Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sunday Reading

No Middle Ground — Charlie Pierce on why there is no more mythical a beast than the “Moderate Republican.”

This is the party that modern conservatism has built, brick by brick, one indulged lunatic at a time, over the past 60 years. I leave the details to Rick Perlstein, but there is no question that this was a conscious choice made over time by one of the only two political parties that we have allowed ourselves. It began with the decision to side with the remnants of American apartheid. It continued with the decision to ally itself with the most virulently retrograde elements of American Protestantism. It was energized by the tragic historical truth that this stuff is an effective means of gaining political power. The thinking became more and more magical. The rhetoric became more and more unhinged. The willingness of the Republican party to tolerate an almost limitless amount of sheer public lunacy has led us to this moment, where the only answer Santorum dares give to a woman who believes the president intended to nuke an American city was to say that he wasn’t in Washington at the time.

There is no Republican middle any more. Pundits go searching for it and never return. Their bleached bones are found two years later in a ditch surrounding an Iowa cornfield, or their entrails are discovered hanging from a pine tree in northern New Hampshire as a warning to anyone else who dares undertake the quest. Just over the past few days, we have seen two alleged Republican “moderates” take positions that, a decade ago, would have marked them as fringe nuisances.

There is Senator Mark Kirk from Illinois, who finds himself entangled in the brilliant Republican gambit of using a bill designed to halt human trafficking as a Trojan horse for some truly oppressive anti-choice legislation. Called on this obvious chicanery, on which he himself has called bullshit, this is what allegedly moderate Republican Senator Mark Kirk said:

“[Senate Democrats] are making the same mistake that Democrats made in the 1850s when they defended slavery,” he said. “We should all be neo-abolitionists here, to make sure that there is no right in America to enslave others using the Internet.”

The distance between Kirk’s historical analogy and what that lady in South Carolina believes the president is conspiring to do is not vast at all.

Then, there’s Jeb (!) Bush, the choice of what is alleged to be the Republican “establishment,” winner of the “money primary,” calling for the outright abolition of the federally mandated minimum wage.

“We need to leave it to the private sector. I think state minimum wages are fine. The federal government shouldn’t be doing this. This is one of those poll-driven deals. It polls well, I’m sure – I haven’t looked at the polling, but I’m sure on the surface without any conversation, without any digging into it people say, ‘Yea, everybody’s wages should be up.’ And in the case of Wal-Mart they have raised wages because of supply and demand and that’s good. But the federal government doing this will make it harder and harder for the first rung of the ladder to be reached, particularly for young people, particularly for people that have less education.”

Spoken like a man identified on his birth certificate with an account number instead of a name. As it happens, I’m reading The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark’s terrific book about the run-up to World War I. We marvel today at the utter blind stupidity with which the European powers stumbled into a cataclysm. Centuries from now, historians, probably working on houseboats floating above what used to be Delaware, are going to look back at this period in our history and wonder how we tolerated a political party gone so completely mad, much less how we continued to empower it, election after election. They are going to marvel at how all the institutions designed to check the spread of the madness refused to look at it and call it what it is. These people are going to think American democracy was some sort of weird contagion that overcame the country, like ergot infecting the nation’s wheatfields. They’re going to believe we all just went crazy and ate ourselves.

Democracy Made Easy — John Nichols in The Nation: Oregon simplified the state’s voting laws and look what happened.

Here is a novel notion: Why not make democracy easy?

Why not take the trouble out of registering to vote—and out of voting?

It can be done. Other countries, where voter turnout is dramatically higher than in the United States, craft their laws to encourage voting.

Unfortunately, politics gets in the way of voting-friendly elections in the United States.

At least in most states.

It is no secret that these have not been easy times for the cause of voting rights.

An activist majority on the US Supreme Court has invalidated key sections of the Voting Rights Act, and the traditional defenders of the franchise—Congressmen John Conyers, D-Michigan, and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin—are struggling to renew the bipartisan coalition in support of robust protection for free and fair elections.

Beyond Washington, the debate frequently takes a turn for the worse. According to a Brennan Center review last year, almost two dozen states have since 2010 enacted laws making it “harder to vote.” And that is only the beginning of the story; The Nation recently reported that “From 2011 to 2015, 395 new voting restrictions have been introduced in forty-nine states.”

Lots of bad news for democracy, to be sure.

But not all bad news.

Some states have acted to expand voting rights—and get high-turnout elections to shape governments that reflect the will of the people.

Famously, Oregon has since 1998 used a vote-by-mail model as the standard mechanism for voting. (Washington state and Colorado now do the same.)

The results have been pretty impressive for Oregon: In 2014, while voter turnout nationally was just 36 percent, Oregon voter turnout was well over 50 percent.

The Oregon Secretary of State at the time of the 2014 election was an enthusiastic pro-democracy campaigner named Kate Brown. After the state again registered some of the best voter-participation numbers in the nation, Brown explained, “There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we see high turnout because of vote-by-mail. It’s extremely convenient and accessible; it’s secure and cost-effective.”

