DEMOCRACY IS NOT, and was never intended to be, a zero-sum game. The winners are not supposed to take everything. Change comes slowly and incrementally—often frustratingly so, for progressives. But the flip side is that the United States has worked pretty damned well for a quarter millennium, becoming arguably the greatest nation the world has ever known, because of the willingness of its political parties to compromise.
In the run-up to the Civil War, Congress bent over backwards brokering one compromise after another, in a valiant attempt to preserve the union. These compromises infuriated Northern abolitionists (“This word compromise, when applied to human rights and constitutional rights, I abhor,” trumpeted Thaddeus Stephens in 1850), just as they vexed the Southern slaveholders. Ultimately, the peace did not hold—the differences between slave and free were irreconcilable—but the point is that, in an era when members of Congress sometimes kicked the shit out of each other, politicians still went to great lengths to compromise.
Compromise only works when both political parties are willing to budge. If one of those parties abdicates its responsibility to represent the American people, if it exists simply to obstruct the work of the other—if it flat-out refuses to compromise, ever, about anything—the US system of government, always a fragile thing, breaks down.
After the election of 1860, the Southern states said, “Fuck it. We’re not working with Abraham Lincoln no mater what,” and they seceded from the Union. After the election of 2008, Mitch McConnell and the Republicans said, “Fuck it. We’re not working with Barack Obama no matter what,” and proceeded to obstruct every single thing he tried to do, large or small, national security be damned. To avoid compromise, the South chose Civil War. To avoid compromise, McConnell allowed Moscow to sabotage the 2016 election. Both acts are tantamount to treason. (That the Party of Lincoln slowly morphed into the Party of Obstruction is a sad irony).
Obama, after spending most of his first year in office coaxing the recalcitrant Republicans to work with him, eventually gave up, and, like Lincoln, used the vast powers of the office to take action without the rival party’s input. This worked, sure, but it was not without consequences. As I wrote in “Obama the Terrible” in February of 2014, after the story broke about the president’s drone strikes on suspected terrorists:
If a terrorist can be blown to smithereens at the whim of a single individual, then so can I, and so can you. If a terrorist can be held indefinitely without trial, then so can I, and so can you….
Today, the man with his finger on the button is the genial Barack Obama, a man I voted for, a man I like and admire, a man whose judgment I trust. The president strikes me as grounded, guarded, pragmatic, and smart. Whatever some may believe, Obama is not Hitler. But the next guy might be. And therein lies the terror. Not recognizing this clear and present danger is Obama’s greatest failing as president.
While he has not yet gone to these terrifying lengths, the despotic Donald Trump has certainly exploited the “executive order” precedents set by the frustrated Obama. The GOP refusal to compromise—to so much as allow a vote on Supreme Court nominees and House bills!—begat both Obama’s executive power grab and the “sweeping and systematic” Russian interference in the 2016 election (in Mueller’s words), which McConnell through his cynical inaction aided and abetted. The result is Donald Trump—corrupt, venal, vain, petty, criminal, installed and controlled by Vladimir Putin—presiding over the most powerful executive branch in recent memory.
Many factors contributed to this outcome, yes. But the root of the problem is the Republicans’ refusal to compromise. The GOP are not small-d democrats any longer. Mitch McConnell and his confederates are the modern heirs of Christopher Memminger, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis. Which should come as no surprise:
Fortunately, the Confederate States of America did not have a state TV network spewing pro-slavery propaganda to North and South. There was no Fox & Friends to normalize the brutal war crimes of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Sean Hannity was not there to fawn over James Henry Hammond and extol the virtues of the Mudsill Theory. Nor did Jeff Davis have a Rudy Giuliani scurrying around Transylvania, calling into question Robert Lincoln’s ties with the Pullman Palace Car Company. If so, the Civil War might have played out quite differently.
The GOP does not want to Make America Great Again; it wants to make America white again—and, especially, to keep the White House white. This is a tall order. Like the antebellum South, the demographics do not favor the GOP. The country is becoming more diverse each year. White people will soon be a minority in the United States. The demographic shift could well turn Texas blue—which would be the death knell for the Republican Party. A blue Texas plus blue California, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey mean a Democrat POTUS for the foreseeable future.
McConnell surely understands this. He knows he’s running on borrowed time. If he can’t control the executive branch, or Congress, he has to infiltrate the judiciary—the only one of the three branches whose members, conveniently, serve for life. So far, this objective has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Obstruction has seen to that.
When it became clear that McConnell would never allow the Senate to vote to confirm Merrick Garland, President Obama should have gotten creative. FDR would have ordered Garland to take the seat after a waiting period of 60 days—something, anything to ensure not only that Garland took his rightful place on SCOTUS, but that the politics of obstruction failed spectacularly. Instead, Obama avoided a fight, assuming that Hillary Clinton would win and it would all be moot. This colossal error, an obvious blunder even at the time, guarantees a conservative judiciary—and perhaps, depending on the fragile health of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, an extremely conservative one—for decades.
The lesson is this: If the new president finds herself with a blue House and a blue Senate, she needs to be relentless. She needs to move quickly, decisively, and fearlessly. Yes, she should attempt to engage the GOP. But at the first whiff of obstruction, she should ignore them completely going forward. It is not her responsibility to beg them to do their fucking jobs. Let the Republicans go to Canossa if they want a seat at the table—and once they are at the table, let them do more than refuse to play along. The politics of obstruction must be eradicated, just as the Confederacy was. Traitors should have no voice in the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.