Discover more from THE UPSTATE AMERICAN
A tug-of-war for democracy
Events of the past quarter-century have left America's democratic norms in shambles. There's only one solution.
How to win at tug-of-war: Pull steadily together, and never give up. (Photo by Anna Samoylova on Unsplash)
There’s something satisfying about tug-of-war. Probably it’s the simplicity of the challenge and the clarity of the outcome: Two teams pull in opposite directions on a rope, and the strongest team wins. Unlike other athletic contests, you don’t have to worry about odd rules (see MLB Rule 2.00, re. the infield fly) or lousy officiating (see 2023 women’s NCAA basketball championship) or cheating (see Lance Armstrong, Houston Astros, etc.).
If only American democracy was so neat. If all sides in a political contest respected the will of voters, and if votes translated into government action, we could call our democracy healthy. But that’s not the case just now.
If our democracy was working, we would have sensible, life-saving gun restrictions in place, every woman would have the right to choose an abortion and expressions of gender and sexuality outside the cisgender majority would be respected. If only.
Consider this: A poll last year found that 71 percent of American adults want stricter gun laws: 85 percent want background checks for any weapon purchase, 83 percent believe anybody convicted of domestic violence should be barred from owning a gun and 59 percent want to ban semiautomatic rifles, like the AR-15.1 Instead, the 145 mass shootings so far this year have yielded only mumbled condolences from most members of Congress, maybe paired with a suggestion to arm teachers, or lock down schools, or do something about mental health (as long as it doesn’t cost anything). The Republicans who stop gun control all but tell us in so many words that we’re just going to have to get accustomed to the slaughter of children in schools or of adults in churches, stores and banks. “We’re not going to fix it,” U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, a Tennessee Republican, blurted out with perhaps more candor than he intended after the AR-15 murders at a private school in Nashville last month.2
That’s not the only issue illustrating how majority rule has been hobbled in America. In a working democracy, male-dominated legislatures and courts wouldn’t be telling American women whether they could access an abortion. Six in 10 Americans say abortion should be legal in most or all cases. That matters not a whit to the U.S. senators who voted to confirm the U.S. Supreme Court justices whose Dobbs ruling last year struck down abortion rights, setting the stage for this new anti-majoritarian reality: Abortion is restricted or at risk of being prohibited in 26 states, and a single federal judge in Texas has imperiled the availability of the pill that is the most commonly used method for ending pregnancies.3
And there’s this: While you likely wouldn’t have predicted the emergence of drag shows as a flashpoint of political battle, men dressing up as women has become the latest right-wing diversion from serious lawmaking. Tennessee has now restricted drag shows, and Republican legislators in at least a dozen states are lining up similar legislation. That’s despite the fact that six in 10 Americans oppose the crackdown on drag shows.4
In a more rational time, politicians would recognize that ignoring the wishes of most citizens is both politically unwise and morally indefensible. But our political system has devolved to the point that there’s little penalty for anti-democratic behavior and plenty of reward for catering to extreme views.
Some of the blame belongs to the nation’s founders, whose handiwork in our Constitution reflected their uncertainty that that unbridled democracy would work. Plus, they had to contend with the political reality of shaping a federal system in 1789 that would draw support from the little states (Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware) that feared domination by the big states (Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York). So they created two notable undemocratic institutions that bedevil us today: the U.S. Senate and the electoral college.
The Senate, the founders figured, could be a bulwark against an unruly majority. By giving two senators to each state regardless of population, they stacked up clout in the less populous states. Here’s what that means in 2023: With Democrats now packed into bigger states, Republicans have more power than they would deserve if each citizen’s vote was actually equal. In fact, while the Republican party held the U.S. Senate between 1994 and 2006, and again from 2014 through 2020, Republican senators actually represented a majority of Americans during just one electoral cycle during those decades, in 1996-1997.5 Or, looked at another way, half of the 330 million Americans live in just nine states, meaning they have 18 U.S. senators, while the smaller half of the nation has the other 82 senators.6 Those smaller states are whiter and more conservative than the nation as a whole, which is why the Senate is usually a force resisting progressive change.
The problem of the electoral college is even more tragically apparent. Over the first 20 years of this century, the Republican presidential candidate won the popular vote only once (George W. Bush in 2004), but Republicans nevertheless held the White House for 12 years. So you can thank the electoral college for the debacle about abortion in America: If every vote counted equally, it would have been Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, appointing three Supreme Court justices. That’s not the only awful legacy of Trump’s undemocratic ascension to the presidency, but since the average age of the Trump justices is just over 54, it could be the most lasting.
Yet even with those institutional barriers to democracy, the United States functioned pretty well as a democracy for two centuries: elections were won and lost, and vociferous debates raged over all manner of topics, but the political parties and their leaders mostly performed with respect for the democratic norms of the nation. Citizens believed that their democracy was honorable. Even when corruption appeared, there was reason for pride: Richard Nixon’s forced resignation seemed to affirm that the nation’s democracy was resilient.
