• The Weekly Read: January 20, 2020

    As Chief Justice John Roberts stood in the Senate last week being sworn in to preside over the third-ever impeachment trial of a US President, Donald Trump sat at his desk in the Oval Office a few miles away hosting an event to promote prayer in public schools. Surrounded by a group of students and teachers, Trump didn’t once make reference to the large map in front of him purporting to be a county-by-county rendering of the 2016 presidential election results.

    Sharp-eyed internet observers quickly noted the map (below) got a lot wrong on its face. It colors many counties across the country Hillary Clinton won red, and claims she won the popular vote by 1.1 million votes, not her actual 2.8 million vote margin.

    Leaving aside what the map was doing there at all — okay, not leaving it aside, this likely got it right —

    — it would present a deeply misleading picture of what happened in 2016 even if it had accurately portrayed the county-by-county results and popular vote total.

    For starters, land can’t vote. There’s a lot of unpeopled space in red America, and many densely populated cities in blue America. Here’s a map of the 2016 results by Mark Newman of the University of Michigan that resizes US counties by population:

    There’s a lot more blue when you look at it this way. And still a lot of red. But even this perspective isn’t quite right. Counties are no more uniformly red or blue than states. Here are the resized 2016 county-by-county results using varying shades of purple to reflect the actual vote on the ground:


    Not nearly so much red. And not nearly so comforting to Trump’s fragile ego.

    But it’s not exactly comforting to residents of blue America as we head towards November. All that purple and blue only underscores the gap between the political preferences of the American people as a whole and the outcomes of our supposedly democratic elections. And as Democrats continue to wait for America’s changing demographics to come to the electoral rescue, the stresses and dysfunctions caused by America’s increasingly creaky 18th Century constitutional machinery are only going to get worse.

    A 2018 University of Virginia study used Census Bureau projections to forecast the populations of each of the fifty states by 2040 — which isn’t that long from now, and may even feel right around the corner to those of us whose memories of the feared Y2K-pocalypse don’t seem that distant in the rearview mirror.

    The UVA study estimates that by 2040 half the US population will live in the eight largest states by population. More starkly, 70 percent of Americans will live in the 16 most populous states, with the remaining 30 percent living in the other 34. That 30 percent of the population will control 68 percent of the Senate — more than enough to break filibusters — and a somewhat smaller percentage of the Electoral College. (This is because each state gets as many Electoral College votes as it has senators and members of the House of Representatives.)

    Meanwhile, the 70 percent of Americans living in the 16 biggest states will control only 32 percent of the Senate, and a somewhat larger percentage of the Electoral College.

    This is no way to run a country. We now have our second president in 20 years who lost the popular vote, something that had only happened three times previously between 1789 and 2000. We have a Senate controlled by a “majority” that represents 15 million fewer people than the “minority.” And we have a Supreme Court on which four of the nine sitting justices were nominated by presidents who took office after losing the popular vote.


    Clearly something has to give. But what?

    The editors of the Harvard Law Review offered up one solution this week. They published an unsigned note titled “Pack the Union: A Proposal to Admit New States for the Purpose of Amending the Constitution to Ensure Equal Representation” in which the author, tongue firmly-in-cheek, and one eye on an open copy of The Collected Works of Jonathan Swift, argues:

    Congress should pass legislation reducing the size of Washington, D.C., to an area encompassing only a few core federal buildings and then admit the rest of the District’s 127 neighborhoods as states. These states — which could be added with a simple congressional majority — would add enough votes in Congress to ratify four amendments: (1) a transfer of the Senate’s power to a body that represents citizens equally; (2) an expansion of the House so that all citizens are represented in equal-sized districts; (3) a replacement of the Electoral College with a popular vote; and (4) a modification of the Constitution’s amendment process that would ensure future amendments are ratified by states representing most Americans.

    As Ian Millhiser writes in VOX, this immodest proposal is 100 percent constitutional: “Under the Constitution, new states may be admitted by an ordinary act of Congress with a simple majority vote. The Constitution does, however, prevent new states from being carved out of an existing state unless the legislature of that state consents. Chopping up the District of Columbia gets around this problem because Washington, DC, is not a state.”

    The proposal does get at something important about the Constitution. Amending it is very difficult in general, and likely impossible when the proposed amendment would diminish the power of states that have to approve it.

    But admitting new states is surprisingly easy. It only requires a simple majority vote in Congress and a presidential signature.

    Another thing that only requires a congressional majority and presidential signature? Legislation changing the number of justices sitting on the US Supreme Court. The number of justices isn’t set by the Constitution but by congressional legislation, and changed six times before landing at nine after the Civil War.

    Which leads to my more modest proposal to stave off a potentially fatal crisis of political legitimacy and social instability in the United States less than 20 years away. And since 2040 also happens to be the year scientists tell us catastrophic climate change becomes irreversible if we don’t change course soon, this plan could also help avert global environmental calamity:

    1) Admit the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico as the 51st and 52nd states asap after Democrats retake the Senate and White House. This will at least begin to counter the structural imbalances in the Senate and Electoral College, and doesn’t require amending the constitution. It’s also the right thing to do.

    2) Rebalance the Supreme Court by adding two new justices to make up for the Merrick Garland seat stolen by Mitch McConnell and the Republicans and now occupied by Neil Gorsuch. The key word here is “rebalance,” as opposed to “pack.”

    3) Eliminate the Senate filibuster once and for all so these and all legislation can make it out of the Senate alive on a simple majority vote.

    4) Support the “National Popular Vote Compact” in which states agree that their electoral votes go to the winner of the national popular vote. The Compact goes into effect when states with 270 electoral votes join. As the map below shows, states with 196 electoral votes have already signed on, Virginia and Maine could soon join, and states with another 82 electoral votes could hop on board by 2024.


