Who has ultimate authority: the president or the courts?

Posted on February 9, 2017. Filed under: Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , |

A simple question, being asked by many Americans as the courts deliberate over the president’s travel ban, that alarms us to the core. This is basic three-branches-of-government data. We should all have learned this in grade school. But since civics education has been eliminated in our schools, most Americans seem to lack the most basic understanding of how our government works.

And that’s so dangerous. It allows people to believe the president when he says the courts are traitorous and should just do as he says “because it’s right”.

We’re rerunning our post on this issue in hopes of answering that simple and fatal question for America. We originally ran it nearly a decade ago, in the context of state supreme courts ruling on gay marriage. Every time you read “the legislature” below, sub in “the executive”, that is, the president, and it addresses the issue with Trump today. Sub in “tyranny of the president” for “tyranny of the majority”, and you are also on track.

 

We were listening to the news and heard someone being interviewed say that an issue in their state had been decided by the state Supreme Court, and therefore the issue “was solved by the courts, not by democracy”.

This idea that the judiciary, one of the three branches of our government as described by our Constitution, is somehow not part of our democratic system is a baffling one. We are forced to repost our original rebuttal of this idea, from 2008, here in the continuing effort to fight this misconception:

The California Supreme Court’s decision that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional has been met with the by-now common complaint that the Court overstepped its bounds, trampled the wishes of the voters, and got into the legislation business without a permit.

A review of the constitutionally described role of the judiciary is in order. The judicial branch exists to review laws, acts, and executive orders to ensure that they are constitutional. If those laws, acts, and executive orders are not constitutional the courts must overturn them. This allows the judiciary to preserve our democracy in a crucial way—stopping tyranny of the majority.

The famous commentator on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, talked a great deal in his books Democracy in America about the tyranny of the majority. This is when majority rule–the basis of democracy–ends up perverting democracy by forcing injustice on the minority of the public.

For example, slavery was an example of the tyranny of the majority. Most Americans in the slave era were white and free. White and free people were the majority, and they used their majority power to keep slavery from being abolished by the minority of Americans who wanted to abolish it. The rights of black Americans were trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the majority of Americans were fine with segregated schools. They used their majority power, through their members of Congress, to oppress the minority of Americans who were black, or who were white and wanted desegregation.

In each example, the majority is imposing and enforcing injustice which is incompatible with democracy. They are tyrannizing rather than governing.

The judiciary was created to break this grip of majority tyranny. The legislature–Congress–cannot usually break majority tyranny because it is made up of people popularly elected by the majority. But the appointed judiciary can break majority tyranny because its sole job is not to reflect the wishes of the people but to interpret the Constitution.

If the judiciary finds that a law made by the legislature perverts democracy and imposes the tyranny of the majority, it can and must strike that law down. This is what happened in California. The court found that although the majority of Californians (as evidenced by a previous referendum) had voted to ban gay marriage, that majority was enforcing and imposing injustice on the minority. So the court found the ban unconstitutional.

This is not beyond the scope of the judiciary, it’s exactly what it is meant to do.

We heard a commentator yesterday saying the California court should have left the issue to “the prerogative of the voters”. But if the voters’ prerogative is to oppress someone else, then the court does not simply step aside and let this happen.

The same people who rage against the partial and biased justices who lifted this ban are generally the same people who would celebrate justices who imposed a ban on abortion. People who cry out for impartiality are generally only applying it to cases they oppose. See Dispatches from the Culture Wars for an excellent post demonstrating this.

So that’s what the judiciary does: it prevents the tyranny of the majority from enforcing injustice in a democracy. Like it or not, the “will of the people” is not always sacred, and sometimes must be opposed in the name of equality.

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Watergate and Trump and deja-vu: The Saturday Night Massacre Redux

Posted on January 31, 2017. Filed under: Politics, Revolutionary War, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We’re rerunning this post from our series on the 1972-5 Watergate crisis because of the Trump Administration’s sudden firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates. President Trump firing an attorney general who stood up to his unconstitutional requests is all too reminiscent of a horrible 24 hours in our nation’s history, when President Nixon tried to fire his attorney general for refusing to help Nixon break the law. Two attorneys general would resign in what was called the Saturday Night Massacre.

