This Is Why You Have a RESPONSIBILITY to Vote

vote, election

Tuesday, November 6th is election day. Millions of Americans will head to the polls. Millions of other Americans will ignore the election and not bother voting. Both groups have the right to vote or not vote. But only those who vote will be fulfilling their civic responsibility.

I teach the US citizenship test to refugees. The test has 100 questions. The testing officer could ask up to 10 questions and the applicant has to get 6 correct. Question 50 asks, “Name one right only for United States citizens.” One of the correct answers is “vote in a federal election.” Question 49 asks, “What is one responsibility that is only for United States citizens?” And one correct answer is “vote in a federal election.”

We could make a simple Venn diagram of things that are both rights and responsibilities, and voting would be smack in the middle of it. There are not many things that are both a right and a responsibility. Serving on a jury is a responsibility, but it’s not a right. Owning a gun is a right in America, but it’s definitely not a responsibility, even though the NRA and its cheerleaders disgustingly try to tell us it is after every mass shooting.

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The Second Amendment implies the right to not own a gun. The First Amendment’s freedom of religion guarantees the right to observe no religion at all. The right to vote seemingly implies a right to not vote, but not voting is ethically more similar to failing to show up for jury duty than to not going to a church or not buying a gun.

The fact that voting is a right is important. The effort by Republicans to strip hundreds of thousands of American citizens of their registrations and access to polling places is an attack on their rights.

But we shouldn’t think of it strictly as a right. Liberalism in America has lost sight of its emphasis on democracy’s duties, obligations, responsibilities. President John F. Kennedy called the nation to civic duty in his inaugural address with the call to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” This may be taking it a bit far. A healthy social contract requires mutual investment between the people and their government. But his point is true: we need to think about what we can do for our country. And voting is one of the most important duties we have as citizens.

Writing about the national debt, Thomas Jefferson said, “For a nation as a Society, forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his Society.” This idea is at least as old as Plato’s “Republic,” which thinks of a good society in terms of the best way to educate an individual.

Jefferson’s ideas were born in the Enlightenment. The greatest thinker of Enlightenment ethics was Immanuel Kant. Kant’s categorical imperative, sort of the golden rule for grown-ups, states that you should always act in a way that it would make sense for everyone to act. It might seem okay to run a red light once in a while when no one is looking. But if everyone always did that, the whole traffic system would collapse and people would die.

Similarly, it’s easy to think that your one vote doesn’t matter. But if everyone decided not to vote, then not-voting becomes the deciding factor in an election. And something other than democracy would decide how the country is ruled.

In 2016, only 55% of eligible voters participated. In 2014, only 34% voted. THIRTY-FOUR PERCENT. That’s a third of all voters. Two-thirds of Americans sat out that election. The highest turnout election in recent history was 2008, when 58% of voters showed up. That’s still 42% who didn’t bother. The last time 60% or more of voters turned up was in the 1960s. We have been lucky for a long time that there were no truly bad faith actors who exploited that void of legitimacy in our democratic system. But our luck in that regard started to run out in 2016.

As a whole, America is failing to fulfill its responsibility to vote. And each individual who doesn’t vote shares his or her moral responsibility for that mass failure. Even though Republicans are doing their best to make it hard to vote, the number of people who don’t bother to vote is the biggest threat to democracy.

Our media culture has conditioned us to think of our democracy as an interminable pageant of horse-race analysis. It’s easy to tune that out. And millions of Americans have.

But the two-year election cycle is the wrong prism through which to view democracy. Achieving and maintaining a democracy is extremely rare. There have only been three significant expansions of democracy in world history.

In the ancient world, the Greek city states invented democracy. Their run of democracy lasted under 200 years, shorter than the history of the United States. And during that time period, probably under 100,000 people lived under democracy at a given time. Meanwhile, the Greeks were warring with the decidedly undemocratic Persian empire, which had a population of around 100 million. So, even though the ancient Greeks passed down a remarkable cultural heritage to the world, it’s important to remember that it was far from a normal experience to live under democratic rule in the ancient world.

