Back in the W administration, bumper stickers, yard signs, and teeshirts proclaimed “War Is Not the Answer.” I’m not sure what meaning everyone else drew from that phrase, but my own personal interpretation was something along these lines: Winning a war may be better than losing it, but it almost never solves the underlying problem.
W’s war in Iraq vividly illustrated the point. The battles were quickly won (“Mission accomplished”), but the fighting has continued almost without interruption ever since. Murderous insurgents roam much of the country’s north; the new government in Baghdad is hardly any friendlier to the U.S. than Saddam Hussein was; key cities are in ruins; ethnic and sectarian divisions are deeper than ever; three million people have been displaced from their homes, and in general the situation is so crummy that Donald Trump wants to put all Iraqis on his you’re-not-welcome-here list.
Thus I stand by my conviction that war is not the answer. Furthermore, I submit that the maxim applies not only to armed conflict between nation states but also to domestic political life. Winning an election is better than losing one, but it won’t solve the problems that beset a deeply divided society.
I’ve been reading “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda,” a document put together by a group of former congressional staffers. (The title is ironic; their vision is not “one nation indivisible” but merely one party indivisible.) Their basic idea is to borrow the obstructionist tactics that the Tea Party developed after Obama’s election in 2008 and put them to work for liberal Democratic causes.
We examine lessons from the Tea Party’s rise and recommend two key strategic components:
- A local strategy targeting individual Members of Congress (MoCs).
- A defensive approach purely focused on stopping Trump from implementing an agenda built on racism, authoritarianism, and corruption.
Citizens opposed to Trumpism are urged to confront their senators and representatives, rebuking Republicans for their support of Trump’s policies and demanding of Democrats a promise not to collaborate or compromise.
The Tea Party focused on saying NO to Members of Congress (MoCs) on their home turf. While the Tea Party activists were united by a core set of shared beliefs, they actively avoided developing their own policy agenda … Tea Partiers viewed concessions to Democrats as betrayal. This limited their ability to negotiate, but they didn’t care. Instead they focused on scaring congressional Democrats and keeping Republicans honest. As a result, few Republicans spoke against the Tea Party for fear of attracting blowback.
It’s worth remembering that the Tea Party strategy was initially viewed with great skepticism by many Republicans, who argued that the party’s future prospects demanded broadening the base of support, and especially reaching out to Hispanic Americans. But the strong showing by Tea Party–backed congressional candidates in 2010, followed by Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 and now Trump’s election, seem to have muted those voices of moderation in the Republican ranks. It’s hard to argue with success. And so now the Democrats contemplate a mirror-image countermove.
The ideas promoted by the Indivisible project seem to be catching on. Last week, with Congress in recess, activist constituents besieged their representatives at town meetings—whether or not the representatives showed up. And it appears the Democratic party leadership may be embracing the hard-line approach. A recent New York Times headline spoke of Democrats waging “total war on Trump,” abandoning any hope of finding common ground. An earlier Times op-ed by Steve Phillips urged the party to “move left”: They should not chase after “the wrong white people” (former Democrats who voted for Trump) but work to “reinspire” progressives who defected to third parties or sat out the election. (On the other hand, the new chair of the Democratic National Committee seems to be more of an inclusive unifier than a firebrand partisan.)
Is a hard left turn the best bet for Democrats as they try to win back control of Congress and the White House? The answer depends in part on the way voters are distributed across the political spectrum.
Throughout most of my life, I have thought of America as a one-hump country. If you condensed political values or preferences onto a one-dimensional scale—left to right, or liberal to conservative—you expected to see a curve roughly like this one:
The height of the curve at each position along the horizontal axis represents the number of voters who favor that political position. Although the shape of the curve cannot be known precisely, the key point is that it has a single peak somewhere near the middle, where most of the voters congregate. This distribution would seem to favor a centrist strategy, and punish any party that strays too far out toward the fringes. (Ask Barry Goldwater or George McGovern.) If we assume that voters always choose the candidate closest to their own position, then each party’s best strategy is to find the sweet spot between the opposition and the centerline.
But wait … What if America has two humps?
