The Crisis of Permanent Polarization
The Crisis of Permanent Polarization
“I want the Republican Party to be punished. But I probably shouldn’t.”
Published on: Nov 22, 2020  |  

I have long argued that Democrats should be magnanimous in victory, but even I'm struggling to maintain that posture. If the Republican Party is so intent on playing hardball (to say nothing of the demented voter fraud conspiracy theories), it would be understandable, if not necessarily advisable, for Democrats to return the favor. The mind is strong, but the flesh is weak. Part of me longs to let go and give in to the temptation of wishing for nothing less than a pummeling of the GOP. There is, of course, a catch: doing so would violate the very principles I have insisted on for the past four years.

I have very few non-negotiables, but the ones I do have guide me and color much of my work. One of them is the sanctity of the democratic process and the necessity of accepting democratic outcomes, however personally threatening they may be. The sheer badness of a particular candidate has little bearing on their subsequent legitimacy after a free election. Anyone who follows me will know that this is something of a preoccupation. (It may even be the case that I have taken this premise to an extreme, rendering me guilty of democratic "fetishism.")

Democracy isn't about producing better substantive outcomes (although it's certainly nice when it does). Democracy is about the right to make the wrong choice—in part because, in divided societies, there is no credible arbiter of what constitutes a wrong or right choice. Consensus isn't possible, so instead citizens must learn to live in a state of evaluative pluralism. This entails taking seriously what the philosopher Kevin Vallier calls the illusion of culpable dissent, or "the false belief that others disagree with our moral, religious, and political viewpoints solely because of some cognitive or moral vice."

Pluralism also entails accepting as much difference as possible, which, in turn, means that we ask citizens to agree on relatively few foundational premises. They must, however, agree at the very least with what I've called "democratic minimalism"—democracy not as a means to the end of liberalism but democracy as the way to regulate and manage conflict through the regular alternation of power according to majority vote. This may be too little to ask, as Dalibor Rohac notes, but it's certainly not too much to ask. Without this, there is no way to adjudicate the differences that are at the heart of the divided society. A divided society that has no institutionalized mechanism for resolving conflict is one that will not survive intact.

Which brings me back to the sanctity of the democratic process and the outcomes it produces. This is why I strongly opposed any attempt to undo Trump's victory in 2016, delegitimize the election result, or claim that the president was inherently illegitimate. These attempts were fundamentally undemocratic. And they weren't just on the fringe, as tempting as it might be to remember it that way. Hillary Clinton was insisting that the election was "stolen" as recently as May 2019, while none other than former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid suggested that the Russians had tampered with the vote itself. There was the long national distraction known as Russiagate, which was as mainstream as you can get (if anything, to challenge the charges of collusion was the fringe position on the center and center-left). Perhaps the most memorable entry within the genre was a remarkably ludicrous, lurid, and punishingly long Jonathan Chait exposé that treated as "plausible" the notion that Trump began his career as a Russian intelligence asset as early as 1987, apparently the year that everything changed.

Some conservatives have suggested that there is a certain hypocrisy—or, to be more charitable, inconsistency—in indulging in conspiracy theories that delegitimized Trump's victory in 2016 while lamenting that Republicans are delegitimizing Biden's victory in 2020. Yes. But there is also a certain hypocrisy in having attacked the liberal media as both crazy and undemocratic for its Russiagate myths while not, today, forcefully condemning the more kooky electoral fraud conspiracy theories that have entered the very heart of the Republican Party. Sydney Powell might easily be dismissed as wacky—it is challenging to take something so unserious seriously—but she and Rudy Giuliani and the rest of Trump's "legal team," if that's the right term, are in fact representing the man, who in addition to being president, happens to be the de facto titular head of the GOP.

All of this is dangerous—and more dangerous than anything President Obama did (or didn't do) four years ago. Obama did not try to block a presidential transition. And while Hillary Clinton never stopped believing that she had been a denied a victory that was rightly hers, she did concede to Trump almost immediately. Then she unceremoniously retired to the woods for the purposes of self-reflection.

To their credit, Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, in their sheer, unapologetic wackiness, appear to be true believers. What I have less respect for is the national GOP leadership—foremost among them the wildly cynical Mitch McConnell—who are going along with the show out of cowardice or self-interest or because they can't be bothered to disavow the Republican base of its accumulating fantasies.

However much I disliked Trump, I was willing to give him considerable latitude as long as he was the legitimately elected president. He no longer is. Now that Biden is about to assume office, he should have considerable latitude just the same. Elections had consequences then. Elections have consequences now. The question, then, is what might those consequences look like?

To use a war metaphor (which is, itself, a problem since political competition among Americans is best not thought of as akin to battle), it is a lot to ask one side to unilaterally disarm when the other side, despite having lost, insists on destroying the surrounding villages. Why should Democrats take the high road when leading Republicans have acted so brazenly without a hint of shame? So let us talk about the low road and what that would look like. There has been loose talk of not just demonizing Trump and his coterie but deprogramming his supporters en masse (although to be fair, Jamelle Bouie was arguably the earliest pioneer of "you are who you vote for" reasoning with a piece titled "There's No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter"). Criminalizing political disagreement is obviously unconstitutional, so none of this is particularly realistic on the policy level. The constitutionally plausible version would entail some attempt to batter the Republican party into submission, rule by executive order to the fullest extent permissible by law, eschew bipartisanship and good faith cooperation, and weaponize the bureaucracy to investigate and prosecute top Trump officials.

But then what? This is still close to a 50/50 country. Republicans still control 26 of the country's governorships. They will be able to play obstructionist and block Biden's legislative agenda in the Senate. It is impossible to undo what has been done. We are a de facto pluralist and pillarized country. To attempt to marginalize, exclude, or otherwise destroy one of those pillars is to attack our own country. One side cannot hope to conclusively defeat the other in a nation as diverse and divided as ours. "They" are not enemies; they are (merely) opponents. They are our fellow Americans, for both better and worse.

I do not want to live in a country where every four or eight years, one party wrests control of the presidency, rules with utter disregard for those who didn't vote for it, while the other contents itself with acting as if the presidency is illegitimate for however long they must until they manage to regain power. Someone has to stop this process of endless, compounded polarization, and I have little faith that Republicans have either the ability or willingness to do so in the coming years. In a country with only two major parties, then, we find ourselves at an impasse. If not them, then who? If not now, then when? There is, as far as I can tell, no other choice.