Guardrails of democracy ensure that everyone plays on the same field by creating an environment of general respect. One of the most important of these guardrails is mutual toleration. For the purpose of this blog post, mutual toleration is being defined using Levitsky & Ziblatt’s definition: recognition that political rivals, while playing by the established rules, have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern.
When weak democratic norms of mutual tolerance exist in a country, it creates a situation where democracy itself becomes borderline unsustainable. One of the biggest reasons for how this breakdown can occur is due to not seeing one’s otherwise legitimate opposition as viable. There is a distinct difference between recognizing ideological opponents as rational but disagreeing with them versus disregarding them altogether as being less than or, in some cases, heretical and treasonous.
The latter creates a system in which partisan conflict becomes the standard norm, as we currently see in American politics, but this alone is pretty standard for most political institutions. What is cause for concern, at least in the American context, is the growing hardening of partisan lines that has been occurring since 1992 and strengthening more after the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Authors Alan Abramowitz & Steven Webster note that “far larger proportions of Democratic and Republican voters hold strongly negative views of the opposing party than in the past.” Where Americans used to more openly flow across partisan lines at all levels of governance, modern politics has inured these identities into a mentality of “us” versus “them.”
To discuss specifically, in 2013, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) used the “nuclear” option to eliminate filibusters by changing parliamentary rules for confirming federal judicial nominees from the 60-vote supermajority to a simple majority. Senator Reid altered the long-established system in order to take the power away from those Republicans seeking to hold up the process for confirming nominations by President Barack Obama. This move was in response to a growing use of the filibuster in recent years, effectively stalling the filling of vacancies. The Republican response to this “nuclear” rule change did not help the mutual toleration guardrail. Some Republican members took a hard-line stance against ObamaCare, resulting in a shutdown of the government, by refusing to vote on the budget when it became clear the healthcare program would not be cut. Both of these two instances created more disparity and entrenchment amongst the parties.
Republicans in the Senate, now under Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as Majority Leader and the Trump administration, have also used the “nuclear” option change in parliamentary filibuster rules to their advantage. When Senator Reid changed the rules , it was specifically only for non-Supreme Court judicial nominations and did not apply to legislation. Senator McConnell took this one step further in 2017 by adding Supreme Court nominations to the now simple majority to advance the nomination, paving the way for Judge Neil M. Gorsuch. This ultimately led to his confirmation after nearly 14 months of a vacant Supreme Court seat, a seat kept so by Republicans refusing to advance the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland by President Barack Obama.
The notion of mutual toleration in these cases do not exist as neither Democrats or Republicans were willing to abide by the established rules in Senate operations due to the lack of trust and respect each party had for the other. This is further highlighted by the fact Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a 2016 interview, “One of my proudest moments was when I told Obama, ‘You will not fill this Supreme Court vacancy.’” In 2017, Senator McConnell flipped this boastful comment against Democrats saying, “Apparently there’s yet a new standard now, which is not to confirm a Supreme Court nominee at all. I think that’s something the American people simply will not tolerate.” This is an interesting transition because when the rhetoric is used against Senator McConnell and the Republican party, the actions are talked about as “unpatriotic” and “against the American people,” but when these same tactics are employed by him and his party, it suddenly and quickly becomes the standard operating procedure. This speaks to the foundational breakdown of mutual toleration and pushes the entire American Senatorial system towards an untenable position.
Congress, specifically the Senate, is where a large percentage of the collapse in mutual toleration exists, but it is also being used by party leaders, especially President Trump almost whenever he makes a public statement. A few short days ago, on April 24th, during a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron during the State visit, Trump was heard directly blaming Democrats for “slow walking” his nominations by leveraging the cloture process. President Trump is trying to delegitimize the Democratic minority by tweeting, “DEMOCRATS ARE obstructing good (hopefully great) people wanting to give up a big portion of their life to work for our Government.” Although this isn’t the first time, it is the most recent in a long line of attacks to disregard his opposition as viable and an equal partner in leading the country.
While America is currently on new grounds of political operations, this visceral, negative sentiment being employed by leaders is trickling down to the general American population. Constituents are listening to their party leaders spout such blaming rhetoric against one another. Though it would be unfair to say that Americans do not believe in democratic ideals, it has become the new norm for those beliefs to be more deeply rooted in partisan identity, which further propagates devolution of the mutual toleration guardrail situation currently facing the American political system. If this is to stop, political actors need to be conscious of their rhetoric and, while still potentially disagreeing, recognize one another as legitimate ideological opponents.