What Happens to Democracy When Your Opponent Becomes the Enemy?

The Washington Post editorial board spoke out about the closing argument for the 2018 midterms that we’re hearing from Republicans.

Republicans have found themselves unable to gain traction on the issues. Neither their budget-busting tax cut nor their efforts to blow up Obamacare have proved as popular as they expected. So they have seized on a new and despicable tactic three weeks from Election Day: arguing that Democrats are an angry horde bent on destroying people. This is more or less direct a quotation from the president, the Senate majority leader and a host of other Republicans.

“The Democrats are willing to do anything, to hurt anyone, to get the power they so desperately crave,” Mr. Trump said last week. “They want to destroy,” he added.

They ended their piece with this cautionary note:

Democracy can work if citizens can view the opposition as patriots such as themselves who happen to disagree, perhaps fervently, about the issues of the day. It cannot work if citizens view one another as enemies.

We’ve heard that warning before. More than a year ago, Adam Gopnik wrote about the need to distinguish between honest opponents and toxic enemies.

Democracies die when they can no longer distinguish between honest opponents of another ideological kind and toxic enemies who come from far outside all normal values.

Here is how Marilynne Robinson talked about it when she was interviewed by Barack Obama:

But fear was very much—is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.

You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing. I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?…because [of] the idea of the “sinister other.” And I mean, that’s bad under all circumstances. But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.

If being an alarmist about the the “sinister other” is a threat to democracy, then liberals face a difficult dilemma. The GOP has become the party of Trump, aligning themselves with the lies, ignorance, cruelty, and xenophobia that undermine almost everything we believe in. With threats to a free press and the ability of citizens to protest under attack, the president is also failing to protect our elections and inciting violence. I could go on, but perhaps you get the point: the Republican Party is no longer interested in being an honest opponent and has placed itself squarely in the camp of being a toxic enemy.

That is what led Hillary Clinton to eschew civility during an interview with Christiane Amanpour and Eric Holder to part ways with Michelle Obama’s characterization of “when they go low, we go high.” They were basically affirming that the Republican Party has ceased to be an honest opponent.

Of course, both Clinton and Holder are right about that—these are extraordinary times. But it means that we are at a very dangerous point in this country’s history. If the narrative is all about two warring parties pointing at each other as an enemy that poses a threat, all of the warnings about what that means to democracy become very real. It doesn’t matter if one side is right in their assessment and the other is wrong, the enemy needs to be silenced at any cost. That is a recipe for things to escalate—potentially into a violent confrontation.

This isn’t a call for civility. The threat posed by Donald Trump and his enablers in the Republican Party is very real. It is important to be clear about that. But the dilemma we face is also very real and I doubt that it is going to go away any time soon.

I’d like to be able to suggest a remedy that would resolve this dilemma, but frankly, I don’t have one. I am reminded of what Abraham Lincoln said during his first inaugural address on the eve of the Civil War:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

I see those better angels of our nature in stories like the one about a few white evangelical women in Texas who are supporting Beto O’Rourke because they are learning to see the nuance in our political disagreements. I also think that a lot of Democratic candidates are working from the ground up to unite voters around a set of common values. For example, here’s Stacey Abrams:

We are writing the next chapter of Georgia’s history where no one is unseen, no one is unheard and no one is uninspired. We are writing a history of Georgia where we prosper together…For the journey that lies ahead, we need every voice in our party and every independent thinker in the state of Georgia…That is why we are here to ensure that all Georgians, from farmers in Montezuma to mill workers in Dalton, know that we value them. So that educators in Sparta and airport workers in College Park know that we see their efforts. So that former prisoners across our state who are working towards more know that we believe in their redemption.

This is David Garcia, Democratic candidate for governor in Arizona, in a heavily Republican district:

“When you walk away from here, I want you to walk away with a set of values. A value about the importance of immigration, a value about public education — because I don’t care what party you’re in. If you share those values, I want you to be welcome to mark my name on that ballot, because when we do this approach — this ‘us and them’ approach — we turn people off.”

Up until the first shots were fired by the confederacy at Fort Sumter, Abraham Lincoln attempted everything he could do to hold the union together. He promised that the federal government would never take the first shot, but also vowed that any use of arms against the United States would be regarded as rebellion, and met with force. I hope that Democratic candidates like Abrams and Garcia can be more successful in appealing to the better angels of our nature than Lincoln ultimately was. But the challenge we face feels eerily similar to the one confronted by this country’s 16th president.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.