Grow Up, Everybody
This is no way to save democracy.
Dear Reader (Especially those of you who’ve been there from the beginning),
Let’s say I believe that Trump and his followers, apologists, and enablers are an ongoing threat to democracy. Does that mean I have to support Joe Biden?
That’s the question of the moment for a bunch of people on the left and the right. It seems to be the view of my friend Bill Kristol and many in his circle. It’s also Jonathan Chait’s view. In New York magazine, Chait writes:
The reason you can’t cordon off Trump from the rest of the party is that we now live in something functionally resembling a parliamentary system. Biden leads the governing party. Trump is the leader of the opposition. To oppose the one is to support the other.
Now, as a broken record on this parliamentary system stuff, I obviously think Chait has a point.
For instance, Bernie Sanders keeps saying that “two [senators] do not have the right to sabotage what 48 want and what the President of the United States wants.” That statement would make some sense in a parliamentary system, but it’s balderdash in our system. As Charlie Cooke notes, “First, it’s not ‘two people’ who are holding up the 48. It’s 52 people. And second, it doesn’t matter in the slightest ‘what the President of the United States wants,’ because the President of the United States does not get a vote in Congress.”
In other words, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have every right to vote as they think best. They were elected to represent their states as they see fit—not the Democratic Party, not the president, and certainly not the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. Both were reelected in 2018, two years prior to Biden, so you can’t even argue that they ran on Biden’s agenda, never mind his coattails. And in Manchin’s West Virginia, Biden lost by 39 points. I can’t find much evidence that this created an obligation for Manchin to vote with Biden.
But we’re not talking about elected officials—we’re talking about people like me and you (unless you’re one of the many elected officials who reads this “news”letter).
Still, let’s leave you out of it for the moment and talk about people like me. Chait writes, “Anybody who supports the Republican party’s normal political operations—even the handful of remaining open Trump critics—is throwing lit matches around the kindling of Trump’s next Reichstag fire.”
I think this is an interesting argument for a bunch of reasons. First, part of my larger argument about the baleful rise of a parliamentary system mentality ill-suited for our Constitutional order is that it has led a lot of journalists to become party activists by proxy. On the right and the left, many journalists—including a great many “objective” reporters—think it’s their job to help their preferred party make the best case for itself. Because Congress is dysfunctional and the parties are institutionally weak, large swaths of the media—as well as coalition-aligned institutions like, say, the NRA and Planned Parenthood—become de facto party organs when the perceived need arrives. Parties used to educate and organize voters. Now those jobs have been outsourced to allegedly non-partisan agents who are anything but non-partisan.
This fact is central to my criticisms of the conservative movement in general these days (more on that in a moment). But if anything, the same dynamic has been truer of the left for far longer. The whole argument about liberal media bias, going back more than a half-century, has been predicated on the well-founded view that much of the mainstream media carries water for the Democrats and Democratic causes. The power of Republican “annoy the media (vote for me)” appeals is testament to this.
Chait himself, at least when it’s convenient to his purposes, acknowledges that journalists shouldn’t be beholden to partisan considerations. For instance, earlier this week, Norman Ornstein wisely cautioned that the harassment and demonization of Sinema could backfire.
Norman Ornstein @NormOrnsteinA little advice on Sinema, which undoubtedly will not go down well, from someone who remembers Jim Jeffords. She has enabled the American Rescue Plan, a lot of judges and top executive appointees, kept the Ds in chairmanships and in charge of the agenda. Do not push too hard
Chait is right that as a journalist, he should feel free to keep criticizing Sinema. But oddly, he doesn’t seem to see it the same way when it comes to Biden and his agenda. Criticizing Sinema is just good, honest, rock ‘em-sock ‘em opinion journalism (even though it might lead to Sinema handing the Senate to the GOP). Criticizing Biden is equivalent to lending aid and comfort to an authoritarian threat.
Chait complains that the New York Times’ Ross Douthat has minimized the Trump threat, and he goes on for hundreds of words before segueing into an indictment of “Republicans” as if he hasn’t changed categories. It’s almost as if Douthat, as a journalist, should adjust his truth-telling to fit larger political considerations—in this case by rallying to a pro-Biden popular front—but Chait shouldn’t be similarly constrained.
This is not necessarily an impossible position to hold. But it does strike me as a hard one to explain. The only way to do so is to argue that the imperative to support Biden is so great that pecking at Sinema is justified for the greater good—and therefore journalists should retain the freedom to do so—but pecking at Biden (or not sufficiently pecking at Trump) is so contrary to the greater good that the journalistic exception no longer applies. I see the argument; I just don’t buy it.
