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A Debt Ceiling Holds Our Economy Hostage

If Congress doesn’t raise the ceiling, one of the political parties threatens to bring our economy to a halt. That is not a sensible way to run a government. That’s why only the US and Denmark have a debt ceiling set at an absolute amount rather than as a percentage of GDP like other developed countries.

Once the federal budget is not balanced and runs a deficit, the government must borrow more money, go deeper into debt to pay its bills, and not default on paying its loans. Although the U.S. has run a deficit in 77 out of the past 90 years, it has never defaulted on its debt payments because Congress raised the debt limit. However, that threshold may be crossed this year under pressure from the House Freedom Caucus, which demands a cut to the 2023 budget that Congress already approved.

Limiting debt or balancing the budget is not mentioned in the constitution. However, paying off a national debt and setting a debt limit began with the American Revolution.

The next big crisis was when the Civil War brought a tremendous 4,000 percent increase in debt. Then, finally, the First World War debts led to the first law to limit debt from federal bonds. 

Those initial concerns addressed a specific debt that arose from a specific need, such as fighting a war. However, since the Great Recession, Congress has passed laws that have grown to the point that now a debt ceiling applies to 95.5% of all federal debt. So how did we get here?

We can thank the Democrats for the debt ceiling law we have today, which was substantially established by Public Debt Acts in 1939 and 1940 when they controlled the Presidency and both houses of Congress. However, just having a debt ceiling has not been a problem in the past. Since 1960, Congress has raised the debt limit 49 times under Republican presidents and 29 times under Democratic presidents to avoid the US defaulting on its debt payments.

Congress raised the debt ceiling regularly until 1995 despite some party politics threatening to vote against a budget to fund the government. This stability was due to the parties adopting a parliamentary rule (named the “Gephardt Rule”)in 1979 that automatically raised the debt ceiling when Congress passed a budget.

However, a Republican-controlled House repealed the rule in 1995. Ironically, Republican Ronald Reagan benefitted from the Gephardt Rule by raising the debt ceiling 18 times in his eight-year administration in the 80s. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were the successive highest administrations with the number of raised ceilings, Bush at 11 and Clinton at 8.  

After the Gephardt Rule was repealed, Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling in 1995. They demanded President Bill Clinton cut budget programs in Education, Environment, and Health Care. Consequently, the government was shut down for a total of 26 days. 

The Republicans initiated a budget crisis in 2011 by refusing to raise the ceiling until President Obama cut his budget. They waited to approve it until two days before the Treasury borrowing authority would be exhausted. The government did not shut down, but the Dow Jones average fell 2,000 points. The threat alone raised federal borrowing costs by $1.3 billion in 2011, according to the nonpartisan Government Accounting Office (GAO). 

The Republicans rejected Obama’s budget by refusing to raise the debt ceiling in 2013. They would not raise it this time unless President Obama defunded the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Their opposition resulted in a 16-day shutdown until the day arrived when the Treasury estimated that their “extraordinary measures” would end. If the shutdown had continued, all government payments would have stopped, possibly including loan payments. 

Democrats have also used the debt limit to their advantage. Like the Republicans, the threat of not raising the limit is often waved around. For instance, Senator Joe Biden in 2006 joined other senators in opposing a ceiling increase to protest the cost of tax cuts and the Iraq war, but no shutdown resulted.

Democrat-initiated shutdowns occurred twice in 2018. In January, they refused to fund Trump’s budget, and the government had to shut down for three days. They objected to Trump’s DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) immigration policy which was tucked in the budget that would have subjected unregistered minors to deportation. 

In December 2018, Trump got his wish when he said in May 2017 that “our country needs a ‘good shutdown.” That month the Democrats prompted a government shutdown for 35 days, the most prolonged shutdown in history. It intended to stop Trump from funding a wall along our Mexican border.

Initially, both parties in the Senate unanimously passed an appropriations bill without funding a wall. However, outrage from right-wing media and Republicans got Trump to say he would not sign any appropriations bill that did not fund its construction. Ultimately, Trump declared a national emergency on the border with Mexico to access billions of dollars to build the wall.

A government shutdown is not just an inconvenience of closing national parks and laying off government employees; it damages the entire American economy. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated the December 2018 shutdown cost to be at least $11 billion. The current budget crisis, which began when the debt ceiling was hit on January 19, 2023, could be much worse. 

Until now, the US has never defaulted on any bonds. However, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has begun implementing “extraordinary measures” to keep the government open and from defaulting on loans. Deploying extraordinary measures to avoid defaulting is a well-worn path, with the Treasury using them at least seven times since 2011.

The current measures are expected to expire as early as the end of summer. Consequently, the country’s financial markets will be under stress for more than half a year before they go over the cliff. According to Yellen, “Once all available measures and cash on hand are fully exhausted, the United States of America would be unable to meet its obligations for the first time in our history.”

If that happens, she believes that, at a minimum, our debt rating will be downgraded, resulting in higher government and individual borrowing costs. In addition, failing to make payments to US bondholders will cut revenue to foreign countries, corporations worldwide, US IRA accounts, and personal holdings. Yellen says this action “would undoubtedly cause a recession in the US economy and could cause a global financial crisis.”

That crisis could permanently damage America because the dollar serves as a reserve currency that is used in transactions all over the world. In effect, the US is the world’s Savings Bank. And while we are the largest reserve fund in the world, our share has been shrinking. Our share of central banks reserves fell in 2020 to 59 percent, its lowest level in 25 years, according to the IMF.

Because most foreign central banks hold dollar-backed securities like U.S. Treasury bonds, the United States can borrow at lower interest rates than other countries. If we skip payments, our securities become less safe, pushing up the interest America must pay to borrow funds in the future. Increasing our interest costs results in a more significant portion of our federal budget for interest payments reducing revenue for domestic social services, structural investments, and employment. In addition, a prolonged government shutdown invites a recession and further budget deficits.

The past cycle of reckless brinkmanship will continue if the right-wing guides House Republicans over the next two budget cycles. However, history shows that both parties use the threat of not increasing the debt ceiling to advance their policy issues. Just exercising the threat creates massive problems in running a functioning government and guaranteeing safe and secure bonds to purchase. 

If the Republicans strongly threaten to allow the government to default on its debt obligations, they will lose voters. The Democrats must also be wary of how President Biden handles a shutdown. The party that refuses to abandon an unpopular policy, whether they control Congress or the Presidency, loses. Polls from the Republican-driven shutdowns in 2011 and 2013 show that over three-quarters of the population opposed a shutdown over accepting something less than perfect in the budget. 

But a President can also be blamed for a shutdown initiated by the opposition party in Congress. In the Democrat-initiated 2018 shutdown, 53% of Americans blamed Trump and Republicans for the shutdown, compared to 34% who blamed Democrats. That’s because the Republicans focused on a very unpopular issue, building a border wall. A CBS News poll found that 71% of Americans considered the border wall “not worth the shutdown.”

Unfortunately, each party has used the debt ceiling to gut a President’s budget of unacceptable policies. However, to execute that threat is to ignite the collapse of our capitalist financial system. This is a strategy for burning the house down, not building new ones.

If we want to stabilize our budget process and not endanger our economic security, we should adopt what most countries do. The government takes on more debt at the end of accepting the spending or appropriations process. Operationally the quickest and cleanest path for doing that is to resurrect the Gephardt Rule.

Otherwise, we will continue to see a decline in using America’s dollar as the world’s safest investment. That fall we will trigger greater borrowing costs, shrinking government revenue and eliminating construction projects and social services.

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Creating Chaos is not an accident but a strategy

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The Republicans’ chaotic process for selecting the House Speaker was the first open skirmish in the war to take down the establishment. Kevin McCarthy won the battle, but the fight for power to control the future of the Republican Party, as well as our current form of government, is far from over. 

McCarthy gained only a Pyrrhic victory. On Monday, January 9, the Republican rebels, as the liberal media have described them, secured a new set of rules. Democrat Representative Jamie Raskin says the right-wing created chaos is destroying Lincoln’s party. The rebels are out to overthrow the established leadership of both parties, accusing them of stifling House representatives from passing much-needed legislation.

Two questions need to be asked. First, who is promoting this chaos? And what do they want besides tearing down the House?  

Democrats have described McCarthy’s opponents as the far-right, Jake Tapper of CNN and other liberal media journalists describe them as rebels, and Republicans have labeled them everything from anarchists to freedom fighters. 

When you look closely at the composition of the core 20 Republicans, who fought against McCarthy becoming the House Speaker, they share one measurable status: they are all members of the House Freedom Caucus (FC), which is the reactionary faction of the Republican Party. I previously wrote about how The Far-Right Freedom Caucus will steer Congress’s agenda for the next two years.

The media has ignored that picking the new House Speaker and setting the new House rules has been orchestrated by the Freedom Caucus. Surprisingly, from both the left and right media, there is an absence of articles recognizing the Freedom Caucus’s leadership. The closest a journalist came to identifying them was by the Public Broadcasting System, Who are the House Republicans voting against Kevin McCarthy for speaker? The article identified three “Early Leaders” and three “Trump Allies,” saying most of McCarthy’s no votes were probably from members of the House Freedom Caucus. However, they cautioned that most of that caucus supported McCarthy.

I compared those voting against McCarthy to the list of acknowledged members of the Freedom Caucus. Every one of the 15 incumbents, in the group of 20 opponents to McCarthy, is a caucus member. Five of the fifteen were the most right-wing faction within FC, referring to themselves as the MAGA Squad, who believe that Trump won the election. 

Additionally, the caucus runs the House Freedom Fund, which endorsed and gave donations to all five newly elected House members who were part of the 20 No McCarthy group. Each new member ran and won against establishment Republicans in their primaries. 

Andy Ogles won by claiming that the GOP primary was a battle between the “establishment versus the conservative wing of the party.” Keith Self ousted an incumbent Republican representative who voted to certify the 2020 presidential election and for a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. 

Those caucus members who eventually switched to support McCarthy did so because he agreed to their new House rules. And those who initially supported McCarthy from the caucus made side deals with McCarthy to obtain positions of power. The prime examples are former Jim Jordan, the founding Chair of FC, who was promised to head the Judiciary Committee, and Marjorie Taylor Green, who was promised a seat on the Rules Committee. They didn’t leave the Freedom Caucus; they became caucus implants on two of the most powerful House Committees. 

Now that the Freedom Caucus has set the new rules for the House, how will the Republicans use them?

The person who knows first-hand is former House Speaker John Boehner, who the Freedom Caucus pushed out in 2015. Boehner gained the speakership and held that position in 2011 thanks to the Tea Party, the forerunner of the Freedom Caucus. However, when the Freedom Caucus was formed from many of its veterans, Tea Party was functionally dead, and by 2018, nearly half had left the House .

