Saturday, February 9, 2019

Under Trump, Democracy in Retreat

      The state of the U.S. economy may be strong in some respects, as President Trump boasted in his State of the Union address this week [Feb. 5], but two years into his presidency democracy is in retreat in the United States and around the world. Trump takes unjustified pride in the economy's continued upswing that dates from the last years of the Obama's presidency, but the nonpartisan human rights organization Freedom House puts the blame squarely on Trump for accelerating the decline in democracy in the United States and around the world.
      The United States fell on a 100-point scale to a record low score of 86 at the end of Trump's first year in office and remained stuck there at the end of 2018, according to Freedom House's annual report Freedom in the World. In all, 59 countries score higher on the Freedom House scale than the United States, including most of Western Europe, several formerly Communist-ruled countries in Eastern Europe, and such now democratic countries as Chile and Portugal that emerged from right-wing dictatorships late in the 20th century.
      The decline in U.S. democracy predates Trump's presidency, but Trump's influence is seen as especially damaging to "our core values" and to the "stability of our constitutional system," according to an overview by Freedom House's president Michael Abramowitz. "No president in living memory has shown less respect for its tenets, norms, and principles," Abramowitz writes, citing as examples Trump's attacks on separation of powers, the judiciary, and the press.
      Abramowitz, a former Washington Post reporter, traces the decline in U.S. democracy from the beginnings of the post-9/11 surveillance state under President George W. Bush and also tars the Obama administration for what he calls its "overzealous crackdown on press leaks." Trump's assaults on U.S. democracy are more numerous and more pervasive in Abramowitz's telling and date back to his presidential campaign.
      Trump has been guilty of "assailing the rule of law," in Abramowitz's account, ever since he attacked the judge overseeing the civil lawsuit against Trump University on the basis of the American-born judge's Mexican ancestry. Trump doubled down on the tactic early in his presidency by denigrating the "so-called judge" who ruled against his Muslim travel ban and more recently by criticizing the "Obama judge" who blocked the administration's illegal plan to consider asylum applicants only at official ports of entry.
      Trump's renewed attack on the impartiality of federal judges drew a rebuke last fall from the normally circumspect Republican-appointed chief justice, John Roberts. An independent judiciary, Roberts declared in a Thanksgiving week statement, "is something we all should be thankful for."
      The president's attacks on the rule of law, as enumerated by Abramowitz, go far beyond these occasional tweets against individual judicial decisions. Trump has politicized the federal government's law enforcement responsibilities by urging the Justice Department to prosecute his political opponents and critics and by expressing contempt for witnesses who cooperate in investigations in cases that threaten his interests. He has also used his pardon power to reward political and ideological allies and to encourage targets of investigations to refuse cooperation with the government.
      Trump's practice of "demonizing the press" also dates from his campaign and is now a hallmark of his presidential playbook. "Previous presidents have criticized the press, sometimes bitterly," Abramowitz acknowledges, "but none with such relentless hostility for the institution itself." Indeed, Trump's "slurs" against journalists as "enemies of the people' are now a calculated political tactic that undermines democracy by "accelerating the breakdown of public confidence in journalism as a legitimate, fact-based check on government power."
      The bill of particulars against Trump continues with his "self-dealing and conflicts of interest," in defiance of what had been strong antigraft protections. Trump "has broken with his modern predecessors," Abramowitz writes, "in flouting the ethical standards of public service." Abramowitz notes Trump's nepotism-defying hiring of daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner as White House aides despite their own financial conflicts of interest, but without specifically treating it not only as a political issue but as the kind of practice associated with antidemocratic authoritarian leaders through the years.
      The global decline in democracy detailed in Freedom House reports for more than a decade also dates from before Trump's presidency, but Trump has turned policies away from what had been a commitment by Republican and Democratic presidents alike to seek to promote democracy abroad. "Trump has refused to advocate for America’s democratic values, and he seems to encourage the forces that oppose them," Abramowitz writes, citing what he calls Trump's "frequent, fulsome praise for some of the world's worst dictators," Russia's Vladimir Putin among them.
      Trump cannot be blamed for the economic and political malaise that has led to declines in democracy for a thirteenth consecutive year in what the Freedom House report calls a "consistent and ominous" trend. But Trump has surely given aid and comfort to what the report calls "the antiliberal populist movements of the far right" in such backsliding countries as Hungary and most recently Brazil. "These movements damage democracies internally through their dismissive attitude toward core civil and political rights, " the report states, "and they weaken the cause of democracy around the world with their unilateralist reflexes."
      The unilateralist theme of "Make America Great Again," imitated worldwide, contributes to what the Freedom House report calls "real alarm" for democracy worldwide. "Democracy needs defending," the report concludes, but with Trump in office the report ends with a plea for Americans to recognize that "no one else will do it for us."

