The History of Democracy Has Yet To Be Written

Thomas Geoghegan is a union-side labor lawyer who once ran for a House seat in Illinois and sees the Senate as the barrier to governing for the people in his book which also puts forth the novel notion that the demise of defined-benefit pension plans led to the ascension of Trump, with more to come.

But we also have to change our whole idea of what representation means – of why it is legitimate in this country to have anyone represent anyone else at all. We’re all Americas. We ought to be in office. (page 10)

To get a House seat for 700,000 people with just 12,000 votes – such an election would not be considered legitimate in Belarus or Zaire. But then of late, no election outcome in this country has seemed to be legitimate. And why should anyone accept the outcome of any of our elections as legitimate? In 2016, over 100 million eligible Americans did not even bother to vote. (page 13)

And now I say this with tears: it’s the Democrats’ failure to hold the House for which I ran in 2009 that wrecked Obama’s presidency. (page 16)

“Be reconciled to us Democrats!” As a labor lawyer, I have a sense of the worst thing that happened – something too many people fail to see. It was not the reduction in wages, though that did happen in real terms, but the disappearance of the old, defined-benefit private pension plans. Keynes told us that a reduction of money wages would set off a revolt, and in the loss of these plans, it happened invisibly. We still live with the consequences – Trump was just one of them – and we’re not done yet. (page 28)

I wish now I could have gone into more nursing homes, but I was told to wait to the last minute, no more than two or three days before the election; otherwise, they forget your name. (page 36)

So while the judiciary may look like the weakest branch, and purports to defer to Congress, the entire lower bench as a body is much more capable at governing than the US House, which, thanks to the Senate, is often incapable of governing at all. In an antitrust case, a single federal judge can decide, as the US House cannot, how much power a company like Google can exercise over the land. Yet who has even more power in our republic than all these lower court federal judges? We lawyers do. Because we lawyers decide what cases they are frced to hear. (page 42)

We lawyers have incredible power to pull you in to have your deposition for three hours under oath; we have the power to make you recover from your hard drive all those documents you tried to delete the night before we sued you. If that is not a license to kill, it is at least a license to break and enter. It is the right – in a pretrial period that may last for years – to poke through your house, or your business, and ask what you have in that drawer, or over in that box, and while this poking around goes on for years, the judges who have the case may only check in occasionally to see what is going on. (page 43)

We need the court because we do not have parliaments or true representative government or majority rule, as the United Kingdom does – or sometimes does, at least. Instead, we have a form of government in which nothing gets decided. Slavery goes undecided until we have a Civil War. Jim Crow went undecided until the Supreme Court issued Brown v Board. (page 46)

It is beyond Congress to do even a little tweak, on which a large majority agree, because it is just beyond the strength of one chamber or another, much less both. Of course, in theory, the court should not legislate – but if it did not, the Constitution would collapse….There is too much divided government, too many vetoes, too many senators who, representing as few as 8 percent of the electorate, can stop a law. So it’s up to the Supreme Court to figure out how to0 apply a law passed in 1964. (page 47)

By some act of legislature or parliament, every country but ours has resolved the rules about abortion, for better or worse, but it’s hard to imagine in our country that anything similar could come out of Congress. It’s no more emotional or divisive here than anywhere else, but it’s beyond our form of government for a legislature to resolve. (page 48)

In a real democracy, we would not even know their names: in the UK or Germany, well-informed citizens would struggle to name even one judge on their highest court. (page 58)

There is a masterpiece of irony called “Waiting for the Barbarians,” a poem by C.P. Cavafy. The shock of its last lines is that the barbarians never come, or even exist. (page 62)

Try to imagine a Democrat in either the House or the Senate without a college degree. Maybe that’s an unfair thing to say. Still, it’s unthinkable that the college-educated base of the party would trust a high school graduate without a four-year degree to hold a serious office. We would never vote for them. Why should they ever vote for one of us? (page 64)

Back then, many of these people understood that they could trust the Democratic Party for the same reason they could trust the liberal media. The Democratic Party of the 1950s and 1960s was probably much more corrupt and inept than the Democratic Party today, but back then it lived in the neighborhood. It no longer does today. Now the Democratic Party relies on think tanks at elite universities to find out what people back in those neighborhoods are thinking. (page 65)

Well, of course education should be the answer – but it will be the answer only when it becomes a democr5atic education for a democratic workplace in a country that has a more democratic form of government than our own. (page 68)

And yet no such approach to unanimity is attainable unless some deference shall be paid to the will of the majority, simply because it is the will of the majority.” Instead, we Democrats, who should be the majority party, have long tolerated the Senate filibuster. We are as responsible for it as Mitch McConell. And if we do not get rid of it, we will be gone in 2022 and will deserve to be gone. (page 89)

(it turns out that communism was not an alternative to capitalism but a transition to a form of it). (page 106)

In 1974, as I was getting out of law school, there appeared a curious book – The Unseen Revolution: How Pension Fund Socialism Came to America by Peter Drucker. At that time, so-called defined benefit pension plans, which have now disappeared in most of the private sector, covered three-fifths of American workers. Today it is well under a fifth. (pages 109-110)

The only way working people ever save is by compulsion – it’;s taken out of their hands. That’s what is wrong with reparations or redistribution to people through taxes. Eventually, those individual payments are recycled into the bank accounts of the rich. The only way to share the wealth is to collectivize it, to keep it safe not just from predators, but from ourselves, acting on our own worst instincts. I am so sorry I missed out on pension fund socialism. Protecting those pools of worker-owned capital would have been my career. (pages 110-1)

As Ira Katznelson argues in Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (2014), the New Deal was nothing more than what horrifically racist senators from the South were willing to permit – or at least forbear from stopping. The New Deal existed on the condition that many of its landmark laws would not apply in the South, usually by exempting agriculture. That’s how we lost organized labor in this country. The New Deal was based on a deal with the Senate that the labor movement stay locked up in the North. Years later, as the US economy moved to the union-free South and West, we stopped having much of a labor movement at all. (page 122)

Indeed, the Constitution itself says that every amendment is possible except an amendment to abolish the equal suffrage of the states in the Senate. (page 125)

It was a point that had been made long ago by Max Weber in “Politics as a Vocation”: those who are committed to the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount should stay out of professional politics. [Harold] Hughes himself knew that even if I did not. It’s impossible, by definition, to have the best people in politics. (page 136)

Indeed, the offices of citizenship that existed during the New Deal have disappeared. Sure, there are still juries, though at least in federal courts, judges have fewer jury civil trials, or any civil trials at all. (pages 139-140)

Had we a labor movement, we’d have already had single-payer healthcare. We’d be on to the Green New Deal. We’d not have lost the white working class to Trump. (page 145)


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