[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.