It has been a vexing decade for an increasingly endangered species of public intellectual—the self-styled anti-partisan.
In 2012, the political scientists Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann threw in the towel. Their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, laid the blame for the increasing dysfunction of America’s political system at the feet of the Republican Party, which, they admitted, had become “an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” They rejected, at great professional risk, the Washington catechism that defines centrism as a wandering midpoint between wherever Democrats and Republicans happen to stand at any given moment.
Six years later, the self-styled anti-partisans Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, have reluctantly reached the same conclusion.
“The Republican Party, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and the integrity of our democracy,” they argue in The Atlantic. “We’re thus driven to believe that the best hope of defending the country from [Donald] Trump’s Republican enablers, and of saving the Republican Party from itself, is to…vote mindlessly and mechanically against Republicans at every opportunity, until the party either rights itself or implodes (very preferably the former).”
Like Mann and Ornstein before them, Rauch and Wittes have put a finger on the cardinal fact of American politics. Unfortunately their prescription for a voting-booth boycott of Republican politicians is inadequate. There is more to politics than elections and nobody understands this better than the leaders of the Republican Party Rauch and Wittes would like to oust. Defeating Republicans at the polls is, of course, a precondition for ending the country’s slide into right-wing authoritarianism. But Republicans have been defeated before without being chastened. To reverse this alarming antidemocratic trend, the modern-Republican Party’s style of politics must be made anathema. That won’t happen without a large-scale civic censure of political actors and institutions, like the GOP, that reject empiricism and equality, attack mediating arbiters of authority, and embrace propaganda and bad-faith argument as ordinary brickbats of political war.
In practice, it would be hard to distinguish between an election in which independent voters “boycotted” one party, and a standard wave election, in which one party has enthusiasm on its side, one does not, and swing voters flock to the former. Nobody really conceived of it as a boycott at the time, but this is essentially what happened during President George W. Bush’s second term: The country grew exhausted by and ashamed of Bush’s foreign policy, which included one war launched on the basis of mass deception, and a global torture regime. The global economy collapsed. Democrats won two successive landslides, amassing congressional supermajorities. Bush left office a political outcast, his Republicans decimated. But they (quite wisely it turns out) didn’t respond to these back-to-back referenda as if a large majority of the country would boycott them indefinitely.
Instead, they understood that subsequent elections would be referenda on the country’s new political leaders, not its old ones. Rather than adopt a political style with mass appeal, they became even more reactionary. They committed themselves to sabotaging President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats in order to shorten their climb back to political power.
After years of engaging enthusiastically in corruption and fiscal profligacy, Obama-era Republicans adopted a pose of rectitude and austerity. Anyone who had been paying attention knew these were just poses. Their immediate jettisoning of Dick Cheney’s “deficits don’t matter” ethos and overnight embrace of hawkish budget rhetoric was nakedly insincere, but was nevertheless accepted in good faith by nearly the entire political elite. Just this week, in an otherwise astute assessment of Republican base voters, Axios’ Jonathan Swan asserted that Trump “has moved the party away from decades of orthodoxy on…deficits,” as if such an orthodoxy has existed in the post-Reagan era. As if Republicans’ re-embrace of expansionary fiscal policy after reclaiming power weren’t completely foreordained.
Republicans spent the full eight years of the Obama presidency making arguments they didn’t believe, claiming to be outraged about things that didn’t really outrage them, fabricating controversy out of things they knew to be uncontroversial. They spent four years pretending to believe an attack in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans was a historic scandal, eclipsed only by the revelation (which they also didn’t really care about) that Obama’s secretary of state used a private email account to do work. When they were rewarded for this plain-as-day bad faith with control of the entire federal government, they immediately forgot about Benghazi, ignored botched operations for which Trump bore responsibility, and continued to use private email and encrypted third-party communication applications with impunity.
It’s a matter of absolute certainty that if voters “boycott” Republicans in sufficient numbers to throw control of government to Democrats, Republicans will return to the same playbook. They will feign remorse over having lost their way, then demand credulity from the public when they insist they genuinely care about deficits, that the next Benghazi is a real scandal, that every downward tick of the stock market should be laid at the feet of the Democratic president. Alongside that, they will continue engaging in partisan attacks on any mediating institution—whether the Congressional Budget Office or the FBI—that confounds their political ambitions.