As the House Speaker, Boehner described Tea Party members as “great patriots,” “It’s not enough, however, for Republicans to simply voice respect for what the Tea Partiers are doing, (and) praise their efforts,” he said. He added, “Republicans must stand with them.” After being dismissed by the Freedom Caucus, he described them as “anarchists. They want total chaos. Tear it all down and start over.”

His successor, Paul Ryan, served as House Speaker from 2015 to 2019. He was the Freedom Caucus’ compromise candidate but spent four years trying to get legislation passed over their objections. Finally, after he failed to get a Republican bill replacing Obama’s Affordable Care Act due to the caucus’s opposition, realizing that he could no longer be Speaker, he resigned from Congress. 

Kevin McCarthy’s future will replay Boehner and Ryan’s experience. Like them, he has continually adjusted his traditional conservative principles to align with the most far-right Republican base. Most importantly, McCarthy agreed to an arrangement that Boehner and Ryan rejected.  He has apparently agreed to the anti-establishment caucus strategy of blocking legislation and disrupting government protocols that do not conform to their ideology. 

McCarthy shares many of the same values as the Freedom Caucus; however, he comes out of a tradition of respecting institutions that they do not. Chaos was not the unintended fallout of electing McCarthy as Speaker. It was intended to hold McCarthy, hostage until he agreed to accept their agenda and strategies. They released him after he adopted their House rules. 

The Freedom Caucus leaders are not stupid. They are clever. They promoted some rule changes that had been sought for years by many representatives who felt ignored, if not suppressed, by the leadership of both parties. Caucus member Chip Roy said the House floor is nearly empty for most debates, and members haven’t been able to offer amendments there for years.

One progressive improvement was to adhere to the requirement that the Democrats had introduced years ago. It said there had to be 72 hours available for members to read legislation before House members must vote on it. This is a mild change since past critical legislation took about this time.  

Republicans attack Democrats for not giving them enough time to read the 4,000 pages of the Democrat’s recent $1.7-trillion fiscal 2023 omnibus spending package. However, that legislation had a tight deadline to keep the government operating or could not pay its bills. Republicans and Democrats had been negotiating to agree on what would be in the bill since September. 

Republicans have also rushed bills through Congress. In December 2017, the Republican 1,100-page tax-reform measure was distributed on Friday evening to the House, and the vote was the following Tuesday. Passing it was not critical to the government funding itself. 

But the new 72-hour rule comes without any enforcement mechanism. So will the Republicans apply it to all legislation?

Another change was secured by a verbal promise, not a written rule. It would allow amendments to be considered on the floor. This change could be interpreted as a return to the “open rule,” allowing any lawmaker to offer an amendment to be voted upon by the entire chamber. Under Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in the 1990s, more than half the bills reached the House floor through the open rule. It ended in 2016 when Ryan dropped it, trying to hamper right-wing members from sabotaging his legislation. 

When the Democrats won the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not resurrect the open rule, realizing she needed it to maintain discipline within her party. Consequently, no legislation has been introduced on the floor through that rule in the last seven years.

A far more critical change is not in the written rules but by installing a block of Freedom Caucus members on the Rules Committee. From that perch, they should be able to veto any legislation from reaching a vote on the House floor. Generally, no amendments are allowed on most bills once out of committee, and the only amendments that can be put to a vote must be pre-approved by the Rules Committee. In other words, all House legislation brought to a floor vote could be subject to the caucus’s approval or face possible defeat.

Michael Steele, former Republican National Committee chair, described the goals of the Freedom Caucus approach to MSNBC, “It’s not about good govt or draining the swamp, it’s about deconstructing the administrative state.” The liberal NYT reflected that belief in their front-page news analysis, saying, “Their agenda is mostly to defund, disrupt and dismantle government, not to participate in it.”

The Freedom Caucus touts freedom and democracy. Freedom is a marketplace economy free of most government restraints. Democracy is for citizens who abide by the laws framed by dominant Christian cultural values. A liberal state that restricts or punishes investments and tolerates deviant social behavior should be disrupted by a little chaos to dismantle it by shrinking its revenue to the level that it cannot continue those activities. 

The first piece of House Republican legislation that the Freedom Caucus insisted that Speaker McCarthy pass was to deprive revenue to the government by dismantling the IRS. The Democrat-led government hired IRS employees who could check the taxes of the wealthiest top 1 percent of individuals and companies. 

The Treasury Department’s 1921 notice said the “tax gap”—the difference between taxes owed and collected—totals around $600 billion annually and will mean approximately $7 trillion in lost tax revenue over the next decade. Charles Rettig, the Internal Revenue Service commissioner, said, most of the unpaid taxes are the result of evasion by the wealthy and large corporations. 

This gap in collecting taxes would certainly contribute to our federal budget deficit?  Tax revenue is not flowing into public services but accumulating as private wealth. The Center for American Progress reported that the most recent Federal Reserve Board figures on U.S. inequality released this past March put the top 1 percent’s share of American personal wealth at 32 percent, expanding from 23 percent in 1989. 

This type of bill is just the beginning of the waterfall of bills that the right-wing of the Republicans will push in the next two years. If McCarthy attempts to pass bi-partisan legislation without Freedom Caucus approval, he’ll be shown the exit door. That’s because he consented to allow a single member to make a “motion to vacate the chair,” i.e., a vote that could oust him as Speaker.

Consequently, the House’s bills will find a graveyard in the Senate, and the nation will be treated to a Congressional stalemate. The bright side for the Democrats and traditional conservative Republicans is that the Republican reactionary faction will be visibly responsible for getting nothing done. They will also severely damage the Republican Party’s chance for electoral victories in 2024, but those defeats may embolden conservatives to save their party from the sway of this faction. 

The biggest looming legislative battle will be the right-wing Republicans holding their party to a no-compromise position on raising the nation’s statutory debt limit. They are demanding extraordinary budget cuts affecting every program but the military. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen warned on Friday that if the borrowing cap is not raised the nation will likely default by early June.

In response to this challenge and similar ones, Democrats need to do more than stir up anger from their constituency base. Instead, they must reach beyond their core constituencies to expose how the ideologically driven Republican legislation limits social freedoms for all Americans. And on the economic level, how it harms all those on incomes primarily limited to their jobs and not investments. 

Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.

Subscribe to Licata’s free newsletter Citizenship Politics

President Biden can and must Resolve America’s Immigration Crisis

President Biden is the only person in government who can break Congress’s record of failure. 

No pundit can predict what heated issue will dominate the presidential and congressional elections in 2024. However, aside from the Supreme Court making a historic decision to eradicate another established freedom, like marrying who you wish, regardless of gender or race, migration will remain a national issue.

Public opinion polls have consistently ranked controlling immigration as a significant concern for Americans. For example, a Gallup opinion poll taken in July 2022 showed that 38% of Americans wanted a decrease in immigration, the highest percentage since July 2016, when Donald Trump was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate.

But that concern is concentrated among the Republicans. A Pew Research poll showed that “around three-quarters of Republican voters say immigration (76%) is very important to their vote.” For Democratic backers, it was only 36%. 

Independent voters, who played a critical role in Joe Biden becoming president, could tip the scales to either party on this issue. They clearly see Democrats and Republicans having opposite positions on migration. The non-partisan company Morning Consult surveyed registered independent voters in July 2018. It found that independents deem Democrats more supportive of immigrants coming into the country by a 62-point margin than the Republicans. In effect, they see Democrats as owning the migration flow into America. 

If the Republicans continue attacking Democrats for having an open, unsecured border, more independents could support Republicans. That’s because 52 percent of independent voters singled out border security as their most crucial voting topic. The survey also discovered that when it comes to national security issues, independents heavily favor Republicans over Democrats, 45 percent to 22 percent.

Another constituency that Republicans have been trying to sway away from the Democrats is the Latinos. By hammering on the need for border security, Mike Madrid told NPR News that the Republicans are gaining Latino votes in communities along the southern border. 

In the two border swing states of Arizona and Nevada, Latino voters make up 24% and 20% of their state’s eligible share of voters. Across the nation, 66% of them chose Biden.  In Arizona, it was a little less, at 63%. Their Nevada turnout was 70%, although it was significantly lower than Hillary Clinton’s 81% in 2016. These are slight shifts toward the Republican party. Even a couple of percentage points lower from Latino voters could tip these states to a Republican presidential candidate in 2024. 

In 2024 the political game will again see the two parties repeating their past themes. One plays on fear, and the other on hope.

Republicans are for stopping the growing flow of asylum seekers and restricting the number of all immigrants. They tag those crossing from Mexico as potential criminals or drug dealers. According to America’s Voice, a pro-immigration advocacy group, more than 400 political ads tying illegal immigration to drugs were run in the 2022 election cycle. Often, they connect fatal overdoses of fentanyl and methamphetamines to a spike in migration at the southwestern border.

Republican strategist Madrid believes that the immigration border policy war between the two parties will continue until significant migration policy reform is achieved. However, the Republicans “want the issue to remain because it serves them politically. It appeals to their base.” Their use of visuals like caravans of immigrants trekking across Central America to pile up at our border is used as theater on TV to illustrate the border crises. Madrid sees this approach as wanting to “force the Democrats to increase border security which is unlikely without a comprehensive deal.”

Meanwhile, Republican potential presidential candidates, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, are pursuing theatrics instead of bipartisan solutions. They bus immigrants to Democratic strongholds like NYC and Wash DC., including Vice President Kamala Harris’s home. Those performances keep their names in the national headlines and in the minds of Republican primary voters as doing anything.  

Democrats highlight the human suffering that drives immigrants into our country, not the need for greater security. They appeal to our nation’s tradition of being a safe sanctuary for those seeking a better life. Nevertheless, the Democrats reluctantly recognize that the huge increase of immigrants seeking asylum is overwhelming our southern border staff for validating asylum requests and providing humane shelter facilities. 

Consequently, Biden administration officials have asked Congress for more than $3 billion to process the backlog of asylum claims and to move migrants off the streets or from packed warehouses into livable facilities. However, he will not get those funds from a Republican-controlled House unless he supports higher security measures that drastically reduce the number of immigrants. 

Biden is trying to show that he supports more security on the border. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre announced that the president had “23,000 agents working to secure the southern border.” That was an increase from just under 17,000 agents in 2022. 

However, that is not good enough for conservative Republicans who have suggested that the military secure our southern border with Mexico. However, even when President Trump ordered 800 Army troops to do that, a good portion included engineers to help construct tents and fencing and doctors for medical support. 

Governor Abbott deployed more than 500 National Guard troops along the Rio Grande in El Paso, blocking migrants with spools of concertina wire. But those troops did not stop migrants from entering the county. It was basically an exercise in “just redirecting the migrants to the only legal port of entry” as Maj. Sean Storrud, Task Force West Commander for the Texas National Guard, explained. 

