Hopeful about our democracy

After being briefly disappointed that the blue wave didn’t materialize as strongly as I’d hoped, I find that I am nevertheless rather hopeful about the future of our democracy.

This hopefulness springs from two causes. First, there are already more Democratic voters than there are Republican. Second, the Fifteenth Amendment is already part of the constitution.

We’re a majority

The number of votes cast for a Democratic House candidate exceeded the number cast for a Republican House candidate by well in excess of 4 million votes. We’re already in the majority by several percentage points.

The reasons don’t already control the levers of power are well understood. The Constitution, through the Senate and the Electoral College, give excess power to small states which currently lean Republican. The Republicans have been more shameless about gerrymandering. Voter suppression efforts targeted at ethnic minorities and at the young have been effective at reducing votes for Democrats.

Even if all of those things stay the same, we’re still a majority, and over time that will win out.

We will probably take control even before time (and demographic changes) bring us to that point. All it will take is a leader charismatic enough to produce some modest coattails, and we’ll once again have a Democratic government.

Once that happens, I very much hope, the Democrats will seize the opportunity to put an end to the gerrymandering and the voter suppression. That will put and end to the power of the racist wing of the Republican party, even if the Senate and the Electoral College remain unreformed.

How can that be done? Through the Fifteenth Amendment.

The Fifteenth amendment exists

Under the Fifteenth amendment, Congress has the power to enact appropriate legislation to ensure that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The Supreme Court struck down some of the rules enacted to do that, thereby enabling the recent spike in voter suppression. But the Supreme Court did not rule in favor of voter suppression. Rather, its decision turned rather narrowly on the “appropriate” part of the Congress’s power to legislate on the topic.

Supposedly, once the law had been in force for decades, it got too easy for Congress to just extend it, without doing the analysis to justify its appropriateness. Along those lines, the fact that the law treated some states (those that tried to suppress minority votes) differently from other states (those that did not) “despite our historic tradition that all the States enjoy equal sovereignty” was something the court objected to.

These things can be easily fixed. Congress can do the analysis to justify a long list of required and prohibited practices, and can apply those rules to all the states equally.

If we were a minority, the way the Republicans are, I’d be very worried. If we lacked a Fifteenth amendment, and had to fix this state-by-state, I’d be modestly worried.

As it is, I’m not so much worried as I am annoyed by what we’re having to go through at the moment.

Of course, I felt many of the same hopes back in 2012, and look where we ended up. No wonder some people think I’m a hopeless optimist.

Are we reaching the end of “escalate faster”?

For about a generation now the police in the U.S. have followed a general practice of escalating any confrontation, with the intention of escalating faster than the opposition can respond. This has saved lives, but I think we’ve reached the point where the negative consequences of this practice are becoming highly visible in a way that’s going to force changes.

The police still patrol in ones and twos the way they always did, but starting in maybe the 1970s they quit responding to confrontations that way. At the first sign of trouble, they’d call for backup. A confrontation with one person would be met by four or six officers. A confrontation with several people would be met by a dozen officers. A confrontation with an armed individual would be met by countless officers with rifles and shotguns.

In many cases this has no doubt saved lives. Certainly it has saved the lives of police officers, but it has probably saved the lives of suspects who were persuaded to surrender in the face of overwhelming force.

The problem with this tactic is that it’s obviously inappropriate in many circumstances. It’s basically a military tactic—hit with overwhelming force—and the general public views it that way and reacts with scorn (when used against people who are obviously harmless) together with either fear (when used against people like them) or shame (when they see it used in their name).

And that last, I think, is the change that’s going to make a difference: People feel shame when they see a rapid escalation to a disproportionate use of force done in their name, and they’re seeing it more in this age of smart phones.

So far when rapid escalation leads to uses of force that seem clearly unnecessary or disproportionate, and yet police officers face few or no consequences, people have been surprised. They shouldn’t be. The whole point is that these practices are codified in law and in the procedures the police departments follow. When the police rapidly escalate a confrontation they aren’t doing anything illegal, and they aren’t violating police department policies.

And those things—laws and procedures—are what need to change. Fortunately, in a democracy, when the public decides something ought to change there is a real chance of change forthcoming.

So, what do we do instead? We can go back to what policing ought to be—attempting to deescalate confrontations, reserving escalation for cases where public safety really requires it.

There are many instances where violence is a possible result—where somebody is angry or drunk or stoned or stupid or having a psychotic break or just a really bad day. In many instances violence could be avoided with deescalation.

For a very long time—as long as there has been government, right up until recent decades—escalation had to be slow, because the communication options and the manpower available didn’t allow for rapid escalation. There tended to be one representative of the government—a sheriff or tax collector—who kept order largely through moral suasion, together with having some call on overwhelming force (in the form of a posse or a platoon of redcoats or something). Unless a situation was such that calling in the marines would be appropriate, it pretty much had to be handled through deescalation rather than escalation.

Many of the lives saved by rapid escalation are police officers’ lives. Many of the people who will be saved through deescalation are not especially sympathetic—the petty criminal, the drunk, the mental patient, the burly man who is developmentally disabled. But others are, and we’re beginning to see the losses as part of a pattern, rather than as a series of unfortunate incidents.