Members of our federal government rose up to save the Constitution and the United States in 1973. They fought for our system of government, which explicitly says the president is not above the law. They knew that we, the people, do have “an alternative” if a president breaks the law—we impeach that president. They knew that Nixon’s actions posed “a grave and profound crisis.” How will the members of our federal government act in 2017?

 

It’s post 5 in our series on the Watergate crisis, and here we come to the most shocking part of the entire event, which is the Saturday Night Massacre of October 20, 1973. We left off last time with the forced resignations and false confessions of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and the firing of John Dean for deciding he would tell all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee. Bear in mind that Dean knew that the original break-in had been carried out by CREEP and approved by former Attorney General John Mitchell, and he knew that the president had ordered evidence to be destroyed and people to be paid off to keep quiet, but he did not know that Nixon had tried to stop the FBI investigation. No one but Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman knew that. The only way anyone else could find that out was if they listened to the secret tape recordings Nixon made of all of his conversations, including the one we mentioned last time from June 23, 1972—six days after the break-in—in which Nixon told Haldeman to have the CIA director, Richard Helms, call the head of the FBI, Patrick Gray, and tell him to “stay the hell out of this” in the name of national security. Luckily, only a handful of men in Nixon’s administration knew about the tapes. Unluckily for Nixon, one of them told all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee, on live national TV.

On Friday the 13th, July 1973, White House assistant Alexander Butterfield was asked if there was any type of recording system used in the White House. After some prodding, Butterfield said there was, and that it automatically recorded every word spoken in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, and Nixon’s private office. Three days later, after the weekend break, Butterfield reiterated this claim. Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed Nixon for these tapes. He wanted to listen to them and see if they showed that the president ordered the break-in, had tried to cover it up, or just knew about it. Nixon refused, citing executive privilege and again saying that national security would be damaged if the tapes were made public. Cox said he would only make public information relating to Watergate; if there was none, no part of the tapes would be made public. Nixon still refused and ordered Cox to rescind the subpoena, which Cox refused to do. On Friday, Nixon offered a compromise: he would allow Mississippi Senator John Stennis to listen to the tapes and write a summary of their contents. Cox refused. He did not trust Nixon to give Stennis access to tapes that would incriminate himself. The subpoena stood.

Now the events unfolded that would be called the Saturday Night Massacre, events which threatened the very basis of constitutional law in the U.S. It’s hard to believe that finding out that the president had tried to obstruct a criminal investigation to protect the criminals could be overshadowed by any other of his actions, but what Nixon ordered on Saturday, October 20, 1973 surpasses even that obstruction of justice in its seriousness.

That morning, Nixon told his chief of staff Alexander Haig to call his new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and tell him to fire Cox. Richardson had just been appointed as Attorney General by Nixon in April after the “resignation” of John Dean. A few days earlier, on Thursday, Richardson had met with Nixon and learned that he wanted Cox fired if he wouldn’t accept the Stennis compromise. Richardson told the president he felt sure Cox would accept it, but left the meeting already resolved to resign if Cox didn’t. He knew that Nixon would ask him to fire Cox because only Richardson could: as Attorney General, he had appointed Cox as special prosecutor, and only he could fire him. Richardson did not believe the refusal to accept the Stennis compromise was grounds to fire Cox, but Nixon did. After that Thursday meeting, he told Haig “No more tapes, no more documents, nothing more! I want an order from me to Elliot to Cox to that effect now.”

When Haig called Richardson at 7.00 on Friday night to tell him to fire Cox, Richardson refused, saying he would resign instead. As this was happening, Cox (unaware of this call) issued a statement to the press just in time for the evening deadline saying that the president was refusing to comply with a court order “in violation of the promises which the Attorney General made to the Senate” that the Watergate break-in would be investigated thoroughly. Cox’s statement was front-page on Saturday morning, and he was planning to hold a press conference at 1.00. Richardson phoned Cox to tell him what had happened. At the press conference, Cox reminded reporters that only the Attorney General could fire him. Meanwhile, Haig phoned Richardson again and ordered him to fire Cox; Richardson refused. Knowing what would happen next, Richardson met with his Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, and told him that he, Ruckelshaus, would be asked to fire Cox once Richardson’s resignation was made public. Ruckelshaus said he would not do it and that he, too, would resign.

