We’re less than two weeks out from an election that Joe Biden and the Democratic Party look poised to win by solid margins — and already the left is showing how eager it is to overplay its hand.
I don’t mean Democratic plans to govern in the name of a broad-based popular mandate, forthrightly and aggressively using levers of power to pass their substantive policy agenda on everything from public health and economic stimulus to voting rights and climate change. These are Democratic priorities, and the party may well have just won a lot of power at the ballot box. That’s how the system is supposed to work, with the victorious party being rewarded or punished for how it uses that power the next time it faces the voters (in this case, in the midterm elections of 2022).
But this isn’t all that a range of left-leaning writers have been clamoring for. Some have been pushing for the establishment of a post-election Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the criminality and immorality of the Trump administration, much the way white South Africans were forced to come to terms with their complicity in the Apartheid regime after it was democratically deposed. Others are focusing on enacting sweeping institutional reforms that aim to make it much more difficult for Republicans to win office and wield power. These reforms include adding, “without hesitation, guilt, or apology,” several progressive justices to the Supreme Court to give Democrats an explicit “advantage,” and even “abolishing the Constitution” altogether.
Every one of these ideas is terrible — because every one of them follows from a fundamental failure to grasp the character of political reality in the United States. Hauling members of the opposing party before state tribunals for official condemnation, packing the country’s highest court with judges guaranteed to hand down decisions favorable to progressives, or otherwise altering the rules of American politics to systematically enhance the power of one party while diminishing the power of its opponents — none of that would move the country toward anything resembling “reconciliation.” On the contrary, it would move the country several steps closer to being torn apart.
The reason why is obvious — or it should be.
Pushing a policy agenda is one thing. Professing to speak in the name of the country as a whole, let alone justice itself, is quite another. When political actors do the latter, they need to adopt the language and priorities of a broader swath of the electorate than what is affirmed by the most strident members of their own party. An overwhelming majority of citizens need to view these would-be extra-partisan defenders of the public good as possessing legitimacy to serve in that role, rendering judgment in the name of the entire political community. Something approaching the country as a whole must trust that these arbiters of communal right and wrong speak with everyone’s interests in mind and aren’t just out to advance their own narrower interests with high-minded talk.
How any informed observer of American politics in 2020 could believe that the left wing of the Democratic Party possesses the requisite legitimacy and authority to serve in such a role is beyond me. The roughly two-fifths of the electorate that will vote for Donald Trump in less than two weeks would (understandably) view any attempt to haul members of the Republican Party before a tribunal, treating them as soldiers in a vanquished army or officials of a hostile regime, as an unprecedented hyper-partisan effort to humiliate and punish members of the opposing party — and one going far beyond anything Trump ever attempted in reality (as opposed to in the bluster of his tweets and campaign rallies).
And that’s what would make the left’s structural revolution so disproportionate: For all of Trump’s deliberate and constant rhetorical triggering of the libs, the GOP has permanently altered almost nothing about the way American politics functions at the level of institutions. Norms have been bent and sometimes broken. But laws and regulations have remained largely intact. Yet in response, progressive writers are proposing sweeping structural changes so that progressives can enact their favored policies unimpeded by institutional constraints that have been in place for a very long time, with some going back centuries. Confronted with such extreme acting out, the portion of the electorate rising up in furious opposition would almost certainly be quite a bit higher than 40 percent.
This, again, should be obvious. It’s Politics 101. That otherwise intelligent people have begun to disregard elementary political truths is a tribute to Trump’s capacity to drive his opposition around the bend. One term of the Trump administration and self-described defenders of “democracy” now entertain fantasies of rigging the system so that the political opposition will cease to pose a serious challenge to their rule.
This despite the fact that Trump prevailed in 2016 not because Republicans changed the rules to make it possible. He won fair and square according to the longstanding rules of American politics — the very same rules that had enabled a Democrat to win during the previous two election cycles, and the very same rules that appear ready to deliver a solid victory to them and a mortifying defeat to Trump just four years later. The system sort of works! At least if we presume the system is supposed to enable the country’s parties to alternate in power.
Do the left-leaning writers pushing for commissions and drastic institutional reforms still believe that our system should facilitate ruling and being ruled in turn (to invoke Aristotle’s definition of citizenship)? I’m not so sure. For much of the last four years, many of Trump’s most passionate critics have fancied themselves a “resistance” against Trump, as if they were working in the French Underground, plotting to drive the Nazis from their occupation and take down the collaborationist Vichy government. That’s not the outlook of people who think they live in a liberal democracy.
Yet as historian Jill Lepore recently argued in a cogent essay for The Washington Post, Trump may be malicious and incompetent, but he’s not Adolf Hitler, just as his party and its supporters aren’t the moral equivalent of the National Party of South Africa. Neither has the United States been occupied by a hostile foreign power for the past four years. This means that if Trump loses next month, Republicans will not be deposed tyrants ripe for (legal or institutional) retribution. They will be the political opposition in a system that facilitates the peaceful transfer of power between parties — a process that only functions if each side treats the other as fellow citizens who will be given a fair chance to vie for power the next time around, and if this process itself is widely considered legitimate.
This is a fundamental precondition of democratic self-government that progressives disregard at their peril.