But again, let’s say that Chait is right about the threat from Trump and Trumpism and Douthat is wrong.
Question: What burden does that place on Biden himself? I gather that Chait believes saving Biden’s agenda is essential not just because he happens to believe in Biden’s agena, but because if Biden fails, the odds of Trump coming back into power increase.
Again, that’s not implausible. But if it’s the case, shouldn’t Biden have unveiled an agenda that made it harder for Republicans to take back power in the first place? I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb when I say that Biden has not done that. And I think that’s because Biden has a thumbless grasp on political reality. He didn’t expect to have control of the Senate. But then because of Trump’s ridiculous meddling, both Georgia seats went Democratic and suddenly Biden got spun up on a bigger-than-Obama, new New Deal agenda.
It’s worth noting that this is not what Chait said would happen. Weeks before the Georgia special election, he insisted that a Democratic victory in the state would all but guarantee a moderate Biden agenda. “If Democrats win the Georgia runoffs and gain 50 Senate seats,” Chait wrote, “they will have the chance to govern in a centrist fashion. … Biden would not be implementing a ‘left-wing’ agenda even if he had won a landslide in both chambers.”
“If Democrats win the Georgia runoff and have a majority,” Chait added, “they will have no votes to spare. Moderate Democratic senators will be very reluctant to pass party-line bills, all of which would require them to each be the decisive vote. Moderate Republicans would have enormous leverage to demand concessions to give them some bipartisan cover.”
Now those Democratic moderates are the problem according to Chait, even though they are trying to do exactly what he predicted and hoped they would do. Shouldn’t he be hectoring Democrats to moderate, not hectoring moderate Democrats to radicalize?
But what if Chait had been right and Biden had governed from the center? Wouldn’t we be better off? Wouldn’t the prospect of Trump’s return from his Mar-a-Lago Elba be less likely? As I’ve said many times, if Biden had simply declared victory after securing the bipartisan infrastructure deal, he would have been fine. But instead, he had to let the base of his party set the agenda. He had to buy into the logic that compromising with a Senate of 100 senators was folly, but steamrolling a Senate of 50 is governing.
Of course, other factors are at play. As the devastating Quinnipiac poll demonstrates, Biden is also paying a steep price for botching the border and the withdrawal from Afghanistan (as Noah Rothman rightly notes, it turns out Americans don’t like losing wars, and weren’t as hungry to bug out of Afghanistan as Biden believed). But even these fiascos stem from the fact that Biden refused to govern in accordance with political reality—or was unable to.
If you listen to Chait, as well as some of my friends on the Never Trumpier parts of the right, none of this matters, because we need to form a popular front against Trump and Trumpism. I think that’s wrong not because I don’t want to see Trump and Trumpism banished from public life (I certainly do) but because I think it’s my job to tell the truth as I see it. I could comfort myself and rationalize my position by noting my fervent belief that if Biden had governed the way I said he should, staking himself in the real center and picking fights with his left flank, the country—and Biden himself—would be better off and Trump would be more marginalized. But I think I should still tell the truth as I see it, even if that didn’t happen, because I want no part of any popular fronts.
But who cares about my wants and desires? Certainly not the American voters, not to mention the people picking the Powerball numbers. The fact is that journalists cannot direct politics toward their desired outcomes, at least not reliably or predictably. I’m not saying they should never try, but they shouldn’t let the ends dictate the means. That sort of thinking is partly how we got into this mess in the first place.
The larger threat.
“Trump’s not Hitler. Hitler could have repealed Obamacare.”
It’s been my standard quip for years, and I still think it’s funny because it’s true.
But I shouldn’t have to point out that someone can fall far short of “literally Hitler!” and still be bad. FDR’s internment of the Japanese was terrible. But it wasn’t the Holocaust, and saying so doesn’t diminish the crime of Japanese internment; it just recognizes certain moral and historical distinctions. What Trump did was objectively corrupt, dishonest, and immoral, as are the attempts to pretend otherwise. Those attempts, particularly by politicians who told the truth in the aftermath of January 6 but caved to the corrupting influence of Trumpism shortly thereafter, disgust me.
As I’ve said before, I think Robert Kagan (and Jonathan Chait) is directionally right that the Trumpist forces haven’t given up their quest for power, regardless of the democratic intent of the voters. But like Douthat, I’m unconvinced by their confidence about how events will play out or how people should respond to their efforts. I have no principled objection to narrowly tailored election reforms that would prevent Trumpist secretaries of state and state legislatures from rejecting the legitimate vote count in service to some bogus conspiracy theory. Kagan is right that Republicans should support that.
