Recently, The Atlantic posted an article by Will Stancil that shed some light on an interesting phenomenon. Like many, Stancil has been thinking about last month’s government shutdown and asking why the Democrats caved. He reached the reasonable (and accurate) conclusion that the Democrats seem to have abandoned their stance of uncompromising resistance to Trump. He also observes that their willingness to work with Trump and the Republicans appears to have led to declining poll numbers for Dems.
The Democrats are endangering their electoral prospects to work with a historically unpopular president whom many of them see as uniquely dangerous. Why?
There are many reasons for the Democrats to become more open to compromise and Stancil points out a few: institutions like Congress prefer to rehash familiar fights rather than open unpredictable new theaters of war; the much-feared normalization of Trumpian policy and rhetoric has occurred; a strong economy makes Trump a stronger political foe; a President to whom none of the old rules seem to apply is impossible to fight; the Democrats have become complacent after a string of unlikely electoral victories. Or maybe fewer Democrats see Trump as a unique danger to American democracy?
Stancil seems sympathetic to the final justification. As he writes of the immigration debate, “Whatever the outcome, the course of these negotiations demonstrates the erosion of the idea that Trump constitutes such a crisis in American governance—that he should be treated differently than any other president.” I somewhat agree with Stancil on this point. But I also agree with the Democrats.
The current threat to American governance predates Trump. As I have written before, he is a symptom, not the disease.
Our current crisis has been building for a long time, but I would argue that the true crisis began during the presidency of Barack Obama with the rise of the Tea Party. After the 2010 midterms, the Republican majority began an unprecedented campaign of obstruction, which culminated in the 2016 “theft” of a Supreme Court nomination from President Obama. Under the guidance of Mitch McConnell (in particular), the Republicans waged a scorched earth campaign against Democrats, violating norms (and possibly the Constitution). In doing so, the Republicans have altered American governance and severely damaged our democratic institutions. But they also won control of every branch of government despite receiving fewer votes than Democratic candidates nationwide.
The central question of the Trump era is whether or not the Democrats will attempt to replicate McConnellesque tactics in the pursuit of their goals.
The Democrats are in a unique bind. They have two sets of incentives shaping their behavior, and those incentives strongly conflict.
The first (their electoral incentives) seem to dictate use of the same obstructionist playbook as the Tea Party and McConnell. Their use of such tactics in the first year of the Trump presidency coincided with shocking electoral wins in deep red areas. Enthusiasm among liberal voters has been sky high and the resistance in Washington has heartened and strengthened the “Resistance” in the rest of the country. If Democrats want to retake the House, the Senate, governor’s mansions, state legislatures, etc. in 2018, it seems that their surest bet is to forsake compromise and start playing the game the way Republicans have been for years.
However, Democrats have a second set of incentives that motivate them to work with Trump and the Republicans. Unlike the Tea Party, modern Democrats have an ideological commitment to functional governance. It is a central belief of the modern American Left that government (particularly the federal government) can and should be a force for good in the lives of its citizens. It should actively guarantee people their rights, intervene in the economy, and regulate just about every sector of American life in order to promote health, safety, and the public good. Such beliefs make obstructionism abominable, a dereliction of duty and hypocrisy of the highest order.
Clearly, this is not the case for Republicans. Though many (though certainly not all) of members its seem to have a firm commitment to their individual right to tread on the rights of others, the Tea Party has been incredibly consistent in its belief that the government should not interfere in any aspect of the lives of its citizens. They view government as the problem. Therefore, their electoral incentive to obstruct our process of governance and secure partisan wins at any cost was aligned with their ideological commitment to reducing the role of government in—well—everything.
In the end, Democratic obstructionism may only further the goals of Republican ideologues and help Trump erode the democratic institutions he clearly despises. But abandoning obstructionism can (and will) be seen as cowardice or lack of principles.
However, a willingness to work with the Republicans is necessary if we hope to restore American democracy. We have recently learned how much of our democratic process is governed not by laws but by norms. It is only through concerted action by public figures committed to American liberal democracy (not just on the Left but also on the Right) can those norms once again come to ensure that our system of governance works for the public good.
But if abandoning obstructionism loses the Democrats elections, does any of it matter? The Republicans seem willing to drive the car off the cliff by themselves.
The Democrats can’t win. If they work with Trump, they risk putting more of the government into the hands of Republicans. If they pull back into knee-jerk obstructionism, they will join the Tea Party in burning our governance to the ground. Both outcomes are basically intolerable.
The solution likely resides in the grassroots Left. Instead of demanding undifferentiating obstruction, activists should be more open to ad hoc cooperation on certain issues, even as some things remain non-negotiable.
But the real future of American governance depends on ultimately restoring our elected officials’ ability to work together. Unfortunately, that will require Republicans to play their part in restoring our democratic institutions and norms.