But Brown was not satisfied. As the state’s overseer of elections, she developed legislation designed to take the hassle out of registering to vote by enacting a groundbreaking plan to automatically register voters using drivers’ license data.

This is a big deal, as it adopts a proactive approach to voter registration; instead of requiring eligible voters to jump through hoops to get on the election rolls, the state does the work. The approach reflects the sensibility of high-registration, high-turnout countries around the world, where democracy is made easy rather than hard. The approach is reliable and cost-effective, as it utilizes existing state data. And it allows citizens who do not want to be voters to opt out.

Perfect, right?

Well, perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Democracy made easy may make sense to those who see a value in high-turnout elections and governing that reflects the will of the great mass of people. But it makes no sense to those who prefer governing to be the exclusive preserve of monied elites and their official minions—and for whom the notion of a truly representative democracy is truly frightening.

So Brown had to work the chambers of the Oregon legislature, where she faced plenty of opposition from Republicans and even the occasional Democrat. There really are a lot of politicians who share the view of the former Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, who vetoed a proposal for automatic voter registration in Minnesota with the message that “registering to vote should be a voluntary, intentional act.” Translation: citizens should have to jump through some hoops before they can become voters.

When Brown was promoting her plan, one Oregon legislator griped, “It’s already so easy to register, why would we make it easier?”

“My answer,” Brown recalled, “is that we have the tools to make voter registration more cost effective, more secure and more convenient for Oregonians, so why wouldn’t we?”

The arguments eventually took and the measure was approved by the state House and the state Senate.

It’s Nothing New — Same-sex marriage is as American as apple pie, and been a part of it for over two hundred years, according to Sarah Kaplan in the Washington Post.

Charity Bryant only intended to stay a few days in Weybridge, Vt., a tiny rural town with little to hold her attention. But then she met Sylvia Drake.

Drake was 22 — a talented, literary-minded woman in search of a kindred spirit. Bryant, seven years her senior, was brilliant, charismatic and exactly the kind of partner Drake had been looking for. The two fell swiftly, madly in love. Within months, Bryant rented a one-room apartment and asked Drake to become her roommate and wife.

It may sound like something from a 21st-century vows column, but this romance predates most newspapers’ style sections — by about two centuries.

“Our popular narrative of same-sex marriage says it’s this brand new thing,” said Rachel Hope Cleves, an associate professor of history at the University of Victoria and the author of a new study in the latest issue of the Journal of American History chronicling 500 years of same-sex unions in the United States. “But the reality is that it came over with human migration” — contrary, for example, to Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s comment during oral arguments on California’s Proposition 8 case that it’s an “institution which is newer than cellphones or the Internet.”

Long before United States vs. Windsor — before the Defense of Marriage Act, even before the Stonewall Riots — gays and lesbians in North America found ways to live as married couples, in practice if not in law, according to Cleves’s research. In the mid-16th century, Spanish conquistador Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca wrote about a custom of “one man married to another,” which he saw in several Gulf Coast communities. Newspaper accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries tell sensationalized stories of “female husbands,” women who passed as men and married other women for love or money. California miners Jason Chamberlain and John Chaffee lived together for more than 50 years and were thought of as “wedded bachelors” by those who knew them.

But Bryant and Drake’s 44-year marriage is by far the best and most explicitly documented example of an early same-sex union, said Cleves, who has also written a book about the relationship, “Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America.”

It began in 1807, when Bryant was visiting Drake’s older sister in Weybridge. Drake was something of an enigma to her family, who couldn’t understand why the 22-year-old — practically an “old maid” by the standards of the early 19th century — continually rejected her male suitors. Bryant, on the other hand, had a reputation: By 27, she had spent several years traveling around Massachusetts as an itinerant teacher and had a number of relationships with other women. She was visiting Vermont, in part, to escape the gossip that dogged her, Cleves said.

But Bryant was also worldly, fascinating and a talented seamstress — whatever her reputation, townspeople seemed happy to have her stay in Weybridge to make their clothes. Shortly after meeting Drake, she hired the younger woman as her assistant. When their friendship turned into a romance and Bryant asked Drake to move in, they were able to use their tailoring business as an excuse for the unusual arrangement.

“But from the beginning, their choice to live together was about their shared relationship,” Cleves said in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “They worked together in order to live together, not the other way around.”

Doonesbury — Speak up.

3 barks and woofs on “Sunday Reading

  1. “The distance between Kirk’s historical analogy and what that lady in South Carolina believes the president is conspiring to do is not vast at all.”

    True, it’s not vast, but I suspect it’s half-vast…

  2. Voting by mail is not secure. Period. With an anonymous ballot, there is no way for voting by mail to BE secure. PERIOD.

    • Where in the article or in the law does it say it’s anonymous? Ballots are mailed to registered voters based on drivers license information; that’s hardly anonymous.

      Absentee voting has been done by mail for decades. In fact, the first time I voted in 1972 I did it by mail. The Republic still stands.

Comments are closed.