Then, over the course of a couple of decades, a series of events applied shocks to the system, even if some weren’t apparent at the time.
In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission abolished the Fairness Doctrine, which had for four decades required broadcasters to present issues of public importance and fairly reflect differing viewpoints. The next year, Rush Limbaugh debuted a talk show featuring an exaggerated hard-right take on the news and an entertaining nastiness,. It became wildly popular, giving rise to imitators not only in national syndication, but also in every local radio market.
With Limbaugh’s ardent advocacy, Republicans won the U.S. House in 1994 and installed Georgia’s Newt Gingrich as Speaker. Gingrich was unlike any of his predecessors: He regularized viciousness in political combat and aimed careless and often baseless claims of corruption at political foes. Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer wrote that Gingrich, more than any other politician, set the country “on a path toward an era of bitterly partisan and ruthless politics.”7
A year after Gingrich took the Speaker’s chair, Fox News Channel took the airwaves with a brazen goal: to present the news of the day with an overt bias that would please conservatives. It was a declaration clearly antithetical to the norms of journalism practiced in every good newsroom around the country. But it eventually became clear that Fox was neither a news channel nor a platform for advocacy journalism (as MSNBC is on the left): Its programming is often laced with lies and cynical manipulation of facts to curry favor with right-wing viewers, as the current trial involving Dominion Voting Systems has made clear. But Fox’s power to set the terms for debate in the country was proven by the election of Donald Trump, which the channel’s primetime hosts advocated fiercely.
Even the evil of Fox News might not have hobbled our democracy were it not for the monumental Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010. By nullifying the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, the 5-4 court majority freed corporations and other entities to spend unlimited money on electioneering. The effect was predicted in a dissent by Justice John Paul Stevens, who argued that the ruling amounted to “a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government.”8
In every election since then, the amount spent by special interests and corporations — allocated through independent expenditure committees, so-called “Super PACs” — has risen, and a greater share of it has gone to Republican candidates.
It is big money that fuels the gun lobby and the right-wing political machines that are pushing state-by-state restrictions on abortion and efforts to divide the nation into warring cultural camps with such issues as drag shows. It is big money that helped pave the way for Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Big money enables politicians to ignore a national consensus, such as that favoring gun control and abortion rights.
One more event undergirds the American democratic devolution: Donald Trump’s formula for drawing attention to himself. Trump’s political popularity has proven that the far-right voters who dominate Republican primaries have no aversion to coarse talk and reckless behavior, or to questioning democracy and insisting that if the other side wins, it must have cheated. Rather than any policy agenda, it is winning and pulverizing the opposition that the Trumpists see as the ultimate goal. Those forces are dominant in the Republican party today.
But it’s clear that voters were prepared for a Trump to emerge by their experience with talk radio, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and Fox News. Their champions were fueled by unrestrained big money.
The experience of the past quarter-century, and the outlook that results, could be depressing to someone who cares about the survival of democracy in America. But if you’ve ever watched or participated in a tug-of-war, you’ll know this: You can’t tell who’s going to win by the first tug. It can take a long time, and teamwork is key. There actually is strategy in tug-of-war, and it amounts to this: The win tends to go not to the team that yanks hard sporadically, but to the group that has everybody pulling together steadily, without hesitation or rest, until the other side is left sprawling on the ground.
That’s how to win at tug-of-war. It seems like the way to preserve democracy in America, too: a long, steady pull, with all the strength we can muster.
THE UPSTATE AMERICAN is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illumLinating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Casper, Wyo. (Casper Star-Tribune, trib.com)
Monroe, La. (Monroe News-Star, thenewsstar.com)
Salisbury, Md. (Salisbury Daily Times, delmarvanow.com)
Topeka, Kan. (Topeka Capital-Journal, cjonline.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section, and The Upstate American Midweek Extra Edition, which is sent to email boxes each Wednesday, are available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Trans athlete ban imperils school aid — but there’s an out
Wyoming legislators passed a ban on allowing transgender women and girls from competing in interscholastic athletics, which might seem to conflict with a rule proposed by the Biden administration to assure sports opportunity for trans kids. Under the proposed rule, schools that follow Wyoming’s ban would be seen as violating Title IX of the Civil Rights Act. But the legislator who wrote the Wyoming law tells Aedan Cannon of the Casper Star-Tribune that there’s a way the state’s schools can still keep access to the federal funds: The federal Department of Education rule would require schools to consider the eligibility of transgender athletes on a case-by-case basis — and the legislation imposing the sweeping Wyoming ban includes a clause setting up a commission for a case-by-case review if courts strike down the comprehensive state ban. If the federal rule goes into effect and schools didn’t comply, the federal government could pull funding, catching Wyoming schools between a state law that comprehensively bans transgender athletes and federal rules that require individual treatment of those students. Ironically, then, supporters of the Wyoming law may be quietly hoping for the success of a lawsuit filed against the ban by Wyoming Equality, the state’s largest LGBTQ+ advocacy group.