In this case the center doesn’t look like an attractive place to plant your flag; there’s nobody there. As it happens, there is still a mathematical case for a centrist strategy: Under the assumption that voters always favor the closer of two candidates, the optimal position is again just slightly “inside” of your opponent. But in this bifurcated political landscape, such simple assumptions about voter behavior look pretty dubious. Suppose both the Democrat and the Republican candidates are well to the right of the centerline. The entire left lump of the electorate will consider both choices unpalatable, suppressing turnout among those voters and possibly giving victory to the more extreme party. The situation might also attract a left-leaning third-party candidate to the race—who could even win, given that the right-wing votes are split.
I’m not entirely sure what kind of a camel my country has become, but plenty of evidence suggests we are far more polarized than we were in the good old days, when the main gripe was that you couldn’t tell the candidates apart. In the coming election cycles we’ll likely see some contests with plenty of daylight between the two party platforms.
Any candidate who runs against Trump and the alt-right will get my vote. Winning the 2018 and 2020 elections is imperative; losing again would be a calamity. Nevertheless, I hold to my belief that winning is not the answer. Or winning is not enough. A U.S.A. led by a progressive president and a like-minded congress will be far better than what we have now, but it will not be a happy place.
The deep-seated problem in American politics is not that the president is reckless, racist, xenophobic, autocratic … (the list could go on). The problem is that 63 million Americans voted for him. That constituency will still be a powerful force even after Trump is defeated at the polls or otherwise removed from office. Those voters will not meekly acquiesce when a new, more liberal government takes over. They will resist and obstruct just as vigorously as the left is promising to do now. Their ideas, attitudes, discontents, and fears will remain a part of public discourse. And at some point they will get their hands on the helm again, and promptly dismantle all the work of their opposition predecessors.
What a waste of human energy. At any given moment half the country is struggling desperately to thwart the other half, and then, every four years or eight years, the teams change places but go on brawling as brutally as ever. Can’t we all just get along, and split the difference? Maybe we could hire a technocrat to manage the country according to a formula that minimizes the mean squared discontentment.
Well, no, that’s not going to happen. But the present whipsaw dynamic can’t go on forever, either. For several decades, the pendulum has been swinging with higher frequency and ever-greater amplitude. At some point it becomes a wrecking ball, knocking down the pillars of democracy itself.
The most familiar threat to democratic self-rule is the cynical tyrant who somehow wriggles into high office and then finds a pretext to suspend civil liberties and elbow aside democratic institutions. It’s a scenario that has played out many times. It could happen here. Maybe it is happening here. But this is not the only way that democracy can break down. Internal flaws can also shatter it.
The contract that binds together a democratic society requires that everyone agree to abide by the decisions of the majority. You have to be willing to accept outcomes you don’t agree with. It’s a bargain most of us are willing to make, most of the time. After all, a society does need to make choices, and mechanisms other than majority rule look even less appealing.
However, deference to the majority runs aground when it conflicts with higher beliefs and principles, with matters of conscience. Personally, I’m willing to go along with a democratic decision that does something stupid, but not one that does something evil. Consider the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required citizens and officials of free states to cooperate in returning escaped slaves to their owners in the South. The act was passed by Congress and signed by President Millard Fillmore and eventually upheld by the Supreme Court; it was the law of the land. But many government officials and ordinary citizens in Northern states refused to enforce it, risking imprisonment and large fines. If I had been in their place, I hope I would have had their courage.
The conflict between slave owners and abolitionists proved too deep to be resolved by democratic means. Legislators and judges had struggled for 70 years to craft a compromise that both sides could live with, but this is an issue that has no middle ground. The result was a tragedy, that is, a drama in which the actors were carried along helplessly by the torrent of events, ending with a bitter fate none of them wanted. And the war, as usual, was anything but an answer; it finally ended slavery, but it left a legacy of racial injustice and regional resentments that persists 150 years later.
It’s easy to imagine a Trump-era analogue of the Fugitive Slave Act, penalizing those who offer sanctuary to immigrants. If such a law is passed, I expect it to be widely defied.
Bad as the current political climate is, I don’t believe we are on the brink of another civil war. However, a strategy focused purely on winning the next elections—on out-voting the 63 million Trump supporters—is not going to bring peace to the republic. The answer is not just to win over them but to win them over. What would give me joy is an election result in which at least half of those voters chose a candidate committed to rational problem solving, humane principles, tolerance, economic progress for everyone, and a constructive role for America in the world.