On fighting like Republicans

[As always, I am not recommending any particular course of action or political strategy. All I’m trying to do is work my way into the mindset that would allow the Democrats’ actions to make sense as something other than the product of personal cowardice or political naïveté.]

I agree with those who call for Democrats to be more aggressive and obstructionist in the wake of the cruel technicality of Election Day. I also understand why they characterize their preferred stance as “fighting like Republicans” — it has the appeal of apparent fairness and symmetry and reflects the fact that the Republicans have been seemingly much more passionate and committed in the pursuit of their goals than Democrats. As useful and appealing as the call to “fight like Republicans” may be rhetorically, though, I think it risks obscuring both the nature of Republican strategy and the options that are concretely available to the Democrats.

The first thing to ask about is the terrain on which this battle will take place. All the strategies currently available to the Democrats on the federal level depend heavily on the courts and other ostensibly “neutral” institutions (Constitutional checks and balances, bureaucratic norms). And the Democrats appear to sincerely believe that there should be such neutral institutions. The problem is that the Republicans do not — they are willing to weaponize literally anything, from the fillibuster rule to the redistricting process, for their own short-term partisan gain. They don’t just want to win in the existing system, they want to change the system so that they can never lose, as we see most vividly in the events in North Carolina.

When we say that the Democrats should “fight like Republicans,” do we really mean that they should attempt to create the conditions for perpetual one-party rule wherever they cling to power? As a resident of Illinois, which is being utterly run into the ground by a Republican governor, I do see a certain appeal in that solution. But do most actual existing Democrats want that? Does the Democratic base? I would suggest that they don’t — as evidenced, for instance, by the failure to recall Scott Walker. Liberal Democrats surely hated Walker, but they weren’t willing to take extreme measures to remove him.

That turns out to have been a very bad strategic call, given that Democrats now appear to be shut out of power in Wisconsin for the foreseeable future. But for the Democrats to take any other approach would have meant becoming a fundamentally different kind of party. And I don’t just mean a party with a more principled left-wing message or whatever everyone’s wish list or magic bullet is. They would have to effectively become a revolutionary party that aims to seize power and permanently shift the political balance in the United States. They would have to be willing to essentially outlaw the Republican Party, which the Republicans are about three and a half steps away from doing to the Democrats in half the states of the Union.

The Democrats don’t want that. They want things to go back to “normal,” where two worthy opponents alternate in power and largely cooperate on the most important pieces of legislation. And if that’s their goal, I honestly don’t see any path forward for them other than waiting and hoping that the Republicans get it out of their system. There is nothing the Democrats can do to force the Republicans to go back to being the worthy opponent — only the Republicans can decide to do that. All they can do in the meantime is preserve the traditional rules of the game as much as possible. There is probably more on the margins that the Democrats can be doing, but the appearance of passivity and general wimpiness reflects the only real path toward their goal of getting things back to normal.

What is the alternative to the Democrats’ political equivalent to an Al-Anon meeting? The revolutionary party model, which would aim to exclude the Republicans from power as illegitimate — and hopefully force a new Constitutional settlement as the condition for a return to a “normal” multi-party parliamentary system after the emergency has ended. The Democrats are probably the closest to a political entity that could pull something like that off, because they have the most access to institutional power and the most potential to control the coercive arms of state power. Yet it appears that even the Democrats do not command the full loyalty of the coercive apparatus, especially domestically — the police union openly endorsed Trump and the FBI rank and file reportedly lean heavily toward Trump. The pattern of behavior connected with police shootings certainly seems to indicate that Democratic officeholders at lower levels are more controlled by the local police apparatus than vice versa. Conditions are already pretty unfavorable even before we start considering the number of heavily-armed private citizens loyal to the Republicans.

It may seem ridiculous to even discuss the prospects for revolution, and especially to discuss the use of violence. After all, the Republicans’ game of hardball has not required overt violence! But that’s only because the only possible counterweight to their actions, the Democrats, have decided to treat the situation as one of more or less “normal” partisanship. If the Democrats were trying as aggressively to shut out the Republicans as the Republicans are currently doing to the Democrats, the appearance of a neutral terrain (of courts and career bureaucrats and principled law-enforcement agents) would quickly fall by the wayside. If there is no institutional structure that is treated as neutral and legitimate by both parties, then force decides. And I think we’re all good enough at math to know what force would decide under current circumstances.

11 thoughts on “On fighting like Republicans

  1. I would look for available “forcing functions” (where coercive power is already baked in) that defang political parties in general — i.e., which Republicans would favor, anticipating an eventual return of Democratic rule.

    What immediately comes to mind are constitutional amendments – that voting rights shall not be abridged, that apportionment must be strictly non-partisan, that election “days” must be at least whole fortnights, that voting results must be corroborated.