The problem of securing the border is not simply deploying armed soldiers. It’s a much deeper and more complicated problem that the Republicans and Democrats must work to resolve. Both parties have spoken about the need for immigration reform as a long-term solution. But their solutions, to date, have been almost mutually exclusive. 

Republicans have only proposed increasing security measures, like completing the wall or hiring more border patrols. The Democrats will oppose those measures unless they are coupled with providing a fair system for vetting the needs of immigrants seeking asylum. Thus, the stage is set for nothing to pass Congress in the next two years.  

Gridlock on migration policy is the failure to even vote on major bi-partisan legislation. Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas), Thom Tillis (R – NC), Kyrsten Sinema (D – AZ) of Arizona, and Maggie Hassan (D – NH) introduced the Bipartisan Border Solutions Act in 2021. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) introduced a companion bill in the House.

The National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy non-profit group, analyzed the bill, characterizing it as a “positive step” that “furthers the conversation around much-needed reforms.” Democrat Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick also supported the bill’s framework, but the bill never got to a floor vote in 2021. 

In 2022, the bill was in play again, outlining an immigration proposal providing a path to legalization for 2 million undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, known as “dreamers.” In addition, the proposal, to garner Republican support, would provide at least $25 billion in increased funding for the Border Patrol and border security. And it would also extend Title 42 for at least a year. 

The more liberal and conservative wings in both parties killed it. The ACLU director of border strategies said that the billincluded “some positive provisions” but was “a step in the wrong direction.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who co-authored the 2021 immigration bill, said he “doesn’t think there’s any way we can pass immigration legislation without addressing the crisis at the border.” President Biden had publicly ignored the bill and kept his distance from influencing the meager negotiations to build support for its passage 

Another bi-partisan immigration bill was shelved and never came to a vote in 2022. Democrat Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the sponsor of the Eagle Act, wrote to Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressing “great disappointment” that her legislation to revise green card caps was yanked from consideration on the House floor despite having been debated there. An earlier version passed both houses in 2019, but the chambers couldn’t resolve their different versions before the year ended. As a result, this year, fewer Republicans supported it, and there was a drop off in support from some Democrats and immigrant advocates. However, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, blamed opposition to the legislation on a “misunderstanding that somehow this is negative for certain communities.”

Given the failures to have even a floor vote for bi-partisan bills these last two years, it is doubtful that if it were just left for Congress to lead, no bipartisan bill would pass before the presidential 2024 election. Remember that Congress has remained gridlocked on immigration policy going back to 2001 when the first bill to legalize Dreamers was introduced. Since then, bipartisan efforts to change U.S. immigration laws have failed in 2018, 2013, and 2007. 

President Biden is the only person in government who can break that record of failure. But it would take more than negotiating skills. It demands the ability to hammer together sixty votes in the Senate forcibly and a majority of votes in the Republican-controlled House. Moreover, that effort would require him to appeal to the public. 

Multiple grassroots organizations could support him in a robust and vigorous campaign to push for an imperfect but doable solution. One that would visibly mitigate the immigration calamity that is only growing, not receding.

Suppose Biden fails to pressure Congress to pass a bi-partisan immigration policy. In that case, there will likely be a reactionary movement drawn to a “strong man” (or woman) presidential candidate in 2024 who will promise to stop the “flood” of immigrants crossing our southern border. And if that happens, more will be at risk than losing the presidency. 

Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.

Subscribe to Licata’s free newsletterCitizenship Politics

SCOTUS could let state legislatures decide presidential election counts

Republicans are arguing about resurrecting an Independent State Legislature Theory (ISLT) derived from language within the dysfunctional Articles of Confederation Constitution. This is the Constitution that stopped the colonies from forming a functional central government until our current Constitution replaced it. 

Harvard University law professor Noah Feldman labels this theory as a “hyper-literal interpretation” of Article I, section 4 of the U.S. Constitution: “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.” North Carolina Republican State Legislators initiated the Moore v. Harper case before the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) to argue that a state legislature can violate its state’s Constitution in congressional elections. 

If SCOTUS were to uphold ISLT, a state legislature could overturn any federal election’s popular vote if they believed it was critically unfair. They could ignore their state’s supreme court order to adhere to the recorded vote. In a close electoral count, Feldman points out that “a rogue state legislature could determine the outcome of a presidential election” by reassigning electors to the losing presidential candidate.

In the Florida State University Law Review, Hayward H. Smith detailed how some Justices constructed ISLT from Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, which says state legislatures direct the manner of appointing presidential electors under Article II, Section 1.

He argues that using a textualist interpretation, “the founding fathers’ original understanding of Article II did not identify independent powers to state legislatures. Ironically the lead promoter of ISLT is Justice Clarence Thomas, who embraces a textual interpretation of the Constitution. Smith’s paper shows that textualism reveals strong indications that the founding generation conceived Article II legislatures in the normal sense “as creatures born of, and constrained by, their state constitutions.”

 I’ve previously explained how this obscure theory was floated as a strategy to overturn Biden’s 2020 presidential election. However, because SCOTUS has never rejected the theory, it appeared earlier in the two 2000 Bush vs. Gore cases that resulted in sanctioning Bush’s total vote without a recount.

Of which Justice Thomas is the only one remaining on the bench, three justices opined that state legislatures “must remain free from incorrect state court statutory interpretations.” Consequently, SCOTUS rejected the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling for recounting the votes in certain counties to arrive at an accurate outcome of the 2000 presidential election. And the votes went to Bush, not Gore, allowing George W. Bush to become president. 

In the Moore v. Harper case, Thomas will try to get the SCOTUS to adopt his prior opinion from the Bush case. He wrote that state legislatures, in directing the appointment “of presidential electors under Article II, Section 1, they must remain free from state constitutional limitations.”

Other than refuting the Independent State Legislature theory, which will not happen with the reactionary justices in the majority, the court will most likely rule on two critical conditions that limit a legislature’s ability to wield ISLT. 

The first is whether Governors are included in the definition of “legislature.” If they are, a Governor could stop the transfer of electoral votes to the losing candidates, assuming the legislature does not overrule their veto. The second critical feature is that a state legislature’s decisions are subject to their state’s interpretation as being legal. Suppose SCOTUS decides, in the Moore v. Harper case, that legislatures can ignore their supreme court’s decisions. In that case, legislatures dominated by one party could overturn the popular vote to allow their losing presidential candidate to receive the electoral votes. 

Moving from legal theory to practical politics, a comparative assessment of the eight swing states with the closest presidential races in 2020 shows what the impact of a SCOTUS decision would be if they eliminate either of the above conditions.

 Table showing how ISLT could influence the presidential election results in the Swing States where Biden has less than a 3 percent margin. 

  1. State
  2. Electoral Votes for 2024
  3. The margin of Democratic Pres Vote in 2020
  4. Trump’s legal team Challenged the Election Results 
  5. Governor – R or D
  6. Does the legislature have the votes to override a Governor’s veto
  7. Does one party have the majority in both state chambers
  8. Are the Supreme Court Justices elected Y P -= Partisan; Y NP = Non-Partisan; N – GC – Not Elected but Governor Controlled
12345678
Arizona110.3%YESD – Katie HobbsNO YES – RN – GC
Florida30-3.4%NOR – Ron DeSantisYESYES – RN – GC
Georgia160.2%YESR – Brian KempNO YES – RY NP
Michigan152.8%YESD – Gretchen WhitmerNOYES – RY P
Nevada52.4%YESR – Joe Lombardo NOYES – DY NP
North Carolina16-1.3%NOD – Roy CooperNO YES – RY P
Pennsylvania191.2%YESD – Josh ShapiroNONO Y P
Wisconsin100.6%YESD – Tony EversNO YES – RY NP

There are several takeaways from this table. What is initially apparent is that only in the six states where Biden won were the results considered invalid by former president Donald Trump who lost those states. These are the most likely states which will have close elections again in 2024. 

In four of these six states, Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, the Republicans control both state chambers, and the governor is a Democrat. Suppose SCOTUS decided that a Governor could not stop the legislature from determining who should receive the electoral votes. In that case, the ISLT could transfer the state’s electoral votes to the candidate who lost the popular vote.  

It is most likely that SCOTUS’s main decision is whether state legislatures can ignore their supreme court’s ruling to stop any transfer of elector votes. It is possible that SCOTUS could decide in favor of a robust ISLT and deny a supreme court’s authority to intervene. In a close national presidential electoral vote count, having just one state switch its electoral votes could alter who becomes president when Congress confirms which candidate becomes president. It would be legal, and there would be no need to have a mob attack the Capital. 

There is one last scenario that, at first glance, may appear to be a victory for the Democrats. However, it would leave the door open to the ISLT being used. The more “liberal” justices could succeed in preserving a state supreme court’s power to stop their state legislature from negating the results of a popular vote. Nevertheless, if the state supreme court concurs with the state legislature, the ISLT would be in effect. 

Relying on a non-partisan state supreme court ruling is not a sure thing. In Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, the justices are voted into office through partisan elections. Just as important, even in non-partisan elections, which Georgia and Wisconsin have, independent expenditure committees, from either the left or right, can greatly influence the vote. The conservatives have significantly outspent and out-organized liberals in having their candidates win judicial seats at the state level. Consequently, judicial elections in these five states during the next two years will see immense outside-state contributions flowing into those states.    

A system representing the people’s will within each state only occurs when an election is conducted fairly and certified as such, which is what happened in 2020. However, a very partisan legislature could reject a fair and certified election if SCOTUS approves the ILST.

The only way to prevent legislatures from using the ILST to overturn elections is for citizen activists to be involved in their state judicial races. They must question the candidates on where they stand on the ISLT. Any waffling from a candidate would be a sign that they could support transferring the results of a popular vote to the loser due to an unsubstantiated accusation that the vote count was corrupt. 

Citizens must demand that any move to disqualify election results must be backed with verifiable data, not imaginable villains who are interfering. Unfortunately, that approach has been used in this past November’s election by a few Republican politicians who have borrowed a page from former president Donald Trump’s playbook. 

The Supreme Court, in deciding the Moore v. Harper case, must not feed into a zeitgeist of conspiracy theories. If they embolden ISLT, they will perpetuate a theory that serves only to disrupt the institutional norms that sustain a democracy. 

Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.

Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Citizenship Politics

The 2022 Senate elections exposed the MAGA movement’s weakness

Their performance foreshadows the 2024 elections.

Dr. Mehmet Oz at Service Nation Summit (photo: Jim Gillooly/PEI/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

Two core beliefs define the MAGA movement. The first and most prominent is loyalty to the founder of the MAGA movement, Former President Donald Trump. They are the bedrock loyalists promoting the big lie that he won the 2020 presidential election due to his victory being stolen. 

