Out Of Bounds

In the most recent Republican debate Donald “the Trumpet” had the audacity to speak the truth and the Republican loyalists collectively pilloried him. It matters not that he has been telling blatant lies throughout his campaign, as long as the lies are within the boundaries of accepted Republican dogma. It matters not that the trumpet insisted that the Muslims in New Jersey cheered when the Twin Towers were attacked (a lie) or that Mexican immigrants are all rapists (another lie). What matters is that he had the audacity to insist that the Iraq war was a mistake and that there never were any weapons of mass destruction. That was true but, more to the point, it was not acceptable to Republicans because George W. Bush was president at the time and he is regarded as the man who “made our country safe from terrorism” despite the fact that the Twin Towers were attacked during his presidency and all report indicate that he had been warned that an attack was immanent. The following slice from an interesting story on the internet spells out the essentials:

I won’t even hazard a guess as to whether this double-sided exchange helped or hurt Trump. Watching it on television you’d think Republicans watching hated everything he had to say. But the reality is that the in-studio audience was hand-picked by the state party, and seemingly stuffed with Bush supporters.

But if it did go badly for Trump what’s fascinating is that it went badly in exactly the kind of way you would have expected Trump’s campaign to go south months ago.

He went way outside the boundaries of the kind of things Republican Party politicians normally say, and in response Republican Party politicians (and their backers in the state party) piled-on to diss him. A political party, after all, is a coalition of like-minded people. When you step outside their zone of comfort and say things they wouldn’t say, they team up to crush you.

What’s important here is not that the Trumpet actually said something that happened to be true (which is remarkable in itself) but that the  Republican fraternity determined that these sorts of remarks are heresy, even blasphemy. You can say anything you want, no matter how absurd or untrue as long as you don’t bash one of us — in this case the Shrub who was supposedly in control when the Towers were attacked and later ordered the invasion of Iraq for bogus reasons. It really is about Party Loyalty and not about the Truth or about the Common Good.

And now that Judge Scalia has passed on the Republicans have clustered about and are determined to block any nomination that the president puts forward. Why? Not because he might suggest the wrong person for the job, but because he’s a Democrat and whoever he chooses is unacceptable a priori. This is called “poisoning the wells,” and it is an example of faulty logic, a logical fallacy in fact. But logic doesn’t matter to politicians these days any more than the truth matters. What matters is circling the wagons and making sure that those on your team are of one mind — even if that mind is closed and terribly small.

Small Victory

A recent Supreme Court decision seems to give those of us heart who want some sort of control on the sale of guns in this country, some restoration of sanity in what has become sheer madness. A Yahoo News story suggests that the Court realizes that the sale of such things as assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons was never any part of what the Founders had in mind:

Washington (AFP) – The US Supreme Court appeared on Monday to back lawmakers who want to restrict the type of guns such as semi-automatic assault weapons used in recent mass shootings.
In a 7-2 vote, the high court’s justices refused to take up a challenge to a Chicago suburb’s ban on the sale or possession of semi-automatic weapons or high-capacity magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

The court’s move is a small victory for activists against the spread of such guns, which can potentially kill many people in a short period of time.

Predictably, the two Justices who voted in opposition to the majority were conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. What is interesting to me is that Thomas claims to be a “strict constructionist,” one who  thinks the country needs to stick close to the intentions of the Founders. But, as I have said on these blogs repeatedly, a close reading of the second amendment to our Constitution states clearly that the “right” to bear arms is designed to guarantee the ability of a militia to defend the country against possible insurrection. The amendment doesn’t guarantee all of us the right to bear arms, only the militia. And since we no longer have a militia it would follow that the so-called right is no longer applicable. Further, the Court in years past has ruled out such things as machine guns and sawed-off shotguns on the grounds that these are not protected by the Second Amendment. So there is precedent.

