The Ethics of Resigning Governors and State Recall Elections

Fresno Bee, August 15, 2021

To resign or not to resign? That’s not quite Hamlet’s question. But it’s close.

In New York, the governor resigned in disgrace, while Californians are trying to kick our governor out of office. New York’s Andrew Cuomo is accused of sexual harassment, fudging the numbers during the pandemic, and other misdeeds. Cuomo said he would step aside so as not to be a distraction from the business of governing.

California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, is not accused of sexual harassment. But he is accused of mishandling the pandemic, being soft on crime, contributing to rising poverty, and so on. In California, there will be a special recall election.

It may seem obvious that if a leader misbehaves, he or she should step aside or be removed.

But Donald Trump and Bill Clinton provide counter-examples. Both clung to power, despite the sleaze and the impeachments. The Trump-Clinton model is one of pugnacious resistance. They teach us to fight the opposition, malign the accusers, and circle the wagons. In both cases, this strategy worked.

Bad guys who refuse to resign typically claim that they are defending their integrity and honor against false accusations. They are lying, of course. But once you are on the highway to hell, the cover-ups are par for the course.

For decent people, this is appalling. If the accusations are true, you should step aside. That’s what a good person would do. Of course, if you are a good person, there probably won’t be any accusations.

Cuomo’s resignation complicates this somewhat. He claims that the accusations against him are false. But he resigned anyway. He said, more or less, I’m not guilty but I’m resigning.

But isn’t that what a guilty person would say? We suspect that by stepping down, he is admitting guilt. That’s the way most people interpret Richard Nixon’s resignation. He said, “I am not a crook.” He resigned before he could be convicted for his “dirty tricks.”

A good rule of thumb is that when scandals get in the way of your job, it is time to go. For most jobs, even governor or president, there are lots of competent people who could do them. If you are plagued by accusations of wrongdoing (whether true or false), you should get out of the way and let someone else take over. Once your leadership becomes a liability, step aside in the name of the common good.

But we cling to our jobs. Sometimes this is malicious. Lascivious scout masters and pedophile priests hang on to their positions. In other cases, people feel entitled to the prestige they have earned. They want to hold on to the money and the status, come hell or high water.

Furthermore, political leadership in a democracy is connected to the will of the people. Newsom won the 2018 election by a 24-point margin. It would seem undemocratic for him to resign. This would subvert the will of the majority who voted for him. And since we have a recall procedure in our state Constitution, this is the most democratic way to proceed.

Of course, Trump supporters made a similar point about Trump during his impeachments — that impeachment was like spitting in the eye of those who voted for Trump. And so it goes. The democracy trump card can be played by anyone.

All of this is exacerbated by polarization and distrust. When our guy (or gal) is in office, we circle the wagons. When the other party is in control, we go on the attack. Our political life can appear to be a game of partisan “gotcha.”

But there are cases when ethics rises above politics. A few Republicans have refused to circle their wagons around Trump. And in Cuomo’s case, his own party turned against him.

This points toward the solution. Hamlet felt himself to be alone in the world. But American politicians are not alone. Their power is the result of a social process. It involves parties, donors and voters.

In the long run, what matters is the truth and the common good. The hyperpartisans on the barricades will be remembered as hypocrites and sycophants. Those who pursue truth, justice, and the common good are the heroes of democracy.

America is Too Big to Love or to Hate

Fresno Bee, July 4, 2021

What does it mean to love one’s country? This question is too big to permit a simple answer. In a free country we will disagree about patriotism.

A Black athlete, Gwen Berry, refused to salute the flag during the national anthem at the U.S. Olympic Trials last week. Some viewed her as a hero. Others did not. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas asked in a tweet, “why does the left hate America?”

Of course, America includes a long list of protesting Black athletes, from from Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James. Maybe those who hate these protests are the ones who hate America.

The truth is, we disagree about everything, including who counts as a patriotic, real American. We always have.

The generation of 1776 had to decide whether to pledge their lives, fortunes, and honor to a new nation conceived in liberty. A war broke out. This happened again in the 1860s. Abraham Lincoln invoked the “mystic chords” of national identity. Southern states disagreed. The patriotic vision excluded people like Frederick Douglass, who said (in 1847), “The institutions of this country do not know me, do not recognize me as a man … In such a country as this, I cannot have patriotism.”