In the House of Representatives, his most adherent loyalists are the self-proclaimed MAGA Squad in the Republican Freedom Caucus. The Washington Post described them as the “Trump loyalists within the Freedom Caucus known as the ‘MAGA Squad,’ including Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Madison CawthornLouie GohmertMo BrooksAndy BiggsScott Perry, and  Lauren Boebert.”

The emphasis on personal loyalty to any US President skids off a democratic government’s rails. Allegiance to a leader is the core belief that has sustained authoritarian rule in other countries. I’ve noted before that Trump Disrupts the Distinction Between Personal Loyalty & Constitutional Allegiance.

As Trump runs for President and other Republican presidential candidates emerge, that loyalty may be tested against adherence to the second major characteristic of the MAGA movement: embracing a reactionary vision for America

Trump, like other prominent reactionary politicians before him, promoted such a vision. However, he has been the most successful since WWII, and conservatives admire his achievement. Nevertheless, many Trump supporters share his affinity for engaging in transactional politics, such as watching the bottom line between the costs and benefits of supporting someone. 

If Trump makes his 2024 presidential race too much about his grievances and not enough about pursuing a reactionary utopia, others, like Florida Governor Ron Santis, are preparing to lead the MAGA movement as the Republican presidential candidate.

Trump’s endorsements kept the Senate in Democratic control

Assuming that a Trump endorsement is the most visible, if not the most important, measurement of a MAGA candidate, we should look at who he endorsed in the 2022 Senate and House races. But just counting the number of Trump endorsements is not a measure of the strength or breadth of the movement. 

Trump made 495 endorsements for the primary and general elections, but most were for candidates who were safe bets to win. However, Trump did endorse some candidates who challenged non-loyal Trump Republicans and incumbent Democrats. 

I used the Cook Political Report to divide states into three significant categories: Toss-up States, Solid and leaning Democratic States, and Solid and Leaning Republican States. Then, according to Ballotpedia, each state shows by what percentage spread they voted for Trump or Biden. The results show that if the establishment Republicans had blocked Trump’s candidates from the general election, they might have gained control of the Senate.

Contested Toss-Up States

Trump endorsed candidates lost in these four high profiles contested Toss-up States. Their independent-oriented voters are like weathervanes pointing to where they swung this November and where they may swing in 2024. Of the four states, only Nevada’s senate incumbent fell below Biden’s win percentage, possibly due to her high unpopularity.

Arizona – Pres 2020 D +0.3%  –  Sen 2022 D + 4.9%

Blake Masters LOST the general election challenging incumbent Sen Mark Kelly, a former Republican and considered a moderate Democrat.

Georgia – Pres 2020 D + 0.2%    –  Sen 2022 D +2.8%

Herschel Walker LOST the general election challenging incumbent Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, who filled a seat two years ago previously occupied by a Republican. 

Nevada – Pres 2020 D + 2.4%   –  Sen 2022 D + 0.9%

Adam Laxalt LOST the general election challenging incumbent Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto. Laxalt called the 2020 presidential election rigged and, as state attorney general, filed a lawsuit against the Republican Secretary of State challenging the state’s list of registered voters.

Pennsylvania – D 1.2%   –  Sen 2022 D + 40.0%

Mehmet Oz LOST the general election for an open seat against Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. Oz beat other Republicans in the primary who were not sufficiently loyal to Trump. A Republican previously held the seat.

Solid or Leaning Republican States

In these states, Trump’s candidates beat out establishment-supported Republicans in the primaries and went on to win the general election, except for failing to unseat incumbent Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski who defeated Trump’s Republican challenger to her. 

Alaska – Pres 2020 R +10.0%   –  Sen 2022 (Anti-Trump) R + 7.4%

Kelly Tshibaka LOST the general election challenging incumbent Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski. Trump publicly condemned Murkowski as one of seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump over the January 6 Capitol riot.

Missouri – Pres 2020 R +10.0%    –  Sen 2022 R + 13.4%

Eric Schmitt WON the general election for an open seat defeating Democrat candidate Trudy Busch Valentine after he won a crowded Republican primary. A Republican previously held the seat.

Ohio – Pres 2020 R + 8.1%   –  Sen 2022 R + 6.6%

J.D. Vance WON the general election for an open seat beating Democratic US Representative Tim Ryan. Vance won the Republican primary without solid support from the Republican establishment; after the primary, they heavily contributed to his campaign.

Wisconsin – Pres 2020 D +0.7%  –  Sen 2022 R + 1.0%

Ron Johnson WON the general election to retain his seat in the Senate against Democratic Mandela Barnes, who would have been Wisconsin’s first Black senator. Johnson objected to counting the Electoral College votes from Arizona, which would have delayed or stopped Biden from being certified as winning the presidency. 

Solid and leaning Democratic States

In states that went for Biden in 2020, Trump pushed candidates into the primaries that Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel considered to lack quality. By August, McConnel saw that Trump’s selection of candidates had hindered his plans to win back the Senate and said they might fail. However, in two of these states, the Democratic candidate outperformed Biden’s percentage win. And in the one that didn’t, the candidate did significantly better than expected. 

Connecticut – Pres 2020 D + 20.0% –   Sen 2022 D + 15.0%

Leora Levy LOST the general election challenging incumbent Democratic Senator Dick Blumenthal who began the race with polling approval below 50%.

Vermont – Pres 2020 D + D 35.0%.  –   Sen 2022 D + 40.4%

Gerald Malloy LOST the general election for an open seat against a Democrat, US Rep. Peter Welch. Malloy, early in his campaign, said he voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 and “wished” he had attended the Washington, DC,] January 6, 2021 “Stop the Steal” rally. A Democrat previously held the seat.

New Hampshire – Pres 2020 D + D + 7.3%    Sen 2022 D + 9.2%

Don Bolduc LOST the general election challenging the incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan after he won the Republican primary against seven contenders. He entered the general election race with a two-point lead but lost the election by nine points. Initially, he was a strong election denier but walked that back as Hassan closed the gap. 

The bottom line of this review is that only three of the eleven Trump candidates running in contested races won the general election. They lost all the toss-up and Democratic-dominated states. His candidates only won in the Republican-dominated states. His endorsed candidate lost in Alaska, and the Republican general election winner was an avowed Trump critic.

Independent voters most likely decided the election results in these races. According to Mitch McConnell, that was the “problem” in losing the Senate. Reuters reported him saying that the independents and moderate Republicans “looked at us and concluded: too much chaos, too much negativity. And we turned off a lot of these centrist voters.”

There’s a lesson here both for the Republicans and the Democrats. The Republican Party will have to decide if Trump is the solution or a hindrance to the Republicans winning the presidency and congress in 2024. His grip on the party apparatus remains strong, particularly since his supporters are now running to control the RNC (Republican National Committee). 

The Democrats do not face the same problem as Biden. He’s not toxic to members of his party, like Trump. But he has other shortcomings that the Democrats will need to assess. Trump’s endorsed Senate candidates losing within Republican-leaning Republican states suggests that Democrats need to retain independent voters in 2024.

Democrats cannot assume that independents are now liberals. Instead, polling shows that they prefer orderly change, which the far-right Republicans did not provide. The challenge for Democrats to win in 2024 is to approach independent voters by advancing orderly change that adheres to liberal values.

Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.

Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Citizenship Politics

The Far-Right Freedom Caucus will steer Congress’s agenda for the next two years

The Red Wave was a ripple; nevertheless, reactionary Republicans will be crashing down on Congress’s House. 

Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy is bargaining his way into becoming the next Speaker of the House. He is promising prominent leaders of the Freedom Caucus that they can have seats in the next Congress’s most powerful committees. However, only if they could deliver enough of their reactionary comrades to vote for McCarthy. He needs to receive 218 to win that position. McCarthy wants to avoid 2015 when the Freedom Caucus derailed his last leadership bid.

If the Republicans end up with 222 seats in the House, the caucus will comprise only 20 percent of its membership. Best estimates are based on self-declarations; since membership is not published, the caucus has 44 members. It’s most likely that the 31 Republicans who voted in their private conference against McCarthy as the new House Speaker meeting were from the Freedom Caucus. The challenge to McCarthy was led by Freedom Caucus members led the challenge to McCarthy, and afterward several would still not support him. 

The Freedom Caucus has a track record of deep-sixing any Republican Speaker who presents a problem for them. Two prior Republican speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan were pushed out as Speakers by the Freedom Caucus. Ryan failed to get a critical Republican bill replacing Obama’s Affordable Care Act due mainly to the caucus’s opposition. In a Vanity Fair published interview, Boehner described the caucus as “anarchists. They want total chaos. Tear it all down and start over.” 

McCarthy is dependent, as is any House Republican, on receiving almost all the Freedom Caucus members’ votes when the full House votes on selecting a new House Speaker on January 3. Since all Democrats and Republicans in the House vote for the next Speaker. It is conceivable that the Democrats could put up a candidate who might attract some crossover Republican support. But who? 

That scenario has Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) supporting McCarthy as House speaker. She criticizes other right-wing Republicans opposing McCarthy as having a “bad strategy” that could lead the Ds to push Liz Cheney as the next Speaker. This scenario sounds far-fetched, given that Cheney would not be in Congress next year. However, the Constitution does not require the Speaker to be an incumbent member of the House of Representatives. 

Green is critical to McCarthy because she has an outsized influence among House Republicans. In addition, she is a media star voicing the most radical conspiracy theories, beginning with the big lie that Trump won the 2020 election. And she brought in nearly $10 million in contributions to the Republican Conference, making her one of their top fundraisers. 

Green was stripped of her committee assignments after some of her old comments advocating political violence surfaced. She got her revenge on the entire House membership by objecting to voice votes, typically done instantly on dozens of uncontroversial bills – if no member objects. Sitting on the House floor, Green objected to every bill proposed for a voice vote, forcing all 435 House members to show up for a recorded vote.

She explained to Molly Ball of Time magazine, “Everyone had to stop what they’re doing, and it slowed everything down.” By her count, she and her allies forced more than 500 recorded votes. It was clear that unless McCarthy had her support, she could hold up any legislation that he wished to move by a voice vote. 

As a result, McCarthy has indicated that Green is likely to be rewarded with a position on the House Oversight Committee. This committee can inspect, examine, review, and check the executive branch and all its agencies’ programs and policy implementations. She clearly intends to use this committee’s powers to focus on investigating and exposing Democratic malfeasance rather than, as she says, passing partisan bills that will never become law.

The other critical supporter for McCarthy to get Freedom Caucus members’ votes is Jim Jordan, its 2015 founding chairman. Trump described him in 2018 as an “absolute warrior” for defending him during his investigation by the Special Counsel. Ironically, another such warrior he mentioned was Ron DeSantis while he served in Congress. 