Nixon summoned Richardson to his office and told him that if he didn’t fire Cox, Nixon couldn’t meet with the Soviet Premier to work out a solution to the crisis in the Middle East because Brezhnev wouldn’t respect a man who was being publicly defied by a subordinate. Again Richardson refused, and Nixon said “I’m sorry that you insist on putting your personal commitments ahead of the public interest.” Richardson resigned. As Richardson left, Haig was on the phone to Ruckelshaus, telling him to fire Cox. When he balked, Haig barked “Your commander in chief has given you an order! You have no alternative.” Undaunted, Ruckelshaus replied, “Except to resign”, which he did. Finally, Nixon sent a limousine to pick up Solicitor General Robert Bork from his home and bring him to the White House. There, Nixon told him to fire Cox. He had a letter of dismissal ready, waiting for Bork’s signature. Intimidated, Bork signed it. Nixon told him, “You’ve got guts.”

At 8.25 that evening, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler held a press conference announcing the resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus and the firing of Cox, saying “the office of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force has been abolished as of approximately 8 PM tonight.”

The nation was shocked. The way they experienced it, they woke up to read Cox’s claim that the president was refusing to obey a court order. Then they watched his press conference at 1.00 PM where he outlined his rightful claim for the tapes. Then they heard an 8.25 PM press conference saying that Cox, Richardson, and Ruckelshaus were all fired, and that the president had declared the Watergate investigation over. It was abundantly clear that Nixon had eliminated three men whom he was afraid of—what was he afraid of? What did he think they would discover if they had the tapes? And more importantly, would the president’s illegal, unconstitutional firing of the special prosecutor be allowed to stand? was the president above the law? Could he do whatever he wanted, no matter what? As commander in chief, if he committed a crime, did the American people “have no alternative” but to let him do it, and to quietly accept an imperial presidency?

The name “Saturday Night Massacre” may seem overdone—like the “Boston Massacre”, in which only five people died. But what was being massacred was the Constitution, separation of powers, and the rule of law that said that in the U.S. no one, no matter their position, is above the law. The coverage on the news that night reiterated this perception of danger:

John Chancellor, NBC News: Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis in its history. The President has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Because of the President’s action, the attorney general has resigned. Elliott Richardson has quit, saying he cannot carry out Mr. Nixon’s instructions. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, has been fired.

Ruckelshaus refused, in a moment of Constitutional drama, to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general.

All of this adds up to a totally unprecedented situation, a grave and profound crisis in which the President has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Nothing like this had ever happened before. Nixon had thrown down a gauntlet to the nation: you must accept my power to live above the law. I will not be questioned. How would the nation react?

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It’s not only the Obama address that’s gone from Trump’s whitehouse.gov

Posted on January 20, 2017. Filed under: Civil Rights, Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

We’re behind the times:

screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-2-37-50-pm

See the full story here.

 

Then come back to our series on Obama’s farewell address.

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…the Obama Farewell address is no more on the Trump whitehouse.gov site

Posted on January 20, 2017. Filed under: U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Post 2 in our series close-reading the Obama farewell speech has started ominously.

We put in the URL for the speech that we referenced in our first post—whitehouse.gov/farewell—into our usual search engine. The first time, we got a page with a photo of President Trump and VP Pence (which we didn’t think to get a screenshot of) giving a thumbs up and asking us to Make America Great Again.

We typed the URL into the field at the top of the page, and got a page with only this message:

no-farewell

We searched for it on the whitehouse.gov site and got this:

screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-2-25-53-pm

We tried the link from Google—same result.

We had thought maybe we should pause parsing Obama’s farewell to address the Trump inaugural address; now we’re not sure how to proceed. An attack so blatant on people searching for the Obama address, with the Trump/Pence screen that only comes up once, has shocked us for the moment. We won’t be silenced, so we’ll be back very quickly, but this deserves a stand-alone post.

Go try it yourselves. Then come back for our series.

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Presidential campaigns, 1860 and 2016

Posted on June 9, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

Here we launch a series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign. We’ve often noted that the growth of a new kind of sectional tension in this country runs disturbingly parallel to sectional tension in the years before the Civil War; here we explore those parallels by going back to newspaper reports on the 1860 campaign and comparing what we find there to what we see happening now.

