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Don’t Fall Into the Civility Trap, Democrats

Earlier this year, a restaurant owner in Lexington, VA politely declined to serve White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, less as an act of political resistance than of collegiality with her staff, which included members of the LGBT community. For this quiet act of solidarity, her restaurant became the target of a real-life and online mob, activated with malice by the office of the presidency, and all of liberal America was treated, through the looking glass, to a lecture from the center and the right about the importance of political civility.

Four months later, liberals are on the receiving end of another disingenuous scolding, but with a slight twist. The Red Hen restaurant incident, like other contentious incidents since Donald Trump became president, fueled debate over how civil society—the disempowered majority—should respond to living under the political rule of a minority that’s contemptuous of its values. Today, the political establishment is tut-tutting Democrats over the method some of them have chosen to oppose that same ruling party.

Reflecting on 2016, many Democrats believe they suckered themselves into assuming they could defeat Donald Trump simply by letting their relative virtue stand in implicit contrast with his viciousness.

At a campaign event in Georgia, former Attorney General Eric Holder implored Democrats not to fall into the same trap in the future. “Michelle Obama…always says ‘when they go low, we go high,’” he reminded the crowd. “No, no. When they go low, we kick ‘em.”

The response has been predictably tedious. The Republican Party’s chairwoman Ronna [Romney] McDaniel accused Holder of whipping up a mob. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) who runs the Republicans’ Senate election committee, lamented it as a “call for violence.” Of course, both knew full well that Holder wants Democrats to “kick” Republicans just as literally as Michelle Obama believed Republicans had “gone low” by crawling around on the floor.

Yet Gardner and McDaniel responded with the same insincerity to Hillary Clinton, who, in an interview with CNN this week, warned Democrats, “you cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.”

Ironically, the bad faith nature of the GOP’s response to Holder and Clinton underscores just how on point both of them are.

There are two valid and honest ways to assess the notion that Democrats should politick as if Republicans want to “destroy” liberal society, and all it stands for. One is to sort out whether it’s politically wise for Democrats to discuss their opponents in unvarnished terms, and campaign accordingly. The other is to ask whether Clinton, Holder, and others have sized up Republicans correctly. It may be that Democrats will fare better at the polls, at least in some races, if they continue to embrace conciliatory language and politics, no matter how “low” Republicans go. But there is no question that, on the merits, more aggressive Democrats have diagnosed what their party is up against correctly.

There’s almost no sense in belaboring the point at all in the Trump era, but Republicans are no strangers to protest politics or incivility. What they reveal, in treating the Tea Party, and the massive resistance to the Obama presidency, and the Trump campaign as natural expressions of public discontent, and the backlash to Trump as a “mob,” is that they seek to make conservative politics the only legitimate form of politics in America.

Republicans pretend to be galled by “uncivil” political rhetoric, not in order to ease partisan tensions, but to warp public perception of where the dangerous, illiberal forces in the democracy are actually located; to distract the commentariat from arenas full of angry Trump supporters chanting for the imprisonment of various female liberals, and beating up protesters, while convincing those supporters that they’re the ones truly under threat.

Trump isn’t oblivious to the apparent hypocrisy of whining about Brett Kavanaugh’s presumptive innocence and declaring Democrats “too dangerous to govern,” within minutes of leading a “lock her up” chant. But it’s only true hypocrisy if you believe the conservatives and liberals share the rights and privileges of American life equally.

In eras of Democratic rule, Republicans take such an expansive view of resistance politics that they treat the threat of political violence as a legitimate part of protest.

When power switches hands, they wield illusory threats of political violence as a cudgel against the opposition, whose suspicious tactics they treat as an affront to the only legitimate configuration of state power.

In a similar way, conservatives reflexively invoke the Constitution, in the vaguest, least specific ways, to delegitimize any policy that the Republican Party opposes. The conservative legal establishment has largely embraced the view that the courts should invalidate most progressive policy, but disguises what is ultimately an effort to impose a right-wing agenda by fiat—to disallow liberal politics—behind lofty-sounding interpretive methods. By sheer coincidence, under their dispassionate reading of the Constitution, only the Republican agenda is permissible.

The fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation ended in a culture war battle between the #MeToo movement and pro-patriarchy forces, but it began as a more specific struggle to protect Roe v. Wade, and by the same token, the emergence of a semi-permanent conservative majority on the Supreme Court threatens decades of progress toward equality across the board.

The contrast with liberal jurisprudence is revealing. Democrats have over the years identified and drawn a hard line against specific Republican judicial nominees with radical views about what the Constitution permits—an effort to prevent future courts from throwing out welfare state programs and economic regulations wholesale. There is effectively no countervailing liberal jurisprudence holding that the Constitution requires certain levels of redistribution, regulation, or welfare. And yet during Barack Obama’s presidency, Republicans opposed myriad Obama nominees on the basis of completely mainstream abortion and the second amendment views. Eventually, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dispensed with the pretense, and imposed a blanket filibuster on all Obama nominees, no matter how anodyne their opinions. In the judicial realm, too, the only legitimate expression of power is the kind Republicans support.

At multiple junctures since Trump became president, Democrats have seemed oblivious to the nature of the political threat they and the country face. These are unpleasant circumstances for people of good faith in public life, but things will only get worse until Democrats confront the threat squarely—and only in the past few days have we started seeing signs that reality is dawning on them.