Jordan spokesperson Russell Dye says that Jordan is looking forward to chairing the Judiciary Committee. Jordan is well prepared to use the Republican-controlled committee to begin a sweeping investigation of Attorney General Merrick Garland, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and the Depart of Justice. Jordan said pointedly that he already knows that the DOJ is being political since they are trying to determine if former President Donald Trump is guilty of anything. 

Jordan produced a report (HJC staff – FBI – Report) questioning the Justice Department’s investigations of Trump’s 2016 campaign, the current probe into documents found at Mar-a-Lago, and a plot to exaggerate the threat of domestic terrorism. As chair of the Judiciary Committee, he could promote his report to the media to dominate the evening news cycle. 

Jordan says there are whistleblowers who claim that FBI employees were pressured to reclassify crimes as domestic terrorism, presumably to exaggerate domestic danger coming from the far right. However, it’s unclear whether any of these employees filed whistleblower reports. The report is just over a thousand-page document, with ninety-five percent of it consisting of old letters Republicans already sent to the Biden administration, according to Steve Benen of MSNBC. 

Nevertheless, expect the Freedom Caucus members on various committees to produce similar reports to justify investigating Democratic behavior. In particular, they are pressuring McCarthy for more of their members on the Rules Committee, which determines how legislation is introduced in the chamber. 

Up first will the caucus will be investigating and publicly interviewing Attorney General Merrick Garland, FBI Director Christopher Wray, and President Biden’s son Hunter Biden. The caucus also wants to see Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci prosecuted and the Department of Education abolished. But, most importantly, their members have called for impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and President Biden. 

The caucus has given McCarthy his marching orders, and he appears to be in step with them. In retaliation for Green and Paul Gosar being removed from their committee posts for invoking political violence (which was taken by a bi-partisan vote), he will remove Democrats Eric Swalwell and Adam Schiff from the House Intelligence Committee. In addition, he will remove Ilhan Omar from the Foreign Affairs Committee, accusing her of making antisemitic comments in the past by her criticizing Israel for its “atrocities” in the occupied Palestinian territories,

With McCarthy adopting the Freedom Caucuses agenda, he doesn’t leave much room for passing any important legislation out of the House, including the federal budget. Failing to do so would shut down the federal government. The last time the Republican Party took that path, they lost far more seats than the Democrats in the following cycle of congressional elections

How Freedom Caucus promotes a radical agenda without strong pushback from mainstream conservative Republicans.

The first thing to understand is that each party has multiple ideological caucuses. The largest of all is Republican Study Committee. With 158 members, it dominates the other three Republican caucuses in size and power. The second, third, and fourth largest House caucuses are all in the Democratic Party: Labor Caucus with 114 members, the Congressional Progressive Caucus with 99 members, and New Democrat Coalition with 97 members. The Republican Freedom Caucus,with 44 members, is the furthest right, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus is the furthest left within each party. But the Freedom Caucus wields more influence than any other caucus of either party. 

In the past, the caucus, along with allied Republicans, have tried to block any temporary measure to fund the government that didn’t also defund Planned Parenthood. This proposal was counter to popular will. A 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 75% of Americans, including most Republican women and men, support federal Medicaid reimbursements continue for Planned Parenthood. They will again be trying to defund Planned Parenthood, which will most likely happen with the caucus holding the vote on approving the federal budget.

From my readings, one apparent characteristic sets the caucus apart from others. While all caucuses publish and promote policies, unlike the others, the Freedom Caucus uses disciplined block voting. Once 80 percent of their membership agrees on how to vote on a piece of legislation, each member is obligated to vote that way. 

Another distinguishing feature is that they do not publish their membership list. Membership is by invitation only, and meetings are not public. The chair is publicly acknowledged, and any member is free to disclose if they are a member. However, there could be members who are not identified as members voting on legislation or motions without the opposition knowing how they are obligated to vote. This practice provides a tremendous advantage in outflanking the opposition.

Another characteristic of the Freedom Caucus is their open criticism, if not hostility, to the Republican Party establishment. Within the Caucus, a small subgroup, dubbed the MAGA Squad, is dedicated to Donald Trump. Washington Post detailed their efforts supporting primary challenges against incumbent Republicans during the 2022 United States House of Representatives elections. 

The Freedom Caucus also financially contributes to the most reactionary candidates for open seats, often competing against other Republicans supported by the larger Republican Study Committee. There is no equivalent subgroup in the Democrats’ Congressional Progressive Caucus, and that caucus as a single body did not run candidates challenging Democratic incumbents.

The Freedom Caucus also has financial muscle by funding Republican candidates through its PAC, the House Freedom Fund. They choose candidates that are election deniers and hardcore Trump, supporters. The Democrat Progressive Caucus also has a PAC, but it made minuscule contributions in the 2022 elections compared to the Freedom Caucus’ PAC. Open Secrets reports the House Freedom Fund distributed $11 million among the 17 candidates it endorsed. Meanwhile, the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC contributed under a quarter of a million among its ten endorsed candidates. 

Through a combination of intimidation and brute politics in challenging Republican leaders like McCarthy, the Freedom Caucus will be dominating the headlines and the agenda of the House of Representatives. McCarthy will only be able to keep his post as Speaker of the House if the most reactionary Republicans allow him to remain as Speaker. At some point, the other House Republicans may challenge the caucus to halt their party’s continual support of unsubstantiated conspiracies. However, they do not appear up to that challenge.

For instance, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace asked Rep. Jim Banks, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, if he believed it was a “lie” that the 2020 election was stolen.

This is a fair question since Banks had joined a Texas lawsuit challenging Biden’s electoral victory in several states and objecting to Congress’ certification of Biden’s election win. 

Although Banks did say that “Joe Biden was elected, he was inaugurated on January 20.” He followed up that question with concern about “how the election in November was carried out.” But, more importantly, he added, “That is where most Republicans in the GOP conference are unified around that single mission and goal” He and other leaders do not want to be distracted from that objective.

Banks’ statement represents what most House Republicans believe. They cannot accept that Joe Biden won a fair election. He may have won, but something went wrong. For them, it was not the number of votes counted but how they were counted. In taking that stance, they capitulate to the Freedom Caucus, promoting the Big Lie that the election was stolen. Perhaps they fear being outflanked on the right by the caucus and losing core supporters who accept the Big Lie. But it also weakens the Republican Party as a party that adheres to democratic norms and procedures.

Over the next two years, there will be a battle within the Republican Party to determine which agenda to pursue, one of revenge based on unproven conspiracies or passing conservative legislation that is not dependent on conspiracy theories.

Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.

Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Citizenship Politics

Ranked Choice Voting – The sleeper issue on the 8th

Flying under the radar this Election Day are cities, counties, and one state voting to accept rankedchoice voting (RCV). This isn’t the first time there has been a wave of support for RCV. From 1912 and 1930, some forms of RCV were used, but most were repealed by the mid-thirties. There was another burst of support for them in 2009-2010, that petered out as well.

pixbay photo

However, in the last ten years, RCV has emerged again as an alternative to voting candidates into office. For example, in June of 2021, New York City used RCV for the largest election in RCV’s history. This year, 32 cities in seven states used the voting procedure to determine winners. 

Nationwide, 50 jurisdictions employ some form of ranked choice voting. The number of states using RCV could go from two to three if Nevada voters approve it on November 8. At the same time, Seattle voters could add their city to the list of bigger cities, New York, San Francisco, and Austin, using RCV. 

The list could further expand on Election Day when eight other cities and counties vote on whether to convert to ranked-choice voting. Based on an April 2022 poll by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation, these measures are expected to pass. It showed that more than 60 percent of Americans favor using RCV for federal elections. 

A statewide initiative placed RCV on Nevada’s ballot. The top five candidates from an open primary would advance to the general election, which would select a winner using ranked-choice voting. If the proposal passes, voters must approve it a second time in November 2024 before it goes into effect.

Seattle voters will choose between RCV and an alternative “approval voting” system introduced by a citizen initiative. The latter approach allows voters to support as many candidates as they wish, with the person receiving the most votes winning. By a seven to two vote, the city council decided to place both proposals on the ballot. While the approval voting proposal is limited to Seattle, Washington for Equitable Representation, a coalition of organizations is pushing for RCV across the state, including for federal elections. A victory in Seattle could bolster that effort in the state legislature. 

So how does rankedchoice voting work?

Voters rankedall the candidates on the ballot by preference. If no candidate wins more than 50% of the first preference vote, then the candidate in that race who received the fewest votes is eliminated.

Here’s where it becomes a bit challenging to understand. The eliminated candidate’s votes are then distributed to other candidates that the dropped candidate’s voters chose as their second favorite on the ballot. Further candidates will be eliminated with the same procedure followed until a final winner receives a majority of votes. It may also end when a select number of candidates pass a threshold of votes needed to move on to the general election. 

Critics of RCV say it is confusing and will decrease voter participation.

Critics of RCV complain that it is too difficult for voters to understand and that there will be a significant vote dropoff in elections. However, exit polls from Common Cause New York and Rankedthe Vote NYC showed 3 in 4 voters are eager to use the method in future elections.

Alaskans for Better Elections, which advocated for the new election system, commissioned an exit poll in conjunction with their state’s special election for congress. It found that 85 percent of voters found the ranked ballot to be “simple” or “very simple.” And 95 percent said they had received instructions on how to fill out the ballot.

RCV trims out candidates with a narrow voter base.

Advocates of RCV point out that it forces candidates to win in crowded races by securing the majority of voters. However, in doing so, they must attract voters outside their party’s core voter base. In short, RCV diminishes voter attraction to proposals considered too radical from candidates, whether perceived as from the left or right. Consequently, some of the Democrat and Republican Party leaders have not embraced RCV for fear that some of their candidates will lose elections. 

Before Maine residents converted to RCV by initiative in 2018 for federal and statewide elections, Republican Governor Paul LePage and some of the state’s senior Democrats fought the initiative. Presumably, he could see RCV giving him a problem since he was elected twice to the governorship without receiving a majority vote. After the initiative passed, the state ­supreme court struck down the law by issuing an advisory opinion. Six of the seven court’s justices were appointed by the Republican Governor. A second initiative passed again, approving RCV over the politician’s objections, and was implemented.

An Alaskan congressional special election held this summer was a headline example of how a dominant party’s candidate could lose due to RCV. Due to two recent changes, Mary Peltola became the first Democrat to be elected to the House of Representatives from that state in 50 years. The party primaries became nonpartisan blanket primaries, and RCV was adopted. Only the top 4 candidates would advance to a general election

In a June primary Democrat Peltola came in fourth behind Republicans former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and businessman Nick Begich. Independent Al Gross came in fourth but withdrew and endorsed “two outstanding Alaska Native women,” Peltola being one of them.  

