capitol building
Credit: iStock

Over the weekend Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein took their assertion about asymmetric polarization one step further and wrote, “How the Republicans Broke Congress.” They pointed to three steps in the process:

First, beginning in the 1990s, the Republicans strategically demonized Congress and government more broadly and flouted the norms of lawmaking, fueling a significant decline of trust in government that began well before the financial collapse in 2008, though it has sped up since…

Second, there was the “Obama effect”…we saw a deliberate Republican strategy to oppose all of his initiatives and frame his attempts to compromise as weak or inauthentic. The Senate under the majority leader Mitch McConnell weaponized the filibuster to obstruct legislation, block judges and upend the policy process…

Third, we have seen the impact of significant changes in the news media, which had a far greater importance on the right than on the left.

For more on how Republicans undermined Congress back in the 1990s by making the legislative branch stupid, I would suggest reading “The Big Lobotomy” by Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards.

Here is how Ornstein and Mann describe the result of all three steps:

Mr. Trump’s election and behavior during his first 10 months in office represent not a break with the past but an extreme acceleration of a process that was long underway in conservative politics. The Republican Party is now rationalizing and enabling Mr. Trump’s autocratic, kleptocratic, dangerous and downright embarrassing behavior in hopes of salvaging key elements of its ideological agenda: cutting taxes for the wealthy (as part of possibly the worst tax bill in American history), hobbling the regulatory regime, gutting core government functions and repealing Obamacare without any reasonable plan to replace it.

This is a far cry from the aspirations of Republican presidential giants like Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, as well as legions of former Republican senators and representatives who identified critical roles for government and worked tirelessly to make them succeed. It’s an agenda bereft of any serious efforts to remedy the problems that trouble vast segments of the American public, including the disaffected voters who flocked to Mr. Trump.

To the extent that Congress is broken, the question is: what should Democrats do about that? I’m seeing a lot of calls for them to give back as forcefully to Republicans as it has been dished out to them. That was the subject of an interesting exchange on Twitter recently.

I’m all for reversing this horrendous tax cut bill if and when Democrats find themselves in a position to do so. As a matter of fact, I’d love to see a “repeal and replace” with major investments in infrastructure and health care.

But Brownstein begins to get at the issue of a broken Congress when he talks about “whiplash inducing swerves in policy.” Does each new majority come into power with an agenda to repeal and replace everything the previous Congress passed? Will Republicans have successfully killed the idea of negotiation and compromise forever? That certainly looks like the direction things are heading, and I suspect the outcome will not only be ruinous for Democrats, but also for small “d” democracy.

That concern is precisely what animated almost everything President Obama did while he was in office. He knew that the democratic process was one that required us to be true to our values, but open to compromise with the opposition. As such, he talked about the need for a better politics. Here’s how he described that in his 2015 State of the Union speech:

So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes…

Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different. Understand, a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine. A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives…

If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments, but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.

On other occasions, he spoke about a better politics both practically and aspirationally. In terms of the former, he went back home to Illinois towards the end of his second term to address this topic and offered three steps that would be necessary to lay the groundwork for a better politics.

1. “First is to take, or at least reduce, some of the corrosive influence of money in our politics.”

2. “The second step towards a better politics is rethinking the way that we draw our congressional districts.”

3. “…a third step towards a better politics is making voting easier, not harder; and modernizing it for the way that we live now.”

He went on to say that #3 was the place that it all started.

Now, the more Americans use their voice and participate, the less captive our politics will be to narrow constituencies. No matter how much undisclosed money is spent, no matter how many negative ads are run, no matter how unrepresentative a district is drawn, if everybody voted, if a far larger number of people voted, that would overcome in many ways some of these other institutional barriers.

Aspriationally, Obama spoke to the ingredients of a better politics in the language of faith when he gave the commencement address at Notre Dame in 2009. You might remember that the speech was preceded by eruptions on that campus about the president’s position on abortion. Rather than avoid the topic, he addressed it head-on.

The question, then — the question then is how do we work through these conflicts? Is it possible for us to join hands in common effort? As citizens of a vibrant and varied democracy, how do we engage in vigorous debate? How does each of us remain firm in our principles, and fight for what we consider right, without, as Father John said, demonizing those with just as strongly held convictions on the other side?

And of course, nowhere do these questions come up more powerfully than on the issue of abortion.

Recognizing that some differences are irreconcilable, he counseled this:

…in this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you’ve been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. In other words, stand as a lighthouse.

But remember, too, that you can be a crossroads. Remember, too, that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It’s the belief in things not seen…

And this doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, cause us to be wary of too much self-righteousness. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us even as we cling to our faith to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works and charity and kindness and service that moves hearts and minds.

I recognize that there are those who don’t approach these conflicts with integrity and are simply motivated by the desire for domination or a sense of tribalism. That is why I thought that what Adam Gopnik wrote about being able to tell the difference between honest opponents and toxic enemies was so important.

Ultimately my position is that I won’t let Republican power games rob me of an open mind or turn me into a self-righteous ideologue. That doesn’t mean being delusional or weak. It actually takes some courage these days to maintain that kind of position in this toxic political atmosphere.

But the bigger issue is that Congress is broken because our politics is broken. Republican leaders from Newt Gingrich to Mitch McConnell and now Donald Trump have been willing to sacrifice our democracy is pursuit of power. Will Democrats follow them in that pursuit? Or will they make the decision that the preservation of our democracy more important?

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!