What Democratic Rage Would Look Like
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It seems, maybe, that President Donald Trump has abandoned his policy of separating children from their immigrant parents and warehousing them in detention facilities. But the conflict over the policy has been, among other things, starkly clarifying.
The cruelty, accompanied by the lies deployed to excuse it, further inflamed political passions and sharpened the divide between Republicans, who support the president, and Democrats, who detest him.
It feels as though another political Rubicon was crossed.
"I think we're at the beginning of a soft civil war," political scientist Thomas Schaller said in a telephone interview. "I don't know if the country gets out of it whole."
The heightened conflict of recent weeks led to more ominous rhetoric — anyone else notice the abundance of Nazi references from sane people? — and more definitive, unequivocal acts. Former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt renounced his party of 29 years this week and pledged to vote for Democrats until decency returns to the GOP.
Law professor and blogger Orin Kerr, perhaps sensing the ugly turn in the air, tweeted: "Few things are more corrosive in politics than the conviction that you have been wronged so much that you're justified in breaking all the rules to get even."
For years, Republicans have led the way in breaking rules — from taking the national debt hostage to usurping a Supreme Court seat. In a 2016 poll, almost three-quarters of Trump supporters, a group marked by grievances, agreed that the country needed a leader who would "break some rules," as did 57 percent of Republicans overall. Only 41 percent of Democrats agreed.
But Democrats can tire of rules, too. Lots of rules, after all, don't do Democrats any favors. The past two Republican presidencies were a product of the Electoral College, that useless appendix of American politics, overriding the popular vote. The Senate favors rural states over representative democracy. (Los Angeles County has a larger population than 42 states, each of which has two more senators than LA County has.) Seats in the House of Representatives are apportioned in such a lopsided way — due both to geography and gerrymandering — that Democrats must win far more than 50 percent of the collective vote to win a majority of the House.
Perhaps Democrats will nonetheless win control of the House in November, oversight of the Trump administration will commence and law-enforcement investigations will be unimpeded. The political system will snap back, partly at least, to where it was.
But partisan conflict, even under that scenario, will be intense, bordering on vicious. Trump has a large and committed propaganda apparatus to assist him. That apparatus has enormous influence with conservative voters, many of whom already feel they are waging a racial and religious war with their backs against a demographic wall.
And what if Democrats fall short in November? Especially if Democratic candidates get more votes than Republicans but fail to gain control of at least one side of Congress?
Here's an easy prediction. Democrats will then experience rage — at Tea-Party levels or worse.
Speaking of the GOP, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum said, "When highly committed parties strongly believe things that they cannot achieve democratically, they don't give up on their beliefs — they give up on democracy."
Democrats won't give up on democracy. It's too central to their identity, and their commitment to democratic norms and processes is also their point of greatest contrast with Trumpism.
Instead, Democrats will give up on conservatives. They will give up on Alabama and Mississippi, on Kansas and Nebraska. They will explore ways to divorce their culture, politics and economy from Trumpism and from their fellow Americans who support it.
I don't know exactly what that would look like. But liberals have a great deal of cultural, academic and economic heft, stretching from Hollywood to Harvard. Just this week, some Hollywood powerhouses flirted with leveraging their clout against the Trumpist Fox News. There are endless variations on such a power play. If Democrats opt to use their power more aggressively — breaking rules —Schaller's soft civil war hardly seems unlikely.
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