When Capitalism undermines Democracy

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

May 26, 2022

All day, I have been coming back to this: How have we arrived at a place where 90% of Americans want to protect our children from gun violence, and yet those who are supposed to represent us in government are unable, or unwilling, to do so?

This is a central problem not just for the issue of gun control, but for our democracy itself. 

It seems that during the Cold War, American leaders came to treat democracy and capitalism as if they were interchangeable. So long as the United States embraced capitalism, by which they meant an economic system in which individuals, rather than the state, owned the means of production, liberal democracy would automatically follow.

That theory seemed justified by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The crumbling of that communist system convinced democratic nations that they had won, they had defeated communism, their system of government would dominate the future. Famously, in 1992, political philosopher Francis Fukuyama wrote that humanity had reached “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” In the 1990s, America’s leaders believed that the spread of capitalism would turn the world democratic as it delivered to them global dominance, but they talked a lot less about democracy than they did about so-called free markets.

In fact, the apparent success of capitalism actually undercut democracy in the U.S. The end of the Cold War was a gift to those determined to destroy the popular liberal state that had regulated business, provided a basic social safety net, and invested in infrastructure since the New Deal. They turned their animosity from the Soviet Union to the majority at home, those they claimed were bringing communism to America. “​​For 40 years conservatives fought a two-front battle against statism, against the Soviet empire abroad and the American left at home,” right-wing operative Grover Norquist said in 1994. “Now the Soviet Union is gone and conservatives can redeploy. And this time, the other team doesn’t have nuclear weapons.”

Republicans cracked down on Democrats trying to preserve the active government that had been in place since the 1930s. Aided by talk radio hosts, they increasingly demonized their domestic political opponents. In the 1990 midterm elections, a political action committee associated with House Republican whip Newt Gingrich gave to Republican candidates a document called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” It urged candidates to label Democrats with words like “decay,” “failure,” “crisis,” “pathetic,” “liberal,” “radical,” “corrupt,” and “taxes,” while defining Republicans with words like “opportunity,” “moral,” “courage,” “flag,” “children,” “common sense,” “hard work,” and “freedom.” Gingrich later told the New York Times his goal was “reshaping the entire nation through the news media.” 

Their focus on capitalism undermined American democracy. They objected when the Democrats in 1993 made it easier to register to vote by passing the so-called Motor-Voter Act, permitting voters to register at certain state offices. The next year, losing Republican candidates argued that Democrats had won their elections with “voter fraud.” In 1996, House and Senate Republicans each launched yearlong investigations into what they insisted were problematic elections, one in Louisiana and one in California. Ultimately, they turned up nothing, but keeping the cases in front of the media for a year helped to convince Americans that voter fraud was a serious issue and that Democrats were winning elections thanks to illegal, usually immigrant, voters. 

In 2010 the Supreme Court green-lit the flood of corporate money into our political system with the Citizens’ United decision; in 2013 it gutted the provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring the Department of Justice to sign off on changes to election laws in some states, prompting a slew of discriminatory voter ID laws. In 2010, REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project) enabled Republicans to take over state legislatures and gerrymander the states dramatically in their own favor. 

At the same time, the rise of a market-based economy in the former Soviet republics made it clear that capitalism and democracy were not interchangeable. An oligarchy rose from the ashes of the USSR, and U.S. leaders embraced the leaders of that new system as allies. That allyship has gone so far that this week, the Conservative Political Action Conference held a conference in Hungary, where leader Viktor Orbán, who was a keynote speaker at the event, has openly rejected democracy. At the conference, he called for the right in the U.S. to join forces with those like him; yesterday, he declared martial law in his country. 

At home, where our focus on free markets has stacked our political system in favor of the Republicans, the vast majority of Americans want reasonable gun laws, reproductive rights, action on climate change, equality before the law, infrastructure funding, and so on, and their representatives are unable to get those things. 

Capitalism, it seems, is also trumping democracy at home.

Beginning The Reckoning

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

May 13, 2022

Today the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol issued subpoenas for testimony to five members of Congress: Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Representatives Scott Perry (R-PA), Jim Jordan (R-OH), Andy Biggs (R-AZ), and Mo Brooks (R-AL). The committee previously invited them to cooperate voluntarily, and they refused. The committee has evidence that these five, in particular, know crucial things about the events of January 6 and activities surrounding the attempt to overturn President Joe Biden’s election. 

McCarthy communicated with Trump before, during, and after the attack on January 6th. A recently released tape shows McCarthy claiming that Trump admitted some guilt over the attack.  