The Republican Party isn’t going to “right itself or implode” unless that kind of unprincipled behavior is rendered toxic. It should be considered disreputable outside of movement conservatism to work for Fox News or for the same RNC that propped up Trump, and then backed Roy Moore in Alabama. If you conduct yourself the way Devin Nunes has conducted himself as Trump’s agent atop the House Intelligence Committee, you shouldn’t just have to worry about losing your seat, but about your name being dirt.
I can dimly envision how that might happen, but hold almost no hope that it will.
The institution with the most direct power to shape post-Trump Republican politics will be the Democratic Party. Obama came to power having promised to transcend partisanship and amid multiple national crises. For these reasons and others he determinedly avoided the kind of retrospective inquiries that might have boxed Republicans into accounting for their Bush-era political sins; for how they contributed to corruption, the salesmanship of the Iraq war, the torture regime, the financial crisis and so on.
Republicans do things a bit differently. When Republicans gain power—even against the will of the voting public—they aim to crush their political enemies. Obama’s signature legislative initiative transferred billions and billions of dollars from blue states to Trump states to help the citizens of the latter afford health care. Months after it passed, Republicans captured governments in multiple swing states, where they set about dismantling public-sector unions, suppressing the Democratic vote, and gerrymandering congressional districts, to guarantee themselves enduring power, whether their constituents approved of their governance or not. In December, just a year after losing the national popular vote by a substantial margin, Republicans designed their signature legislative initiative to inflict maximal punishment on the Democratic voters of high-tax blue states.
While the North Carolina GOP & Virginia GOP have passed or are passing laws to strip election boards of their Dem majorities; the New Hampshire GOP concocts ever-new laws to block college students from voting; & Texas lost 3 “intentional discrimination” lawsuits in 2017 alone. https://t.co/bv5NnsfwFW
— Taniel (@Taniel) February 6, 2018
Warfare between the parties has been asymmetric in large part because liberals generally reject these kind of nakedly antidemocratic power grabs. But Democrats could be more determined to win political fights than they are.
After Trump, Democrats could adopt a more aggressive approach than they have in the past, on the fool-me-twice principle. They could abolish the filibuster, expedite legislation to widen the franchise and reform campaign finance laws, right Mitch McConnell’s theft of a Supreme Court seat, and conduct oversight of the institutions of government Trump corrupted. They could set up a commission to examine, the role of propaganda in American media, and report out how and why, under Trump, the Republican Party entered a de facto partnership with hostile foreign intelligence to influence American politics.
I think they can and should do all of these things and more, so long as they can be done on majoritarian and representative bases.
But to truly marginalize the GOP’s political style would require a level of cooperation from many conservatives that doesn’t exist, and a level of buy-in from generally non-partisan institutions—the media, the bureaucracy, corporate America, and civil society—which have proven ill-equipped to defend themselves from Republican efforts to coopt or discredit them.
Corporate America has giddily joined a banana republic-style public relations campaign to thank dear leader Trump for his corporate tax cuts, and portray them as a boon to workers. Mainstream journalists are so petrified of bad-faith accusations of liberal bias that many of them genuinely can’t grasp how hostile the American right is to the vocation of journalism, or how to report on bad-faith in the public square more generally. The conservative writer Jonah Goldberg—who has been pretty critical of Trump over the past couple years—nevertheless still posits an equivalence of venality between Trump-era Republicans and Obama-era Democrats. “[P]utting aside the specific arguments, conservatives saw plenty of abuses and violations, from the IRS scandals and Benghazi to the Iran deal,” he wrote recently. “Obama said many times he couldn’t unilaterally implement the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program because he wasn’t a ‘king.’ Then he did it anyway.”
Goldberg asserts the equivalence with specific arguments set aside, because these “abuses and violations” occurred only in the conservative imagination, and thus don’t stand up to specific arguments. As liberal writer Kevin Drum explained, “the IRS ‘scandal’ was a minor screwup that affected both parties, and certainly had nothing to do with Obama anyway. Benghazi was a tragedy, but not a scandal in any reasonable sense of the word. The Iran deal was…the Iran deal. And getting new legal advice on DACA is hardly some unprecedented norm violation. It’s up to the courts to decide if an executive order is legal, and so far no court has even taken up the question of DACA, let alone ruled against it.”
Which is all to say, even if post-Trump Democrats refuse to turn the page, other powerful institutions and individuals will do so happily.
In a world where Sean Spicer remains respectably employable, corporate America loves regressive tax cuts, mainstream news outlets refuse to make pariahs of people who seek their destruction, and the cult of false equivalence remains the analytic foundation of political journalism, voters can “boycott” Republicans in historic numbers, only to watch Republicans return to power unreformed a few years later.