When a guy has a stroke at the wheel of his car, manages to stop it, but is unable to respond to a police officer’s instructions (“Show me your hands! License and registration! Get out of the vehicle!”), what is the police officer’s appropriate response? Knowing the situation, obviously calling an ambulance. But under current polices there’s far too much chance that the guy will be dragged out of his car, roughed up, and dumped in the drunk tank until brain damage from the stroke is irreversible. Or, if he doesn’t have white skin, very possibly shot instead.

Now that we’re seeing people die at the hands of the police, and now that we’re hearing the testimony that these killings are legal and are in accordance with police department policy, we may finally see some changes in the laws and the policies.

Because that, rather than feelings of anger or shame, is what will make the difference.

A shift to deescalation will probably mean that people will die who might have lived. But people are dying now. People will die either way. A shift to deescalation may mean fewer people will die. It will almost certainly mean that fewer people will be shamefully killed in my name.

Gun control in a democracy

I think I know why it has been so difficult to pass any sort of significant gun control legislation in the United States.

Most democracies in the world have gun control laws, which serves as an existence proof that it is possible, and yet in the US gun control has been very much a matter of x steps forward, y steps back (with what you see as the values for x and y very much depending on your political position).

You can point to “historical reasons” or “cultural reasons” for our unique situation, and you’d certainly be right, but I don’t think that serves as much of a guide to anyone who wants change (in either direction). Instead, whether you advocate or oppose gun control, think for a minute what it means to have gun control—or any kind of government control—in a democracy.

In a democracy, you’re going to end up with laws that are (to a first approximation) supported by a majority of the people. In fact, in the sort of representative democracy we have in the US, it’s very hard to get any substantive change in the law unless it’s supported by substantially more than a bare majority, because it’s so easy for a determined minority to delay or block changes.

What that says to me is that, in a democracy, changing the law has to begin with changing people’s opinions.

Trying to do things the other way around—by pushing for legislation in advance of majority support—leads to exactly what we’ve seen these past few decades:

  1. Laws that are ineffectual, because they are loaded up with compromises needed to cobble together a majority in the legislature.
  2. A stiffening of opposition to the legislation, because opponents feel their viewpoint has been ignored.

If you want to get something like this done, your best bet is to follow the model provided by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. They wanted stiffer penalties and lower blood-alcohol limits, but their efforts in the legislator were initially quite ineffective. Where they were first influential was in changing public opinion.

In the early 1960s, drunk driving was something to be laughed at. Many a comedy bit was created around taking some guy so drunk he couldn’t stand up, pouring him into his car, and sending him off weaving down the road. They were funny. Watch those same sketches now and they’re appalling.

Once public opinion was changed, changing the laws was easy—because we live in a democracy.

There’s a second reason public opinion needs to change first: The police are  unable to enforce laws that aren’t broadly supported, except through police-state tactics.

If you have broad support—not just a majority, but a general consensus across society—then it’s easy to enforce laws. Few people break them. When they are broken, witness come forward to report the crimes. When people are prosecuted, juries convict and judges impose sentences as prescribed by law.

How would you enforce a gun law that was opposed by half the population?

It would be easy enough to enforce a law against open carry of a firearm, but enforcing a law against concealed carry would require the police to stop and frisk people on the street. (Of course, this happens already in certain neighborhoods. People who live in those neighborhoods are properly outraged, as are those who believe in freedom. But let it start happening in neighborhoods full of middle-class people—neighborhoods full of voters—and the laws would get changed back very quickly indeed. At least, I hope they would.)

It would be even harder to enforce a law against owning a firearm in your home. Even in the sorts of neighborhoods where people are routinely stopped and frisked, the police are not yet so bold as to enter and search people’s homes. But without that step, illegal guns would linger for decades. Indeed, for generations. And with that step, I suspect we’d see the law changed back very quickly: Many of the same people who support gun control would still object to the police-state tactics that would be necessary to impose a ban on guns.

And, lest I be accused of arguing against a straw man, on the grounds that “no one” is arguing for a ban (just reasonable regulation), I’d like to point out that the enforcement problem is the same.

I suppose the intermediate step that gun control advocates anticipate would be laws that regulate gun ownership, but with enforcement happening only when guns are discovered incidentally: If your house is searched for some other reason, then your illegal guns will be found and their presence will be used to pile on additional penalties. I most particularly object to that scenario, just as I object to all scenarios where ordinary people are required to keep their papers in order or face harsh penalties.

My main point here, though, is that seeking changes in the laws should always be a second step. First, seek a consensus in society that things should be different. Do that and it’s easy to change the law and easy to enforce it.

Jury duty and democracy

I’ve got a quandary. It’s in the area of civics.

I was on jury duty last month, and was in the pool of potential jurors for a cocaine possession case. Several of the candidate jurors mentioned that they had issues with drug prohibition, and were excused from serving on the jury—whether or not they said they could set their personal feelings aside and follow the law. (I wasn’t taking notes, but my recollection is that the ones who said they didn’t think they could follow the law were excused by the judge while the ones who merely expressed personal reservations about drug prohibition as a matter of public policy had to be peremptorily challenged by the prosecutor.)

