For Democrats trying to govern in an age of sectarian conflict, the golden rules look like a sucker’s game.
Why play fair if the other side cheats? What’s the value of values if you can’t get anything done?
But virtue and victory aren’t incompatible: If Democrats mount an aggressive defense of American ideals, they can win over those voters who still share them and strengthen democracy while they’re at it.
Many party debates now teeter on the tiny margins by which Democrats control Congress: How much can they get done in whatever time they have? What can you shimmy through a 50-50 Senate? Given the carnage left by the Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress who supported it, activists want to see Democrats bare their teeth. The Senate parliamentarian blocks raising the minimum wage? Toss her out — that’s what Republicans would do, and in fact did in 2001 after a ruling they didn’t like. Future nominees blocked for their mean tweets? Play the WTF tape, as in Whatabout Trump’s Feed? Not enough votes for progressive legislation? Kill the filibuster dead. Can’t pass funding for a key priority? Declare an emergency, because that’s what now passes for governing.
The news media face their own outbreak of internal dissent, as liberals on Twitter snarl at reporters who ask hard questions or write tough pieces about the Biden White House. These are core functions in a democracy. Fox News and Breitbart, meanwhile, tenderly feed and nurture Republican conspiracy theories, which are core functions in provoking a national collapse. When, critics ask, will mainstream media get over their commitment to “objectivity”? Along comes the Project for Good Information, as Vox’s Recode reports, “a new $65 million effort to push progressive local news around the United States as part of an attempt to match the dominance of right-wing media.” So we fight sneaky right-wing local media sites with sneaky left-wing sites? Or do we try to rebuild independent local journalism to serve as democracy’s best vaccine?
These are tired, sticky stereotypes: Republicans are tough. Democrats are weak; they negotiate with themselves and let bullies take their lunch money. Republican state legislatures gerrymander districts into macrame; Democrats call for nonpartisan redistricting commissions. Given the ongoing assault on voting rights, a president who shook down foreign governments, pardoned coconspirators, inspired insurrectionists, and continues to inflame seditious forces, it’s no wonder some Democrats view this moment as an emergency that calls for equal measures: What would Republicans do? That feels good, and everything seems OK so long as Chuck Schumer is not Mitch McConnell and CNN is not OAN.
But is that the best standard for judging public performance, or restoring our civic health?
Much of what Joe Biden proposes is broadly popular; many Republican voters don’t oppose democratic policies so much as they oppose Democrats, who they’ve come to believe must be defeated at all costs. But since Jan. 6, voters are leaving the GOP as its base grows increasingly undemocratic and its ideology is reduced to obstructionism. When Biden talks of unity, he’s talking to those Republican refugees. Democrats have a chance now, even as they pursue their agenda, to embrace a respect for the rule of law and restoration of constitutional norms that moderates and principled conservatives value.
So perhaps some patience with centrist Democrats like Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona is in order. Nuking the filibuster may not be an option at the moment; but if Republicans block popular bipartisan initiatives around, say, infrastructure or health care, the case for modifying the filibuster will grow. Likewise on the critical issue of voting rights: The Constitution does not require supermajorities to pass Senate bills, so Democrats can justify adjusting the filibuster for civil rights legislation, given the years of abuse and its history of blocking such legislation. But HR 1, the For the People Act, would be a better bill, potentially even attracting some GOP support, if it reflected the concerns of free speech advocates and constitutionalists as well as civil rights champions and reformers. Building broad public support to make our elections fair and truly democratic should be the Democratic goal as well.
I understand the urgency to fight the entrenchment of minority rule and explore experiments like open primaries and ranked-choice voting that might drain some of the tribalism out of politics. What Democrats do with their consolidated power matters; but how they do it matters too. Democrats rightly hammered McConnell and the White House for their serial constitutional insults, denying one Supreme Court vote and rushing another, obstructing oversight, ignoring subpoenas, escaping impeachment on a flimsy technicality. Together these Republican assaults amounted to treating public duty as “whatever you can get away with.”
Democrats can fight hard and still play fair. Finding that balance will go a long way toward determining whether America gets the leaders we need — or the leaders we deserve.
Nancy Gibbs is director of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard Kennedy School.