One would expect that the Supreme Court is not subject to the threats and pressures the N.R.A. can bring against elected officials — by guaranteeing that those who are “uncooperative” have brief political lives. The justices are appointed for life and the original idea was that as such they would be above political infighting and cajolery. And in the past, the Court has shown that it can rise above political infighting; even the present Court has done so on occasion. Such is the case here, one would think. It is a small step. But when most of the steps we have been taking recently seem to be backwards, it is a sign of hope that there is a way forward.

Corporate Persons

In 1905 in his annual message to Congress, President Theodore Roosevelt declared:

“All contributions by corporations to any political committee for any political purpose should be forbidden by law; directors should not be permitted to use stockholders’ money for such purposes; and, moreover, a prohibition of this kind would be, as far as it went, an effective method of stopping the evils aimed at in corrupt practices acts.”

As retired Supreme Court Judge John Paul Stevens points out in his discussion of an amendment he has proposed to the U.S. Constitution that would curb excessive spending on political campaigns, the courts consistently maintained for years that corporations are not persons and therefore not entitled to the same rights as citizens of this nation. For one thing, corporations cannot vote, whereas citizens can. Conservative Justice William Rehnquist in 1982 wrote for the unanimous court in Federal Election Commission v. National Right to Work Committee, “there is no reason why Congress’ interest in preventing both actual corruption and the appearance of corruption of elected representatives may not be accomplished by treating. . . corporations differently from individuals.”

The change in the Court’s position came about indirectly, beginning in 1990 in a dissenting opinion written by Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy to Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce in which they contended that corporate speech, like other expressive activities by groups of persons, was entitled to the same First Amendment protection as speech by an individual. This opened the can of worms that has become the ugly Citizens United Supreme Court case that recently maintained, drawing on Scalia and Kennedy’s opinion above, that since corporations have the same free speech rights as individuals, they have the right to support political candidates without restrictions. As Stevens notes in this regard, “[Scalia’s arguments in 1990] provided the basis for the court’s five to four decision in Citizens United overruling  the Michigan case and apparently affording the same constitutional protection to election-related expenditures by corporations as to speech by individuals.” Sheer magic: political donations are a form of free speech and corporations are people even though they cannot vote and (so far as we know) they cannot copulate.

Needless to say, the Citizens United case stands in glaring opposition to the concerns raised in 1905 by President Roosevelt and upheld by the courts for 105 years thereafter. Roosevelt was expressing the obvious concern about the undue influence of wealth on elections that would tilt the playing field and render ineffective the attempts by the less wealthy to have any voice in politics whatever. As Stevens says, one of the many consequences of this imbalance is the “public’s perception of the role of money in influencing the outcome of elections. Voters who would believe that the power of the purse will determine the outcome of elections are more likely to become bystanders rather than participants in the political process.” Indeed. One need look no further for an explanation as to why citizens have become increasingly disenchanted with the political process and why several analysts have determined that America has become a de facto oligarchy and can be regarded as a democracy in name only.

Stevens does not suggest an amendment to deal directly with the issue of whether corporations are or are not persons — as is currently under discussion nation-wide — but rather an amendment that simply allows states and the Congress to set “reasonable limits” to campaign contributions without insisting that these limitations are in any way in conflict with the First Amendment: limits on campaign spending should not be considered limits on free speech. But whether this Court or this Congress could manage to work with a nebulous concept such as “reasonable limits” is questionable, so the issue remains how to put restraints on those with great wealth who would make the government dance to the tunes they play on their diamond-studded harmonicas. — especially since those who might place those restraints on the wealthy are busy dancing to their tunes.  As things now stand, the recent Supreme Court decisions have given the corporations and the 1% of this country who control the vast majority of the wealth virtual control of the political process. Corporations and the very wealthy can determine who runs and who gets elected — and what those people will do once elected.

In a masterpiece of understatement, Stevens concludes that “The decision in Citizens United took a giant step in the wrong direction.” Teddy Roosevelt would agree.