March 23, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Acting Responsibly Means GOP Loses
They won't do that. Not even during a plague.
Here we are in the middle of a national health emergency.
The number of sick is climbing. The death toll is growing. The economy has come to a stop. Normal people are worrying about their kids’ immediate present, instead of their long-term futures. When will school restart? Will there be enough food? These have normal people looking hard at the trees. There’s little time to think about the forest.
It’s understandable, during dire moments like this, for people to long for leaders who set aside politics in order to concentrate on the problem at hand. Partisanship during ordinary times is one thing. Partisanship during a full-on crisis is something else. To continue playing politics during a plague is to jeopardize lives already in jeopardy.
We don’t need less politics-as-usual during a crisis. What we need is a better understanding of politics.
Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen gave voice to this view recently. They are co-founders of Common Ground Committee, a citizen-led initiative focused on productive public discourse. Last week, they wrote in USA Today: “We all can do this. Let’s make a pledge, across the political spectrum, to drop political agendas and work together.”
But this itself is a political statement. Indeed, it’s quintessentially liberal. Honoring our social obligations to individuals, with whom we make up a political community, in the service of a common good that binds us together—that’s liberalism writ large.
To be sure, people who’d never think of themselves as liberal share these values. They aren’t closeted liberals, obviously. They merely function in a liberal historical context. The US, despite the crime of slavery, was founded on the above values along with representative government, civil liberties, individual rights and so on. These made America a republic, not a monarchy, which was the conventional form of government.
Bond and Olsen urge leaders to speak truthfully about the new coronavirus outbreak, to abandon personal bias and agendas, to seek solutions collaboratively, and to accept the facts. Ax-grinding won’t save us. Science and good governance, however, will.
But, again, these are liberal principles. Seeking a greater understanding of the natural world, privileging reason and prioritizing freedom of thought, embracing a greater awareness of the self and of self-interest, devising pragmatic means of solving real-world social ills—American liberals have fought for these since the founding.
My point is not to accuse Bond and Olsen of hypocrisy. Far from it. My point here is to highlight what’s really going on as the president fails to provide leadership during a plague, as congressional Republicans exploit it to enrich friends and allies, and as congressional Democrats struggle to protect normal people. We don’t need less politics-as-usual during a crisis. What we need is a better understanding of politics.
What we need is better politics.
My sense is the Republicans understand quite well what Bond and Olsen are asking of them implicitly. They are asking the Republicans to recognize the Democrats’ political legitimacy. They are asking the Republicans to share an equal playing field and to work in concert between the “soft guardrails” of democracy. They are asking the Republicans to restrain ambitions in the name of human health and brotherhood.
And they are asking the Republicans to lose.
Check out the very special message below! —JS
The Republicans don’t win when they behave democratically—or “by the rules.” They win by using the institutions of democracy against democracy, as when GOP justices decided a presidential election, when House Republicans sabotaged the economy to wound a black Democrat, and when a GOP Senate acquitted a president of treason.
Of course, Bond and Olsen are not asking the Republicans to lose. They are asking them explicitly to act responsibly and honor their oaths of office. But that’s the key problem—for the Republicans. To act responsibility and honor their oaths is to lose.
Bond and Olsen are asking the Democrats to act normally, but they don’t sound like it, because they are assigning blame equally, which distorts what’s really going on.
The Democrats rightly killed a bill working its way through the Senate that would provide economic relief during the pandemic. But their obstruction wasn’t mere politics-as-usual. Mitch McConnell sought half a trillion dollars to be used in any way the administration saw fit, which is to say, for the benefit of GOP friends and allies.
Senate Democrats, meanwhile, were not opposed to underwriting big firms in theory. They just didn’t want to give them a blank check. They wanted assurances built in the language of the bill that CEOs wouldn’t turn around and lay off workers while giving themselves bonuses. They oppose public money being used for private enrichment.
By all means, we should ask—we should demand—that leaders stop fighting and work together to face a national health emergency. But as we do, let’s understand that such demands are meaningful only to those who are already committed to democracy.
A very special message from the Stoehr family dog
Who’s a good boy? John is. He writes every day. Politics. He’s writes about it.
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Every day, John writes. He looks at the square thing that glows. A computer? I don’t know, but he looks serious. Very serious. Very good! John writes. John’s good!
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.