June 14, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Go Ahead. Get Mad. Politics Is About Conflict
Liberals are angry for a reason, and they are bringing the fight to the Republicans, as they should.
As we enter the calm of the summer months before the storm of November’s midterm elections, I think it’s useful to break down politics and get back to brass tacks.
What is politics? This is not a no-brainer question, and I don’t want to mislead you into thinking there’s a no-brainer answer. But there is merit to remembering what it is not. It is not morality. It is not policy. It is not reason or evidence-based debate.
It includes those things, of course, but the root of politics is fighting—over limited resources, and over who gets what, when, how and why. Importantly, it’s about who gets to decide, and who pays. No matter how admirable a public figure is, no matter how much she reflects your values, the beating heart of her politics is conflict.
Even when former First Lady Michelle Obama encouraged her fellow Democrats to go high when the Republicans go so very low, that was about conflict. It was about civility, of course, about morality, too, but make no mistake: the point of going high is winning over voters to create conditions in which partisans can seize power.
To illustrate, consider the issue of impeachment. A lot of people are talking about it, and lot of people presume understandably, but wrongly, that a president must do something unconstitutional or illegal to get impeached. That isn’t the case.
To be sure, partisans will find ways to justify impeachment, and they may find acceptable justification in the law or in the Constitution. But neither the law nor the Constitution can settle arguments over whether to impeach. All we know for sure is how to impeach and why, but even then only vagaries about “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Everything else is politics. As Gerald Ford said, regarding Richard Nixon’s potential impeachment: “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
All of this can be read cynically, as if nothing matters but power. I don’t see it that way. I find it refreshing to think about politics in its most amoral (not immoral) terms. That way we don’t wind up believing our own rhetoric, which is more than can be said right now of the Republicans. They have drunk so deeply for so long from the well of disinformation that the GOP is less defined by values than by loyalty to single man.
The question isn’t whether partisans should seek power. That’s like asking if water should be wet, if the sky should be blue. The question is what partisans should do with power once they have it. When the Democrats had full control of Washington, in 2009, they worked to restrain the Wall Street banks that caused the financial panic; to bring health care to more Americans; and to save and revive the US economy.
Fast forward to 2017. The Republicans worked to cut taxes for the wealthy; shred environmental protections; erode banking laws and health care’s expansion; and otherwise contract the political franchise, even if that meant ripping infants from their mothers’ breasts (literally) as means of deterring future border crossings.
Bearing in mind what partisans should do with power makes politics more comprehensible. In other words, the conflict makes more sense. It doesn’t look like a bunch of people fighting for no reason. And when it starts to make more sense, the electorate is better able to decide what it wants and what it doesn’t.
When conflict makes sense, punditry can look silly. Consider today’s op-ed by Frank Bruni. He argued that Robert De Niro, Samantha Bee and other “Trump haters” are making things worse by getting mad. “When you answer name-calling with name-calling and tantrums with tantrums, you’re not resisting [President Trump],” he wrote. “You’re mirroring him. You’re not diminishing him. You’re demeaning yourselves. Many voters don’t hear your arguments or the facts, which are on your side.”
Yeah, well, when the president stops undermining the rule of law, sabotaging international allies, fluffing white supremacy, bilking donors, and confiscating children at the border, then—maybe—we can talk about how profanity-laced liberal tirades are hurting Democratic chances in November. Otherwise, liberals are angry for a reason, and they are bringing the fight to the Republicans, as they should.
Politics is about conflict, first and last. Someone wins. Someone loses. May the winner be the most righteous and pragmatic person who doesn’t forget that.
Retraction of yesterday’s newsletter
The premise to yesterday’s newsletter was based on a misunderstanding of federal law. I argued that the Democrats were paying more attention to President Trump’s apparent violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause and less to a federal statute implementing that clause called the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act.
Here’s what I got wrong.
I said Trump appears to be violating the statute. That’s incorrect, because the statute is just a means of enforcing the Emoluments Clause. When I said the Democrats are paying too much attention to Emoluments and not enough attention to this statute, I was confused. The Democrats are paying attention to precisely the right thing.
All of which makes Wednesday’s newsletter a dead letter, I’m afraid.
I have pulled down the post, but I can’t delete the email I sent. So I’m sending this follow-up note to prevent, as much as possible, the spread of misinformation.
I regret the error.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.