Perry tried to install Trump loyalist Jeffrey Clark as acting attorney general to overturn the election. 

Jordan was part of meetings and discussions after the election to overturn its results. He also communicated with Trump on January 6th, including in the morning, before the attack took place.

Biggs was part of the planning for January 6, including the plan to bring protesters to Washington, D.C. He also worked to convince state officials that the election was stolen. Former White House officials say Biggs sought a presidential pardon in connection with the attempt to overturn the election results. 

Wearing body armor, Brooks spoke at the January 6 rally, where he told rioters to “start taking down names and kicking ass.” Since then, he has said Trump tried to get him to help “rescind the election of 2020” and put Trump back in the White House.

Committee Chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) said: “We urge our colleagues to comply with the law, do their patriotic duty, and cooperate with our investigation as hundreds of other witnesses have done.”

This is an escalation of the committee’s investigation into the attempt to keep Trump in power, and today we learned more about what Trump’s presidency meant for national security.

The Department of Justice has opened a grand jury investigation into the handling of the classified documents that ended up at Mar-a-Lago. Prosecutors have issued a subpoena to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to get the boxes of documents and have asked to interview people who worked in the White House in the last days of Trump’s presidency. A spokesperson for Trump said: “President Trump consistently handled all documents in accordance with applicable law and regulations. Belated attempts to second-guess that clear fact are politically motivated and misguided.”

We also learned more about the people Trump’s presidency empowered.

The House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis, chaired by Representative James Clyburn (D-SC) and charged with examining waste, fraud, and any other issues relating to the government response to the coronavirus pandemic, issued a report today laying out how meatpacking giants got around local and state health officials trying to protect workers. 

Working with Under Secretary of Food Safety Mindy Brashears at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), who industry lobbyists boasted “hasn’t lost a battle for us,” top executives of JBS, Smithfield, and Tyson asked Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to get Vice President Mike Pence to throw his weight behind keeping workers in the plant. Less than a week later, Pence said at a press conference that meatpacking workers “need…to show up and do your job.” Industry leaders wrote a proposed executive order for Trump to issue, declaring a meat shortage and invoking the Defense Production Act to ensure that the plants continued to operate. Less than a week later, Trump issued a similar executive order.

But there wasn’t actually a shortage. Even as John H. Tyson, chair of Tyson’s board, ran full-page ads in national newspapers warning that “[t]he food supply chain is breaking” and “[o]ur plants must remain operational so we can supply food to our families in America,” U.S. pork exports were at a three-year high.

At the same time, companies asked for federal liability protection against lawsuits if workers got Covid-19 on the job. And they did get sick. Taylor Telford of the Washington Post noted that research from the University of California at Davis showed that about 334,000 coronavirus cases have been tied to meatpacking plants across the country. They have caused more than $11 billion in economic damage. Not, apparently, to the meatpacking companies, however. According to a Reuters story from December 2021, meat packers’ profits jumped 300% during the pandemic.

This story points to a larger problem of the consolidation of food production, a problem we are seeing right now in the acute shortage of baby formula in the U.S., where supplies are 43% below normal. The problem stems primarily from a recall of formula produced by Abbott, the country’s largest producer of infant formula, in its Sturgis, Michigan, factory after Cronobacter bacteria, which can cause a potentially deadly infection in infants, was found in test samples.  

Abbott has had a good run lately: in October 2019 it announced a $3 billion share buyback program to make its stock more valuable. Two years later, last October, a whistleblower warned that the Michigan plant was in need of repair, and claimed that Abbott had falsified records and hidden information from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Four months later, in February 2022, the FDA warned consumers not to use products from that facility. It is now closed, and other companies are scrambling to make up the difference. Today the administration announced it would increase imports of baby formula until U.S. production comes back to normal levels. 

It sure feels like we are beginning the reckoning of forty years of decisions, decisions that have concentrated power in a small minority and that have finally led us to the place where a congressional committee wants to talk with five members of Congress to hear what they know about the attempt to overturn an election so a Democratic president could not take office.   

The dog has caught the car

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

May 3, 2022

In 1985, President Ronald Reagan’s team made a conscious effort to bring evangelicals and social conservatives into the voting base of the Republican Party. The Republicans’ tax cuts and deregulation had not created the prosperity party leaders had promised, and they were keenly aware that their policies might well not survive the upcoming 1986 midterm elections. To find new voters, they turned to religious groups that had previously shunned politics.

