It Was One Party Who Broke The Norms To Protect Their Power, Not ‘Both Sides.’ Hold Them Responsible.
As the United States careens toward a Constitutional cliff, our executive branch ping pongs from one scandal to another, and candidates who support ideas once considered fringe win primaries in both parties – instead of just the GOP – its commonplace for those in the media and causal observers to bemoan the lack of cooperation, bipartisanship and common purpose in our country. The “both sides do it” argument has permeated political discussions so much, a term has been added to the lexicon to describe it: “bothsiderism”
It’s tempting for those who are afraid of seeming closed-minded and boxed in by partisanship to lay blanket blame to “both sides” in an attempt to seem reasonable and open-minded. Partisanship is scary. It can end friendships, break families, even cause violence and war. But “both sides” are not to blame for the current situation. Republicans are to blame. They own it. All of it.
The GOP has been breaking norms and ignoring rules and laws since at least the 1990s. The Republican rank and file were left intoxicated by the power they gained in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan. For the first time since before the New Deal – over a half century earlier – they were winning landslide elections, they were expanding in every demographic and in every state. In tying the Democratic Party’s economic agenda to America’s #1 post-war enemy, the Communists, and in riding the backlash to racial integration and cultural shifts, the Republicans were able to market themselves as the party of traditional American values, and thus the party of real patriots. This helped them win several national landslides at the presidential level and left them believing they were, as one Republican told me in 2005, “destined to govern America forever.”
The 1980s and early 1990s were a GOP Golden Age. Though they never won control of Congress, they had a functional majority with the support of “boll weevil” Democrats – conservative Southern Democrats who voted with Republicans often and served as a stronger counterbalance to the left wing of the party.
The Man From Hope Who Sapped Their Hope
Then Bill Clinton happened. The charming, homey bourgeois Governor of Arkansas ended the GOP’s twelve-year stint in the White House with a youthful, diverse, activist campaign that appealed to the type of counterculture worldview Republicans thought they had vanquished. Gone now were the stuck-up, ascot-wearing, brandy-sipping traditionalist country club types and in were the rebellious feminists, urban minorities, rural Bubbas and rugged wrong-side-of-the-tracks labor types. Clinton, who grew up poor in the sticks of the Ozarks, had no business holding the presidency in Republican America.
And so the plot to destroy him began – if they couldn’t have America, no one can. His agenda, though not progressive by today’s standards, was radical for its time. He wanted to overhaul healthcare, instituting a universal healthcare system that had eluded Democrats since the Harry Truman era. He wanted to overhaul education, make progress on racial issues and the concerns of other minority groups, and reinvigorate unions.
Angry over their fall from power, Republicans sought to destroy Clinton, and nearly did – with a little help from the President’s own tendency to to entangle himself with controversy – ultimately winning control of Congress and impeaching him for what should have been, at worst, a censurable offense.
Clinton survived though, but severely wounded. Instead of turning the page from a decade of conservative rule, he declared “the era of big government is over,” gutted welfare, expanded the criminal justice system and deregulated the financial industry, earning the ire of leftists for several generations. He got the last laugh though, ending his term with tremendous popularity and seeing his wife win a Senate seat in New York that Republicans had had their eyes on since the 1970s.
But the damage had been done. Democrats, now, had become what progressive later termed “Republican-lite,” and the Republicans realized there would be no electoral consequences for using oversight to settle personal scores.
Congressional oversight is broken. Republicans broke it.
Steal My Sunshine State
In 2000, the country saw the closest presidential election in four decades, hinging on the votes of just a few hundred people in Florida. If anything foreshadowed the chaotic, divided future of America, it was the battle for Florida’s electoral votes in the Autumn of 2000. The presidential election in the Sunshine State was so close, it went into multiple recounts and got down into the weeds of what legally constitutes a vote. Some of Florida’s election ballots at the time were designed in a way where you had to punch a hole aligned with the candidate you want to vote for. It was revealed pretty early on that the so-called “butterfly ballot” was confusing for some voters in Broward County, leading them to vote for Pat Buchanan on a third party line instead of Al Gore. The Democratic candidate may have lost as many as 10,000 votes due to it.
In the end, the recount hinged on whether or not “undervotes,” or ballots that weren’t fully punched through, counted as votes. Florida’s Republican Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, an ambitious religious zealot with eyes on a Sarasota-based Congressional seat, intervened on Bush’s behalf, certifying him the winner of Florida’s electoral votes on the senseless basis that the state’s recount laws were…unclear.
