Death and Taxes

As sure as we are that the sun will appear each morning, we are just as certain that the next mass shooting is coming soon.  And in what may be the perfect symmetry of irresponsibility, many of the very same people who have prevented a rational response to our public health crisis of gun violence are also leading the charge to undermine the sysyem of taxation that has provided the funds to make America great.  Irony intended.

The common thread through these two self-defeating approaches to important public policy issues is a narrow focus on self-interest and a rejection of any sense of the common good.  A proto-typical Second Amendment advocate argues some version of: “My God-given right to own and carry whatever weapon of deadly violence I choose is more important than any right you may assert.  As far as I’m concerned, the Second Amendment is the only section of the U.S. Constitution that matters.  And it is the only clause that should be seen as absolute without any limits or qualifications.”

A non-Muslim, non-foreign terrorist with a gun unleashed the most recent round of carnage in Santa Fe, Texas on Friday.  The same can be said about Parkland, Florida, Charleston, South Carolina and lots of other mass shootings.   The Texas assassin didn’t need to climb over or dig under a wall.  He didn’t need to take advantage of some loophole in the immigration sysyem.  All he needed to do—and it was incredibly easy—was to grab the guns that his father had purchased legally but had failed to secure in a safe place.  Shouldn’t people who are so careless with guns be criminally liable?

What is stupid, irresponsible and stunning is that we have a clear list of things we could do to reduce gun violence in this country if  only we had the courage to act.  There are no perfect solutions, no fail-safe remedies, but we sure could do better.  It is a national disgrace, though apparently not an embarrassment to Second Amendment absolutists, that we don’t.

The Republican Party in almost its entirety is a group of craven cowards.  They are petrified by the fear of the NRA’s supposed political might and indebted to its campaign contributions.  Since rational discourse is totally ineffective, the only appropriate response is to vote as many of them out of office as possible.

Meanwhile, President Trump can’t even muster an ounce of genuine sympathy for the victims of gun violence.  He moves onto the next subject so quickly that you’re not even sure he has uttered pious words about “thoughts and prayers” for the families.  Trump deserves the same fate as the congressional members of what once was a party of honorable and decent people.

Trump is trying to destroy American government as if it was an alien being. If you’ve haven’t read it yet, take a look at Evan Osnos’ recent article in The New Yorker, “Only the Best People.”  He describes in chilling detail how Trump is dismantling one agency after another and driving loyal American civil servants away.   Similarly, his executive order attacking Planned Parenthood and his rejection of scientific research about climate change are at their base efforts to prevent people from speaking the truth.

Trump’s attack on the role of government builds on the foundation of those who have been arguing for years about the evils of taxation.  Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said a century ago that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.  Government funds allowed us to build the massive infrastructure that has been the literal backbone of the country as well as the catalyst for much of our economic growth.  Do you remember the debate during the 2012 presidential campaign about whether captains of industry built their fortunes entirely on their own?  Barack Obama was correct then and he still is that it requires a partnership.

Much of the anti-tax movement is about greed, pure and simple.  And it’s been working incredibly effectively, as the increased concentration of wealth at the very top vividly demonstrates.  But accumulation of riches by the 1% apparently hasn’t been enough as the unseemly rush to enact another Republican tax law earlier this year attests.

Meanwhile, basic services of government at the state and local levels are stretched to the breaking point—decaying infrastructure, out-of-date school textbooks, potholes that go unrepaired.  Federal officials, citing inadequate revenues—the direct consequence of tax cuts—increase the rent of people in public housing, hollow out the State Department, drive up the cost of health insurance even as many lose their coverage and talk ominously of needing to reduce Social Security and Medicare benefits in order to “balance the budget.”

The ugly truth is that the American social contract is unraveling before our eyes. Even though we can’t yet see the full extent of the damage being done by Trump and his co-conspirators,  “We the People” is turning into Us and Them.  A refusal to tax ourselves for the things that will make us a better country and will enable everyone to have a share, if only a small one, is both a cause and a symptom.  The unwillingness to enact obvious remedies to the epidemic of gun violence that every other civilized nation in the world has seen as unacceptable is the other bookend of our malaise.

Those aren’t our only serious problems and, in fact, should be easier to deal with than some of  our other challenges such as race relations.  As one of the songs in the hit musical “Hamilton” puts it, “Oceans rise, Empires fall.”  That about says it all.