What is sectionalism? It’s a situation in which one part of a unified group begins to feel alienated, and to separate itself from that group, on the basis of geography or interests. Those interests usually become passions. In the two decades before the Civil War, sectionalism occurred as the South (geography) began to separate itself mentally and emotionally from the North because of the South’s commitment to slavery (interest), which the North did not share. Eventually, the North reciprocated by developing its own sectionalism, which rejected union with the South over slavery (see our post Northern sectionalism before the Civil War for more on that). Each geographic region defined itself in terms of slavery, embracing or rejecting it, and insisting that slavery was the one key issue of the day and for the nation. Eventually, sectionalism led to secession, and, as Lincoln said, the war came.

Today, sectionalism still has a slight geographic component, as southern state legislatures make a stand against liberty and justice for all (through state laws demonizing illegal immigrants, gay and transgender Americans, women seeking abortions, etc.) while most northern states do not. But geography has been trumped by interests: the real divide in the U.S. is ideological, between liberals and conservatives. Neo-conservatives, as they were called in the 1980s, found a stronghold in formerly Democratic southern states in the 1960s as the Democratic party under Johnson reached a pinnacle of civil liberty and social justice, particularly for racial minorities, that racist leaders of southern states and state politics could not accept. They moved to the Republican party, which, under Nixon, welcomed them as a bloc that supported the president’s and the party’s desire to stop civil rights legislation (on the basis that the federal government was overreaching and trying to “legislate morality”).

Conservatism had a boom under Reagan that moved it out of the south and into many white, middle-class homes around the country, as their inhabitants identified with Reagan’s image of the “real” America as white, self-supporting, and Christian, as opposed to everyone else, who was not white, on welfare (and abusing it), and non-Christian. Many white Americans also vibed to Reagan’s statement that the federal government was a curse and a burden (“government isn’t the solution to the problem; government is the problem”) and that it should be dialed way back to have minimal impact on people’s daily lives (i.e., no more social legislation). (See our post Reagan’s Farewell, 1989: We the People need no government for more on that.)

Many political leaders and people in the west seemed to embrace this new conservative message, as they saw themselves in a battle to the death with the federal government over access to and development of/mining on public lands, water, and protecting endangered animals.

Over the decades from the 80s to the 2010s, the new conservatism found strongholds in every part of the nation, wherever poor and middle-class white people felt disenfranchised and/or insulted by big business, immigrants, and/or liberals. To be fair, the movement is not entirely white; there are black and Latino conservatives. But the movement began with white people “taking back” their rights from newly-empowered minorities. For the past five years or so, the new dimension of sexuality has been added in, as conservatives generally identify as straight and feel their rights threatened and curtailed by the expansion of civil rights to gay and transgender people.

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either, although the south and west (particularly the Mountain zone) skew conservative while the northeast and Pacific Coast skew liberal. The midwest seems divided.

This new sectionalism has been an issue in every political campaign since 1980, but this year it is the be-all and end-all of the entire presidential election. And this is where the comparisons become striking:

—1860 was the year that sectionalism over slavery became the main issue of a presidential election. 2016 is the year that sectionalism between liberals and conservatives is the main issue.

—In 1860 the Democratic party fractured under the stress; the party split, nominating two different candidates: a Southern Democratic proslavery candidate, and a (northern) Democratic candidate who was on the fence but unlikely to abolish slavery. Today, the Democratic party vote may be badly divided between Sanders and Clinton.

—A new party emerged to take the place of the Whig party that had already been destroyed by sectionalism: in 1860 the Republican party was a party of radical social change dedicated to stopping the spread of slavery and “its eventual extinction”. Today, the Republican party is promoting radical social change by (presumably) nominating Trump as its candidate.

—In 1860, some people watching the campaigns were confident that the country would not split over it, while others tried hard to laugh off the idea, but no one denied that talk of civil war was in the air. In 2016, we laugh about people saying they’ll move to Canada if their candidate doesn’t win, and try hard to promote the idea that people whose candidate loses will put country ahead of cause and support the winner, but no one can deny that there are many voices saying they will do no such thing.

Next time we will get into the early coverage of the 1860 campaign and begin our comparisons, hoping as always to draw some useful plan of action from the exercise.

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Make America great again–by supporting its federal government

Posted on March 2, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

We’re re-running this post from a few years ago to counter the constant message of the Republican presidential campaigners and those of their supporters who get on TV and the radio saying that what makes America great is its people, not its government. Marco Rubio just made this statement a few days ago at a rally.

How the Founders would shudder to hear this. If the American people are great, it’s because of their government, which empowers and ennobles them, gives them national, political, and individual freedom, and relies on the people themselves to participate in the government, by voting and/or serving in public office.

