Should the Democrats develop some backbone and give Republicans a taste of their own medicine? Fair play seems to demand extreme measures to obstruct the conservative agenda and get in the way of every Trump move.
That would be emotionally satisfying for liberals, but it might be even better for those who believe the fundamental institutions of our government are irredeemably corrupt and need to be pulled down. This is the view attributed to Steve Bannon, and it’s one the president fueled during his campaign and after. It also reflects a major escalation in conservative thinking. Delegitimizing the federal government altogether is a big step from the prior strategy of merely crippling it via fiscal policy and congressional maneuvers. (Running up huge deficits so there is no money left to spend — a favorite tactic of Presidents Reagan and Bush — now seems quaint.)
Everyone is frustrated with government, liberals and conservatives alike, so focusing that frustration on the most powerful tool for pushing through progressive policies is a perfect opportunity for the right. An immobilized federal government couldn’t have imposed Reconstruction, opened space for unions to organize, supported civil rights or cleared the way for a cleaner environment. A failed federal government will help erode those earlier victories and block the liberal agenda while vindicating the most virulent anti-Washington rhetoric beyond the ultra-right base, including among those Republicans who don’t like the nihilism but do share distrust of federal power.
So, as Bannon, and maybe his boss, undoubtedly understand, obstructionism by either party is a winner. It feeds the perception that the enfeebled U.S. political system is hopelessly trapped between a mindlessly self-perpetuating bureaucracy and the self-serving maneuverings of politicians and the media. It makes their solution seem like the way out: A charismatic leader given unlimited authority to clean up the mess and make the country great again.
Thus the awful dilemma for Democrats. They can leave the far right a clear path to rolling back decades of civilization’s progress and look hopelessly weak in the process, or they can mount a heroic resistance that is bound to mostly fail while making government shutdown a bipartisan endeavor. Democrats helping pull down the pillars of government is a right-wing dream come true.
The Democrats would be unlikely to sustain a heroic resistance, however. They have a history of drawing back from existential confrontations, and for good reason: Chaos is not a friend of liberal democracy. It’s those who don’t value its institutions highly who have the freedom to push the battle to the brink. Trump and the ultra right can afford to embrace increasingly polarizing and destructive political strategies because, by all appearances, they don’t care.
This is nothing new. Julius Caesar was a populist of sorts who rose to power on perceptions of a Roman Republic crippled by self-serving, grandstanding politicians. The story wasn’t much different in the run-up to the Nazi era, with the scapegoated Jews thrown in for good measure. Political chaos and exhaustion benefit authoritarian leaders and, not incidentally, those who control military force. (Constitutional crises don’t spook Republicans nearly as badly as Democrats because, in the worst-case scenario, they are confident of being on the same side as the powers that control the big guns and the big money.)
Both Trump and congressional republicans are likely to continue down their destructive path, even those who don’t particularly like it. Trump can’t afford to moderate his course lest he be seen as betraying the conservative cause and face potential impeachment. And even the sane Republicans in Congress would be hard-pressed to turn on Trump for any reason short of that betrayal lest they be turned out of office in 2018 by candidates even further to their right.
The Democrats’ choices are worse, but that’s politics, especially when you are in a position of weakness. That doesn’t mean the Democrats should not resist anything that Trump and the Republicans cook up, but they need to pick their battles. Better to demonstrate a spirit of cooperation, only taking a hard line with extreme care, when there is a clear popular message and the prospect of meaningful impact on outcomes.
Seeing the implications of the radical right’s victory for the stability of our country, and the world, makes moderation seem that much more appealing. And showing more concern for the health of our government than for giving the Republicans tit for tat can be a compelling message in a country where, even now, most voters prefer to drift toward the center rather than ride the choppy waves of polarization. As satisfying as it would be to see the Democrats stand up for once and give the Republicans a hellish taste of their own medicine, the right thing to do is to continue doing the right thing, abiding by the principles of liberal democracy even when the adversaries don’t.