With Gross out of the election, just three candidates ran in the August general election. Peltola led with 40 percent of the total after the initial ballot, which was not enough to be declared the winner. Begich was eliminated since he was the lowest-scoring candidate. His second-choice votes mostly went to Palin; however, over 40% of his voters did not choose a second preference. As a result, Palin failed to overcome Peltola’s vote total, and Peltola won the election.

The Republican Party leaders protested the result. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas asserted that Palin should have won because “60% of Alaska voters voted for a Republican.” He accused CRV of disenfranchising voters. However, he didn’t acknowledge that the 60% was divided between two Republican candidates. Palin captured only 31% of the votes, while Republican Nick Begich received 28%. Palin lost a substantial amount of Begich’s voters in the next round of counting votes because Begich’s supporters didn’t choose Palin as a second preference. They understood what they were doing. They would not vote to send Palin to congress. 

Does RCV favor Democrats or Republicans?

University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation did show a partisan divide over RCV, with 73 percent of Democrats, 55 percent of independents, and only 49 percent of Republicans in favor of its use. Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation, said in describing the public’s reception to RCV the more they know about it, the greater “they seem to like it. Resistance is rooted in unfamiliarity. This is particularly shown among Republicans.”

The most uncompromising Republican opposition to RCV came from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. When he signed a bill that creates a police force dedicated to pursuing voter fraud and other election crimes, he also banned ranked choice voting for all elections in Florida. However, Republicans do not seem averse to using rankedchoice voting. Half of the former Confederate States, and all red states now, use RCV for military and overseas voters. Utah, a red state which hasn’t voted for a Democrat President since 1964, has far more cities using RCV than any other state. 

Of the only two states that currently use RCV statewide, one is solid red, Alaska, and the other is solid blue, Maine. Each state has voted in the last four presidential elections strictly for either Republican or Democrat presidents. Nevertheless, both states adopted RCV through a citizen’s initiative. 

What can RCV accomplish?
 

RankedChoice Voting can contribute to greater accountability of politicians to the majority of voters. Although, it doesn’t assure that the majority promotes democratic values. Other conditions contribute more to that end, like fair and comprehensive civic education among our citizens, particularly our youth. 
 
RCV can become cumbersome if not executed with the support of state governments. Without that support, gaps between adopting this new approach and laws not meant to facilitate it could confuse the administration. If frustrations result, then opposition to it will follow. Nonpartisan commissions must oversee the administration of RCV elections to avoid future problems in electoral procedures.
 
We are witnessing probable victories of election deniers in 2022 to offices responsible for accurate and reliable vote counts. Unfortunately, this trend demonstrates that all oversight mechanisms can be corrupted by ideologues committed to a cause that discounts the reliability of an election if its results are unacceptable to them. Nevertheless, RCV may be able to filter out enough election deniers to retain an election process overseen by more citizens committed to a democratic process. This accomplishment alone would be a critical reason for using RCV.
 

Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.

Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Citizenship Politics

The unspoken label for a growing political movement is “Reactionary”

Lots of labels are thrown around to define or tag political opponents. Proponents embrace other labels as a badge of honor. And a few labels are so controversial, like Christian Nationalist or Communist, that even those in sympathy with those beliefs shy away from them. 

However, the label reactionary is missing in the current political vocabulary. Whether politicians, media outlets, journalists, or political activists, both from the left and right. Conservative and Liberal are the two leading and enduring labels. Depending on your orientation, adjectives are used to acclaim or shackle them. Advocates self-identify as progressive liberals or very conservative. For critics, liberals turn into radical liberals or far-left radicals, while conservatives become far-right or radical-right. 

The easiest way to note the relative absence of using “reactionary” would be to watch liberal or conservative-oriented media. Think about how often you hear the word “reactionary” from news analysts and commentators on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News describe politicians, policies, or organizations. It would fall into the range of seldom to almost never.

In literature, this shortage can be measured by looking at the titles of best-selling books. The New York Times Best Sellers list would be the best single source, however, finding a comprehensive list outside of NYT’s closed offices is a daunting challenge.

Amazon Best Sellers ranking provides a quicker, although not as accurate, measurement of book sales. Nevertheless, since Amazon has 65 percent of the online book market share, it’s a decent sampling. Even better, it ranks non-fiction books within categories of interest, such as Political Conservatism & Liberalism. 

I reviewed that category’s top twelve sellers from October 21, 2022. The top-ranking list changes daily. Consequently, this list is just a snapshot. Checking three days later, only four of the books surveyed remained in the top 12. On both dates, no book contained the word reactionary in the title. However, the political orientation of almost all the books on both dates reflected a conservative or reactionary point of view, except for either one progressive professor or one liberal journalist

The October 21 book titles contained these words: 

  • Four books with communism, communist, socialism, or Marxism 
  • Three books with Liberals, liberalism, or Democrat 
  • Two books with conservatism 
  • One book with Radical Right  
  • One book with fascism  

What would make a book have a reactionary perspective? As an adjective, according to the New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, the word reactionary describes points of view and policies meant to restore a past status quo ante. For example, Mark Lilla’s s The Shipwrecked Mind sees reactionary as attempting to change the existing socio-economic structure and political order with the intent to oppose liberal policies promoting the social transformation of society. In contrast, Conservatives oppose those same liberal policies but are willing to work within the existing political, economic, and social (PES) infrastructure to change those policies.

            All philosophies drift from erudite definitions to widespread usage over time. In that journey, a gap grows between them in how to achieve objectives. However, the core reactionary belief has remained constant, believing that the existing society has become unstable or corrupted through liberal changes over time. The only solution to that dangerous condition is to return to a prior order. That order will provide more security, freedoms, community, or whatever is seen as lacking in the current order. 

            By applying that definition to reactionary thought, the one-day sampling of Amazon’s listed books reveals considerable popularity in accepting that view. The writers may be deemed dreadfully wrong in their reasoning and their books full of misinformation, but the attractiveness of their vision cannot be denied. 

            Look at most of the top-selling books listed on Amazon from October 21.  

American Marxism by Mark R. Levin, a prominent Fox News Commentator, is typical of others who are very conservative or perhaps reactionary. While not proclaiming themselves reactionary, they emphasize protecting an individual’s freedom to use and accumulate personal property without interference from a larger community impacted by that freedom. 

The government is seen as more than a nuisance but a potentially destructive force to individual rights. Levin, like other authors, sees core elements of Marxist ideology cloaked in deceptive labels like “progressivism,” “democratic socialism,” and “social activism.” These movements lead to a Big Government that extinguishes the free market, economic motivation, and individual freedoms.

The UnCommunist Manifesto by Aleksandar Svetski and Mark Moss also identifies liberal changes with Marxism. The authors want to change the debate from a class struggle to “individual autonomy, sovereignty, and responsibility versus the collectivist tendency toward group identity politics, rights, entitlements, and co-dependencies.” It’s not clear how far back they would go in time to get to the right balance, but they don’t fear what they see happening now.

Five other authors noted below were from Amazon’s biggest sellers list on October 21. They blame liberals and the Democrats for ruining our nation’s social fabric and ushering in the loss of liberties; one even sees liberals bringing about a new emergent Fascism. However, none of them embrace or reference the word reactionary. 

Candace Owens, in Blackout, says it’s time for a major black exodus from the shackles of the Democratic Party, which has promoted their dependency and miseducation. The Great Reset: Joe Biden and the Rise of Twenty-First-Century Fascism by Glenn Beck and Justin Trask Haskins argues that there is an international conspiracy between powerful 

bankers, business leaders, and government officials to give them more money and power

               In Defeating Big Government Socialism: Saving America’s Future, Newt Gingrich sees big government socialists entrenched “throughout our systems of government, society, culture, and business, resulting in vaccine mandates, tax increases, rising inflation,” and just about every ill he could think of. In Race Marxism: The Truth About Critical Race Theory and Praxis, James Lindsay calls CRT Race Marxism, using race “as the central construct for understanding inequality” rather than relying on class conflict arising from capitalism. 

Lastly, Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen criticizes American liberalism, whether it be “libertarianism” or “progressive/modern liberalism,” AKA “liberal,” as allowing the growth of the “most far-reaching, comprehensive state system in human history.” In other words, converting America’s democratic republic into a statist country. 

Are these authors promoting reactionary beliefs? None of the authors identify what era they would like the nation to return to. Nor are they insurrectionists. They are not tearing down the republic and do not go beyond exposing the liberal menace and promoting policies that would stop its growth.

Underlying all their books, however, is a concept that Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto studied in their book,Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America. It was published a couple of years before Trump started the reactionary MAGA movement. 

Parker and Barreto show how the Tea Party was a reemergence of a reactionary movement in American politics that was like the right-wing reactionary movements of the past, including the Know Nothing Party, the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, and the John Birch Society. They all fueled a fear that America had changed for the worse. Its members are “reactionary conservatives: people who fear change of any kind—especially if it threatens to undermine their way of life.” 

These two authors do “make clear, reactionary conservatives differ in a number of ways from more conventional conservatives.” The latter “realize incremental, evolutionary change is sometimes necessary as a means of preventing revolutionary change. The reactionary conservative doesn’t want to stop at the prevention of change: he prefers to reverse whatever progress has been made to that point.” 

That definition is a dividing line between conservative and reactionary. In American Conservatism: Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition, Andrew J. Bacevich seems to agree with Parker and Barreto in seeing a distinction between conservativism and reactionary thought. He writes that conservativism is not a “reactionary yearning for an irremediably lost past” – it “is not antirational.” Instead, it operates “upon the foundation of the tradition of civilization,” which is “the basis of the accumulated reason, experience, and wisdom of past generations.” In other words, returning to the distant past is not critical to conservativism. However, this view is a core element of reactionary beliefs that energies the MAGA movement to eliminate the last hundred years of unacceptable liberal laws. The MAGA adherents openly advocate that objective. They are not part of a secret movement, so they should openly and honestly identify as reactionaries.  

Examples abound of reactionary policies being pushed by conservative Republican candidates this fall. They want to turn back the clock to a time untouched by liberal reforms. They would retreat to a time when there was less fear of being displaced by immigrants or having to live with people who didn’t conform to their moral code or when religion-based laws didn’t have to rely on scientific evidence to justify imposing them on others. 

Kari Lake, the Republican Candidate for Arizona Governor, accuses immigrants crossing the Mexican border of bringing drugs and crime into the US, plus they are rapists. Once becoming governor, she would legally declare their increased presence as an invasion. That would allow her to have state law enforcement and military detain, arrest, and return illegal migrants to Mexico. In effect, her orientation leans into reviving the federal quota system that was dropped in 1965. From 1924 to then, immigration quotas severely immigrants from outside Western Europe.

Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance advocates eliminating no-fault divorce laws, which allow people to end a marriage without proving wrongdoing by their partner, including abuse or desertion. Vance equates this policy, enacted in California more than fifty years ago, as abandoning the morality of keeping families whole. Laws should not allow marriages to be dissolved if one spouse is beaten without proving it. The burden is on the victim. This approach returns to a time when women were morally bound to their husbands regardless of their treatment. 

North Carolina’s Republican Candidate for the Senate race is Ted Budd, who has expressed support for Texas’ six-week abortion ban. The law makes no exceptions for cases of rape or incest and forbids abortion when a “heartbeat” can be heard, which is where the six-week ban comes from. Budd’s position will play well with 35% of the state’s population, who are very religious Protestant Evangelicals. But his stance is not based on reason or science. The medical profession disputes that the heart is beating after about six weeks of pregnancy. Instead, a developed heart forms later in pregnancy. But when laws must conform to religious beliefs, science is the enemy. And that is a long step back in time to take. 

None of the above actions are in the conservative tradition of basing decisions on past generations’ reason, experience, and wisdom. Instead, they represent a yearning for an irremediably lost past. Moreover, they result from politics, augmented by immense wealth, influencing the public to turn the clock back.  

Liberals should not naively describe these policies and their proponents as just conservative or even very conservative. They are not. They are reactionary. And the proponents of these measures should proudly declare their political agenda as reactionary. 

Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.

Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Citizenship Politics

How Much a Threat to the Republic are Christian Nationalists?

If Cancer cells grow unchecked, they take over the vital organs of a body, and the host dies. Some people can live with cancers that may never kill them, like slow-growing prostate cancer. However, other types of cancer can explode and kill someone within months. 

            Christian Nationalism is a cancer that can attack our republic’s body of democratic institutions. Unfortunately, it has been part of our American culture for hundreds of years. However, America’s democracy has not died. Since the Civil War, Christian Nationalism has been relatively nonthreatening, but could it become malignant and spread? 

Republican leaders are energizing their voter base by espousing a Christian Nationalist philosophy.

Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene told the CPAC in August 2022, “I’m a Christian nationalist, I have nothing to be ashamed of. Because that’s what most Americans are.” Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, in June 2022, said “the church is supposed to direct the government” and that she’s “tired of this separation of church and state junk.”

Most Republican Congressional members have not expressed these views. However, Greene and Boebert are tapping into their party’s most reliable voter base: white Evangelical Protestants; 56 % of Evangelical Protestants identify as Republicans or lean to that party, 77% are conservative, and 88% of them are white, according to Pew Research. In addition, in 2020, the Brookings Institute did an extensive study showing why the Republicans depended on white Evangelical Protestants to win the presidency.

As would be expected, the majority of Evangelical Protestants voted for Donald Trump in 2020. A survey conducted by the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in January 2021 found that 81% say some or a lot of their family members voted for Trump. And Evangelical Christians are the largest religious group in America, with a 2016 National Election Pool exit poll finding that 26% of voters self-identified as white Evangelical Christians. 

Christian Nationalism finds strong support among the Republican Evangelical Christian voter base.

Although there have been no widely published polls showing what percent of white Evangelical Christians support Christian Nationalism, there is strong evidence that it is significant. The author of Taking America Back for GodAndrew Whitehead, notes that national surveys of Americans collected over the last decade show that about 20 percent strongly embrace Christian nationalism. There is a strong relationship between the overlap of Christian nationalist views and white Evangelical Christians’ beliefs.

Their shared conservative beliefs in the supremacy of church, family, and authority also extend to accepting more radical and unsubstantiated conspiracies which can physically enforce those beliefs. The AEI survey found that most Republicans agreed with the statement, “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” Daniel Cox, director of the AEI Survey Center on American Life, summarized their findings: “As with a lot of questions in the survey, white evangelicals stand out in terms of their belief in conspiracy theories and the idea that violence can be necessary.”

The popularity of the QAnon movement’s conspiracy theories among white Evangelical Christians is perhaps the most outstanding example. According to the AEI survey, 27% subscribe to the QAnon theory that it was “mostly” or “completely” accurate to say Trump is trying to save America from a cabal of satanic pedophiles. Photos of Christian flags, crosses on t-shirts, and “Jesus Saves” signs were conspicuous among those trying to stop Congress from confirming that Joe Biden won the election.

The FBI identified QAnon in 2019 as a potential domestic terror threat. Three years later, 34 QAnon followers who took part in the January 6 Capitol insurrection represented more than 8% of the roughly 400 rioters arrested as of March 2022. 

Some Republicans and Evangelists deny the existence of Christian Nationalism.

 “Christian nationalism doesn’t exist,” Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, told Eliza Griswold of the New Yorker. He added that the term was “just another name to throw at Christians. The left is very good at calling people names.”  

Doug Mastriano, a former Penn State legislator and now Trump-backed Republican candidate for Governor, rejected the phrase, asking Griswold, “Is this a term you fabricated?” He indicated he didn’t know the term and hadn’t said he was a Christian Nationalist. Nevertheless, he did suggest that the Bible be distributed in public schools without offering the Torah, Bhagavad Gita, or the Quran. 

As Griswold noted, historians and sociologists have found the term useful to describe an undercurrent of nativist religion that runs through American history.  The author Whitehead makes the case that “Christian nationalism was part of our cultural framework since the arrival of the colonists, who located what they were doing in the sacred, as part of God’s plan.”

Christianity and Nationalism fueled America’s creation 

The role of Christianity 

According to Amanda Tyler, the executive director of BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty), Christian Nationalists believe the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” To an extent, it was, in that North America’s 13 colonies were founded by Christian settlers seeking a place to practice their brand of Christianity, with no less than 12 distinct ones. And after 1654, Judaism was practiced in small communities.

Tyler points out that Christian Nationalism takes that nugget of reality and converts it into an ideological belief that America was singled out “for God’s providence in order to fulfill God’s purposes on earth” The result is that “Christian nationalism demands a privileged place for Christianity in public life, buttressed by the active support of government at all levels” Therefore, Congresswoman Boebert believes that “the church is supposed to direct the government.”

That happened in eight of the thirteen colonies, with only one official church, like England.  While each of those colony’s churches promoted a sense of community, the settlers who worshiped outside of its established church, or didn’t worship any, were discriminated against and sometimes persecuted. This is where Christian Nationalism could lead if it didn’t tolerate more than one interpretation of Christianity or the practice of other religions, like Islam.

 Historians argue that Rhode Island, being the first colony to admit all to practice a religion of their choice, was the first place in modern history where citizenship and religion were separated. This was the liberal attitude of the founders of the United States when they adopted the First Amendment saying Congress can neither establish nor prohibit the practice of a religion. By 1833, all states had disestablished religion from government, providing protections for religious liberty in state constitutions.

Nevertheless, a national poll found that 78% of Republicans who identify themselves as Evangelical or born-again Christians favored officially declaring the United States be a Christian Nation. The level favoring this declaration among other Republicans was only 48%. The statistics among Democrats showed that 52% of Evangelical Christians and only 8% supported this move.  The pull of religion is strong on many voters wanting a confluence of Christianity and government in America. That same dynamic is underway in European countries with the rise of right-wing parties in recent years.

The role of Nationalism 

The republics founders converted the 13 North American colonies into a nation. But they had a liberal definition of nationalism. It was not limited to any ethnic group, unlike the European nationalist revolutions that erupted in the nineteenth century. America didn’t define itself as an ethnic group since the non-slave population was homogeneous.

Since the 1800s, nationalism has been broadly interpreted in Europe as a group of people sharing common ancestors with similar language and physical traits. Italy was for Italians, Prussians became Germans founding Germany, and Greeks created a new nation, Greece. And so on.

America was exceptional. Because of the vast land available, once the native population was either pushed out or eliminated, all Europeans were welcomed to farm the newly acquired land. Allowing America to tolerate a multi-ethnic nation provided an affordable labor force to grow. There was no need to emphasize nationality, although a pecking order among the nationalities did emerge, with the English on top. But unlike in most European countries, there was no king to anoint one ethnic group above the others.

Of course, black Africans forcibly shipped to the North and South American Continents were not seen as just another ethnic group. Instead, they were determined to be a “race” apart from all others. They were not only different but seen as less human than the “white” race; they were not even eligible to become an American. 

As enslaved servants, Blacks were the property of white American citizens. The context for a national identity grew out of this bifurcation along racial lines. American nationalism easily aligned with white racial dominance. And today, we see the majority of white Evangelical Christians tolerating or feeling comfortable with white Christian Nationalism. 

            Civic education is the antidote to Christian Nationalism. 

Christian Nationalism unites two powerful forces that don’t need democracy to survive. However, religion and nationalism may feel constrained by government regulations that give rights to individuals who are not members of a nation’s dominant religion or ethnic group. For example, the United States of America was founded as a democratic republic by Christians who adopted secular humanitarian principles to avoid religious wars among themselves.  Nevertheless, most citizens were and have remained deeply steeped in Christian beliefs which promote love and community, but often with limits on who is included in that community. 

The purpose of civic education is to educate students and future citizens as to how government can adhere to the principles espoused by our constitution so that we remain a democratic republic. Charles Quigley, the Executive Director of the Center for Civic Education, summarized that need: “Democracy requires more than the writing of constitutions and the establishment of democratic institutions. Ultimately, for a democracy to work, it must lie in the hearts and minds of its citizens. Democracy needs a political culture that supports it.”

Damian Ruck’s December 2019 Nature research article, “The Cultural Foundations of Modern Democracies,” revealed that stable democracies tend to rest upon two cultural foundations: openness to diversity and civic confidence.” In other words, to survive, democracies must be “tolerant towards minority groups” and “civic institutions, including government and the media, [must] command the confidence of the people.”

The word “education” appears nowhere in our constitution. Meanwhile, Congress has determined that only states can mandate a civics curriculum. Teaching civics that promote democratic cultural values in public schools, such as tolerance and inclusivity, would have to be approved by state legislatures, many of which are currently limiting access to the ballot box. 

Stopping Christian Nationalism growing from a tolerated belief to one that becomes malignant by physically attacking America’s democratic culture and institutions must begin at the local and state levels. That effort must provide non-partisan, non-ideological civic classes. If our major political parties cannot agree on how to proceed cooperatively and thoughtfully, then citizens within each state must provide that leadership. Existing non-profit, non-partisan organizations have begun that effort.

The most ambitious effort to bring a reasoned approach to teaching civics is the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap. The National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education sponsor it. The roadmap is not a national curriculum nor a set of instructional standards. Instead, it is a plan that recommends approaches to learning civics. It’s a place to begin and build upon. Manifesting that plan is the challenge our citizens face in protecting a way of life that protects life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.

Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Citizenship Politics

How could citizens reject a perfectly progressive constitution?

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General Pinochet in 1976 from Library of the Chilean National Congress

In September 2022, through a public vote, Chileans overwhelmingly rejected a new left-leaning constitution. Reuters described it as being one of the world’s most progressive charters. The vote to approve it wasn’t organized by some elite group managing a phony election under an authoritarian government. It was a fair election, with both the left- and right-wing parties accepting the results.

The vote was particularly perplexing for progressives because public opinion had adamantly supported replacing their current constitution. A 2020 referendum that a new constitution be written passed with over 78% of the votes, with 13 million voting of its 15 million eligible voters.

The new constitution would replace one created by the previous 17-year authoritarian military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet. The elected President Salvador Allende was violently overthrown by a military coup led by Pinochet in 1973, who remained Chile’s dictator until 1990.

Despite being amended over the last two decades, Nancy MacLean, in Democracy in Chains, writes that it was formulated to “forever insulate the interests of the propertied class they represented from the reach of a classic democratic majority.”

Its emphasis on granting “freedom of choice to workers” by banning industry-wide unions and privatizing the social security system may explain why the Bicentennial Poll found that “since 2010, 77% of Chileans believe there is a “big conflict” between rich and poor.” That conflict spilled out into the streets in October 2019. Throughout the country, massive protests and riots forced the conservative President Sebastián Piñera to submit to a referendum on rewriting the constitution

Even the conservative leaders recognized that they needed a valve to release the built-up anger over the existing income inequality. Research from the World Inequity Lab showed the top 10% of Chileans receiving 60% of the average national income. Trust in government by 2020 had plummeted to only 10% of Chileans.

The need for new and even radical changes was manifested in the election of the young leftist Gabriel Boric to the Presidency in December 2021. He received 56% of the vote. His right-wing opponent Jose Antonio Kast, not taking a cue from Donald Trump, congratulated Boric. Although Kast’s platform shared the same elements as Republicans, like cutting taxes for companies, building barriers to prevent illegal immigration, and abolishing abortion, he tweeted, “From today he is the elected President of Chile and deserves all our respect and constructive collaboration.”

Chile’s Attempt to Jump Start an Egalitarian Society

Although Boric inherited the results of the 2020 referendum, he wholeheartedly promoted its egalitarian theme and the diverse composition of a Constituent Assembly, which was to propose a new constitution to the public. As a result, a public vote in 2021 selected 155 members of a Constituent Assembly.

Since the Pinochet regime ended in 1990, two groups have ruled the government by sharing power, the center-left, and right-wing coalitions. However, in the elections to the Constituent Assembly, they only obtained 16% and 24% of the assembly seats, respectively. Assembly members from left-wing political parties and social movements

received 60% of the votes. 

The assembly’s membership averaged 44 years old, with equal gender representation and 10% of the seats designated for Indigenous representatives to reflect its population proportion. Boric and other progressives described it as the most representative elected body in Chile, if not South America. 

Polling from the start of March 2022 showed public opinion moving against ratification. Jon Schwarz of the Interceptreported a “recent survey showed that 37 percent of Chileans approved of it and 46 percent did not.” It was overwhelmingly rejected by 62% of the voters on election day. John Bartlett, a journalist for New York Times, tweeted that “only 6 of Chile’s 346 electoral districts voted in favor of the new constitution.”

What did the new constitution do?

Supportive media, like CNN, Guardian, and Reuters described the constitution as providing a more inclusive public health system, canceling student debt, raising taxes for the super-wealthy, revising the state’s private pension system, recognizing the “rights of nature,” and making Chile’ plurinational’ by creating autonomous territories for indigenous groups.

Schwarz listed a few of the new constitution’s amendments:

  • A requirement that membership of all “collegiate bodies of the State” be at least half women, as well as the boards of all companies owned or partially owned by the government.
  • A new, lower voting age of 16. Moreover, voting “constitutes a right and a civic duty,” and so voting would become compulsory for everyone 18 and over. (Voting was previously compulsory in Chile until 2012. Voting in regular elections is no longer compulsory, but the current constitutional referendum is a special case.) Also, foreigners can vote in all Chilean elections once they’ve lived there for five years.
  • Everyone has the right “to make free, autonomous and informed decisions about one’s own body, [including] reproduction” — i.e., the right to abortion. Until 2017, abortion was illegal in Chile under all circumstances, and it is still only permitted in rare cases.
  • New power and representation for Chile’s Indigenous population, who make up about 10 percent of the country’s citizenry.

The conservative Free Beacon noted that the constitution also mandated socialized medicine and a right to free housing.

Too Many Amendments and topics

The American Constitution has had 27 amendments, including the 10 Bill of Rights made two years after the constitution was adopted. The new Chilean constitution had 388, presented in a document of roughly 54,000 words, including the preamble and transitory rules. The US Constitution has about 4,500 words. In other words, millions of Chilean citizens were asked to approve a 178-page document that would introduce revolutionary changes. Faced with that task, it’s likely that Americans would have rejected it as well.

Many, if not most, Chileans may have agreed with all or most of the proposed amendments. However, by presenting such a sweeping and detailed plan for Chile’s future, they failed to consider the natural human response of avoiding risk by not accepting uncertain dangers. As Andrea Peroni, a historian and public-policy researcher at the University of Chile in Santiago, noted: “Any of the 388 articles you didn’t like were 388 opportunities to reject” the new constitution.

The long list of articles emerged after the Guardian described it as “an arduous year of negotiations” among the assembly members. However, the Guardian did not note that rightist members failed to secure one-third of the seats necessary to block articles. Consequently, the debate and subsequent compromising among the members were confined mainly to the left side of the political spectrum. 

The new constitution addressed the inequalities under the prior constitution that disenfranchised women, the LGBT community, and Indigenous People. It also swept away past economic and social barriers that financially hurt many Chileans. 

But critics said the proposals would cripple Chile’s finances. Moreover, it abandoned a constitution that based the country’s growth on unencumbered free-market principles. For instance, it dramatically restricted mining and exploiting other natural resources. Elated by the vote, the Chilean peso and stock market skyrocketed the next day.

The Guardian reported that many criticized the document’s guarantees for Indigenous People, which they said would divide Chile. For instance, there would be a parallel justice system for indigenous communities. Although before the election, Boric pledged to modify some of the document’s most contentious points like this one. 

Elaborate plans to restructure government and society, fed disinformation campaigns

As the surveys showed support declining for the new constitution, advocates began to promise to alter them if the constitution was approved. That could have contributed to the public losing confidence that things would go smoothly. Pushing great leaps instead of steady steps enthralls a minority but not most people, even those that want change. 

That was true even within the assembly. Thirty-four members formed a group Voice of the People that refused to abide by the rules of the convention, which all parties of the political spectrum had agreed upon for the assembly’s procedures. They demanded the release of political prisoners and other similar policies. While their membership grew, they never achieved a majority within the assembly.

There was enough confusion and discussion of policies coming out of the assembly to feed the spread of misinformation, which the Guardian reported abounded just before the vote on the new constitution. The Intercept attributed widespread disinformation helping to defeat the referendum. 

 CNN interviewed an Indigenous Mapuche assembly member who said that some members of her community believed disinformation that circulated online—such as the false claim that expanded housing rights meant the government would confiscate private property. Even the conservative National Review wrote widespread uncertainty about the constitution’s implications being “fueled by misleading information, including claims that it would have banned homeownership.”

It’s not evident how much disinformation was generated or who promoted it. However, it clearly contributed to the outcome by promoting doubt and opposition to adopting a new constitution.

Chile’s Lesson for America – A constitution is not a policy manual 

The character of Pinochet’s constitution was shaped by the philosophy of prescribing a free-market economy with few government restraints. Economic freedom for an individual’s use of their property replaced concern for the negative impact on a community’s broader welfare from that use. As a result, property rights edged out civil rights. 

Most importantly, that philosophy would not just sway justices to rule a certain way; embedded in the constitution were prescribed policies that could only be overturned by amending the constitution. Moreover, no constitutional amendment could be added without endorsement by supermajorities in two successive sessions of the National Congress, a skewed body to overrepresent the wealthy. 

Pinochet’s constitution could exile anyone deemed “antifamily” or “Marxist” without an appeal process. Pinochet brought his tightly crafted constitution to a vote a month after its release. Voting was held during a prolonged “state of emergency” when all political parties were outlawed. Election rules forbade any electioneering by activists opposing his constitution, consequently it passed. 

Aside from its political agenda, Chile’s constitution was distinctly different from the American Constitution. It directed institutions on how they should operate to pursue that agenda. That converted the judiciary’s role from interpreting broad civil rights to maintaining tightly defined economic and social activity. 

For instance, in America, the “right to carry a gun” by an individual citizen is not explicitly guaranteed in the constitution’s Second Amendment. The Supreme Court has interpreted that Amendment differently over time, reflecting the makeup of the Court’s justices. 
 
Another example is abortion. There is no “right” to an abortion in the US Constitution. However, it has evolved in how the Supreme Court interprets the Articles and Amendments affecting the individual’s “right” to have an abortion.

 In Chile, under the Pinochet constitution, all abortions were banned. In the proposed new progressive constitution, there was no ban. Both Chilean constitutions explicitly addressed the practice of abortion. 

Enumerating explicit activities in a constitution leads to more articles and the need for more future amendments. The result is that a constitution becomes more of a legislative tool than an umpire deciding if the legislation conforms to the constitution’s principles. 

Civic classes in public schools referred to the US Constitution as a “living” document. This is because it was guided by how citizens wanted to live by the principles espoused in the constitution. In other words, the constitution evolves and adapts to new circumstances even if the document is not formally amended.

Both Pinochet’s constitution and the progressives were prescriptive constitutions. They enumerated not principles so much as directives. Although the new constitution intended to allay fears, its unintended consequence was to fan them. It is easier to get a consensus around principles than programmatic policies. The former is a generalized understanding that allows for different interpretations, but institutionalized programs and policies are like brick and mortar. They are sturdy, long-lasting, and not easy to demolish.

The progressive journalist Schwarz reasoned that even with the new constitution being rejected, it illustrated how regular people “can generate an explosion of political imagination.” However, that is not a sustainable basis for governing. 

President Boric recognized the defeat graciously, saying that the Chilean people had spoken: “loudly and clearly.” He promised to work harder to propose another constitution “with more dialogue, with more respect and care, until we arrive at a proposal that interprets us all, that is trustworthy, that unites us as a country.” If the next version does not take that approach, any future effort will be far closer to Pinochet’s constitution.

Nick Licata is the author of Becoming A Citizen Activist and Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. He is the founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of over 1,300 progressive municipal officials.

Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Citizenship Politics