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Policy proposals

Does democracy murder itself?

John Adams once wrote, “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.” In Why Culture Matters Most (Oxford, 2018) David Rose shows what happens when trust within a democracy evaporates. He notes the constitutional mandate for the federal government to “promote the general welfare,” and argues well that “the only way to promote the general welfare is never to promote the welfare of any individual or group.” Now that special interest welfare abounds, deficits in both dollars and trust surround us.

Isabel Sawhill’s The Forgotten Americans: An Economic Agenda for a Divided Nation (Yale, 2018) tries to walk the tightrope connecting general welfare and special interests: Our divided Congress could spend on “more vocational education and adjustment assistance for workers adversely affected by new developments in technology and trade … a broad-based tax credit that bumps up wages for those who are currently working hard.” She also wants to encourage later retirement for most workers and “shift the emphasis from everyone going to college to a much stronger focus on investing in helping everyone train for and find work.”

Salena Zito and Brad Todd’s The Great Revolt (Crown, 2018) explains how Donald Trump rode a wave of distrust to election in 2016. The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis (Norton, 2018) shows disorder in the Trump administration and suggests that we trust federal bureaucrats to make things right: Lewis is a much better writer when he dishes up a story rather than a political screed. René Breuel’s The Paradox of Happiness (Kirkdale, 2018) shows we become trusted and happier not by fulfilling our desires but by helping to fill up the lives of others.

Bernard Fraga’s The Turnout Gap (Cambridge University Press, 2018) documents that Latinos and African-Americans vote less often than non-Hispanic whites, but knocks down the contention that the reason is voter identification laws or other legal restrictions. Fraga says minority voters in largely white areas tend to think their votes do not matter, since they have often lost electoral contests.

While we often hear that reforms (such as early voting) will reduce turnout disparities, Fraga reports evidence that the opposite is true, since the most engaged citizens (often conservative) tend to use those opportunities. One study finds Republicans do better when early voting is allowed: Hyper-partisan GOP legislators who try to limit that may be shooting themselves in the foot.

Michael Tomasky’s If We Can Keep It (Liveright, 2019) reminds me of how the New Math that arrived a half-century ago left more children numerically illiterate—and the Newer Math concerning national elections may spread even more political confusion. The left views both George W. Bush and Donald Trump as illegitimate presidents because in 2000 and 2016 their Democratic opponents won more votes. Now, anti–Electoral College bias has expanded to anti-constitutional bias.

Immigrants applying for citizenship learn that the Constitution gives each state two senators, but Tomasky says that’s not fair, since Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was “confirmed by a majority of senators who collectively won fewer votes in their last election than did the senators who voted against that justice’s confirmation.” Tomasky’s Newer Math shows that Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito gained Supreme Court confirmation with the votes of senators who won only 48 percent of the popular vote. Ironically, Tomasky’s subtitle is How the Republic Collapsed and How It Might Be Saved—but he calls for direct democracy that would kill it.

Sociologist Jonathan Metzl offers florid prose in Dying of Whiteness (Basic, 2019). He claims that lower- or middle-income whites went against their “existential self-interests” in voting for Trump. When “white privilege” leads a woman to buy a gun, she accidentally shoots herself. Her jolting ride to a hospital that is “hemorrhaging vitality” comes because she wanted lower taxes, so “roads potholed.” Metzl calls whiteness “a castle under siege” with “plagues that arise from within the castle walls.”