Tue, May

Grand Compromises in The Art of the Possible


GELFAND’S WORLD  - Back when the late Martin Bernheimer was the music critic for the L.A. Times, he used to do a year-end story that summarized the previous twelve months with a long string of adjectives.

I wish I could write like that, instead of just saying that it was an awful, wonderful, bizarre, fearful, traitorous yet patriotic, inventive, vitriolic year. But there we are. This has been a year that sometimes went by as if it didn't even happen because we have been in a sort of lockdown without a lockdown yet has also been unique when it comes to politics and government. 

Pundits like to use the word "polarization" to describe the current state of affairs, but I wonder if it is even that positive. A state of mutual hatred, a cold war within the states -- these seem like better descriptors to me. Mitch McConnell has been doing his best to throw a wrench in the gears of any and all Democratic Party maneuvering over the last three presidencies. We might use the word cynical to describe him, but hateful seems more accurate when you think about the damage to American democracy. 

Yet there is now a little bit of nibbling along the edges coming from a few Republicans who mainly seem to reject Donald Trump's Big Lie about the election. They are caught being members of a political party that claims to support those lies, but one by one they are coming out of the closet that represents adherence to the Big Lie. 

This week we have an extension of that movement from a conservative Republican who has been something of a thought leader on that side for quite a while. Jonah Goldberg (certainly not my favorite for a public intellectual) broke ranks just a few days ago with an essay you can read here. [https://gfile.thedispatch.com/p/donald-trumps-megaphone]The gist of Goldberg's piece is that there are quite a few Republicans -- and even people who comment for Fox News -- who don't accept the current Republican line, but repeat it anyway. As Goldberg and a couple of House members and an increasing number of Fox News reporters break ranks with the Big Steal lie, it may be possible to peel a few Republicans away from the Trump cult. And in so doing, it may be possible to work towards a return to centrism in the congress as compared to the total polarization of the moment. 

The question is whether a few compromises might be possible, which ones they might be, and how they could be accomplished. 

Grand Compromises we still might consider 

The right to vote is the rock bottom core of remaining a democracy. This includes not only the ability to register and to vote without encumbrances, it includes the right for your vote to count. The current core policy of the Trumpist Republican Party is to interfere with every one of those rights. The Democrats would have repaired the problem had they been able to get those last votes in the Senate, but as of now it is "close, but no cigar." 

Could there be a compromise on voting rights? It seems slim because disenfranchising large numbers of poor and black Americans works for the Republican side. Still, there is that tiniest possibility, so let's consider. 

Lots of Republicans seem to think that its the Democrats who have been stealing elections over the years. How about we put down the partisan bullhorn and simply agree that that certainly was the case in certain places and times? My history books talked about Tammany Hall and the big city machines, and how primaries worked in Minneapolis and how Lyndon Johnson pulled out an election victory in a Texas district way back when. The Democrats have not been as pure as the driven snow. But times have changed, not because people have become morally pure, but because the whole process of nominating and electing people has become part of a modern world which features technology and human scrutiny of a far higher level. One example you might consider: Hard core Republicans in Georgia -- the ones that would vote for a Marjorie Taylor Greene -- might include a few who wouldn't mind seeing a few illegitimate votes cast for everybody on the Republican side. Yet the fact that Biden and two Democratic Senate candidates managed to win in that state suggests that the system was pretty straight. 

So now we have a belief among Republicans and a movement coming out of that belief that the election was somehow stolen from Trump. Nobody has managed to present any iota of convincing evidence, but for the hard core, Trump's bleatings have been enough. 

So suppose Democrats and Republicans alike agree that we as a nation and as individual states and counties will invest the resources necessary to ensure that our election days are fair. We would have to find some way of ensuring that voter registration is honest, but that is the sort of compromise that seems possible. 

We can even increase the number of recounts in local districts on a statistically convincing basis. Let the vote count be open, aboveboard, and transparent all over this country. Make sure that observers get to observe without themselves interfering with the count. 

Democrats can offer the compromise that they will accept the requirement for photo IDs for live polls and can agree to additional safeguards regarding mail-in registration and voting. Back a few elections ago, the Republicans used to enjoy using mail-in voting (before Trump found that he was going to lose if everyone was allowed to vote) and they might drift back to that practice. 

So let's offer as part of the compromise that everyone will negotiate and work together to ensure clean, lawful votes. 

What should the Democrats get in return? 

This is the crux of the matter. Poor districts and Black districts would get to enjoy as many polling places and poll workers per capita as the rich, white districts. This would require the expenditure of additional funds, but so will all those actions intended to purify the registrations. 

So let's offer the grand compromise on voting integrity, which would include an extended set of negotiations, but let's include the proviso that never again should anyone have to wait in line for hours to engage in their right as an American citizen to cast a lawful ballot. 

Democrats and Independents should call Republicans' bluff here. If they really want fair and honest elections, then let them participate in a process that will make it so. And if they continue to push their attempts at disenfranchising voters by the tens and hundreds of thousands, then we must call them on it. But I am going to assume that there are a few Republicans who are getting fed up with all the nonsense and would be willing to be part of a national movement towards centrism. Whether a couple of Republican senators would show a little integrity and put a little distance between themselves and Mitch McConnell's conspiracy is a major question. It would be an extreme step, but as the January 6 hearings continue, it is going to be harder and harder to hold onto the Big Lie. 

A Compromise (?) to bring back American values 

The shocking fact that came out of 2021 is that something like one-fifth of all Americans -- and perhaps as many as one-third -- believe that the presidential election was stolen from them. At least they say this when pollsters ask them. They hold this belief on the basis of a thin thread of allegation and conjecture, and contrary to the massive weight of investigation, litigation, and honorable journalism. 