In the modern world, the Enlightenment sparked a series of revolutions that began with the bloody birth of America in 1776 and continued for nearly a century as monarchies crumbled around the world.

In the 20th Century, democracy contracted with the rise of communist and fascist dictatorships. After World War II, some liberated peoples were restored to democracy, while others languished under the Soviet Union or new forms of military junta for the next half century.

The fall of the Soviet Union was the last great expansion of democracy, which saw the former Soviet satellites rush toward integration with the West. And it is only in the past few decades that a majority of people in the world have lived under something resembling democratic rule.

In the 60,000 years or so since homo sapiens began leaving Africa and building complex settlements, there has probably been less than 500 years during which there was a broadly organized, highly functioning democracy somewhere on earth. And even during those times, the vast majority of people didn’t live in a democracy.

In the grand sweep of history, most societies have been organized around clans or tribes. Most social contracts have been openly hierarchical and unjust. Most political paradigms were of warring states and rising and falling empires. Most human beings who have ever lived were lucky if they lived in a time of relative stability, wherein a warlord provided protection in return for menial labor and unquestioning loyalty. Hundreds of millions of people even in the 20th Century died grisly deaths because they were even less lucky than that. That our democracy exists at all and that we happen to live in it makes us among the most profoundly fortunate people who have ever lived.

Democracy is now under siege around the word. Countries as disparate as Venezuela, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, the United States, are experiencing an insurgence of oligarchy and strongman demagoguery chipping away at the foundations and safeguards of democratic society.

It used to be an article of faith that democracy would eventually and inevitably inspire one-party states like Russia and China to open up as more of their people experienced globalism. Recent events have actually shown the opposite. Authoritarian states are closing down more, and serve as inspiration for anti-globalist, anti-democratic, anti-immigrant parties in longstanding democracies.

Democracy is something that can never be taken for granted. And yet, when we fail to vote, that is exactly what we are doing. It is my fervent hope that recent elections, and the right wing erosion of the right to vote, has taught the American people that we are never more than one election away from potentially losing our right to vote forever. When we don’t vote, people who don’t want us to vote get into power. Once anti-democratic forces gain power, even in a democracy, history shows us it can be very hard to get them out.

In America, we are straddling the razor’s edge of grand historical change. We will either pull back our democracy from the brink of authoritarianism, or our apathy will allow anti-democratic forces to slice us into pieces and slide American society into the garbage disposal of history.

America is profoundly lucky that we have had a deeply flawed yet very real democratic social contract for 242 years. You would be very hard-pressed to find another run of democracy that long anywhere else at any time in human history.

The people who authored the Constitution were skeptical that it would last long. Asked what kind of government the Founders were creating, Benjamin Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Since the Constitution was ratified in 1788 every election has featured input from some part of the population, and some form of peaceful transfer of power (yes, you can find exceptions, but they prove the rule). Throughout human history, most transfers of power in non-democratic societies are bloody and terrifying, and are ultimately decided by a small cabal of the powerful for their own private interests.

Every single election is a passing of the torch, not to some abstract unknowable future, but only until the very next election. Failing to vote is dropping the torch that has been handed off since the American Revolution. Failing to vote is saying that you don’t need to have the right to give your input in how society is run. Failing to vote is saying that you’re okay with a bloody power struggle. Failing to vote is saying that it’s okay if a small cabal of those who monopolize military, financial and media power decide who rules and how. Failing to vote is saying that it’s okay if you and everyone who comes after you lives in a dictatorship.

Despite the wreckage of the 2016 election, there is still a lit, but sputtering torch being passed to you. You have not only a right, but a responsibility to pick up that torch on Tuesday, and pass it on until the 2020 election. If you don’t hand it off, it might not be there at all next time. And then the flames coming for you won’t be a torch.

No matter how hard it is to vote on Tuesday, no matter how long the line is, no matter what ID they ask you for, do whatever you have to in order to vote. If they try to deny you, ask for a provisional ballot. They cannot legally refuse you a provisional ballot. If anyone does anything to attempt to deny you your right to vote, including unreasonably long lines, contact the ACLU.