Douglass is now recognized as an American icon. But we continue to disagree.

Congress recently honored the police who defended the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. The congressional commendation celebrated the patriotism of those cops. But some Republicans balked, unhappy with the word “insurrection.”

President Biden has said, “the insurrection was an existential crisis.” But Andrew Clyde (R-Georgia) said it was a lie to call it an insurrection. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) said that the Justice Department’s response to Jan. 6 harassed “peaceful patriots.” Each voted against honoring the Capitol police.

We disagree about recent history — and about the deeper past. We disagree about who we are, what our country represents, what unites us — and what divides us.

America is a big, messy place. It includes Gwen Berry. It also includes Ashli Babbitt, who was killed by a cop on Jan. 6 as she tried to enter the House chamber, and George Floyd, who was killed by a cop in Minnesota. It also includes those cops. This is a country of Proud Boys and Antifa. It is a country of Trump-lovers and Ted Cruz voters, Biden-supporters and fans of Kamala Harris.

Which America are we supposed to love? Should we love the American history of colonialism, slavery, and war? Should we love those who claim the 2020 election was stolen? Should we love a country that elected a woman of color as vice president?

There is too much here to love. America is a 300-year-long, continent-spanning process. Something this big cannot simply be loved. Nor can such a thing simply be hated.

This country contains a multitude, as Walt Whitman might say. It includes farmers and fishermen, poets and priests. This is a land of scientific achievement and quack medicine. It is a land of many faiths, including atheism. It is a country of diverse people united by the fact that we are free to be different.

Human beings are more complicated than simple patriotism permits. When freedom is unleashed, we grow and expand and become unruly. As long as we generally leave each other alone, this can work. But it is too much to ask us to come together and sing “Kumbaya.”

Indeed, when one group joins hands and starts singing, another faction will be standing on the sidelines mocking the song. This is the tragic truth of human freedom. It unites us and divides us. It brings us together and drives us apart.

So let’s not be surprised at our divisions. We have always been divided. Division is a sign of the health of a democracy. Conformity indicates the presence of oppression and the death of the human spirit. Liberty vitalizes and invigorates. It invites us to be different and to disagree.

Democracy is messy, ugly, and often unpleasant. Tyrannies are cleaner, perhaps, creating conformity through coercion. But democracies unleash freedom. And liberty promotes diversity. We are not ants or bees. Nor are we cogs in a social machine. We are human beings: unruly, disruptive, creative, and free.

The Poison of the Big Lie

Fresno Bee, May 16, 2021

The “big lie” is destroying our country. When Liz Cheney was deposed from GOP leadership, she said, “we cannot both embrace the big lie and the Constitution.” Cheney was referring to the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

Trump sees things differently. In early May, Trump proclaimed, “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE!” Cheney responded, “The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.”

Unfortunately, this venom is already wreaking havoc. Half of Republicans believe that Biden was not legitimately elected. And this past week, 124 retired generals and admirals signed a letter claiming that a “tyrannical government” of socialists and Marxists has taken over. The letter also maligns the Supreme Court for ignoring “irregularities” in the 2020 election.TOP

Who should we believe? In asking this question we wander in a toxic fog. Who can we trust when the authorities and “we, the people” are so divided?

Big political lies have a long lineage. Plato suggested that the masses should be fed lies to maintain social order. Hitler said that “the primitive simplicity” of the masses leaves them susceptible to big lies. The big lie festers in the mind. You don’t have to fully believe it for it to work. Big lies throw us off balance. The authorities take advantage of our disorientation.

Big tangled webs of lies are found everywhere: in states, churches, families and businesses. Ordinary people have a difficult time sorting out the truth about pedophile priests and party purges. Some turn away in disgust. Others simply fall in line with a shrug and a sigh. This happens in families and businesses where people smile and wave despite the skeletons in the closet.

Vaclav Havel, the dissident who became president of Czechoslovakia, explained that people can live their entire lives within a network of lies. Communist regimes were based upon layers of falsehood that no one believed.

In Czechoslovakia, on Havel’s telling, individuals went through the motions. Silent conformity was sufficient for the “thick crust of lies” to endure. But this veneer is shattered when enough people simply live in truth. This is not heroic truth-telling. Rather, it is what happens when people stop saluting, stop repeating the mantras, and simply ignore political nonsense.