“Traditional Republican business groups can provide the resources,” political operative Grover Norquist explained, “but these groups can provide the votes.” To keep that base riled up, the Republican Party swung behind efforts to take away women’s constitutional right to abortion, which the Supreme Court had recognized by a vote of 7–2 in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and then reaffirmed in 1992 in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

Although even as recently as last week, only about 28% of Americans wanted Roe v. Wade overturned, Republicans continued to promise their base that they would see that decision destroyed. Indeed, the recognition that evangelical voters would turn out to win a Supreme Court seat might have been one of the reasons then–Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell refused to hold hearings for then-president Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland. Leaving that seat empty was a tangible prize to turn those voters out behind Donald Trump, whose personal history of divorces and sexual assault was not necessarily attractive to evangelicals, in 2016.

But, politically, the Republicans could not actually do what they promised: not only is Roe v. Wade popular, but also it recognizes a constitutional right that Americans have assumed for almost 50 years. The Supreme Court has never taken away a constitutional right, and politicians rightly feared what would happen if they attacked that fundamental right.

Last night, a leaked draft of a Supreme Court decision, written by Justice Samuel Alito, revealed that the court likely intends to overturn Roe v. Wade, taking away a woman’s constitutional right to reproductive choice. In the decision, Alito declared that what Americans want doesn’t matter: “We cannot allow our decisions to be affected by any extraneous influences such as concern about the public’s reaction to our work,” he wrote.

The dog has caught the car.

Democrats are outraged; so are the many Republican voters who dismissed Democratic alarms about the antiabortion justices Trump was putting on the court because they believed Republican assurances that the Supreme Court justices nominated by Republican presidents and confirmed with Republican votes would honor precedent and leave Roe v. Wade alone. Today, clips of nomination hearings circulated in which Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, and even Samuel Alito–—the presumed majority in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade—assured the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that they considered Roe v. Wade and the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision upholding Roe settled law and had no agenda to challenge them.

Those statements were made under oath by those seeking confirmation to our highest judicial body, and they now appear to have been misleading, at best. In addition, the decision itself is full of right-wing talking points and such poor history that historians have spent the day explaining the actual history of abortion in the United States. This sloppiness suggests that the decision—should it be handed down in its current state—is politically motivated. And in a Pew poll conducted in February, 84% of Americans said they believed that justices should not bring their political views into their decision making.

Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) provided key votes for Trump’s nominees and are now on the defensive. Collins publicly defended her votes for both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh around the time of their confirmation, saying she did not believe they would overturn Roe. She noted that Gorsuch was a co-author of “a whole book” on the importance of precedent, and that she had “full confidence” that Kavanaugh would not try to overturn Roe. Murkowski voted to confirm Gorsuch and Barrett.

Collins today said: “If this leaked draft opinion is the final decision and this reporting is accurate, it would be completely inconsistent with what Justice Gorsuch and Justice Kavanaugh said in their hearings and in our meetings in my office.” Like Collins, Murkowski noted that the final decision could change, but ‘if it goes in the direction that this leaked copy has indicated, I will just tell you that it rocks my confidence in the court right now.” The draft is not going in “the direction that I believed that the court would take based on statements that have been made about Roe being settled and being precedent.”

Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin suggested that the Senate Judiciary Committee should hold hearings on whether the justices lied in their confirmation hearings, and call Senators Collins and Murkowski as witnesses.

This apparent shift from what they had promised is a searing blow at the legitimacy of the Supreme Court, which was already staggering under the reality that three of the current justices were nominated by Donald Trump, who lost the popular vote and then tried to destroy our democracy; two were nominated by George W. Bush, who also lost the popular vote in his first term; and one other is married to someone who supported the January 6 insurrection and yet refused to recuse himself from at least one case in which she might be implicated.

Today, Republicans tried to turn this story into one about the leak of the draft document, which is indeed a rare occurrence (although not unprecedented), rather than the decision itself. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) blamed the leaker for attacking the legitimacy of the court, although McConnell’s refusal in 2016 to hold hearings for Obama’s Supreme Court nominee on the grounds that eight months was too close to an election to confirm a justice before shoving Barrett through in October 2020 when balloting was already underway arguably did more to undermine the court’s legitimacy. Echoing him, one commentator said the draft leak was worse than the January 6 insurrection.

But while McConnell and the right wing are implying that a liberal justice’s office leaked the draft, there is no evidence either way. Observers note, in fact, that the leak would help the right wing more than the dissenters, since it would likely lock in votes. Those trying to blame the liberal justices did not comment on an apparent leak from Chief Justice Roberts’s office that suggested he wanted a more moderate decision. Jennifer Rubin suggested calling the bluff of those blaming the liberal justices: she proposed agreeing that whichever office leaked the draft ought to recuse from the final decision.