Sights and Sounds from a Funeral

“We shouldn’t be here.” “This shouldn’t be happening.” That  message was voiced by all the speakers at the funeral last Friday for Kevin Kamenetz.  It had to be the thought going through the mind of everyone at the service as well.

Kamenetz, the Baltimore County Executive and candidate for the Democratic nomination for Governor, died suddenly at age 60 the day before.  I’m sure that all the people who received the early morning news of his passing couldn’t quite comprehend it.  There must be a mistake.  That can’t possibly be.

Yet, by the day after his death, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was packed with mourners who rearranged their schedules without a second’s hesitation.  Despite his relatively young age, Kamenetz had been on the political scene in Baltimore County for decades, first as a member of the County Council, then as Executive, and more recently as an aspiring statewide figure.  That record certainly contributed to the overflow crowd.

Family and friends.  County employees.  Other elected officials.  Lots of officials.  People there to pay their respects who may never have met Kamenetz in person.   All of them in a state of shock.

The service itself was direct and  unadorned, much as some would have described the County Executive.  Only one elected official, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, spoke.  That was a well-advised decision for at least two reasons.  First, Cardin was eloquent, personal and appropriate.  His remarks were never about himself, but focused exclusively on paying tribute.

But second, if there had been more speakers than the one who nobody could have disputed, the list would have been endless.  The reality is that funerals for public figures are, in part, political events as well.  Some people show up to be seen regardless of what sort of relationship they had with the deceased.  Just as John McCain has made it clear that he doesn’t want Donald Trump speaking at his funeral, you might well surmise that if Kamenetz had had the choice, he might have placed some of the attendees from Friday way back in the balcony.

Still, most of the political figures had  good reason to be there.  It was, in part, a gathering of Maryland’s governmental leadership, a coming together that Kevin Kamenetz would surely have appreciated.  The four current and former U.S. Senators present have among them nearly three-quarters of a century of service in that august body.

I counted five former Baltimore County Executives in the crowd going all the way back to 1974.  That group was uniquely qualified to understand the challenges and stresses that Kamenetz had faced in office.

The speakers, however, devoted most of their remarks not to his public life but to his qualities as an ordinary person. They recounted his humor, his passion, his love for his family.  His wife, Jill; his oldest son, Carter; two long-time friends.  Jill’s comments demonstrated an incredible bravery in being willing to speak publicly the day after Kevin’s death.  They also reflected a pain that felt almost too personal to be shared.

There has been constant media coverage of Kamenetz’ death as well as of the funeral.  I was only able to see some of the people there and some of what transpired during the afternoon service.  There were a few things that caught my attention beyond the profound sadness of being there.

Senator Cardin in his remarks repeated a story that Kamenetz had told a lot of people.  I know that because he told it to me.  As a very young man, he had been a driver for the legendary former mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer, and credited his career in public service at least in part to that experience.  One manifestation of the link with Schaefer was that Kamenetz was always a supporter of regional cooperation and of assistance to the City.

When I looked around the room on Friday, I was struck by how many lives and careers had intersected with Governor Schaefer’s.  There was Ted Venetoulis, former County Executive, who had been deeply involved in Schaefer’s first campaign for mayor.  There was U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen, who worked in the Washington office when Schaefer was governor.  There was former U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, whose first term on the Baltimore City Council coincided with Schaefer’s first term as Mayor.  And I’ve scarcely begun.

While we were waiting for the service to begin, Ben Jealous, one of Kamenetz’ rivals for the Democratic nomination, sat down in the row in front of us.  I couldn’t see everyone in the room, but I have it from a reliable source that other candidates were also there.

I want to end with one more sighting.  Don Mohler, chief of staff to Kamenetz for his entire time as County Executive, was serving as a kind of unofficial greeter for all the elected officials who filed in.  Given his closeness to Kamenetz, I know that he was carrying out those duties despite being numb and still in a state of shock.  The loyalty and dedication of so many people like Don Mohler is one more proof of the warmth and leadership qualities that Kevin Kamenetz brought to public service which will be so sorely missed.

 

Is there a new “normal” in politics?

 

Critics of Donald Trump frequently react to some particularly outrageous behavior by describing it as “not normal.” Constant lying. Personal insults to political opponents. Tweeting as his primary means of communicating. Spewing racist comments. Governing by sudden, inconsistent pronouncement. And the list goes on.