Of course, those in power cannot tolerate this. In the old days, the powerful would imprison non-conformists and kill truth-tellers. But in the age of advertising, confusion suffices. Propaganda baffles us, while the powerful pick our pockets.

Distrust and confusion are disastrous for democracy. When each party accuses the other of lying about the legitimacy of elections, we reach an impasse. We must either pick a side or throw up our hands in despair. Each option is inadequate.

If we pick a side — even the side that is objectively true — this means we must believe that the other side is malicious, devious, and untrustworthy. Democrats applaud Cheney, believing that Trump and his minions are big fat liars. But Republicans view Cheney as a traitor. They think that the Democrats are devious devils who stole the election. This polarization prevents cooperation. It is not possible to cooperate with a party that does not play by the rules or tell the truth.

And if we do not pick a side but, rather, retreat in despair and cynicism? Well, this also destroys democracy. All of this lie-mongering is leading many to conclude that the entire political class is a viper’s nest of hissing liars.

Nothing is more corrosive of democracy than cynical despair. Why vote if elections are rigged? Why pay taxes if tyrannical usurpers are in office? Why bother to go through the motions if the whole system is a crust of lies?

These are the frightening questions that arise in a country that is falling apart. The truth is that no political community lasts forever. Athens collapsed, as did Czechoslovakia. No family, church, or business can endure without confronting the skeletons in the closet. And no democracy can endure when each party accuses the other of lying about democracy itself.

The Future of Democracy?

Fresno Bee, March 7, 2021

Democracy appears to be in decline around the world. Freedom House, a think tank founded by Eleanor Roosevelt, recently warned of an ongoing “recession” of democracy. China, Russia, and countries in the Middle East remain unfree. Major democracies such as India and the United States have stumbled. Freedom House claims that when exemplary democracies falter, anti-democratic forces are emboldened.

Authoritarianism was on the rise prior to COVID-19. Threats to freedom of the press predate the pandemic. Religious liberty and other human rights have never existed in some places. But the pandemic created new opportunities for disinformation and democratic dysfunction.

There was some good news. Across the world, protesters clamored for equality and human rights. Unfortunately, these protests were often met with governmental repression.

And, as we’ve seen in the U.S., there is growing distrust. Recent opinion polls paint a worrying picture. An Associated Press poll concluded that nearly half of Americans think our democracy is not working well. Such conclusions reflect our polarization. That poll concluded that 75% of Democrats think the country is on the right track, while almost 80% of Republicans think it is not. A related AP poll found that 65% of Republicans do not believe that Joe Biden’s election was legitimate.

These differences of opinion are troubling. Democracy depends upon trust and common ground.

But let’s not be surprised. History shows that democracy is rare, unstable, and imperfect.

The Roman republic lasted about 500 years. The Athenian democracy lasted about 200. And ancient “democracies” were not all that democratic. Slavery was allowed and women were subordinated. Athens and Rome were also aggressive colonizers. And we should not forget that the Athenian assembly voted to execute Socrates.

This is one of the reasons that Plato distrusted democracy. He thought it was foolish to put the uneducated masses in charge. Plato worried that liberty would be abused. He warned that the masses would fall for the seductive lies of a tyrant. He described democracy as a ship of fools, where the drunken passengers stage a mutiny and throw the expert navigators overboard.

Modern democracies have, of course, made improvements and learned from ancient failures. We have institutionalized human rights that protect freedom of religion, speech, and the press. Socrates would not be sentenced to death in the United States. We have also abolished slavery and advanced women’s suffrage.

Modern innovations may help to stabilize and preserve democracy. But challenges and opportunities remain.

An important question is who is included among “we, the people.” Should there be voting rights for people in prison or even non-citizens? Some states allow felons and ex-cons to vote. Others do not. In the U.S. we link voting to citizenship. But in New Zealand some permanent residents can vote.

We can also ask about the size, stability, and longevity of democratic nations. The United States did not always include 50 states. Could more be added or some allowed to secede? The Constitution is not written in stone. Should it be amended in ways that make it more responsive to the will of the people?

