#Do Democrats have to become soulless, immoral bastards to compete in America?
In 2005 I spent a month studying how to be a legislator at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Given my lack of diligence in high school, it was the only way Harvard would ever allow me on the campus. My favorite professor there was a man named Marty Linsky. One day he engaged us in a discussion of Robert Moses who accomplished a great deal for the city of New York using sometimes ruthless, dishonest, norm-busting tactics.
Professor Linsky asked one of my fellow-students, whose day job was to advocate for LGBT rights, whether he would engage in similar tactics to achieve his goals. “Absolutely not”, the student replied. “I could never look at myself in the mirror if I did that.” Linsky asked him what his top priority in his job was. The student said “fighting discrimination based on sexual orientation”. Linsky said “doesn’t sound like it”. The student looked confused. “It sounds like your top priority is looking at yourself in the mirror”.
Linsky wasn’t telling us that being honest and fair was wrong, or that we must become vicious, amoral snakes. He was simply trying to teach us that sometimes the goals of being a decent, honorable, admirable person and being effective and actually getting things done are in tension, and we have to give some thought to that as we decide where on that continuum we want to fall.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that class recently as I contemplate the state of American politics. It wasn’t always this way, but in recent years, Republicans have become more Machiavellian and more ruthless, as the Democrats seem increasingly feckless, and more concerned about apparent propriety — about looking at themselves in the mirror — than about aggressively fighting for the interests of the people who count on us.
In 1968, Chief Justice Earl Warren left the Supreme Court. Democratic President Lyndon Johnson appointed Abe Fortas to replace him. The US Senate had 62 Democrats and 38 Republicans, but they couldn’t confirm Fortas because there was some question about speaking fees he received. So we just allowed incoming Republican Richard Nixon to appoint conservative Justice Warren Burger instead. That would have been fine if both parties prioritized appointing an ethically pristine justice to the Court. Similarly, in 1990, a Democratic Senate confirmed predictably right-wing Clarence Thomas to a seat on the Supreme Court, despite a whole host of readily available justifications not to.
But our commitment to fairness in Supreme court confirmations was not shared by the other side. We all know the story of Merrick Garland, who was denied even a hearing because you simply don’t confirm a new justice nine months before a presidential election, except when Donald Trump appoints one about 40 days before an election in which case we must confirm immediately. Lindsey Graham said “Save the tape!” of him saying he’d never support that, until it happened and Linsdey pivoted to “Ignore the tape!”.
Of course it’s not just Supreme Court appointments. The Republicans have passed literally dozens of voter-suppression laws around the nation designed to make it harder for groups of people…who just soooooo happen to support Democrats… to vote. Here in the Keystone State, they tried to enact a Voter ID bill which would, with the stroke of a pen, disenfranchise (according to them!) about 750,000 mostly poor and minority voters to solve a problem (in-person voter fraud) that has literally not happened once in modern Pennsylvania history.
Too many black churches sending their parishioners to early-vote on Sundays? Just eliminate early voting on Sundays! Problem solved! The annoying voters passed a law given felons who’ve served their time their vote back? Enact a new poll tax! Democrats tend to vote by mail more? Lets go to court to stop states from expanding vote-by-mail during a global pandemic. I never said any of this was subtle.
During Bush vs. Gore, the Republicans sent gangs to the polling places in Florida where the votes were being counted to scream and bang on the walls. This caused numerous recounts to be shut down out of concern for the safety of the staff involved. Democrats were appalled, which seems to be our permanent state of being. While Republicans were aggressively shutting down the recount, our team, headed up soft-spoken, courtly and dignified Warren Christopher, mostly just pointed and said “Hey….”
In states such as Wisconsin and North Carolina, the voters chose Democratic governors in 2018 after long periods of Republican rule. How did the Republicans solve that problem? They passed post-election laws removing all of the powers of their governors and transferring them to the still-Republican controlled legislatures. Somehow they never saw the need to restructure government in this way prior to losing executive power.
Just today we have the President refusing to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses. And he means it. He has repeatedly pushed insane conspiracy theories to undermine confidence in an election he is likely to lose, even saying that the only way to tell if the election was fair is if he wins. Anyone who thinks that Trump will concede under ANY circumstances simply has not been paying attention. Meanwhile, rule-bound and old-school Joe Biden wouldn’t dream of disrespecting the process created by our founders.
There is certainly a benefit to being respectful of norms, adherent to the law, and civil to your adversaries. For one thing, you get a much better, more cooperative and peaceful society. But at a certain point…
And this is where it gets hard. If you were in a boxing match, where both the use of feet and blows below the belt were prohibited, but yet you keep getting kicked in the Kahoots (I invented this word, and I’m very, very proud of it), over and over again, you are in an unsustainable position. Being fair, and decent and respectful of norms just devolves into flaccidity when competing with someone who doesn’t share your admiration for niceties.
In the context of politics, there are real-life consequences to being a wimp, a patsy, a pushover, or any other old-timey word that means you constantly accept the other side cheating graciously. The people who are counting on us to fight for and protect them see their quality of life deteriorate. The poor will get poorer, women, working people, the LGBT community will all their rights eviscerated, the environment will be degraded and our democracy will degenerate into authoritarianism lite (or maybe not so lite).
Professor Linsky would ask, is all of this alright with you so you can feel good about yourself? On the other hand, are we supposed to just become amoral bastards because some of our opponents might be? I don’t see a clear black-and-white answer to this dilemma, but I do have some thoughts.
First, we have to face reality. Shame is not going to change the behavior of Donald Trump and his enablers. We must stop being shocked when Trump encourages violence or says something racist or anti-democratic, or fascist. And we must stop being exasperated when Lindsey Graham or Mitch McConnell remain silent or even back Trump up. Expecting our statements of outrage to have an effect shows that we’ve learned nothing about where the Republican Party is from the past four years.
Second, part of the reason why the Republicans are so aggressive stems from the fact that we have been so feeble. Nobody respects an unworthy adversary. No schoolyard bully is deterred by a victim who collapses, curls into a ball and whimpers “Mitch, this isn’t fair!”. It is only when the bully gets in a good kick in the kahoots (I just can’t help myself!) that he relents.
All of this means that we must, at the very least, begin playing hardball, rather than the Yahtzee! we’re playing now. That means making it clear that if the Republicans force through a Supreme Court nominee despite the “Merrick Garland Rule” they invented, the gloves are off. If we retake the senate, the filibuster is gone, DC is a state, and the Supreme Court goes up to eleven members giving President Biden two new justices to appoint. And then, after making that clear, we must…and this is important…actually do it!
I have historically opposed some of the things we now need to do, including changing the number of justices. But the Supreme Court is really important. And if the Republicans are just going to play by their own rules, made up day-by-day as needed, we simply must fight back or see all the progress we’ve made in the past 100 years dismantled piece-by-piece. Further, if they send people into the streets to steal the election in 40 days, we have to send people into the streets to protect the legitimate result, etc. The Republicans have shed all restraint. We have to react as if we understand that.
Does all of this mean that we’ve become what we despise? Well, there is a key difference. We should make it clear that we are prepared to revert to a rule-based, fair, level-playing-field status quo ante. If the Republicans start respecting the law and norms and democratic institutions again, we will too. But we can’t sit back and with great nobility, deference and moral superiority, watch our democracy vanish into history.