Rather than make them clear, Florida’s Republican legislature and Republican governor, who just happened to be Bush’s own brother, decided to just skip the process entirely and send electors to vote for Bush. The Florida Supreme Court overturned Harris’ certification and the recount went on until it was ultimately stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore. In the infamous decision, the court ruled that Florida’s recount law, which varied by county, violated the Equal Protection Cause of the 14th Amendment, and then in a completely bullshit 5-4 partisan decision decided that because the state had no other means of counting the votes, the votes just won’t be counted, sorry.
We still don’t know who actually won Florida in 2000, though several audits done independently suggested the final result, if the Supreme Court had allowed undervotes in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties to be counted, would have been Al Gore by three votes. It wouldn’t have mattered really anyway since Florida’s GOP-controlled legislature had already decided it would appoint Bush electors – as they are Constitutionally allowed to do – despite what happened with the recount and the Supreme Court decision. (A precedent I think we should be concerned with this year. I’ll have more on that next week).
The way we elect our presidents is broken – and the Republicans broke it.
Busting The Senate By Filling It With Bullshit
But the real fuckery – yes I’m using that term – started in 2006, the year after my Republican friend told me her party was destined to govern America forever. George W. Bush’s unpopularity over the Iraq War, his administration’s penchant for scandals and the Hurricane Katrina debacle, drove the Democrats to their first House majority in 12 years, and to the surprise of nearly every pundit, they took control of the Senate as well by a one-seat margin with Jim Webb’s upset win in Virginia. Republicans were dumbfounded. Now Democrats had control of both houses of Congress for the remainder of Bush’s term. They had the power to grind his conservative agenda to a halt. To replace the retiring Bill Frist, Senate Republicans chose Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell as their floor leader.
It was then that McConnell decided that in order to bring his party back to power, he must break the institution he served in – the U.S. Senate. The filibuster, previously a rarely-used procedural tactic in which unanimous consent is denied to move a piece of legislation or nomination out of debate and to a final vote, would now be a regular occurrence. Between the GOP-controlled 2005-2006 Congress and Democratic-controlled 2007-2008 Congress, the number of cloture motions – which is parliamentary jargon for a filibuster – more than doubled from 68 to 139. Filibusters are almost always conducted by the minority party. The number remained stable after President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, with 137 cloture motions filed between 2009 and 2010, during which Democrats have enough votes to invoke cloture on their own for about six months. This is commonly referred to as a “supermajority.”
It was during this time that McConnell declared that his goal was “to make Obama a one-term president.” The Democrats’ supermajority protected them from McConnell’s filibusters, but then Massachusetts saw red. In January, 2010, Massachusetts voters replaced Ted Kennedy with Republican Scott Brown, ending the Democratic supermajority and giving Republicans back their power to veto.
McConnell did not succeed in making Obama a one-term president, and Brown was defeated by Elizabeth Warren for a full term in 2012, but the filibuster did grind Obama’s agenda to a halt like investigations into Bill Clinton did to his nearly twenty years earlier. The number of filibusters more than doubled from 2011-2012 to 2013-2014 from 115 to whopping 252. Once Republicans gained control of the Senate in the 2014 midterms, the number of filibustered dropped as Democrats, trying to seem reasonable and return the lost norms, neglected to follow the Republican strategy of filibustering everything.
Then Trump won and all bets were off. From 2017 through now, having seen that their policy of trying to seem reasonable didn’t pay off politically, Democrats invoked the Republican strategy and there have more filibusters than ever before – close to 300 so far in this Congress.
The Senate is broken, and Republicans broke it.
Oh You Won More Votes? That’s Cute
In 2006 and 2008, Democrats won control of state houses across the country – from New Hampshire to Nevada to Alabama to Indiana. Control of these states allowed them to expand voting rights, healthcare and enact other long-held priorities. It also gave them a foothold in these states to build a future national bench. Then they lost it all in the 2010 midterm elections.