    Line these up in the national consciousness now, and deploy them upon the arrival of the next unified Democratic government (i.e. when the fear of impending “Chicago-style” lefty rule is palpable).

    With Republicans having become “too smart” to assent to abridgment of their own NCarolina-style banana powers, it may require a few actual Chicago-style demonstrations of power first.

    In retrospect, if there were a post-Obamacare, pre-2010 wave-election window, this would have been the ideal time. Prepare for the next.

  2. In any situation there are always two types of people. There are those who a goal oriented, an these tend to be like Republicans. And there are those who are process oriented, i.e. Democrats. The goal oriented person is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve the goal, say gaining power. The process oriented individual does not particularly care if any goal is ever reached, as long as everyone is allowed to process and Robert’s Rules are followed.
    Recently it seems the two parties can be defined by theses statements: “I am willing to reach out to anyone who agrees with me.” George W. Bush, and Democrats who seem to respond by saying, “Yes, and I am willing to agree to anyone who will reach out to me.”

  3. Great points. The Republican goal was once getting rich. Now they have a competing goal of smiting their enemies. The Democrats’ only seeming purpose was to let the neoliberal process continue. Voters prefer “a man with a plan”.

  4. It is shocking the extent to which the Republican platform is literally just “vengeance against the liberals.” This is intensified with a troll like Trump in charge, but it was always the case. Think of things like open carry — there’s no benefit to it, they just want the gesture because they know it’s offensive and want to rub it in people’s faces.

  5. FDR successfully violated norms with his 4 terms and his supreme court packing scheme. Dems don’t have that sort of power now so it isn’t clear that norm violations are going to help anything. They do need to obstruct the president the best they can though.

  6. Good analysis, made me think. Dems indeed have been playing by the rules while so many Repubs have seemingly not. Assuming that the people around Trump are not really able to achieve an authoritarian state, I think the best Dem strategy is to keep playing, though firmly, by the rules until the Republicans do come to their senses. (And plenty of them are by no means irredeemable). The alternative as the essay suggests is violence which would be highly unlikely to have anything but a bad outcome.

    The Democrats should indeed stand up for their principles but doing so puts them in the uncomfortable position of sticking up for unpopular minorities and asking for personal sacrifices. Republicans have much the easier time of it by appealing to laziness and reptilian instincts. But the alternative is to have both parties competing to be the nastiest. Go the better of two alternatives! Go Democats!

  7. galtenberg: What immediately comes to mind are constitutional amendments – that voting rights shall not be abridged, that apportionment must be strictly non-partisan, that election “days” must be at least whole fortnights, that voting results must be corroborated.

    The phrase “non-partisan” is generally revealing in the same way as phrases “post-ideological” or “apolitical”, in the sense that nothing could possibly be any more “partisan” than the decision as to what is or isn’t partisan in the first place. Even if we go back to the original framework for apportionment as laid out in the original US Constitution, the grade-school history has it that the design of this framework consisted of intense debates between “large states” and “small states”, which we arbitrarily decide to treat as a “non-partisan” issue even though it led to a highly non-proportional system of representation — and that’s before we even acknowledge that beneath the kindergarten-level “state size” narrative, the final design of this disproportionate system was largely a bid to preserve the leverage of the Southern plantation aristocracy and thus to preserve slavery. Decide which priorities you want state power to serve, and strive to capture it so it can serve them, but don’t imagine that doing so could ever be “non-partisan”.

  8. The first sentence teeters on the verge of nonsense. Plenty of governmental acts are non-partisan, such as taking of a census, scoring budgets, applying statistical methods (which is how apportionment should be attained).

    The irony is that one party will have to uphold this value and implement it. So yes, in a roundabout way, you may be right.

  9. There’s no “roundabout” about it, the whole point is that any concept of non-partisanship can only be possible within a set of norms enforced with all conceivable partisanship against anybody who might dispute them. It’s like the now somewhat dated idiom about US foreign policy, that “politics stops at the water’s edge” — of course politics doesn’t stop, one level of politics is just superseded by another level (in that case the politics of total nationalism) that’s no less “political” in any meaningful way than the previous. (Come to think of it, this seems like a good working explanation for Democrats’ recent descent into Jack D. Ripper-esque Russophobia: a bid to shore up the prior state of less-than-total partisan enmity between Democrats and Republicans by appealing to the prior state of total and shared enmity against a foreign nation, which when you put it that way sounds more than a little Trump-like itself.)

    In other words, what you’re basically saying is “when I wear these horse-blinders you’re wrong, but when I take them off you’re right, so in a roundabout way you may be right”. Liberals clinging to the idea that Democrats and Republicans agreeing on something somehow makes it “non-partisan” or “apolitical” is part of why the current abrogations of longstanding partisan norms have them so petrified, and it would be amusing how circumscribed these people’s worldviews are if they didn’t wield so much undeserved power and authority.

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