heard that David Frum had a new book coming out,
American Democracy, I was excited. I like Frum, he's very smart,
regularly has original ideas, has a nice sense of humor, and he's
interested in just what I am – Post-Trump
Reform. So I preordered and read it right away. And sure
enough, he has an acute analysis of Trumpism, an acute analysis of
our current troubles, and some ideas that I hadn't thought of.
Although I have to say, without being too competitive with a very
smart guy who does this for a living and has done so for decades,
I've had some ideas that he hasn't thought of. (Especially reforming
the presidential power of the pardon.)
with the bulk of Frum's analysis, which is not far from my own. We
both agree that post-Trump reforms are likely, comparing the
post-Trump environment to that of post-Watergate. He says:
“Democracy is tested by its ability to deliver security,
prosperity, and justice. Relatively modest reforms to the US system
could improve all those outcomes. This is not to negate the value of
bigger ideas: changes to the voting system, changes to the
campaign-finance system. But those things are hard to do.”
has some specific suggestions for changes, in general, he hopes that
Americans will come to their senses after Trump, and that the new
victorious forces will seek reconciliation rather than revenge,
except for the leaders who will deserve opprobrium and often
appropriate punishment. For two good summaries of what he says,
check the book reviews in the WaPo
and the NYT.
he doesn't dwell on it, it's interesting to look at the reforms he
does offer. Let me recall the six tools and the eight problems I
identify in my basic post, keeping in mind that one of the tasks of
reform will be to turn some of the former norms into new law.
interpretation or resuscitation of existing congressional power
of norms or declaration of new norms
to affect public opinion
#1 – Attacks on oversight
#2 – Attacks on fair electoral processes
#3 – Abusive extension of presidential powers
#4 – Department of Justice has come under complete control of
#5 – Corruption and conflicts of interest are rife
#6 – Extensive inattention and incompetence in directing basic
#7 – A coarse, mendacious, thuggish, racist, cynical and
dictatorial demeanor and tone
#8 – Population of the United States widely ignorant of
governmental processes and concepts
Frum's observations and suggestions as they apply to these problems.
– Attacks on oversight. Frum takes this on on page 37. “The
Trump years demonstrated the very great extent to which presidential
cooperation with the law is voluntary, especially if he or she
retains a sufficient blocking vote in Congress.” But then he says
there really isn't much we can do about it, that enforcing subpoenas
is very difficult, and “even outright lying to Congress can prove
exceptionally difficult to punish.” Then, “...there is no
'Congress' anymore; there are only the two parties in Congress.”
And then, “The system that protects all of us has failed because
the protectors of that system have failed to protect it for us.
Democracy does not fly on autopilot.”
doesn't offer a ready remedy in law, although it's clear he wishes
Congress had more backbone and independence. As I detail in my post,
I think the Congress could and should be more assertive. You can't
leave oversight to norms, you need law and muscle.
– The electoral process. Frum spends a great deal of attention on
this. Although he doesn't mention it, the great Yale political
scientist Robert Dahl predicted that the Connecticut
Compromise (two senators per state and the electoral college,
both favoring small states power) and the undemocratic
elements of the constitution would lead increasingly to trouble.
Frum gives statistics that show a gathering skew of these elements –
particularly the increasing frequency of electing a president with a
minority of votes - and how the skew plus filibuster rules plus
gerrymandering ensure continued minority rule and governmental
stasis. His fixes are:
the filibuster. The filibuster enables 16% of Americans (small
states count as much as large states in the senate) to block action
by 84%. Just vote it down with a Democratic majority.
a modern voting rights act. He includes issuing tamper-proof voter
ID for free to all citizens, aqnd making fair and equal the location
of voting installations, voting technology, and waiting times at the
gerrymandering. Here Frum is quite innovative. He says: assume the
Democrats win preponderantly. Then offer Republicans two maps of
voting districts, one the way the Republicans would draw one if they
were in power, and the other one done fairly. He has no way then of
ensuring that the next set done 10 years later would be fair if the
Republicans win, and seems to count on the moral virtue of
reciprocity. Ingenious, but I'd reject it. First pass a statute
for independent boards to draw districts in all states, and then set
for the District of Columbia. Now, that's a surprise! He points
out that this can be done easily by a simple majority of the House
and Senate and a presidential signature. This would help redress
the structural strength of the preponderance of small state
Republicans. Pretty good move, I'd say. He said in a radio
interview that he wouldn't do the same for Puerto Rico because of a
substantial independence movement there, which I understand, but it
seems to me a quick referendum in Puerto Rico could change that
decision quickly. My hesitation would be more about the nature of a
nation; language is important to carry culture, and Puerto Rico's
language is Spanish.
Abusive extension of presidential power. I think his hope here is
that better people will be elected president. I have several
suggestions here, including that the constitution be modified to
require the presidential pardon to be cosigned by the Speaker of the
House. That one would probably be dismissed by Frum as too
long-term, but then again, if Trump really goes wild with it as
expected, I would contend that it might not be so long-term at all.
It could sweep the country like the wind.
Department of Justice repair. Frum recognizes the importance of this
problem and proposes that the assistant attorney general for the
Criminal Division be changed from a political to a career job. He is
deterred from seeking a fully nonpolitical criminal justice system at
the federal level because of the bureaucratic constraint – career
bureaucrats are not paid enough to attract the very best, and to
change the pay structure of DOJ would wreck havoc with the rest of
his point. In fact, the point is applicable throughout the
government, and the quality of government standards of work reflect
it. It might be a good idea to start with DOJ, make it a hybrid of
regular bureaucratic structure for regular staff, and make the top
professional staff above supergrade (GS18) with the expectation that
they would elect to stay for long periods of time, and make them
dismissible by combined action of the White House and the congress.
Then other governmental units could be looked at for a similar
structure. But, this would take time. For the moment, some serious
personnel housecleaning and restaffing would be necessary. Or, as I
suggest in my post, find a completely new way to insulate the DOJ.
This comes under the category of bringing norms into legislation.
– Corruption. Frum suggests as I do that tax return transparency be
mandated, with more extensive, explicit, and modern financial
statements. He compares the bank mandate to “know your customer,”
which seems like a valid comparison. We are on the same page here.
Poor direction of governmental functions. Anne
Applebaum calls this “a three-year assault on professionalism,
loyalty, competence, and patriotism.” Frum sees this, too, of
course, but his solution is find a better president, which is hard to
argue with. My suggestions bear on increasing transparency and
putting Congress on record as approving or disapproving current
Thuggish demeanor and tone. Frum certainly has an exquisite distaste
for this vile aspect of Trump, but once again, he thinks Americans
simply have to come to their senses. He's right, they do. My idea
is that they need help to do so, which would be helped by extensive
education in civics.
Population ignorance of governmental processes and concepts. Frum
doesn't deal with this. I think it requires a major effort of public
education in the schools with three years of civics required.
liked the book. Frum is smart and an excellent writer. His ideas on
#2, the electoral process, are quite good. I would add those to our
list of possible solutions to these important problems. Likewise on
his suggestion on #4, how to fix DOJ. I think his ideas about how
people should appreciate more what good government is like is right
on, although I don't think he's got great ideas about how to get
there. His analysis of the current situation is penetrating, better
than he is on solutions. Read it to your profit.