At a more analytical level, it has been argued that Trump is defying long-held political norms which have reinforced the institutions that preserve democracy. The book “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt asserts that this undermining of political norms is a most serious threat to the stability of our political system.

The authors of “How Democracies Die” point to two norms as historically having been critical: mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance.  Today, they seem to have given way to demonizing the opposition and doing whatever it takes to win the immediate battle.  Exhibit A: the cries of “lock her up” at Trump rallies.  Exhibit B: Mitch McConnell’s refusal to let the Senate consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016.

Some people argue that Trump is an aberration, an outlier, a temporary phenomenon. They assert that those norms or guardrails will reassert themselves a bit like a gyroscope bringing us back to level. I fear that view may be a bit too optimistic.

It’s clear that Trump didn’t all by himself create the chaos, instability and polarization that characterizes today’s politics. To employ a different metaphor, American politics have been oscillating wildly for at least two decades, probably more. Consider Newt Gingrich’s total warfare approach of the 1990s, Bill Clinton’s playing fast and loose with presidential morality and George Bush’s lying us into an unnecessary war in Iraq as all helping pave the way for Trump’s presidency.

While some will be quick to argue an equivalency in Democratic and Republican behavior, numerous academic studies all come to the conclusion that the Republican Party has contributed far more to the current state of dysfunctional politics than have the Democrats.  Wherever you allocate the blame, however, the result is a political system seriously out of balance– and with no auto-correct mechanism available.

Americans have lost confidence in the major institutions of society, not just of government.  We are deeply divided on many of the major issues facing the country.  Liberals and conservatives rely on different sources of news and often have differing perspectives on facts.  Discontent takes at least two forms: not voting and voting for changes that promise to tear the system down.

Will we get back to “normal” in the next election cycle or two?  Let me start by making the case that it’s far from a sure thing.  Trump ran a campaign for the presidency that defied every norm and every rule of politics.  Experts kept saying that his most recent incendiary remark would surely be the end of his campaign.  And yet he won.

Since becoming president, he has continued to throw away the traditional playbook.  This week, he acknowledged knowing about a hush money payment to Stormy Daniels after repeatedly denying any awareness of it.  His cabinet of “the very best people” has been a revolving door with scandals shadowing a number of them.

And the only thing we can say for sure about the future is that his actions will continue to be unpredictable and well outside the norms of traditional politics.

And yet, Trump’s base is unfazed by his behavior in office; in fact, they seem to relish it.  He has created a cult of personality in which his supporters follow him regardless of what he does, even as he fails to fulfill promises that he made to them.   Moreover, they seem unconcerned that his presidency is damaging the very democracy that has been the essence of “American exceptionalism.”

Reestablishing those “guardrails of democracy” will take a concerted effort by active citizens.  We are unlikely to get back to the exact same normal that we have had in the past, but we may be able to create a new democratic reality.  There are, in my judgment, three crucial tests that we face in the near future.

One is the election of 2018.  Signs of Democratic energy and activism are everywhere and they need to be sustained through the November election.  If Democrats don’t recapture at least one of the houses of Congress, the situation is going to get much worse.  Similarly, the efforts to win state and local elections are crucial to both sending a message and insuring that the new round of legislative redistricting is not abused in the way that the last one was.

The presidential election of 2020 is obviously the second big hurdle.  Finding a Democrat who stands for restoration of the norms and values that have preserved American democracy and can defeat Trump’s run for re-election is crucial.  Similarly, winning both houses of Congress and continuing to win elections in the states are necessary to beat back the corrosive impact of Trumpism throughout the country.

But, most ominously, there may be one more test to be endured.  There have been at least some signs that Trump and his backers might not accept the results of an election.  In 2016, he constantly railed about the system being rigged.  Republicans in many states are in fact trying to put their collective thumbs on the electoral scales by implementing voter ID laws, changing polling place locations and hours and erecting other barriers to participation.

A failure to accept the voter’s will would be the most serious norm to fall, but it could happen.  The best way to avoid that risk is to make sure the Democratic wave in 2018 is gigantic.  Winning that election by large margins will be the most effective way to start rebuilding the political norms that Donald Trump has been attacking.