Members Only | October 10, 2018 | Reading Time: 6 minutes
No Going Back to Civility
The old Democratic guard wants to restore comity. Ignore them.
John Kerry spoke at Yale Tuesday. From what I can tell, the former senator and secretary of state was talking about the politics of 2011, not the politics of 2018.
He lamented the rise of tribalism in politics, the degradation of collegiality in the Senate, and the overall decline of civility in government and society. In brief, he sounded like a guy who wants to run for president. Per WNPR:
“I think it’s fair to say, particularly given the last few weeks in Washington … we’re in some trouble,” Kerry told his interviewer, journalist Thomas Friedman. “It’s bothered me a lot. I’ve watched the progressive deterioration of the traditional workings of the Senate, and it’s just become worse and worse.” He described Donald Trump as effectively having carried out a “hostile takeover of the Republican party.”
Kerry is wrong about Trump. The president is not a cause of Republican madness. He is a symptom. But that’s not what bothers me about his remarks.
What bothers me is the implication that next month’s elections could be the beginning of a return to normalcy, whatever that means. It won’t be. Per WNPR:
Kerry believes that domestic upheaval is eroding American leadership around the world. “That is now at risk, and I think we have to reclaim it. And in 35 days we have the first course-correction election in which we can do that,” he told the audience at Yale School of Management. “And then over time, if you all will be engaged and people will exercise their citizenship, we can reclaim our country. That’s how it works.”
There is no going back. I know some would like that. I know some liberals in particular would like that. But I just don’t see how the Democratic Party can return to a position in which it defends institutions and norms that were not working for most people, here and around the world. While we may not like, or may hate, what the current president is doing, no serious person can argue credibly in favor of the pre-Trump status quo, not in any way that resonates with a majority.
Look, Barack Obama and the Democrats saved the nation after the 2007-2008 panic. That much is clear. But what’s also clear is most people hated the way the Obama administration protected those responsible for megatons of wealth vanishing.
They were beside themselves with rage on witnessing Wall Street bankers avoid prosecution. They were apoplectic when bankers enriched themselves more at taxpayer expense. As Neil Irwin said on the anniversary of the collapse:
It’s hard to overstate how deeply Americans despised their government’s response to the global financial crisis. It has helped shape the last decade of American politics, fueling distrust of powerful institutions and speeding a drift toward ideological extremes.
That’s only one reason we can’t go back.
Now we have a new Supreme Court justice. Brett Kavanaugh is almost certainly going to rule with the four other conservative justices against every sort of liberal priority one can imagine: voting rights, reproductive rights, civil rights, and virtually anything that empowers citizens to participate fully in a democratic republic.
With Kavanaugh’s confirmation came the completion of a plan hatched long ago to erode the postwar order to the point of shattering so that the will of the many matters less than the will of the few: an old, white, and very rich few. With Kavanaugh, America’s socioeconomic fabric is on track to look like Brazil’s in a few decades.
I don’t know much about finance, but Barry Ritholtz does. He said.
As memories of the crisis fade as the economy recovers, we find the seeds of the next crisis are already being planted. They are the exact same issues of debt and mismanaging risk and not understanding our own limitations. Failing to learn from our prior experiences, we seem doomed to repeat them. We only have ourselves to blame.
What does “tribalism” mean in this context?
Kerry is clearly referring to the GOP’s fascist tendencies. But those opposing the GOP are vulnerable to the same accusation. The Democrats, some say, are tribal, too. Since everyone is as bad as everyone else, politics becomes nihilism. Reporters favoring “balance” happily encourage this toxic perspective.
No. One of these “tribes” is better than the other. One of these tribes serves power. One of these tribes serves, or should serve, full political equality. One enables dominion over the many. One liberates the res publica, the common good.
While the Republicans tap the rich, the old and the zealous, the Democrats should be tapping Occupy Wall Street, Sandy Hook Promise, Black Lives Matter, and now #MeToo—in other words, social justice movements that were and are fighting the norms and institutions that John Kerry suggests are worth defending.
This is why we can’t go back.
I hope the midterms prove that point.
John Kerry isn’t alone
Hillary Clinton got a lot of flack Tuesday. She said:
You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about. That’s why I believe, if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and or the Senate, that’s when civility can start again. But until then, the only thing that the Republicans seem to recognize and respect is strength.
Some conservatives saw this as a gotcha. Oh ho ho! they said. Here’s a woman who said we are stronger together during her presidential campaign who’s now saying the Republicans want to destroy Democrats. Here’s a woman who ran on the fact that she was civil and her Republican opponent was not. Harrumph, they said. Harrumph!
That’s dumb. First, because that’s a willful misreading of Clinton’s platform. Second, because there is no contradiction between acting civilly and calling out those who don’t. But Clinton is wrong in one way.
She said we can return to civility only if the Democrats take the Congress next month (the House and/or the Senate, she said). That’s wrong. The only we can return to civility is for the Democrats to break the Republican choke-hold on the electorate.
Will winning control of one branch of the government stop the Trump administration from tearing immigrant families apart; stop the Supreme Court from restricting, to the point of farce, access to the ballot box; stop the slow-motion grift of the American people; stop the assault on our sovereignty by Russian saboteurs? No.
Is civility something we even desire when the government allows Americans to adopt kids taken from their parents at the border without notifying birth parents. No.
No, to all of that. It’s downright irresponsible, if not dangerous, to suggest that civility, decorum, collegiality and so on will be restored with the election of Democrats to the Congress. As Clinton said, the GOP only recognizes and respects strength. That’s what we need after the election. The evil will stop when the Democrats force it to stop.
Civility can’t do that.
The real silent majority
“Backlash” is one of those words typically reserved for a specific context. As in: the fight for equality and civil rights sparked a white backlash in the 1960s that defined politics for a generation. But there’s another way of looking at it.
Backlash is about minorities and majorities. Fact is, liberal activists in the 1960s were a minority, and their victories in the US Supreme Court were out of step with the preferences of a majority of Americans, which is to say the majority of Americans was too racist to stomach Brown v. the Board of Education and equal rights. When Richard Nixon campaigned on the idea of a “silent majority” ready to restore law and order, he was highlighting the contrast between minority and majority opinion.
Today’s Republicans have said the fight over Brett Kavanaugh will spark a backlash against the Democrats, thus saving the Senate. But that would require a majority of Americans to think Kavanaugh should have been confirmed. That is not the case.
Bloomberg reported Tuesday a new poll showing the “Kavanaugh bump” Mitch McConnell predicted isn’t showing up. The poll shows a continuation of prevailing trends: voters still favor the Democrats, Democratic intensity outstrips Republicans’ and women are powering Democratic advantage by a 30-point margin.
That’s a real silent majority.
That’s a real backlash.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.
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