Why the Democrats Need to Act Like Republicans

Susan Rice wrote a piece for the New York Times that is important, but not for the reasons the former ambassador intended. She warns of the danger of political polarization, as if it were a flesh-eating disease threatening to consume the body politic. She’s right, but she doesn’t offer a solution. That’s what I think is important.

No one knows what to do. To be clear, this is not a problem for the Republicans. The GOP has decided anyone holding aloft the banner of the Democratic Party has no legitimate claim to power. This attitude fueled the scorched-earth campaign starting in 2010, and its drives Mitch McConnell’s effort to install any conservative who can fog a mirror to the federal bench.

The Republicans moreover have benefited from reckless irresponsibility. They crashed the economy during the Bush years, then attacked the Democrats for trying to save it. They looked the other way as the Russians sabotaged our elections, while attacking the Democrats who want justice. Our national politics is like a co-dependent relationship, with no prospect of changing, as long as the Republicans know the Democrats can be counted on to clean up the mess, and as long as the Democrats can win with a promise of cleaning it up.

Rice and others would like us to return to the days when Republicans and Democrats found ways to get things done. That’s the conventional wisdom, and there is considerable debate over whether that’s possible. But there’s another solution to this co-dependent relationship that’s more taboo—for the Democrats to behave badly.

This is not something I condone or encourage or even want to see, but you have to admit it makes a kind of sense. If the Democrats stopped bailing out the Republicans, maybe the electorate, and the Washington press corps, would hold the Republicans as accountable for its actions as the Democrats are held for theirs. Instead of tamping down divisions, as Rice and others sagely suggest, the Democrats would do what they can to inflame them.

The Republicans believe this has already happened. Barack Obama was the “most divisive president ever.” This was of course wholly the product of racism—they were obviously wrong. Obama and the Democrats consistently and predictably appealed to reason, rule of law, and small-r republican values in their aim to govern responsibly. They did not look at the opposition’s claims to the franchise as illegitimate, something to be fought as if going to war.

If you think about it, this was probably the heart of the debate among Democrats over the 2016 presidential primary. On the one hand were those wanting to stay the course Obama started (I include myself in this camp). On the other hand were those wanting the Democrats go to war with an enemy clearly warring with the Democrats. One side wanted to turn the other cheek for the sake of country. The other wanted to ball up its fist and punch back. It’s worth noting the Republicans have already gone through this debate. We all know which camp won.

In short, it would be better if we could put the toothpaste back in the tube, but I don’t know if that’s possible. I can’t help feeling a gloomy sense of inevitability, as if we are heading for a crisis that will define the century. The conservative media is already priming viewers to think in terms of war—consider the “secret society” canard—and to think that obstruction of justice is no big deal. At the same times, forces are gathering in blue states to fight against the administration’s effort to extract wealth, poison the air, and deport immigrants. New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo even called it “economic civil war.”

War start with two sides see the other as the enemy. We appear to be getting there.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.