribution more than doubled. But since 1979, they have stayed nearly flat.  

Pundits and pontificators sometimes attribute this wage and income stagnation to workers’ alleged lack of skills or effort. Nonsense. American workers did not suddenly lose their ambition, their energy, or their skills at the end of the golden age. They continue to work hard and work well. Their productivity rose markedly for many years. Between 1979 and 2011, in fact—while wages were staying flat—average productivity nearly doubled, from $36.03 of goods produced per hour worked, to $60.83. 

The problem is not that the typical American worker is not working hard enough or not producing enough; it is that factors beyond his or her control—chiefly labor-saving technology and wage competition from low-wage countries—have reduced the market value of that work. 

A bigger share of revenue now goes to managers and stockholders. So a small number of wealthy people with very high incomes now get most of the gains from increased production. No wonder that many Americans feel that they have been marching up a steep hill but getting nowhere. No wonder that many resent those who seem to have leapt ahead—whether they focus on wealthy corporate executives and hedge fund managers or on immigrants and minorities. 

Wage and income stagnation tell us something about why there were so many antiestablishment Trump and Sanders voters in the 2016 elections. Americans can no longer take much consolation from hopes and dreams of upward mobility, even in relative terms. 

The American Dream promises that hard work, creative thinking, risk taking, and thrift can get anyone—or at least anyone’s children—to the top of the heap. In actual fact, however, Americans who are born into lower-income families tend to stay in the lower income ranges all their lives. So do their children. 

Those born at the top mostly stay near the top. For example, a recent study found that about half of Americans who had been in the bottom fifth of income-earning households in 1987 and were aged thirty-five to forty at the time remained in the bottom fifth twenty years later, despite the normal expectation of rising earnings over the life cycle. Those who did move generally did not move far. Fewer than one out of twenty made it into the top fifth, and fewer than one in forty into the top tenth.  

Americans enjoy somewhat more mobility between generations than within them, but less than we might like to think. High-earning parents tend to have high-earning children, and low earners tend to have low earners. The sons of fathers in the bottom tenth of income earners have just a paltry 4.5 percent chance of making it into the top fifth. (If parents’income did not matter, everyone would have a 20 percent chance of making it into the top fifth.)  

A moment’s thought about the importance of family in early childhood nurturance and in schooling, personal networks, college attendance, and financial help with homes and businesses helps us understand why it is rare to leap from the bottom to the top. More startling is the fact that the United States now appears to have less, rather than more, intergenerational mobility than several other countries that we sometimes sneer at as stultified: especially the egalitarian Scandinavians (Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden), but also Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and Japan. 

The most striking contrast is with our neighbor Canada, which resembles us in many ways but has some government policies that are very different from ours. Canada enjoys one of the highest rates of intergenerational mobility among advanced countries, while we suffer from one of the lowest. 

*

from

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do about It 

Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens.

get it at Amazon.com

An honest Republican’s view. Jeff Flake’s full speech.

Mr. President, I rise today to address a matter that has been much on my mind, at a moment when it seems that our democracy is more defined by our discord and our dysfunction than it is by our values and our principles. Let me begin by noting a somewhat obvious point that these offices that we hold are not ours to hold indefinitely. We are not here simply to mark time. Sustained incumbency is certainly not the point of seeking office. And there are times when we must risk our careers in favor of our principles.
Now is such a time.
It must also be said that I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret, because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics, regret because of the indecency of our discourse, regret because of the coarseness of our leadership, regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our — all of our — complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.
In this century, a new phrase has entered the language to describe the accommodation of a new and undesirable order — that phrase being “the new normal.” But we must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue — with the tone set at the top.

We must never regard as “normal” the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country – the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.

None of these appalling features of our current politics should ever be regarded as normal. We must never allow ourselves to lapse into thinking that this is just the way things are now. If we simply become inured to this condition, thinking that this is just politics as usual, then heaven help us. Without fear of the consequences, and without consideration of the rules of what is politically safe or palatable, we must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal.

Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as “telling it like it is,” when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified.

And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else: It is dangerous to a democracy. Such behavior does not project strength — because our strength comes from our values. It instead projects a corruption of the spirit, and weakness.

It is often said that children are watching. Well, they are. And what are we going to do about that? When the next generation asks us, Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up? — what are we going to say?

Mr. President, I rise today to say: Enough. We must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalous never becomes normal. With respect and humility, I must say that we have fooled ourselves for long enough that a pivot to governing is right around the corner, a return to civility and stability right behind it. We know better than that. By now, we all know better than that.

Here, today, I stand to say that we would better serve the country and better fulfill our obligations under the constitution by adhering to our Article 1 “old normal” — Mr. Madison’s doctrine of the separation of powers. This genius innovation which affirms Madison’s status as a true visionary and for which Madison argued in Federalist 51 — held that the equal branches of our government would balance and counteract each other when necessary. “Ambition counteracts ambition,” he wrote.

But what happens if ambition fails to counteract ambition? What happens if stability fails to assert itself in the face of chaos and instability? If decency fails to call out indecency? Were the shoe on the other foot, would we Republicans meekly accept such behavior on display from dominant Democrats? Of course not, and we would be wrong if we did.

When we remain silent and fail to act when we know that that silence and inaction is the wrong thing to do — because of political considerations, because we might make enemies, because we might alienate the base, because we might provoke a primary challenge, because ad infinitum, ad nauseum — when we succumb to those considerations in spite of what should be greater considerations and imperatives in defense of the institutions of our liberty, then we dishonor our principles and forsake our obligations. Those things are far more important than politics.