Legal cannabis is making Louisiana too high
At an emergency meeting of a legislative health committee, Louisiana officials confirmed that perhaps hundreds of products sold in legal cannabis shops in the state exceed the state’s allowable level of THC, the chemical that creates euphoria (and helps manage pain, stress and sleeplessness). Greg Hilburn reports in the Monroe News-Star that the state agency approving products for retail sale apparently failed to enforce the law’s limits — and that the high created by the THC products is “triggering confusion, lawsuits and new proposed legislation.” Hemp industry entrepreneurs have filed lawsuits to prevent the state from pulling back the approvals that have put products on their shelves.
Farmers get green light to expand composting
It took a decade to convince lawmakers to act, but a new bill passed by Maryland legislators makes it feasible for farmers to offer on-site composting facilities — part of a strategy to achieve a zero-waste future. Kristian Jaime reports in the Salisbury Daily Times that the bill would allow farmers to compost without a permit and to accept off-site material if they keep detailed records. It means that farmers will be able to get a better mix of materials, such as from off-site food scraps, which helps to create rich compost and thus reduce the use of expensive fertilizers.
Thousands of New Yorkers want to visit Topeka
Some officials in Topeka, the capital city of Kansas, apparently were offended by a casual remark of New York City Mayor Eric Adams on Feb. 28 — and the result, according to Tim Hrenchir of the Topeka Capital-Journal, is that residents of all five New York City boroughs are competing for a trip to the Midwest city. At an interfaith prayer breakfast in the city, Adams declared that God had decided to elevate “the most broken person” to the leadership of “the most powerful city on the globe.” Adams then added, “He could have made me the mayor of Topeka, Kansas.” Well. Visit Topeka and Kansas Tourism announced three days later that they would hold a drawing to give away a trip for four to Topeka for New York City residents. Hrenchir reports that 2,024 New Yorkers applied for the trip, and that a drawing will reveal the winner.
DOWNLOAD OR LISTEN NOW: MORE FROM THE UPSTATE AMERICAN
IF YOU’RE A READER who wants to hear more of Rex Smith’s views, check www.wamc.org for his weekly on-air commentary aired by Northeast Public Radio. Here’s a link to the latest essay. And if your interest is specific to American media, you can download the podcast of The Media Project, the 30-minute nationally-syndicated discussion that Rex leads each week on current issues in journalism.
What we’re learning from the Dominion lawsuit
Lawyers will make opening statements Monday in the lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News — a case that has revealed the depths Fox was willing to sink to hold the profits enjoyed by its boss, media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Even before the trial, Fox has been exposed — through the release of internal communications — as a cynical manipulator of its viewers’ emotions, eager to distort its news report to match the preconceptions of an audience that its hosts and executives feared might be slipping away. Rather than present the public with facts that reveal truth, which is the fundamental task of journalism, Fox set out to “respect” its viewers, in the words of one executive, meaning to comfort them as they wallowed in lies and misconceptions.
Sadly, Fox viewers probably know next to nothing about this, because the network isn’t giving its loyal viewers any reporting on its own transgressions. The Dominion case is legitimately big news, both because it’s the first high-profile libel case to go to a jury trial in many years, and because a verdict for Dominion may well lead to a resetting of libel law standards through an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the newsworthiness of a story isn’t what propels it to coverage on Fox; the standard is how a story affects the gut of the network’s mostly right-wing and aging viewers. Dominion v. Fox isn’t the gut punch that cowardly Fox wants to give its viewers.
Shortly after Fox hit the airwaves in 1996, I recall remarking on the public radio show I co-host, The Media Project (from Northeast Public Radio) that the channel was an abomination — and that journalism intentionally biased for one point of view or another surely couldn’t keep an audience, because its credibility soon would be ruined. I was only half right: Fox has succeeded wildly. But it is, indeed, abominable.
Even if a jury ultimately doesn’t side with Dominion, this case has succeeded in affirming what reputable journalists have long known: Fox isn’t a place for journalism at all. It’s an entertainment channel using the themes of politics and cultural division to attract an audience. Americans’ entertainment tastes change all the time, which is why The Beverly Hillbillies and The Ed Sullivan Show are no longer on the air. Let’s hope we similarly outgrow Tucker, Sean and Laura, and all their ilk.
Thanks again for reading The Upstate American, and for supporting my work exploring our common ground, this great land. And if you’d like to learn how to write opinion essays — for newspapers, audio or digital platforms — check out the class offered monthly by The Memoir Project by clicking below.