But shouldn’t Democrats also abandon their wishlists for other “reforms” in order to make it easier for Republicans to do that? Hectoring Republicans to deal with the threat at hand rings false if it doesn’t come with similar hectoring of Democrats to stop acting as if having 50 senators and a three seat margin in the House should give their party carte blanche to do whatever it wants. By all means ask Republicans to be grown-ups, but ask the same of Democrats.
Ross Douthat has gotten a lot of grief for writing that Trump’s “threat to constitutional norms is one of many percolating dangers in the United States today, not a singular danger that should organize all other political choices and suspend all other disagreements.” But he’s right.
One of these dangers is this parliamentary fiction and popular front mentality that dominates our politics. It causes presidential candidates to run on promises to do things on “day one” that a president simply cannot do. And when the overpromising demagoguery of Democrats and Republicans alike fails to deliver on these assurances, politicians don’t say, “We were wrong to promise you the moon.” Instead, they say that “billionaires,” “the deep state,” “special interests,” or the Constitution itself are to blame. Or they blame the failure of other “establishment” guys to “fight” hard enough.
This rhetoric fuels conspiratorial thinking. After all, if Sanders or Trump are right that delivering socialized medicine or restoring manufacturing jobs is “so easy,” the reason for their failure must be explained by the sinister deeds of shadowy malefactors conspiring against “us.” That populist conspiratorial climate—thick on the left and right—is a profound threat to democracy wherever it materializes, as history demonstrates.
On a practical level, it drives presidents to ram through major legislation on party line votes, or to simply use executive orders like monarchical decrees, in order to feed the hungry maw they helped create. And when the other party is swept to power, in large part thanks to the backlash against such partisan excess, they do the exact same thing. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Lost in the process is any appreciation of or appetite for following the constitutional and democratic norms that encourage Madisonian compromise and debate.
But because the constitutional structure remains—for now, at least—despite the erasure of those norms, the impulse to tear down the structures that remain obstructions to partisan power intensifies. The Electoral College, the filibuster, the Supreme Court’s nine seats, even the rule of having senators represent states rather than the popular vote; these institutions and structures intended to foster deliberation and compromise are seen as illegitimate barriers to total victory. The features of the constitutional order become bugs in the eyes of the warring factions that crave zero-sum victories. This dynamic, as much as anything, gave us President Donald Trump in 2016—and almost gave us President Bernie Sanders.
The way to fix this is by restoring our fundamental norms—good character, basic decency, epistemological and policy humility, democratic debate, etc. Because once those are gone, fidelity to the Constitution goes with them. And after that, the Constitution becomes a dead letter relic. The machine of our constitutional order depends on the ghosts of norms within it. Give up the ghost, and the machine grinds to a halt.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: Yesterday I had to get to the AEI studio very early to record a podcast with Scott Gottlieb. As a result, I couldn’t give the girls their usual treats, and they were very upset. The girls are fundamentally Burkean in their fidelity to traditions and norms. I thought they had forgiven me, but around 2 a.m. last night I was woken from my slumber by a sudden rush of warm air. I opened my eyes to see a spaniel’s butt just inches from my face. I yelled, “Pippa! You farted.” She raised her head just enough to look at me, squinted in the darkness, and then gave me a “Yeah, what of it?” expression before dropping back down.
The other excitement was when I saw Gracie in hunting mode on the back deck. Gracie in hunting mode is a bit like Delta Burke bolting from the sprinter’s blocks—a glorious mix of Rubenesque poetry in motion and improbability. She had cornered a chipmunk that had been trying for some bird feeder detritus. She thought she had it by a flower pot when, suddenly, the chipmunk climbed straight up the brickface of my house to the second floor window. Gracie, the mighty huntress, was furious. It was like the feeling of being cheated when you discover that your opponent in a boxcar race had outfitted a nitrous oxide tank for an extra kick at the end. She stared at the chipmunk on the windowsill in a way that made it deeply grateful that cats do not have the ability to shoot lasers out of their eyes.
Happy anniversary! By now you’ve probably heard that today is the two- year anniversary of our first published post. It’s been an amazing, grueling, exciting, brutal, and wonderful two years. I want to thank everyone who made it possible. An enormous amount of work went on behind the scenes. But none of it would have come to anything without you, dear readers. Steve and I could have been the journalistic equivalent of the Fyre Festival dudes, yelling “let’s be legends” right before we face-planted. I can’t tell you how grateful we are to all of you and how excited we are about what’s coming next. Thank you. Really. All of you.
And now, the weird stuff