Republican politicians have largely stayed silent on the draft decision itself today, but the reaction of Nevada Republican Adam Laxalt, who is running for Senate, suggested the pretzel Republican politicians are going to tie themselves into in order to play to the base without alienating the majority. Laxalt issued a statement on Twitter that said the leaked draft represented a “historic victory for the sanctity of life,” but also said that since abortion is legal in Nevada, “no matter the Court’s ultimate decision on Roe, it is currently settled law in our state.”

Democrats, though, are not only defending the constitutional right recognized by Roe v. Wade, but also calling attention to the draft’s statement that the Fourteenth Amendment under which the Supreme Court has protected civil rights since the 1950s can cover only rights that are “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.”

It seems likely that the right-wing justices, who are demonstrating their radicalism by overturning a 50-year precedent, are prepared to undermine a wide range of constitutional rights on the grounds—however inaccurate—that those rights are not deeply rooted in the justices’ own version of this nation’s history and tradition.

Protesters turned out in front of the Supreme Court and across the country today vowing that women will not go backward. As actress Ashley Nicole Black tweeted: “There’s a particular slap to the face of being told we can vote for abortion rights, by the court that gutted voting rights.”

HCR: McConnell won’t permit Biden to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

June 14, 2021

Today, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told radio personality Hugh Hewitt that it is “highly unlikely” that he would permit President Biden to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court if the Republicans win control of the Senate in 2022.

While it seems certain that, if returned to his leadership role in the Senate, McConnell would block any Biden nominee, the fact he said it right now suggests that he is hoping to keep evangelical voters firmly in the Republican camp. In 2016, after Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, McConnell refused even to hold hearings for President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland. McConnell’s justification for this unprecedented obstruction was that Obama’s March nomination was too close to an election—a rule he ignored four years later when he rushed through Amy Barrett’s appointment to the Court in late October when voting in the upcoming election was already underway—and yet the underlying reason for the 2016 delay was at least in part his recognition that hopes of pushing the Supreme Court to the right, especially on the issue of abortion, were likely to push evangelical voters to the polls.

McConnell’s stance was at least in part directed to the changing nature of the judiciary under President Biden. Last week, the Senate confirmed the first Muslim American federal judge in U.S. history, a truly astonishing first since Muslims have been part of the U.S. since the earliest days of African enslavement in the early 1600s. By a vote of 81 to 16, the Senate confirmed Zahid Quraishi, the son of Pakistani immigrants and veteran of two tours of duty in Iraq, to the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

More to the point, perhaps, for McConnell, is that the Senate today confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Jackson takes the place of Merrick Garland, who is now the attorney general. This post is generally seen as a stepping stone to the Supreme Court. Biden has suggested he would appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court, and Jackson is widely thought to be a top contender.

Aside from its implications for the Supreme Court, McConnell’s stand makes a mockery of Senator Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) insistence on bipartisan support for legislation that protects voting rights. Manchin is demanding that bills protecting voting win bipartisan support because he says he fears that increasing partisanship will injure our democracy. McConnell’s flaunting of his manipulation of Senate rules to cement Republican control of our courts leaves Manchin twisting in the wind.

States, too, are passing voter suppression legislation along strictly partisan lines. The Brennan Center for Justice keeps tabs on voting legislation. It writes that “Republicans introduced and drove virtually all of the bills that impose new voting restrictions, and the harshest new laws were passed with almost exclusively Republican votes and signed into law by Republican governors.”

The Republican domination of the government over the past four years is on the table today as Democratic lawmakers try to get to the bottom of who authorized the FBI under former president Trump to spy on reporters, Democratic lawmakers and their families and staff members, and on White House Counsel Don McGahn and his wife. CNN chief congressional reporter Manu Raju tweeted that Adam Schiff (D-NY) who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, says after speaking with Garland that he still doesn’t know who started the investigation. “We discussed the need to really do a full scale review of what went on in the last four years, and make sure that steps are taken to re-establish the independence of the department,” he said.

While Attorney General Merrick Garland has referred the issue to the inspector general of the Justice Department, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler (D-NY), tonight announced the committee would open a formal investigation into the department’s secret seizure of data. “It is…possible that these cases are merely our first glimpse into a coordinated effort by the Trump Administration to target President Trump’s political opposition,” the committee members said in a statement. “If so, we must learn the full extent of this gross abuse of power, root out the individuals responsible, and hold those individuals accountable for their actions.”

In the midst of the uproar over the news that the Trump Department of Justice investigated Democratic lawmakers, the top national security official in the Justice Department, John Demers, a Trump appointee, has retired. Demers ran the department that had a say in each of the leak investigations.

