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You Say You Want a Revolution

July 31, 2016

You say you want a revolution,
Well, you know
We all want to change the world.

John Lennon

Senator Bernie Sanders says that his presidential campaign began a political revolution in the United States. Some Sanders supporters have cast Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as the candidate of the status quo. But there is a lot of distance between a revolution and the status quo.

A fair look at the policy proposals of Sanders and Clinton can only yield the conclusion that both constitute strongly and comprehensively progressive platforms; neither one comes anywhere close to advocating for the status quo.

Nor does the fact that Clinton has now squarely positioned herself as a candidate to continue President Obama’s legacy make Clinton an advocate of the status quo. Obama successfully brought important changes to American life, but Republican Congressional majorities impeded many other changes he tried unsuccessfully to realize. So even if a Clinton presidency were nothing more than a continuation of the Obama presidency, an effort to get done what Obama was unable to get done, it would hardly be a status quo administration.

Unfortunately, for at least the first two years of a Clinton presidency, it is almost certain that Democrats will remain a minority in the House of Representatives and will not have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Therefore success will depend largely on the degree to which a President Clinton could obtain cooperation from Republicans, meaning that progressive change will not be revolutionary but incremental – at best.

It’s important to recognize that a President Sanders would labor under the same constraints. The practical importance of the partisan constraints is large enough to overwhelm the differences between Clinton’s and Sanders’s policy positions.

So, for instance, Sanders advocates infrastructure investment of $1 trillion over five years, while Clinton proposes a much more modest investment of $275 billion over five years. My own belief is that we need to spend more than Sanders proposes, and much more than Clinton proposes – I’ve argued for $2.8 trillion over 14 years. And my position in turn falls well short of the position taken by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which contended in 2013 that the United States must spend $3.6 trillion on infrastructure over the next seven years.

This presumably implies that I should reject Hillary Clinton’s position in favor of Bernie Sanders’s. But the bottom line is that the Clinton position won’t fly with a Republican House majority, much less the Sanders position, much less the Ecce Homo position, much less the ASCE position. The same is true about essentially all of the Democratic Party platform.

If there’s going to be a revolution in American politics in the next decade, it will not come from the policy positions taken by a Democratic president; it will come from the Supreme Court appointments of that president.

A political revolution would come from overruling Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the 2010 decision by which the Supreme Court held that spending money constitutes constitutionally protected exercise of free speech rights, and the fact that most voters lack the resources to engage in much speech-by-spending is just their tough luck. The law in its majestic equality allows the rich and the poor alike to spend as much as they want to influence elections.

Both Clinton and Sanders want to see Citizens United overruled. Although Trump was critical of the Citizens United decision early on in his campaign, he promises to appoint Supreme Court justices in the mold of the late Antonin Scalia, who enthusiastically joined the 5 – 4 majority in Citizens United.

A political revolution would be furthered by overruling Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 Supreme Court decision that threw out the section of the Voting Rights Act that required areas of the country with proven histories of illegal discrimination in voting rights to submit changes in voting rules to “pre-clearance” by the federal Justice Department. Overlooking a detailed, fact-based four justice dissent, the five-justice majority opined that “‘pervasive,’ ‘flagrant,’ ‘widespread,’ and ‘rampant’ discrimination” no longer exists in the application of voting rules, and that the pre-clearance requirement was outdated.

Republican states and municipalities reacted quickly to the elimination of the pre-clearance provision by enacting voting provisions clearly intended to discourage voting by groups, including African-Americans, that tend to vote Democratic. These states enacted voting restrictions that could not have survived pre-clearance – and, in some instances, restrictions that had actually been rejected before pre-clearance was struck down.

The restrictions imposed by one of those states, North Carolina, were invalidated last week by a federal appeals court that said that “the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and that the provisions “impose cures for problems that did not exist.” The North Carolina legislature’s motivation was so nakedly racist that, before legislating, it sponsored research into the use of various voting provisions by race, then changed or eliminated provisions, like early voting, that were disproportionately used by African-Americans.

Both Clinton and Sanders want to “restore” the Voting Rights Act and aggressively expand voting rights; Trump has nothing to say about voting rights, but his baseless beefing about supposed voter fraud suggests that he will have no problems with his Scalia-like Supreme Court appointees following or even expanding on the Shelby County decision.


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