I too think that drug prohibition is terrible public policy. It’s harmful to society at every level. It corrupts the police and the judicial system. It clogs the courts and the prisons. It drains money that could be better spent on useful things (or left in the hands of the people who earn it). It adds yet another layer of harm onto drug users—people who are already suffering—making it harder, riskier, and more expensive for them to either go on using drugs or seek help to quit.

Most especially, criminalizing commerce in drugs means that makers and sellers of drugs have no recourse to the police or the courts when they’re robbed or defrauded. That produces another whole layer of violence—one that only occasionally touches people who aren’t buying or selling (or stealing) drugs, but that would be completely absent if drugs were legal.

Despite all that, as I imagined my answers to the questions they were asking, I found that I was inclined to say that I could give both sides a fair trial—meaning that I thought, if the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was in possession of some amount of cocaine, I could vote to find him guilty.

I thought about why, and eventually decided it was because I think democracy is important.

I’ve got no doubt that drug prohibition is a dumb idea, but I’ve also got no doubt that the right way to fix it is by changing the law. I’m pretty sure that screwing around on the edges of the law, such as by acquitting people who are technically guilty, is the wrong way to solve the problem. And yet, each time someone like me applies the law, another person who already has more than his or her measure of problems gets another few—a felony conviction,  loss of access to things like public housing and school loans, and most likely a prison sentence.

And so my quandary. Is democracy worth that much? It’s worth a lot, but is it worth wreaking that much harm on someone who was merely self-medicating because they hadn’t found a better way to deal with life?

I find I’m not sure.

How voting helps

Plaque commemorating a lecture by Susan B. AnthonyI’ve long been peeved by how little credit people give to the power of their vote.

So many people seem to think that a vote isn’t effective unless it holds the balance of power, as if their vote only counted when the other voters were equally split, so that their vote would sway the election one way or the other.

This isn’t true for individuals, and it most especially is not true for groups.

Back in the run-up to the 2008 election, I heard a  story on NPR that provided a good counterexample. An Indian tribe in (I think) New Mexico was getting attention from state and national candidates of both parties, because they had started voting. Pretty much all of a sudden, after their voting turnout had shot up, their issues became important to politicians at all levels. And their issues weren’t just important when there was a close election and their votes might make the difference: Because they voted in every election, every politician needed to pay attention to their issues all the time.

If you’re a member of a group that votes, your group’s issues will be taken seriously. You don’t need to be a majority. You don’t even need to vote as a block. (In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t: You want politicians thinking that each individual vote is up for grabs, if they institute the right policies.)

The image at the top of this post is of a plaque in downtown Champaign, commemorating a lecture on “Work, Wages, and the Ballot,” that Susan B. Anthony gave here back in 1870. I’ve seen the plaque many times, but couple of days ago, I thought to take a picture of the plaque, and that prompted me to do a proper search, which yielded some results.

This Project Gutenberg Book Susan B. Anthony: Rebel, Crusader, Humanitarian, by Alma Lutz is pretty good:

She had at hand a perfect example in the unsuccessful strike of Kate Mullaney’s strong, well-organized union of 500 collar laundry workers in Troy, New York. Aware that Kate blamed their defeat on the ruthless newspaper campaign, inspired and paid for by employers, Susan asked her, “If you had been 500 carpenters or 500 masons, do you not think you would have succeeded?”

“Certainly,” Kate Mullaney replied, adding that the striking bricklayers had won everything they demanded. Susan then reminded her that because the bricklayers were voters, newspapers respected them and would hesitate to arouse their displeasure, realizing that in the next election they would need the votes of all union men for their candidates. “If you collar women had been voters,” she told them, “you too would have held the balance of political power in that little city of Troy.”

I turned 18 shortly after the voting age in the US had been lowered to 18. The drinking age had been lowered along with it, so it was legal for me to drink. But a big jump in drunk driving accidents prompted many states to raise their drinking age.

In Michigan it turned out to be an oddly complex process. A state law was passed, raising the drinking age to 19, but grandfathering in people who were already old enough to have started drinking before the law went into effect. After that law was passed, but before it went into effect, a state constitutional amendment was put on the ballot, that would raise the drinking age to 21, without any grandfathering. That would create a whole cohort of people who’d been able to buy alcohol for a year or more, who would lose that right. And all of them could vote.

I voted against it, of course. But nobody else I knew who was going to be in the affected group bothered to vote. They didn’t much care about the issue—it was as easy for under-age drinkers to buy booze then as now—and they didn’t think their vote would count for much. And, as it turned out, they were right. But only because their peers didn’t vote. Not only could a solid voting block of 18-to-20 year olds have affected the outcome, I rather doubt if the issue would have even gone on the ballot, if 18-to-20 year olds voted at the rates that senior citizens do.

The way voting helps is not by winning individual elections (although that does happen and it’s nice when it does). The way voting helps is that if you’re a voter, politicians take your interests into account all the time.