Meanwhile, in Brussels, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, organized as a military alliance after WWII, met today. The heads of state of the 30 participating countries issued a communique reaffirming “our unity, solidarity, and cohesion,” and reiterating that, in case of attack, each nation would come to the aid of another. The members reiterated their commitment to a rules-based international order.

While the statement said NATO members remained open to a periodic, focused, and meaningful dialogue,” it singled out Russia as a threat and called for it to withdraw its forces from Ukraine, Georgia, and the Republic of Moldova. It condemned Russia’s “illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea.” It warned that NATO countries would, in certain circumstances, recognize a cyberattack as “amounting to an armed attack” and would treat it as such, rising to each other’s defense.

The statement was less strident against China, noting its “growing influence and international policies can present challenges.”

NATO leaders vowed to stand against terrorism and to continue to support Afghanistan despite the U.S. withdrawal. They reiterated that they did not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. In a reflection of the new era, the signatories’ statement called for addressing climate change. It also affirmed “the critical importance of women’s full, equal, and meaningful participation in all aspects of peace and stability, as well as the disproportionate impact that conflict has on women and girls, including conflict-related sexual violence.”

Biden says he promises to prove “that democracy and that our Alliance can still prevail against the challenges of our time and deliver for the needs and the needs of our people.” With this strong statement of NATO solidarity in hand, Biden will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.

HCR: Why is Critical Race Theory such a flashpoint in today’s political world?

Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American

HCR
Heather Cox Richardson

June 12, 2021

Yesterday, David Ignatius had a piece in the Washington Post that uncovered the attempt of the Trump administration to reorder the Middle East along an axis anchored by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudia Arabia (more popularly known as MBS), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and Jared Kushner of the U.S.

To make the deal, the leaders involved apparently wanted to muscle Jordan out of its role as the custodian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, a role carved out in the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan that was hammered out under President Bill Clinton. The new dealmakers apparently wanted to scuttle the U.S.-backed accords and replace them with economic deals that would reorder the region.

This story has huge implications for the Middle East, for American government, for religion, for culture, and so on, but something else jumps out to me here: this story is a great illustration of the principles behind Critical Race Theory, which is currently tearing up the Fox News Channel. Together, the attempt to bypass Jordan and the obsession with Critical Race Theory seem to make a larger statement about the current sea change in the U.S. as people increasingly reject the individualist ideology of the Reagan era.

When Kushner set out to construct a Middle East peace plan, he famously told Aaron David Miller, who had negotiated peace agreements with other administrations, that he didn’t want to know about how things had worked in the past. “He said flat out, don’t talk to me about history,” Miller told Chris McGreal of The Guardian, “He said, I told the Israelis and the Palestinians not to talk to me about history too.”

Kushner apparently thought he could create a brand new Middle East with a brand new set of alliances that would begin with changing long standing geopolitics in Jerusalem, the city three major world religions consider holy. It is eye-popping to imagine what would have happened if we had torn up decades of agreements and tried to graft onto a troubled area an entirely new way of interacting, based not on treaties but on the interests of this new axis. Apparently, the hope was that throwing enough money at the region would have made the change palatable. But most experts think that weakening Jordan, long a key U.S. ally in the region, and removing its oversight of the holy sites, would have ushered in violence.

The heart of the American contribution to the idea of reworking the Middle East along a new axis with contracts, rather than treaties, seems to have been that enough will and enough money can create new realities.

The idea that will and money could create success was at the heart of the Reagan Revolution. Its adherents championed the idea that any individual could prosper in America, so long as the government stayed out of his (it was almost always his) business.

Critical Race Theory challenges this individualist ideology. CRT emerged in the late 1970s in legal scholarship written by people who recognized that legal protections for individuals did not, in fact, level the playing field in America. They noted that racial biases are embedded in our legal system. From that, other scholars noted that racial, ethnic, gender, class, and other biases are embedded in the other systems that make up our society.

Historians began to cover this ground long ago. Oklahoma historian Angie Debo established such biases in the construction of American law in her book, And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes back in 1940. Since then, historians have explored the biases in our housing policies, policing, medical care, and so on, and there are very few who would suggest that our systems are truly neutral.

So why is Critical Race Theory such a flashpoint in today’s political world? Perhaps in part because it rejects the Republican insistence that an individual can create a prosperous life by will alone. It says that, no matter how talented someone might be, or how eager and dedicated, they cannot always contend against the societal forces stacked against them. It argues for the important weight of systems, established through time, rather than the idea that anyone can create a new reality.

It acknowledges the importance of history.