    THE NEW YORK TIMES What America Learned in 28 Days. Nancy Pelosi’s decision to delay transmitting the impeachment articles allowed significant new information to come to light. You’d think at some point people would give Nancy Pelosi the benefit of the doubt. She keeps proving she knows what she’s doing. Certainly more than the keyboard cowboys on Twitter and elsewhere — nearly all male — who think they’re smarter than she is.

    Meanwhile, as the editorial board of The Times wrote last week, while she came under fire for not sending articles of impeachment to the Senate before the holidays, the country learned: i) a US ambassador was surveilled and possibly targeted for harm by thugs and lowlifes directly connected to Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani; ii) the Russians hacked Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company at the heart of the impeachment inquiry, looking for dirt on Joe Biden and his family; iii) Trump personally directed the scheme to gather dirt on the Bidens; iv) Trump personally ordered the hold on the Ukraine aid, even though top White House officials and aides questioned its wisdom and legality; v) Trump in fact did break the law by withholding the aid; and vi) John Bolton is willing to testify to the Senate.

    Not bad for a few weeks of not doing something.

    Does any of this make Senate Republicans more likely to vote to remove Trump from office? No. But that’s setting expectations too high. Like if I pulled up my shirt hoping to see abs like Brad Pitt’s in Thelma and Louise. Or in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, for that matter. It’s sure to lead to disappointment.

    And I love that Trump’s enablers in the House and Senate will soon all be on record having voted to acquit him. Votes they will not be able to undo as more and more evidence of his corruption and criminality comes to light. This will help Democrats hold on to the House, take control of the Senate, and win back the White House.

    That’s why I also think the Trump lawyers and Trump-appointed judges playing keep-away with his tax returns and other financial records are too-clever-by-half. They’re delaying rulings in these cases until an appeals court, and ultimately, the US Supreme Court, decides whether former-White House counsel Don McGahn can be compelled to testify in the House’s impeachment inquiry. The courts have put the McGahn case on a fast track, but it won’t be resolved in time to influence the current impeachment process. Rulings in June and July, though, could result in Trump’s tax and financial records exploding onto the public record at the height of the campaign season — when senators and representatives will not be able to wish away their votes white-washing Trump’s misdeeds.


    FIVETHIRTYEIGHT What The Sanders vs. Warren Battle Is Really About. What’s curious, Clare Malone writes, is that it seems more stylistic than about policy, “an unexpectedly tense class war of sorts within the broader progressive class war. Should progressive populism be wonky and detail-oriented and appeal to college-educated former Clinton voters? Or a more contentious outsider assault on the powers-that-be from the overlooked millions of the middle and lower-middle class? Variations on this theme — Sanders as credible progressive curmudgeon and Warren as vaguely deceptive opportunist — popped up as I followed Sanders across the state.”


    THE WASHINGTON POST It’s not just older voters who are giving Joe Biden his lead with black Americans. While the conventional wisdom is that Biden’s lead among black voters is due to older black voters, a Post poll shows a sizable percentage of younger African-American voters support him, too. While 42 percent of black 18-to-34-year-olds back Sanders, about the same percentage of older black millennials and Gen X voters ages 35 to 49 support Biden. And Biden’s support among younger black voters isn’t insignificant. Thirty percent of black 18-to-34-year-olds name Biden as their first choice, and another 19 percent say he’s their second choice. Overall, 64 percent of black Democrats under 35 have a positive view of Biden, while 19 percent are unfavorable.


    THE NEW YORK TIMES The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It. A little-known start-up helps law enforcement match photos of unknown people to their online images — and “might lead to a dystopian future or something,” a backer says. Technology that easily identifies us based on our faces has been taboo because of its radical erosion of privacy. Until now. A new company called Clearview has come up with a groundbreaking facial recognition app that will end our ability to walk down the street anonymously. It already allows US law enforcement agencies to upload a single photo of you and quickly learn your name, where you live, and who you know. Federal and state law enforcement officers say they have limited knowledge of how Clearview works and who is behind it, but have used its app to solve shoplifting, identity theft, credit card fraud, murder, and child sexual exploitation cases. But eventually everyone will have access to it. An important read.


    THE WASHINGTON POST Which of these 2020 Democrats agrees with you most? Take this interactive quiz and see if your preferred candidate aligns with your views on an array of key issues. Or not. But don’t be too upset if he or she doesn’t. Our candidate choices aren’t necessarily the sum total of our policy preferences. Character, judgment, experience, political skill, and, yes, perceptions of electability, also matter.


    THE WASHINGTON POST Australia’s catastrophic fires are a moment of reckoning for Murdoch’s media empire. Murdoch’s News Corp controls nearly 60 percent of Australia’s daily newspapers. For years they’ve mocked “climate catastrophists”. Now, with three months left in Australia’s fire season, massive bush fires have caused the destruction of 24 million acres of land, 2,000 homes, 100,000 head of livestock, a billion native animals, and killed nearly 30 Australians. Australia is always hours ahead of the United States but rarely can it grant insight into the future. There are, however, two important ways the nation today offers a grim warning for Americans,” writes Richard Cooke. “One is the dominating presence of Rupert Murdoch in the country’s media. The other is the catastrophic effects of climate change, showcased by the massive fires that have ravaged the Australian bush for months. The relationship between these phenomena will help decide not just the future of one nation but also the future of the world.”


    THE GUARDIAN William Gibson: “I was losing a sense of how weird the real world was.” An interview with the novelist who popularized “cyberspace” on the possibilities of speculative fiction in the Trump and post-Trump eras. Gibson is also the genius who years ago observed that “the future’s already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”.




    Follow Steve Lichtman on Twitter @stevel3000.