In my last piece, “If You Love America, You’ll Want To Fundamentally Change It. Here’s How,” I noted that after the 2010 elections, Republicans controlled redistricting in many states and drew themselves district maps that allowed them to stay in power even if they didn’t win the most votes, as they had expected to happen in coming years. It happened for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, where Democrats didn’t regain control despite winning a million more votes nationwide, and it has happened in state legislatures in New York, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio. Thanks to shifting demographics in districts that were red a decade ago, with an assist from Donald Trump’s unpopularity, Democrats have been able crawl back from early decade bottoms. However, they were only able to break the gerrymanders in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the Virginia legislature thanks to court decisions that struck down several district maps as unfairly disenfranchising to black voters.
Democrats remain in the minority in the other states, despite repeatedly winning more votes than Republicans. There is some hope that the 2020 elections might allow them to break through and Democratic victories for state row offices (Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State) in these states in 2018 means they’ll have a backstop against GOP attempts at gerrymandering during the next round of redistricting. The redistricting battles in the earlier part of the decade, however, showed just how ruthless Republicans were willing to get in order to hold on to power and not face a repeat of 1992, 2006 and 2008.
The way we draw our legislative districts is broken. Republicans broke it.
Look What You Made Me Do: The Passion Of Robert Bork
In 1987, Ronald Reagan was tasked to make a third appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court when Lewis Powell announced his retirement. To the shock of many, he chose D.C. District Court Judge Robert Bork, a controversial figure who most notably served as Richard Nixon’s acting Attorney General after the infamous Saturday Night Massacre. It was Bork who fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox and triggered the chain of events that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation. Besides his controversial role in Watergate, Bork was also known as an originalist who opposed many of the civil rights decisions of the Supreme Court from the 1950s through the 1970s, including most notably Roe v. Wade. Further, Bork was a critic of government regulations on the economy and court decisions granting the state power to regulate. In short, he was a nonstarter for Democrats.
In the 1986 midterm elections, Democrats won control of the Senate. When Powell retired, Reagan was itching to replace the moderate Powell with a conservative and he chose Bork, deciding he could potentially win the battle by invigorating his conservative base who had not turned out in the previous years elections. That might unite Republicans behind Bork and peel off conservative Southern Democrats like J. Bennett Johnson of Louisiana, John Stennis of Mississippi and freshman Richard Shelby of Alabama (who later became a Republican and remains in the Senate as one today).
He was wrong. In the end the Democrats mostly stuck together – only two members of the party – Dave Boren of Oklahoma and Fritz Hollings of South Carolina – voted to confirm him. Reagan lost six Republicans, mostly from Northeastern states, and the Bork nomination failed 58-42, politically weakening the lame duck president and forcing him to settle on the nomination of Anthony Kennedy – later the court’s main swing vote in the 2000s and 2010s and the justice who wrote the landmark 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized marriage equality nationwide. Bork’s defeat was effectively the end of the Reagan presidency. The next year and a half featured the fallout from the Iran Contra scandal and saw some of his proposals failing in the Democratic Congress.
History nearly repeated itself a four years later when Clarence Thomas was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to replace Thurgood Marshall and Thomas was dogged by allegations of sexual assault by former employee Anita Hill. This time though, Republicans held their caucus together, sensing another Bork situation, and Thomas won confirmation losing only two Republican votes (Bob Packwood of Oregon and Jim Jeffords of Vermont).
In fact, Thomas got 11 Democrats to vote for his confirmation, including Bennett and Shelby, securing his seat on the court.
The Brett Kavanaugh hearings in 2018, and the assault allegations by Christine Blasey Ford, reignited that resentment, reminding conservatives of Bork and Thomas, helping defeat four Democratic Senators in red states despite a Democratic landslide nationwide.
The Republican butt hurt over Bork may be especially raw right now since the man who oversaw his (and Thomas’) nominations as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is none other than….
…That’s right. Joe Biden himself. His nomination for president (and presumably impending victory) is a constant reminder that Bork was denied and Thomas and Kavanaugh had to answer for their bad behavior. The man they hold responsible is on the verge of removing them from power.
The Bork and Thomas situations were actually cited by Republicans during the Obama presidency as a major reason why they blocked many of Obama’s judicial appointments, most notably Merrick Garland. They left a Supreme Court seat open for an entire year because they were still angry Democrats did their Constitutional duty to vet candidates for a lifetime appointment on the nation’s highest court. The sense of entitlement and hostility to accountability led Republicans to shatter our institutions. They lost a few rounds, so they flipped over the board.
