CHICAGO — A federal judge on Thursday denied a request to halt construction on the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago — stifling the latest attempt by a group that has long opposed the upcoming site’s location in the storied Jackson Park on the South Side. Judge John Robert Blakey of the Illinois Northern District court issued the decision after hearing arguments last month on the legal challenge by the nonprofit Protect Our Parks, which filed its second lawsuit attempting to stop the planned location of former President Barack Obama’s presidential center. Blakey’s denial Thursday of a preli...
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Voters in Sweden this month gave a leading role to a far-right party with neo-Nazi roots. Italy is also on the cusp of putting a party in power that has fascist origins. And of course, in the United States, one party has increasingly embraced election denialism and attempted to undermine the legitimacy of the electoral process.
To try to understand what, exactly, is happening, I talked with Barbara Walter, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego who studies democracies across the world. Her book “How Civil Wars Start” has become a bestseller. Rather than talk about the prospects for political violence, we discussed why many democracies are retrenching and how the U.S. stands alone — and not in a good way.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you walk through the vital signs of democracy that you and other political scientists have been tracking and that are trending the wrong way in the U.S. and elsewhere?
So there are probably five big data sets that measure the quality of democracy and countries around the world. They all measure democracy slightly differently. But every single one of them has shown that democracies around the world are in decline. And not just the fledgling democracies, but sacrosanct liberal democracies in Sweden, the U.K. and the United States.
These indices are like vital signs, but instead of for your body, it’s for our body politic. What are the most important ones?
So, empirically, we can’t rank order them. But we know what the good things are, and if you start attacking them, you’re attacking the vital organs.
One is constraints on executive power. You want lots of checks and balances on the executive branch. Here in the United States, you want to make sure that the legislative branch is strong and independent and willing to check presidential power. You want to know that the judicial branch is the same. Another one would be rule of law. Is the rule of law actually respected? Is it uncorrupted? You don’t want a system where certain individuals are above the law. If you want to become, say, Orban 2.0, you place loyalists in the Justice Department who are beholden to you and not to the rule of law.
You also want a free and open press, so that your citizens get high-quality information and they can make good decisions. Another one is you really want a competitive political environment, so that there’s a level playing field for people who are competing for power. You could make a very uneven playing field by party. So you can restrict the vote, you can make voting more difficult.
So these are all vital: Do you have constraints on the executive? Do you have the rule of law, so that there’s accountability? Do you have a level playing field, so that there can really be popular participation?
Another warning sign you’ve talked about is when a party becomes less about policy and more about identity, a shift one can see in the Republican Party in recent years. Can you talk about it?
The Republicans have always had a challenge that they were the party of wealthy Americans and business. The problem is wealthy Americans will always be a very small minority of Americans. So for wealthy Americans, they have to convince at least some nonwealthy Americans to support their platform. How do you do that? Well, you do it with issues of identity, their sense of threat, their sense of fear, their sense of the world is changing and “I’m being left behind.” It’s very effective.
I want to get to why we see these dynamics playing out across so many countries. You cite three dynamics. One is that the dominant caste in many nations, white people, is trending toward minority status. Another is increasing wealth concentration, where rural areas are often losing out. And then there’s a new medium that has risen that is unregulated and unmediated: social media.
On No. 3, the new medium, I would state it stronger than that. It’s not that it’s unregulated per se. It’s that it’s being driven by algorithms that selectively push out the more extreme incendiary messages.
You also wrote about another concept that I hadn’t heard before: ethnic entrepreneurs. These are politicians like, say, Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian strongman, who recognize an opportunity in appealing to the fears of a particular group.
Yep. He was not a nationalist. He was a straight up Communist. And again, that gets back to the difference between a political party based on ideology and one based on ethnicity. He became the leader of the Serb party.
So he saw which way the wind was blowing and he put up a sail. And that’s what an ethnic entrepreneur does?
Yes, but it can also be more strategic than that. Milosevic really had a problem in that communism was over. And if he wanted to stay in power, he was going to have to compete in elections. How is he going to get elected? And then he’s like, “Oh, like the largest ethnic group, and in this country are Serbs. I’m Serb!” If I can convince the Serbs during this time of change and insecurity and uncertainty when everyone’s a little bit on edge that unless they support a Serb, the Croats are gonna kill them, then then I can catapult myself to power. That’s classic ethnic entrepreneurship.
I want to ask you a last question I’ve been thinking about a lot myself. Like a number of news organizations, we’ve created a team devoted to covering threats to democracy. But after I read your book, I stopped referring to it as that because it occurred to me that the term threats to democracy reinforces a story that we Americans tell ourselves: that we already have a true democracy, the best darn one in the world, and we just need to protect it.
