By Mike Koetting October 11, 2018
Like the vast majority of Americans who have been paying attention, the events of the last week have been profoundly discouraging. For me, the ascension of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is awful. But it isn’t just that.
It is also that the process was so ugly. It certainly tarnished both the Senate and the Supreme Court, two institutions that are key to democracy. It even managed to get the #Me Too movement entangled in a very partisan way, something that may not be helpful to the movement in the long run. As a consequence of the hearings, the two sides hate each other more and the vast majority of the population leaves the hearings even more pessimistic, and more cynical, about the future of American political society.
David Brooks refers to this as unvarnished tribalization. In some sense, this is fair enough. But I think the term “tribalization” misses an important nuance. One is born into a tribe. Political parties are a choice, a choice dictated by one’s particular value constellation rather than the accident of birth. The Civil War was a tribal war, but it was also a fundamentally moral question as to whether slavery was going to persist as an American institution. The splits in American society today feel so lethal precisely because they are clashes over fundamental value propositions.
To be sure, the dividing lines today are not as neat. There are multiple, often competing values in play and each political party is a coalition of groups that don’t necessarily share all values, but are united primarily for strategic purposes. This is starker in the Republican Party. The moneyed elites share relatively few values with a large part of the Trump base. But without those votes, Republicans wouldn’t have any electoral chance at the national level. The Democratic Party is harder to parse, in part because it is a mosaic of more interest groups. Blacks, Latinos, trade unions, LBGQTs, college-educated whites and the women’s movement have plenty of differences in what they value most. But they need each other. Politics continues to make strange bedfellows
Given that both parties are to some degree cobbled together of less than monolithic interest groups, it seems it should be possible to create more opportunities for people in both camps to search for areas of common interest so that we can back away from the political cliff on whose edge we seem to be teetering.
But apparently not so. Both sides have lost the sense there is any point in compromise.
Impasses of this sort are very hard to resolve. On the one hand, simply arguing the other guy’s extreme positions are the cause of the stalemate doesn’t do much to resolve the impasse–since they think the same about you. On the other hand, no side is going to abrogate core principles.
That said, I can’t think much about the current mess—and it is a society-threatening mess—without concluding that this is more on the Republicans. I have read carefully the arguments of David Frum, Jonah Goldberg, and a few other conservative columnists on “Democratic overreach” and I come away convinced that while there is some shared blame, there is no parity. Mostly their ”overreach” arguments come down to some version of “it started when they hit us back”.
In the last dozen years or so, there have been critical societal issues where Democrats were obviously willing to make major concessions, but where Republicans have walked away. A few examples suffice:
- From 2005 to 2007, Republicans killed a series of immigration bills that had been carefully pieced together by a bi-partisan group in the Senate. The provisions of those bills outlined a sensible immigration policy that a large majority of the country supported. No one has come up with anything like a better plan since.
- Environmental protection had a long history of bipartisan support. But over time, Republicans abandoned it in favor of a position largely denying environmental dangers in the face of virtually all scientific evidence, which increasingly suggests that the environmental future of the entire planet is at stake. The poster child for this retreat was in 2010 when Republicans defeated a Cap and Trade policy that was a Republican idea as far back as Ronald Reagan. When it was actually advanced as bipartisan legislation. Republican support vanished, replaced by unfounded climate skepticism.
- Lack of health insurance coverage was accepted by all parties as a major problem, with the uninsured rate approaching 20%. Democrats proposed the same plan that Republicans had touted as the solution since Bill Clinton was president. It had been implemented by Mitt Romney, later a Republican presidential candidate. But not a single Republican voted for the ACA—even though they had no alternative proposal.
- In 2015, President Obama was prepared to do a “Grand Bargain” on the budget that would have given Republicans concessions that went far beyond what the Democrat base wanted. But Republicans walked away.
- In 2016, President Obama nominated a Supreme Court justice who was much, much more middle of the road than Brett Kavanaugh. Republicans refused to even give him a hearing.
In other words, the current situation is above and beyond that Kavanaugh was a jerk in the hearings—and even that he may have been something worse in his youth. This goes to the heart of Republican willingness to choose burnt earth over the compromises that are a necessary part of the democratic enterprise.
In the same column that David Brooks condemns the tribal behavior on display during the Kavanaugh hearings, he says our civic environment “isn’t polluted by a vague condition called ‘polarization.’ It is polluted by the specific toxic emissions we all produce in our low moments.” He’s wrong. It is produced precisely by polarization, which has become the political strategy of either choice or necessity, depending on your political party. The toxic emissions are a symptom, not a cause. If we want a better civic environment we need to show that it is possible to reach compromises on the substantive issues facing America. That is, govern, not divide and conquer.
In light of the recent history of Republican refusals to make even minimal efforts to compromise on the major issues in American domestic policy, no matter how concerned I am about the divide in American society, it is very hard for me to see how Democrats can be responsibly expected to take the next step. Particularly given that the Republican party is increasingly hitching its wagon to the bellicose style of Donald Trump—including fluorescent displays of toxic emissions that appeal to the worst instincts in human nature.
I am not optimistic about where this leaves us. I don’t think the country can successfully manage the innumerable challenges of an increasingly complicated world without a functioning government. (If you doubt this, see Michael Lewis’s terrifying book, The Fifth Risk.) We will not have a functioning government until our political parties eschew “no compromise” strategies. That will require leaders who are conspicuously willing to put a common future over party advantage. But where are they? Imagine how different the recent history of America would have been if Republicans celebrated the indisputable fact that the ACA incorporated long-standing Republican principles, then worked to improve its flaws, and rallied the country to the idea that society is better off with a series of measures that deliver affordable healthcare to all citizens.
While the existence of compromise is a general condition, it is clear that at this point the Republican Party has to travel much further. And until they start, I’m holding firm. I’m willing to talk with anyone until we are both purple in the face. But unless that gets translated into real, legislative moves that unite rather than divide the country, it’s nothing but talk. Right now it seems the only way back to a functioning government is for the Democrats to win big in elections, behave responsibility, but keeping winning.
If David Brooks wants to call that “tribalization,” fine. He’s not incorrect. But these are also reasoned, principled choices about values.