Now, I am aware that more politically savvy people than I caution against such talk. I am aware that a segment of my party believes that anything short of complete and unquestioning loyalty to a president who belongs to my party is unacceptable and suspect.

If I have been critical, it not because I relish criticizing the behavior of the president of the United States. If I have been critical, it is because I believe that it is my obligation to do so, as a matter of duty and conscience. The notion that one should stay silent as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters – the notion that one should say and do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided.

A Republican president named Roosevelt had this to say about the president and a citizen’s relationship to the office:

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the nation as a whole. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly as necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile.” President Roosevelt continued. “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”

Acting on conscience and principle is the manner in which we express our moral selves, and as such, loyalty to conscience and principle should supersede loyalty to any man or party. We can all be forgiven for failing in that measure from time to time. I certainly put myself at the top of the list of those who fall short in that regard. I am holier-than-none. But too often, we rush not to salvage principle but to forgive and excuse our failures so that we might accommodate them and go right on failing—until the accommodation itself becomes our principle.

In that way and over time, we can justify almost any behavior and sacrifice almost any principle. I’m afraid that is where we now find ourselves.

When a leader correctly identifies real hurt and insecurity in our country and instead of addressing it goes looking for somebody to blame, there is perhaps nothing more devastating to a pluralistic society. Leadership knows that most often a good place to start in assigning blame is to first look somewhat closer to home. Leadership knows where the buck stops. Humility helps. Character counts. Leadership does not knowingly encourage or feed ugly and debased appetites in us.

Leadership lives by the American creed: E Pluribus Unum. From many, one. American leadership looks to the world, and just as Lincoln did, sees the family of man. Humanity is not a zero-sum game. When we have been at our most prosperous, we have also been at our most principled. And when we do well, the rest of the world also does well.

These articles of civic faith have been central to the American identity for as long as we have all been alive. They are our birthright and our obligation. We must guard them jealously, and pass them on for as long as the calendar has days. To betray them, or to be unserious in their defense is a betrayal of the fundamental obligations of American leadership. And to behave as if they don’t matter is simply not who we are.

Now, the efficacy of American leadership around the globe has come into question. When the United States emerged from World War II we contributed about half of the world’s economic activity. It would have been easy to secure our dominance, keeping the countries that had been defeated or greatly weakened during the war in their place. We didn’t do that. It would have been easy to focus inward. We resisted those impulses. Instead, we financed reconstruction of shattered countries and created international organizations and institutions that have helped provide security and foster prosperity around the world for more than 70 years.

Now, it seems that we, the architects of this visionary rules-based world order that has brought so much freedom and prosperity, are the ones most eager to abandon it.

The implications of this abandonment are profound. And the beneficiaries of this rather radical departure in the American approach to the world are the ideological enemies of our values. Despotism loves a vacuum. And our allies are now looking elsewhere for leadership. Why are they doing this? None of this is normal. And what do we as United States Senators have to say about it?

The principles that underlie our politics, the values of our founding, are too vital to our identity and to our survival to allow them to be compromised by the requirements of politics. Because politics can make us silent when we should speak, and silence can equal complicity.

I have children and grandchildren to answer to, and so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit.

I have decided that I will be better able to represent the people of Arizona and to better serve my country and my conscience by freeing myself from the political considerations that consume far too much bandwidth and would cause me to compromise far too many principles.

To that end, I am announcing today that my service in the Senate will conclude at the end of my term in early January 2019.

It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, and who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican party — the party that for so long has defined itself by belief in those things. It is also clear to me for the moment we have given in or given up on those core principles in favor of the more viscerally satisfying anger and resentment. To be clear, the anger and resentment that the people feel at the royal mess we have created are justified. But anger and resentment are not a governing philosophy.

There is an undeniable potency to a populist appeal — but mischaracterizing or misunderstanding our problems and giving in to the impulse to scapegoat and belittle threatens to turn us into a fearful, backward-looking people. In the case of the Republican party, those things also threaten to turn us into a fearful, backward-looking minority party.

We were not made great as a country by indulging or even exalting our worst impulses, turning against ourselves, glorying in the things which divide us, and calling fake things true and true things fake. And we did not become the beacon of freedom in the darkest corners of the world by flouting our institutions and failing to understand just how hard-won and vulnerable they are.

This spell will eventually break. That is my belief. We will return to ourselves once more, and I say the sooner the better. Because to have a heathy government we must have healthy and functioning parties. We must respect each other again in an atmosphere of shared facts and shared values, comity and good faith. We must argue our positions fervently, and never be afraid to compromise. We must assume the best of our fellow man, and always look for the good. Until that days comes, we must be unafraid to stand up and speak out as if our country depends on it. Because it does.

I plan to spend the remaining fourteen months of my senate term doing just that.

Mr. President, the graveyard is full of indispensable men and women — none of us here is indispensable. Nor were even the great figures from history who toiled at these very desks in this very chamber to shape this country that we have inherited. What is indispensable are the values that they consecrated in Philadelphia and in this place, values which have endured and will endure for so long as men and women wish to remain free. What is indispensable is what we do here in defense of those values. A political career doesn’t mean much if we are complicit in undermining those values.

I thank my colleagues for indulging me here today, and will close by borrowing the words of President Lincoln, who knew more about healing enmity and preserving our founding values than any other American who has ever lived. His words from his first inaugural were a prayer in his time, and are no less so in ours:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.