It’s no accident that our national anthem ends on a question. Every election we have to decide whether our flag still waves over the land of the free, or if it waves over something else. No generation of Americans since the Civil War have been faced with that question in a more fundamental way than we are. On Tuesday, please fulfill your responsibility, and answer that question with a resounding yes.


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Featured image via Mrs. Gemstone/Flickr

This is How the Russians Got to Lindsey Graham

Lindsey Graham

Lindsey Graham is on a rampage. A Grahampage?

The senior Republican Senator from South Carolina has swiftly transformed from Robin to the Batman of the late John “conscience of the Senate” McCain into a barking mad defender of Donald Trump’s policy goals. His slide from Trump critic to Trump lackey has been happening quietly for a while. Graham, who once called Trump a “jackass,” has become one of his closest foreign policy advisers. As rumors of war with North Korea began rumbling before the June opening to the Hermit Kingdom, Graham was one of the most hawkish confidants whispering in Trump’s ear, according to Bob Woodward.

But the weird Trump-Graham bromance goes beyond foreign policy. The rumble in the Senate over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court has made it unmistakable.

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During the September 27th Senate Judiciary Committee hearings to gather testimony from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, Graham went berserk in defending Trump’s nominee and attacking Democratic colleagues.

Then, on October 2nd, Graham really went nuclear, threatening a yawning breach of democratic norms if Kavanaugh’s nomination fails:

“I believe Judge Kavanaugh will be confirmed to the Supreme Court very soon,” Graham said. “However, if his nomination were to fall short, I would encourage President Trump to re-nominate Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. It would — in effect — be appealing the Senate’s verdict directly to the American people.”

Of course, Graham knows that Republicans have a good shot of keeping the Senate, despite a forecast “blue wave” in the House, just because of how daunting the Senate map is for Democrats. Forcing the issue again right before the election would electrify the race and likely get more Republicans to come to the polls. So it’s disingenuous to say that this would be putting it to the American people. Up until the Merrick Garland nomination, the norm has been that the American people decided how their representatives nominated judges in the previous election, not the next election.

This power play Graham suggests would be an unprecedented failure of the Constitution’s checks and balances–just so Trump can take another swing with his highly tainted nominee.

Graham’s behavior in the Senate hearings, and this “encouragement” to Trump to attack the Constitution and ramrod his deeply flawed judge through point to the possibility that Graham is not merely an adviser to the White House. He’s acting as Trump’s mouthpiece in the Senate. Both his and Kavanaugh’s angry tones were positively Trumpian. They seemed to be emulating the president in his viciousness of style, tone and substance. And this suggestion to renominate Kavanaugh sounds like something that Trump cooked up. Did Graham offer to put his name on it before floating it as a trial balloon to give Trump cover?

Clearly, Graham is in Trump’s pocket. So how did he get there?

Some have suggested that Russia has kompromat on Graham. I don’t deny that’s possible. But there is information in the public record that shows a blatant financial conduit from the Kremlin and Russian oligarchs to Graham’s coffers.

The single largest donor to Lindsey Graham’s doomed 2016 presidential run was Access Industries. The company paid $800,000 to Graham’s “Security is Strength” PAC and $32,000 to Graham’s campaign. Most of the other donors were conservative groups, banks, hedge funds, and defense contractors, all typical fare. But Access Industries was unique, and it was his number one supporter.

Access Industries is a multinational conglomerate focused on “natural resources and chemicals, media and telecommunications, technology and e-commerce, and real estate sectors worldwide,” according to Bloomberg. It is privately owned by its founder, Leonard “Len” Blavatnik, who was born a Russian citizen in Soviet Ukraine. He lives in London and his company is based in New York City. According to Forbes, he is worth $17.8 billion, making him the third richest person in the UK and the 27th richest person in the world.

Blavatnik is deeply tied to the Russian oligarchy and top-level power structure in at least two ways that connect to the story of how Russia helped Trump become president.

In 2013, Blavatnik made $7 billion selling his share in Russian-UK joint petroleum company, TNK-BP. The buyer was Rosneft. That was after Russia, under the Vladimir Putin regime, nationalized Rosneft, making it a Russian state-owned asset. When the purchase was completed, Putin essentially became the wealthiest and most powerful oil baron in the world.