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Republicans' Fake Statistics on Illegal Voting

      David Whitley had barely settled into his new job as Texas's secretary of state last month [Jan. 25] when he put out a seriously flawed study suggesting that 95,000 noncitizens had voted, illegally, in Lone Star state elections over the past 20 years. Within the week, however, Whitley's office was acknowledging errors in the lists of supposed noncitizen voters that it had sent to county election offices to use in purging their voter rolls.
      Whitley, a longtime aide to Texas's Republican governor and former state attorney general Greg Abbott, is the latest GOP politician to take up the monomaniacal pursuit of mostly imaginary illegal voting by noncitizens. President Trump is the leading victim of this clinical obsession with his repeated claim that he would have won the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election but for the supposed millions of noncitizen voters who, apparently, broke overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton.
      As with so many of Trump's utterances, the Liar in Chief has no evidence whatsoever to support this preposterous claim about noncitizen voting in the 2016 election. Whitley, on the other hand, deserves at least partial credit for finishing up a study authorized under a recent Texas law aimed at gathering actual evidence of noncitizen voting in the state.
      The study, immediately touted by the state's Republican attorney general Ken Paxton, raised alarms nationwide after Trump and conservative commentators began citing it as the long-sought proof of noncitizen voting. On the surface, the study seemed sensible enough by correlating noncitizens who applied to the state's Department of Public Safety for driver licenses with names on county election registration rolls.
      The logical flaw, however, results from the extended time period covered by the study since many of the noncitizen drivers could have become naturalized citizens by the time they registered to vote years later. In fact, Texas secretary of state officials involved in the study learned before releasing their results that other states had encountered this very problem with similar studies and had acknowledged their results to be questionable.
      The obsessive search for illegal voting by noncitizens naturally brings to mind Captain Ahab's self-destructive pursuit of the white whale in Moby Dick or the Bush administration's empty-handed search for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Among the other recent victims of this neurosis is the Senate's Republican leader, Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, who wrongly claimed in an op-ed essay [Jan. 18] that California election officials had recently allowed 23,000 ineligible voters to register. Five days later, the Washington Post ran a correction to note that the figure "referred to registration errors such as wrongly recorded party affiliations, not ineligible voters."
      McConnell cited the fake statistics in the course of a broad attack on the Democratic-sponsored bill in the House of Representatives aimed at making it easier to vote by requiring, among other practices, automatic voter registration and early voting in federal elections. The Democratic sponsors call H.R. 1 the "For the People Act," but McConnell dismisses it instead as "the Democrat Politician Protection Act" on the wrongheaded premise that it is designed to allow federal workers to take a day off to campaign for Democratic candidates.
      Meanwhile, local election officials in Texas were dealing with the serious issues resulting from a wrongheaded directive from the state elections chief to purge supposed noncitizens from their registration rolls. In Harris County, the state's largest, election officials reported that they had cleared 18,000 voters who had been wrongly identified in the secretary of state's study as potential noncitizens, as reported in the Texas Tribune.
      The Tribune reported that four other large counties had received messages from Whitley's office acknowledging possible errors in identifying some of the voters as noncitizens. By week's end, Whitley had not officially acknowledged the errors, but the office's spokesman backpedaled somewhat by explaining that the office was "continuing to provide information to the counties to assist them" in verifying voter eligibility.
      The long-established Latino advocacy group known by its acronym as LULAC sued Whitley's office in federal court by claiming that the enforcement steps taken based on the flawed study amounted to voter intimidation. "Voter fraud is a lie," LULAC's president Domengo Garcia said at a news conference announcing the lawsuit. "It's a big lie made to disenfranchise primarily African-American, Latino voters in Texas."
      By now, any court can take judicial notice of the fact that Republican lawmakers and officials have enacted laws and adopted policies over the past two decades deliberately aimed at making it harder to vote so as to disadvantage groups likely to favor Democratic candidates at the polls. As one datum, a judge could note that Mississippi's newly elected Republican U.S. senator Cindy Hyde-Smith told a rally after her election in November that it would be "a great idea" to "make it just a little more difficult' to vote."
      The Supreme Court has been complicit in the Republicans' voter suppression by upholding state voter ID laws despite the lack of any measurable evidence of fraudulent voter impersonation at the polls. In today's poisonously polarized political climate, the right to vote no longer enjoys bipartisan support nor strong judicial protection. The fake statistics spread around by Republicans in state capitals and Washington alike undercut what should be a sacred privilege. More than ever, federal courts need to step in boldly when called on to police the politically driven tactics to devalue this most precious of rights in our democracy.