Over the past year, media criticism regarding violations of political norms has centered on President Trump and Congressional Republicans. To be sure, Trump’s norm-breaking is without precedent, and the power held by Republicans renders their actions more urgent, but Democrats have also participated in a continuing cycle of political brinkmanship. Both parties’ actions represent threats to American democracy.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two experts on threats to democracy, recently wrote in The New York Times that the health of democracies relies on adhering to unwritten rules, or norms. One is mutual toleration, a belief that opposition members are legitimate, patriotic countrymen. John McCain embodied this principal at a rally during the 2008 election when supporters expressed fear and distrust of Barack Obama. McCain told them that Obama was “a decent, family man” whom he had “disagreements” with.
Republicans rejected mutual toleration during the Obama Administration. Sarah Palin, who ran as McCain’s VP, publicly questioned Obama’s birthplace and citizenship. Donald Trump started a political career doing it. Nevertheless, Democrats have also argued that Trump is illegitimate, such as Congressman John Lewis. Hillary Clinton has regularly doubted the authenticity of her loss over the past year. Certainly, questions abound over the influence of Russia and possible collusion, but no investigation has concluded and given answers.
Jennifer McCoy, an expert in political polarization, corroborated Levitsky and Ziblatt’s second norm: forbearance. In other words, politicians restrain the use of power even without legal restriction. Presidents could arrange the assassinations of political opponents and pardon everyone involved but don’t. The Senate could attempt to expel every member of the opposing member but hasn’t.
McCoy discusses forbearance in the context of the “nuclear option,” which Senate Republicans exercised last year when they removed the filibuster from Supreme Court confirmations in order to lower the number of votes required. While the nuclear option is a new low, Democrats launched the Senate’s Manhattan Project in 2013 when they removed the filibuster for Cabinet appointments and lower court nominees.
Even if Republicans have been the most severe offenders, Democrats are gladly stealing the obstructionist playbook now that they’ve rejoined the opposition. Party leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer justifiably condemned a Republican-led government shutdown in 2013, yet they attempted the same maneuver last month. Democrats seemed most prepared to unleash win-at-all-costs tactics in the 2020 presidential election.
Democrats could choose their own Trump. During the last year, many have called for Oprah Winfrey, a TV-star billionaire without political experience (sound familiar?), to run for president. Though she could be a formidable candidate, her nomination would continue the sharp degrading of standards for the presidency. Her personal life may display success and character that many, myself included, find superior to Trump’s, but her pseudo-scientific tendencies, including launching Dr. Oz and giving early press to the anti-vaccination movement, should raise questions over either her judgement or motivations.
Democratic hopefuls with political experience haven’t exhibited bipartisan tendencies. According to GovTrack.us’ Congressional report cards for 2017, Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Congressman Joe Kennedy III also of Massachusetts, to their credit, rate well on joining bipartisan bills, but of those three, only Warren is considered a major contender. Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Kamala Harris of California rank within the bottom half and are all major candidates for the nomination. Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont and a Democrat frontrunner, did not introduce a single bipartisan bill in 2017.
None of this is to say that Democrats are the problem or the bigger problem, but they are a problem. Republicans have committed greater transgressions, even before President Trump. Indeed, they have often given Democrats good reasons to obstruct or break norms. Republicans blocked Obama appointments in the executive and judicial branches for solely political purposes. The Republicans used the nuclear option to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, but Democrats acted sensibly in blocking him given that Republicans refused to consider the nomination made by Obama. However, no matter the who or why, these actions ultimately degrade American democracy.
If we want to find blame, looking at politicians won’t help us, nor will perusing TV screens, newspapers, and Twitter feeds. Instead, we should look in the mirror. Politicians rarely act randomly. Politicians obstruct because voters reward them for doing so and punish them if they do not. A glance at recent history reveals why political strategists find obstructionism appealing. As vice president, Al Gore lost the 2000 election after the Clinton impeachment despite a strong economy and high approval ratings for Clinton himself. Republicans progressively won back Congress through the Obama years, culminating in the 2016 election, using obstruction. Now, Democrats see themselves competing in the reddest states, highlighted by a Senate win in Alabama. Meanwhile, more centrist and comprising Democrats are viewed as sellouts.
Ending gridlock and divided politics requires that voters cease rewarding obstructionist politics. Even if we believe that the party or president that we elected (whether Obama or Trump or whoever 46 is) truly acts for the greater good, we pay in the future. Trump can undo Obama’s legacy because Obama relied on executive action. Democrats could not reject a genuinely flawed Secretary of Education nominee because they ended the 60-vote threshold years ago.
The chaos of the Trump Administration and Republican Congress has clouded the deeply worrying trends of Democrats gradually adopting the obstructionist strategies that Republicans honed under Obama. While it served Republicans well electorally, winners and losers are for Super Bowls. When Republicans and Democrats, or the Right and Left, win and lose, the actual losers are Americans and American democracy. Resisting is appealing. It is also easy. To genuinely leave a better country for future Americans, we should reward leaders who put country over party in both their rhetoric and actions. Let us not allow the Democrats to join Republicans in further abandoning these principles.
Dr. Strangelove trailer from 40th Anniversary Special Edition DVD, 2004, directed by Stanley Kubrick, distributed by Colombia Pictures, public domain.