So, Blavatnik made Putin super-powerful, Putin paid Blavatnik a cool 7 billion, and Blavatnik paid Lindsey Graham $832,000 while he ran for president against Trump. Were they covering all their bases by funding multiple candidates? Or was Graham merely a foil? Meant to crowd out the field to give Trump breathing room and then bow out once Trump took off? Was the enmity between Trump and Graham during the election all an act?

The second connection is through Blavatnik’s media holdings. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Blavatnik and his fellow billionaire friend Viktor Vekselberg formed an investment group called Renova. Renova then joined with Alfa Group to form a conglomerate called AAR Ventures.

Alfa Group is a holding company privately owned by Russian and Israeli billionaire, Mikhail Fridman. Christopher Steele’s infamous MI6 dossier on Trump featured Fridman prominently. In 2017, Fortune argued that the dossier was believable because,

“The dossier paints a picture of a long-standing symbiotic relationship between Alfa Group and the Russian leader. More recently, the dossier claims, Alfa owners Mikhail Fridman and Pyotr Aven have provided Putin with valuable information through their own network of business contacts in the U.S., valued particularly because of the conflicting signals Putin was getting from his diplomats and spies regarding the success of the alleged operation.”

Fridman’s “business contacts in the U.S.” could include Blavatnik, since Access Industries is based in New York.

In 2016, Slate reported on how investigators looked through Trump’s internet servers to find evidence that he had been hacked by Russia. Instead they found an odd electronic relationship. One server set up by Trump in 2009 would only allow communications from a small number of other servers.

“The irregular pattern of server lookups actually resembled the pattern of human conversation—conversations that began during office hours in New York and continued during office hours in Moscow. It dawned on the researchers that this wasn’t an attack, but a sustained relationship between a server registered to the Trump Organization and two servers registered to an entity called Alfa Bank [owned by Alfa Group].”

So Blavatnik’s support for Graham is a potential conduit of influence that would tie Graham to a Russian Trump-supporter who was possibly carrying on discussions with Trump that were meant to be secret.

Fridman also owns a controlling share of VimpelCom. That Russian telecommunications company has large-scale operations in Ukraine. It was in rapid decline when fighting broke out between Ukraine and Russia. However, VimpelCom survived, because it was bailed out with a huge investment made in 2014 by Renaissance Technologies.

American billionaire Robert Mercer owns Renaissance Technologies. He also owns the company formerly known as Cambridge Analytica. That is the notorious data company that illicitly acquired Facebook data on millions of users and used it to manipulate both the UK’s Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election. Mercer is also an owner of Breitbart and suggested to Trump that he hire rabid white nationalist Stephen Bannon in the opening days of his presidency.

To recap, the largest donation that Graham received in 2016 was from Blavatnik, who connects him to the Kremlin. Blavatnik’s money connects him to a Russian oligarch who was apparently pinging Trump’s secret server. It also connects him to the Russian-UK-American illegal data analytics and social media propaganda operation that helped get Trump elected. Far from being a legitimate Trump critic, Graham has been one of the offshoots of this democracy-strangling vine of corrupt influence from the very beginning.

Graham’s ferocious defense of Kavanaugh needs to be viewed in this light. Trump nominated Kavanaugh originally because of Kavanaugh’s history as a partisan hatchet man, and his expansive view of a Republican president’s executive power. But it could be that Trump isn’t the only one who wants a Supreme Court vote in his pocket because he’s worried about what the Mueller investigation might find. Lindsey Graham might have something to hide, too.

It has been speculated that Graham is “angling” to be the next Attorney General of the United States if and when Trump fires Jeff Sessions. In August, Graham seemed to telegraph his blessing for Trump to replace Sessions. He said that any new attorney general would have to let “Mueller … finish his job without political interference.” If Trump moves toward replacing Sessions, we should be very skeptical that this is what Graham actually believes.

This website is funded entirely by the generosity of patrons. Please click here to support Marc Belisle’s honest ad-free analysis of the threats against American democracy. 

Featured image via CNN YouTube screencapture