Democratic politicians have a seemingly endless well of good faith for their Republican colleagues. Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and even Bernie Sanders all speak with the language of decency, full of assurances that Republicans will be heard, understood and engaged. They offer appeals to morality, norms and shared values as if saying it often enough will make it true.
But there is no salvaging the Republican Party. Its leaders are beyond shame, beyond rules, beyond reason. Democrats can speak in the dialogue of peace, but the only dialect Republicans understand is power.
In the face of an unspeakable atrocity on our southern border ― constructed, announced and implemented by President Donald Trump’s administration, this Republican-led Congress does nothing and leverages none of its authority as a co-equal branch of government. Despite years of rhetoric about family values and shining cities on hills, the Republican Party allowed and tacitly condoned separating, perhaps irreparably, asylum seekers from the very children they fled here to save. Then, with more than 2,000 children still stranded away from their parents, they went on vacation.
To negotiate with such people, to treat them as colleagues and friends, to accept this as a normal partisan disagreement is to validate this grotesque hypocrisy.
This is what it means to give good-faith scoldings about civility when the barest hint of power is turned against those who constantly wield it as a weapon. This paradigm renders civil disobedience in the face of abuse outside the bounds of society. It civilizes lying daily for the purpose of obfuscating the sins and crimes the federal executive is committing against his own population. That the previous sentence makes sense is a tragedy, yet it is a greater calamity that both national parties are defending the order of a world in which it is true.
“If Democrats are to change the course of events, they will need to process that they, like all of us, have been utterly betrayed.”
The Republican Party has gotten much out of this arrangement: a compliant press; an intractable base, and a consolidation of power heretofore unseen in U.S. politics. What benefits have accrued to the Democrats from all their pleasantry and open-mindedness? They have received nothing but scorn. Republicans have spent years savaging Democratic constituents, attacking their cities, towns and cultures, denying them resources and abrogating their rights.
To further reinforce their contempt for anything other than their own power, Republicans have pursued the contemptuous myth of voter fraud, attacked the margins in elections they do lose (and win, apparently) and promoted narratives that delegitimize Democratic-run government. Despite the explicit warnings as to what Republican strategies would be, Democrats have continued to accept this treatment, normalizing attacks on some classes of American citizens and inflicting no consequences for damaging norms in pursuit of power.
Predictably, without any restraints placed upon them, Republicans have begun shaping the law and its interpretation in their favor at an alarming rate. Senate leadership, embodied by Mitch McConnell, prevented a hearing on a nominee for the Supreme Court not due to qualifications or extremism, but simply because proceeding with established norms would not serve Republican goals.
When it still appeared that Hillary Clinton would win the White House and control of the government would remain split, arguments were forwarded that the court simply did not need nine members. After years of their own obstruction, Republicans have ended the courtesy of blue slips, a veto on judicial nominees from senators’ home states. As a result, judicial nominations have gone through at an extraordinary pace on all except the most visibly unqualified nominees.
The speaker of the House has maintained a Confederate-sympathizer who retweets neo-Nazis as a chair of a subcommittee chair (dealing with constitutional and civil justice issues, no less), allotted resources for the still ongoing spurious investigation into Clinton’s emails, and silently backed his caucus members in their reckless and inflammatory attacks on the Department of Justice in its investigation of the president.
Democrats, by refusing to defend their authority to govern on behalf of their constituents and prioritizing the sentiments and responses of Republican voters, have sacrificed the instruments of power for the perception of principle. Continuing this strategy is to misunderstand this moment in history. The Republican Party has already conceded to its extremism, codified it and entrenched it. There is no political no norm it will not break, no kindness or tolerance its leaders will reciprocate. They do not believe in government by the people, for the people, but in government by Republicans for Republicans. To accommodate them is only to empower them.
It may seem counterintuitive that the only means of saving democracy is to jettison the civility and standards that lay at its foundations. But this mistakes civility as the source of good in democracy and not the product of a system that sees and protects the equality of its citizens. The former view ― seeing empathy, reciprocity and mutual respect as ends in and of themselves rather than tools of consensus and understanding ― only leaves the door open for abuse from those who have no interest either.
If Democrats are to change the course of events, they will need to process that they, like all of us, have been utterly betrayed.
It will be difficult. It will make our politics feel more rancorous, more hostile, less conciliatory. But it would be wrong for the Democrats to seek reconciliation while the Republican Party organizes government to recognize only its ideology as legitimate, systematically assaults Democratic constituents and actively condones the abandonment of international law and the heinous human rights abuses still happening to thousands of asylum-seekers.
There can be no peace on terms that leave this order intact. It may be that the only way to reveal the better angels of their nature is to purge them of their demons first.
Kaitlin Byrd is a writer and political activist based in her hometown of Brooklyn. She tweets at @GothamGirlBlue.