When you have a government like that, you are free, even determined to offer free public education for all, to make sure everyone gets enough food, to sit on juries so your fellow Americans can get justice. Our representative democracy—still so very rare in the world, the first of its kind, and in the minority even in the 21st century—is what gives us our national character, our optimism, our passion for justice, our sense of fair play. We infuse our government with these good things.

When we decide the federal government is the root of all ills, that decision is usually led by  selfish people who don’t want to help their fellow Americans eat or get justice or live in decent housing; they are out for themselves and themselves alone. They call themselves libertarians or rugged individuals, and they claim that they are returning to original American values that made the country great.

These people are voted into office and there they pervert the federal and state governments into criminal systems that oppress the poor and non-white and female. It’s vicious circle: People who hate the government go into it to destroy and pervert it, and then the government actually becomes the root of all evils they said it was. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If America is no longer great, it’s because of these people saying they themselves will make it great again by destroying the government.

But we need to cling to our representative democracy, our principles of liberty and justice for all, taxation with representation that helps people get the things they need. We need to let it keep us generous and fair-minded. A woman on the radio this morning said she voted for Trump because “I just want a change. I want a change.”

Change in and of itself is not positive. You can’t just say I’m fed up and I will throw the baby out with the bathwater. You can’t say “change” when you mean “I want to get my own way all the time and not help anyone else.” You will get a change for the worse, and you might find that it’s a change you don’t end up liking.

Here’s the original post. We’re in it for the long haul to November and beyond.

 

We saw in the last post that Americans live in a unique situation: we enjoy all three types of basic freedom, national, political, and individual. Listing the nations that have offered all three freedoms to all of their citizens is a counting-on-one-hand proposition. Successfully providing and defending all three freedoms is what makes the United States great.

But it also presents some problems. Over the generations, Americans have veered between putting national freedom first and putting individual freedom first. We’re sometimes willing to give up individual freedom to be safe from attack, and sometimes unwilling to perform our duties of national and political freedom in the name of individual freedom. When the U.S. faces attack or threats to its safety, many Americans want to put laws in place curtailing individual freedoms like freedom of speech, religion, and assembly in order to at once weed out troublemakers and create a more homogenous society. Conversely, when the federal government tries to put sweeping legislation into effect, such as government-paid health care or social security or gun control, many Americans loudly protest the move as an infringement of their individual rights.

Individual rights also lead many Americans to neglect their political freedom to participate in government by holding office and/or voting. The feeling that participation in our democracy  is unnecessary, an extra rather than a basic tenet of American citizenship, is pervasive. Resentment of “big government” leads many people not to want to participate in government at all, as if they would be supporting an invasive federal government by voting or running for office, although the way to change the nature of government is to join it or vote in those you wish to have representing your views. The belief that our government is an impediment to individual freedom is sadly prevalent.

Holding all three freedoms in equal esteem is difficult. Many Americans have come to see our individual freedoms as the wellspring from which national freedom is born, and thus individual freedoms are the most important. But these individual freedoms come from our government, from the Constitution, and last only as long as we have our national freedom. Without national freedom, there is no individual freedom, and national freedom only lasts as long as we have political freedom. Giving up our right to vote—for refusing or failing to vote is tantamount to giving up that right—is a dangerous step toward losing national and individual freedom. Once we stop demanding that our government really represent us, our democracy is crippled, and then the nation is open to outside threats. If individual freedoms are seen as separate from or at odds with national and political freedom, then we begin to prioritize our liberty to do whatever we want at the expense of national safety.

Individual freedom is really our freedom to live up to the founding principles of our nation. It’s our freedom to speak and worship and serve our country as we each see fit, and not really the freedom to be lazy and uninvolved and prioritizing our own choices over other people’s choices. It is the freedom to live together as one without having to be the same, not the freedom to push our own ways at the expense of everyone else’s.

Political freedom is our freedom to have a democracy, to be represented accurately in the federal government, and to preserve the individual freedoms we enjoy.

National freedom is the end result of the first two freedoms, because we who value our individual and political freedom will not allow our country to be destroyed by outside forces—or by those Americans who don’t believe in the full triad of freedoms.

Going forward, we’re seeking to bring our three freedoms into balance and remember that each is equally valuable, and each demands our equal time and effort to maintain.

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