Our American democracy, even when we were happy with it and thought it was doing really well, it already had a whole series of undemocratic natures that no other healthy liberal democracy has.
Our electoral college, nobody has that. That was a compromise to rural states. We have the fact that our elections are run by partisan agents. No other healthy liberal democracy has that. Canada, this enormous country, has an independent electoral commission that runs all of the elections. Every ballot is the same no matter if you vote in Prince Edward Island or the Yukon. Or that we allow so much money to be injected into our system. Nobody else has this.
So we have not only these undemocratic features but a whole number of vulnerabilities that if you really did want to somehow cement in minority rule, you could do this legally. So in many ways we have a terrible system that’s ripe to be exploited.
Alabama GOP chair's family refused to get voter IDs because they are 'Mark of the Beast': deposition
On Tuesday, writing for Al.com, editorial columnist Kyle Whitmire revealed the reason the family of the chairman of the Republican Party of Alabama refused to comply with the state's voter ID laws.
The report comes after it was reported earlier this month that a poll worker was fired after asking Alabama GOP Chair John Wahl and his family to present ID, which they refused to do.
"In 2015, John Wahl’s oldest brother, Joshua, approached the NAACP which was fighting the photo ID law in court, and in February of 2016, he sat for a deposition, giving sworn testimony under oath about how the law had affected his family," wrote Whitmire. "That deposition and other records in the court file show that the Wahls have struggled for years to vote in Limestone County going back to 2014, the year voter ID became law in Alabama. John Wahl said that he knew his brother took part in a deposition but that was the extent of what he knew."
As it turns out, his family claimed religious objections — specifically, by alleging they believed that certain types of new government-issued identifications are Satanic.
"When asked by lawyers for the state, his brother Joshua said only that they were Christians, although he recognized that his beliefs were different from others. His objection to voter ID, Joshua Wahl said, was that he believed all biometric identification, including photos that could be used for facial recognition programs, to be the mark of the beast foretold in Revelation," said the report. “'In particular, I object to the biometric nature of IDs in Alabama which started pursuant to the REAL ID Act,' Joshua Wahl testified. 'And there’s a passage in Revelations 12 where it says that the forthcoming mark of the beast will be a number of a man. Biometrics by its nature is a number of a man. You know, that’s what makes me uncomfortable, and that goes against my convictions.'"
Republicans’ 'substance-free' House agenda is motivated by a thirst for 'performative revenge': columnist
It won’t take a major red wave for Republicans to retake the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2022 midterms. Democrats have only a small House majority — definitely smaller than in 2019 or 2020 — and Republicans won’t need to flip a lot of Democrat-held seats to obtain a House majority.
House Republicans, in their “Commitment to America,” have discussed their plans for the House in 2023 if they become its majority party — and liberal Washington Post opinion column Eugene Robinson, in a biting September 26 column, slams it as devoid of substance. Above all else, Robinson stresses, Republicans’ plans for the House are motivated by a desire for “revenge.”
“Pay no attention to the House Republicans’ substance-free ‘Commitment to America,’” Robinson argues. “The actual GOP plan, if the party takes control of the lower chamber in January, is a campaign of performative revenge.”
Robinson, a frequent guest on MSNBC, continues, “Ginned-up investigations, cruel attacks on the marginalized, even a concocted impeachment of President Biden — that’s what the nation has to look forward to if Republicans win the House. Those are the only things the party agrees on, except fealty to Donald Trump and an all-consuming desire for power.”
The liberal columnist notes that although House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy “made a big deal” of the release of the “Commitment to America,” it was full of empty rhetoric calling for “a nation that’s safe” and “a future that’s built on freedom.”
“A Republican majority would disband the select committee investigating the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol, ending its important work,” Robinson notes. “Perhaps the Senate could try to take up the baton if Democrats retain control there. But it might be that the Justice Department is left on its own to finish writing the definitive story of what happened on that awful day and why. McCarthy and his committee chairs would also quickly launch a series of show-trial investigations. Think Benghazi after Benghazi after Benghazi.”
If McCarthy becomes House speaker, Robinson warns, anti-abortion bills are a possibility.
“On culture-war issues, how far the House would try to go under McCarthy would depend on how vulnerable he feels to the far-right wing of his caucus,” Robinson explains. “Opinion polls indicate, for example, that any attempt to pass a nationwide abortion ban would hurt the GOP among independent voters. But if enough House Republicans want to barrel down that road, McCarthy might be compelled to go along.”