Many political scientists believe the greatest peril currently facing the United States isn’t foreign but domestic—extreme forces of political polarization threatening to stretch the union to the breaking point.
While that’s an apt description of what’s happening, especially as it pertains to the Trump Party, the conventional wisdom offers an unsatisfying, implausible solution: a return to a bipartisan consensus on what’s good for the country.
That toothpaste cannot be put back in the tube. The Republicans cannot be expected to step back from the brink of anarchy. Expecting the Democrats to behave more maturely might sound right and reasonable, but it’s not. It gives the Republicans incentive to believe the Democrats will clean up after them. It gives the Democrats reason to promise voters they will rebuild after the carnage the GOP leaves behind.
I argued last week that a solution to this co-dependency might be for the Democrats to act badly—to force the Republicans to take responsibility. The Democrats have literally bailed out the GOP. In past budget fights, former House Speaker John Boehner could not depend on his conference to raise the debt ceiling. If he had failed, the U.S. would have defaulted, triggering a global economic meltdown. House Democrats supported Boehner when it was clear his conference would kill itself to score points.
In purely political terms, this has been the Democrats’ great weakness. If need be, they will save the GOP from self-ruin. As a liberal party, the Democrats really do believe values are of a higher order than politics. This is not the case with the Trump Party. There is no higher order. Politics sublimate everything, even the rule of law. This is why the GOP can bring the global economy to the brink of collapse without fear of it happening―they know the Democrats will save them from being held to account.
What should the Democrats do? I don’t know, but I do know this isn’t about fairness. If we continue to focus on fairness—or any principle rooted in decency, morality, progressivism, or republicanism—we are avoiding the problem, or even inflaming it. The Republicans view Democratic claims to power as categorically illegitimate—the Democrats are the enemy. The Democrats meanwhile see the Republicans as potential good faith partners who can be relied on, in the final analysis, to put country for over party. It just ain’t so.
But it’s not enough for the Democrats to behave badly. They must—and I hate saying this—start seeing the Republicans as the enemy in equal and opposite proportion to the way the Republicans see the Democrats. Anything short of symmetry will accelerate a trend we all see coming: a creeping authoritarianism. The United States was founded on the rule of law, not the rule of men, but President Trump is seeking clearly to create a federal government in thrall to his personal needs.
How can Democrats do this without abandoning what makes them a liberal party: its values, its pluralism, its privileging of liberty and justice for all, its historic goal of creating a more perfect union? How can they ask voters to vote Democrat by doing what the Republicans do? These are difficult questions, but I think the Trump presidency offers a possible answer. The Democrats should do everything they can to tie the Republicans to something most sane people would agree, even if they are hopelessly polarized, is an indisputable threat to the United States—Russia.
I think Russia is a solution to political polarization. The Democrats should and must start using Russia as a way to break through the vicious cycle consuming the parties, Washington, and the whole country. Russia is our enemy. This is a fact. It attacked our presidential election. It continues to attack us in what is emerging as a new Cold cyberwar. In tying the Republicans to an enemy, the Democrats have the potential to break the Republicans. Do they stand with America or do they stand with Russia? The best part is that the Democrats do not have to lie, distort or otherwise misrepresent reality to make the case.
On Monday, the Republicans voted to investigate the FBI’s investigation of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election, the Trump administration said it will not execute a law punishing Russia with economic sanctions for attacking the 2016 election, CIA Director Mike Pompeo told the BBC he has every reason to believe the Russians will continue their cyberwar in 2018, and CBS News reported a top Russian spy visited Pompeo last week even though Sergey Naryshkin is sanctioned against making such visits. Plus, in an effort to stop the FBI’s investigation into his role in the Russians’ attack, the president is set to release a memo that the U.S. Department of Justice says would compromise national security.
It was in this context that NBC analyst John Heilemann asked Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut: “Is it possible that the Republican chairman of the House Intel Committee has been compromised by the Russians? Is it possible that we actually have a Russian agent running the House Intel Committee on the Republican side?”
Murphy didn’t take the bait, which suggests to me that the Democrats are not ready to accuse the Republican Party of treasonous behavior. Perhaps it’s prudent to bide their time, to wait for the proper context. What I do know is that that context is rapidly taking shape. Pretty soon, it won’t sound extraordinary to wonder if the highest-ranking government officials have been comprised. It won’t sound outlandish to accuse the Republicans of abetting a foreign enemy. It will sound reasonable and nonpartisan.
At that point, real change can happen.
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