The twin conclusions we must draw are that (1) the American people are not all that different from the inhabitants of monarchies and incipient dictatorships in the first half of the twentieth century but (2) our institutions were marginally better at containing the anti-democratic fervor of the masses. 

The second point is itself imperfect: The strong majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives supported motions to undo the votes from a number of states who showed a majority for Biden. This was taking bad sportsmanship to a new historic level. The wanna-be dictator they were supporting took being a crybaby to a new historic level himself, but that is a topic for another day. 

There's another point that bears considering here. The current Republican strategy is to give state legislatures and Secretaries of State the power to overturn the voting totals and substitute their own nominees for members of the electoral college. The excuse for such policies is that some votes from some districts can't be trusted to be legitimate, but somehow one or two elected officials or the members of the state legislature can know better who the real winner is. 

This is a raw attempt at destroying democracy so that one minority party can regain its rule and do whatever it wishes. 

Technology and Climate: The Good News and the Bad News 

The other day, I heard a report from some congressional staffers. There is a House committee that deals with climate change, and it has pretty good support on the Democratic side. But on the other side, there are representatives who either don't believe that there is climate change going on, or if they do believe in it, they don't believe that it is caused by human action. Or so they say. And these twin claims give them an excuse to do nothing. 

As Kevin Drum has explained against and again, we need to invest in research at a big level in order to find an approach that works and is affordable. In the meanwhile, we have to continue to invest in electrification and in reduction of the use of carbon sources. 

It's a curious irony that the politically red states are bearing the brunt of the violent storms and droughts and wind damage and flooding from global warming. And these places have been getting the message that global warming doesn't exist or is minor or isn't of our doing for the past 30 years or so, going back to Rush Limbaugh. Are the inhabitants of the Midwest and the southeast eventually going to figure out (as the waters rise around them again and again) that they have been lied to since the early 1990s? We'll see, but it is already too late to prevent a lot of storm-driven damage that global warming is going to intensify. 

Or to put it more tersely, how many category 4 and 5 hurricanes hitting the Gulf coast and Florida will it take to get the message across? 

In this case, the grand compromise is to admit and agree that global warming is real and caused by humans burning fossil fuels, and that we need to negotiate ways to slow it down and ultimately to stop it. Most of us centrists agree with the conservatives that we are not looking for the socialist workers' paradise or even for an immediate cessation in burning gasoline in our cars. But the centrists at least understand that there is a problem. It's time that the right wing join us in that understanding, and that would be compromise enough for 2022. 

Addendum: Everything has already been written about Covid, but here's my current view 

It's weird writing about this end of year moment because we are suddenly finding ourselves in a time warp over a new Covid variant that is freaking out our governmental and public health leaders. But I think there is a big difference and people ought to be reassured by it. 

At the end of 2020 and into the beginning of 2021, the number of cases was rising rapidly and the 6 o'clock news featured the leadership telling us to stay home, wear a mask if you absolutely had to go out, and to wash your hands like you were Lady Macbeth. But the Covid virus was one damned spot that wouldn't wash out so easily. 

But I would argue that we are a lot better off than we were a year ago. Just look at the numbers on the evening news. Hospitalizations are way down and virus related deaths are way down. 

There is even one bit of news that you can find in graphical form right here. [https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/map-covid-19-vaccination-tracker-across-u-s-n1252085] When the vaccine started to become available almost exactly a year ago, it took a while to ramp up our ability to deliver it. Suddenly the television news was full of stories about people struggling to find an appointment. But each day's dose totals continued to climb right to the middle of April, where we reached an all time peak of more than 3 million shots delivered each day. 

But then the doses delivered started to fall, even though the capability to deliver 3 million doses remained. We were running into the problem of vaccine hesitancy. Without going into that debate once again, suffice it to say that the dose rate -- once as low as half a million during the July low point -- has been steadily rising and is now right around 2 million doses delivered each day. 

And we are now at the point where California has 65% of the population fully vaccinated and even more of us at least partially vaccinated. And the number of people who have gone beyond "fully vaccinated" to "boosted" is also going up each day. 

So here we are, hearing all the concern about omicron on this week's news, but the ICUs have space, the death toll has declined, and people are indeed going shopping and out to dinner and to the opera. 

Yes, there is the problem of the anti-vaxxers and the followers of right wing news outlets who still refuse to get their shots. Vaccine refusal has become, if nothing more, a continuing irritation. But when you look at the fraction of fire fighters and police who are still engaging in refusal, it's actually relatively low. 

The conclusion -- actually not new at all -- is that mandatory vaccination in pursuit of a grave public health need is something that mostly works. 

We can speculate that there is one more stimulus to those who were slow because they were uninvolved or a little concerned by all the anti-vaccine gossip. By now pretty much everyone has heard that almost all of the people dying from Covid-19 right now are the unvaccinated. Professors of mathematical logic might dispute the point, because it also matters that there is a significant number of the unvaccinated who get the disease at all. If only ten people got the disease every week but they all died from it, that would be a lot less serious than what we have been going through. But when a thousand people die each day and they are almost all unvaccinated, that fleshes out the argument. 

I would like to think that the final issue will come down to whether some regimen of vaccination is preventive of death from Covid-19. Even if we have to get a booster every 6 or 12 months, we can go back to normal life if that prevents serious illness. The question boils down to whether a lingering pool of active Covid running slowly through the unvaccinated can jump across the divide and kill people who have kept up on their inoculations. 

It's curious that this last point makes for a strong argument that an imperfect vaccine means that more people should get it. It's equally curious that the anti-vaccine folks can't seem to understand that point. 

Last Shot 

It's amusing that the lawsuits by Dominion against Fox and others are being allowed to proceed. One way to deal with high level libel is through the courts. We might say the same thing about the accumulation of Capitol rioters getting jail time. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])