We should also consider the role of global institutions and international law. Should we seek a more global democracy that involves trans-national unions? Or does democracy require small, local, and decentralized communities?

In a polarized era, rational conversations about these things are difficult. It seems increasingly unlikely that we will be able to talk reasonably about all of this. This may be our undoing.

A significant question is how peaceful and reasonable we expect democracy to be. Some philosophers dream of “deliberative democracy” in which rational people engage in sincere and civil debate. But democracy is also a field of conflict and struggle, what scholars call “agonistic democracy.” In the United States, our democracy has become much more agonistic of late. This damages civic institutions. But “people power” may in fact be more like anarchy than law and order.

As we consider the future of democracy, we should remember that democracies have not always existed. Irrationality, self-interest, and conflict are part of the human condition. Authoritarians are waiting to exploit those weakness. And without rational consensus about shared values, democracies will continue to fail.

Democracy is like Santa Claus. It only exists if we believe it does.

Fresno Bee, December 13, 2020

Democracy is like Santa Claus. It only exists if we believe it does. Many Americans would like to say, “Yes Virginia, there was a legitimate election.” But the Scrooges are saying, “Bah, humbug.”

A number of Americans believe that the election was stolen. One poll reports that half of Republicans believe Trump “rightfully won” the election. Another poll found that 62% of Republicans say it’s “very likely” that the election was stolen by Democrats.

This means that when Joe Biden is inaugurated, many will view him as a shopping mall Santa, sitting on a throne of lies.

We are at a dangerous crossroads. If what the president says is true, the Democrats have stolen our republic. If what the president says if false, then he is the Grinch hijacking our democracy.

It is difficult to tell how serious this is. It is one thing to say you don’t believe in Santa. It is another thing to stop celebrating Christmas.

We’ll see how this cookie crumbles after the Electoral College votes and someone is inaugurated. Will the nonbelievers choose to act on their disbelief? If so, let’s hope that their actions are nonviolent. To protest non-violently is the nonbelievers right, grounded in the First Amendment. But violence is extra-constitutional and revolutionary.

Nonbelievers might stop paying taxes, for example. Of course, tax resisters will be prosecuted. But that is the point. Nonviolent protesters go to jail to protest a corrupt system.

I am not advocating this. I happen to believe the state election officials, the courts, and other experts who concluded that the election was legitimate. But this whole system is based upon faith.

Like Christmas, democracy is a ritual and a pageant. At some point we make a leap of faith and choose to play along. People have a right to stop playing along. But there are consequences.

One famous defense of playing along begins by saying, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” Francis P. Church said that Virginia and her 8-year-old friends had been “affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.” He defended the importance of “childlike faith” in magic, poetry, fantasy and romance.

Government also involves fantasy and faith. A flag is a piece of cloth. A law is merely words on a page. These things come alive when we believe in them.

Francis Church wrote that the best things are those we cannot see. He spoke of Santa Claus as a metaphor for the hidden wonders of the world — for love and beauty, meaning and transcendence.

He could as well have been talking about democracy. Like Christmas, democracy exists in the minds of men and women. It only exists when we play along. When people stop playing along, the fantasy ends. If enough people stop playing along, the whole thing collapses.

Perhaps skepticism is warranted in this skeptical age. We know that there really is no Santa Claus. And as the partisans squabble, it is increasingly difficult to believe in the idea of America. Maybe it is time to wake up from the dream of e pluribus unum.

But it’s worth asking what we would wake up to, if we stopped playing along. If we give up on the dream of democracy, what would replace it? If we stop believing in America, then what?

Christmas is a good time to think about what we believe.

Do we believe in country more than party?

Do we have faith in democracy or not?

Christmas is also a time of transformation.

After the Grinch stole Christmas, he was surprised. The Grinch thought that if he stole the tree and the presents, the Whos of Whoville would have nothing to celebrate. But they came together and sang anyway. And the Grinch’s heart grew.

The Grinch learned that Christmas doesn’t come from a store. He learned that Christmas “means a little bit more.”

When we wake up from this nightmare winter, will we learn something similar?

The future looks bleak. But this is also a season of hope.

So let’s hope that if there are protests, they remain nonviolent.

Let’s hope that we can sing in harmony again.

And let’s hope that the Scrooges and Grinches will decide to play along.