In the new television series Sneaky Pete, mobster Bryan Cranston holds hostage the brother of the main character, Marius, aka Pete, until he pays the money he owes. In one brutal scene, Cranston orders his henchmen to snip off the little toe of the brother after he tries to escape. He hands the shears to the muscle who let him get away and says, “you broke it, you bought it.”
So what does this have to do with American politics? I’ve seen many posts and heard many interviews with Trump supporters about “accepting the results” of the election and “moving on.” Their larger point is that Trump is normal, a legitimate president, and attempts to paint him otherwise are unAmerican. Democrats meanwhile contemplate how to gain back support and oppose the policies of a government almost wholly in the hands of the opposition. So far their response has been tepid. They are not sure how much of a fight to put up on nominations and legislation. Given the few levers of power they have, their options are mainly parliamentary maneuvers like the filibuster (if its still around) and rousing the people in the streets, much as the Koch Brothers backed Tea Party did. Seeing the Clintons and even Jimmy Carter attending the inauguration was not auspicious. It gave me the sense that for all the talk, in the end the mainstream of Democratic party is still comprised of insiders who want to keep playing the game, even from the bench. Attending was a way of keeping their place on the team. Hardly the sort of full throated opposition to the Republicans I was hoping for.
Democracy, we are learning, depends as much or more on unwritten but commonly accepted norms of behavior as it does on formal laws and written constitutions. For eight years Republicans violated many long accepted norms. They questioned Obama’s citizenship, made false claims about his religion, his upbringing and his values. They slapped away his every gesture of bipartisanship and met in a cabal almost immediately after the election with the sole intention of making Obama fail and look bad, the interests of the nation be damned. The ramped up use of the filibuster by an order of magnitude or more over previous Congresses. And they refused to take action on the economy no matter how much it hurt the people; indeed they positively relished the pain they were inflicting just so they could pin it on Obama.
Given all that you might think Democrats are fully justified in repaying the new administration in kind. But Democrats such as David Plouffe, Charles Schumer and others have tended to back away from the sort of strong arm tactics like filibusters and angry constituent town halls. The Democrats, the say, must be the grown up party. If it shows the maturity of leadership, the voters will return.
Somehow I doubt that, given the out of touch statements I’ve heard from Trump supporters. They ignore their president’s lies and contradictions, don’t see his wealth and his cabinet of billionaires as out of touch with the plain people, think somehow they will still have their government provided health care, and dismiss any involvement of Russia in our elections. Still, should the Democrats “go high” as Michelle Obama said? Two wrong’s don’t make a right, right?
In this case, in politics, I think they do. If our system is governed by norms, then the behavior of the Republicans over the past eight years reset the norms. One side cannot unilaterally set them back. Indeed, to refrain from giving the Republicans the same level and forms of opposition they gave to the Democrats is only to invite more violations of our dearly held norms and traditions. In politics, turning the other cheek rarely works. Disarming yourself in the face of an enemy out for political blood just means condemning your party to permanent minority status. Bringing your rusty old sword, however honorable it is to carry that sword, bringing it to a fight where the enemy is armed with machine guns is suicidal. And the republic cannot survive with permanent one party rule. So in the interests of democracy and the preservation of the republic, the Democrats must return fire.
Can we get back to those old norms? Yes, but it is up to the Republicans to stand down first. You see, they broke it, so they bought it. They own what they created.