Our judicial system and the way we appoint and confirm judges is broken. Republicans broke it.
Won’t Somebody Think Of The Norms!
How do they get away it with it? Well, easy. They are propaganda masters. In an earlier piece, “Progressives Are At A Natural Disadvantage,” I outlined how Republicans appeal to patriotism and other popular institutions and ideals, like faith, family and tradition, in order to get voters to relate to them on a personal level before gaining their trust and selling them on ideas and policies that voters may otherwise reject. For many Americans, especially those who fall in the moderate section of the political spectrum, patriotism is a difficult construct. It’s a battle between the head – which tells them America is a complicated nation with a complicated nation with a lot of structural problems and a sordid history that has not been adequately adjudicated and accounted for – and the heart – which tells them patriotism comes with no strings attached and, like family, God and, well, sports, you stick with your team and root for it, flaws and all. Republicans appeal to the heart, which humans tend to respond to better on an emotional level than the head. Democrats and liberals, they say, want you to not love America because its flawed and its history is full of ugly holes. Would you feel the same way about a relative or your God? For many Americans, especially privileged white Americans, so much of our identity growing up American revolves around the United States being a force for good, it’s like learning your father was a Nazi or your son tortures animals. Do you turn on him? Or do you love him no matter what?
Republicans also see politics as a high school lunchroom where they’re the popular kids and the Democrats are the geeks and loners, and then they offer moderate voters a chance to sit with the cool kids.
For any of us who remembers high school politics, once you’re in with the “cool kids,” you tend to want to protect your place in the social hierarchy and protect the group that gave you that place, so certainly it makes sense to punch down as centrists and moderates do. The way they do that is simple – by allowing Republicans to get away with breaking norms and rules, even if they aren’t thrilled by it, but by reacting when Democrats do it the way they wish they could for Republicans, with scorn and punishment.
When Republicans break rules and norms, it is expected, either because they’ve managed to secure themselves to the top of the pecking order, or Americans just gave up trying to stop them and accepted that half the voters are fine with it. Their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, cousins, aunts, uncles, neighbors, colleagues, and clients are all fine with it. Challenging it might create conflict and Americans, especially those who fall in the more moderate alignment politically, are conflict-adverse. They don’t want to get uninvited to the neighborhood pot luck, they don’t want to become social pariahs in their communities and houses of worship. They don’t want to be sent back to sit in the corner with the drama geeks, goth kids and the chess club. So moderates and centrists invest in a delicate social structure where Republicans, on top, get to do whatever they want, and Democrats, on the bottom, have to follow rules and norms and accept unfair treatment and inequality, or, you know, die.
A civil rights icon had it right:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Letters from the Birmingham Jail 1963
That détente is unsustainable. Democrats, leftists and minority groups won’t accept that unequal political reality forever, and they especially won’t accept it when the country is on the verge of social collapse – a cliff the COVID-19 Pandemic has pushed us to the brink of. Up until now, they bring knives to gun fights, and as much as it absolutely frustrates progressives that they do that, they know – in part because of the privilege centrists give to Republicans – the only thing keeping this country together is Democrats bringing knives to gun fights.
Trying to sell the idea that Republicans are to blame is hard. Bothsiderism is invested in the idea that “both sides” are the problem – and they get support from Republicans who happily accept that viewport, while politely disagreeing with any criticism of them, because it absolves them of complete responsibility. They’re fine with sharing the blame. This makes them look more reasonable to Bothsiders than Democrats and leftists who are tired, frustrated, scared and aggravated that Republicans are never held accountable for any of the bullshit they pull, and that they keep winning despite it. Republicans treat politics like a game, but for Democrats and leftists, politics is often a matter of life and death. Moderates cannot really grasp that, since they are more likely to not feel their lives depend on decisions made by politicians.
We’ve reached a turning point though, where everything Democrats and progressives have fought their lives to build, and moderates take for granted – civil rights, equal rights, healthcare, worker protections, etc., – are now in jeopardy. It is no longer clear that the best solution is to cut losses live to fight another day. It is no longer clear that bringing knives to gun fights just for the sake of stability and peace is the best option.
And moderates and centrists, they need to see that. They need to pick a side, or allow the Democrats the same leeway they allow the Republicans. The social hierarchy they rely on is coming crashing down on way or another.
America is broken. Republicans broke it. They need to be held accountable for it. All of it.