Death Spiral Politics and the Ideal of Fair Play

Death Spiral Politics and the Ideal of Fair Play

One of the themes of Greg Sargent’s 2018 book, An Uncivil War, is that our politics is caught in a “downward, self-reinforcing spiral.” Unsurprisingly, the two parties view each other as the primary reason we’re caught in a dysfunctional tailspin.

From the Republican point of view, “Democrats regularly undertake organized efforts to engineer voting in their favor by large numbers of undocumented immigrants, or people who, ineligible to vote, impersonate those whose names are on the rolls.” In addition, “Democratic electoral victories and the policies that result from them then become deeply suspect” since the platform of the party—again, according to many on the right—is mainly concerned with taking money from some and redistributing it to others. Of course those getting other people’s money are going to vote for the party that wants to give them more of it! The latter story has a racial element to it in which hard-working, white taxpayers are seen as paying the welfare benefits for all the undeserving and lazy minorities, which doesn’t even have a nugget of truth to it. “The basic story is the same,” Sargent says, “any amount of anti-democratic behavior by the Republican Party and the right is merely just a response to the left’s effort to destroy the country.”

According to the Democratic narrative, the problem with our politics is that “our elections are compromised by a combination of voter suppression, the gerrymandering of congressional maps, Electoral College distortion, and underhanded GOP tactics.”

In this telling, Republicans have largely held their grip on power through laws that deliberately make it hard for minorities and other Democratic-leaning constituencies to vote, and by redrawing congressional districts so that they have retained an unbreakable grip on the House of Representatives, insulating GOP lawmakers from broader currents of national majority opinion and allowing them to embrace policies that are out of step with it.

But Sargent doesn’t fall prey to both-sidesism. As he argues, one of these stories is largely true and one is, to put it lightly, fairly off the mark. While Democrats do engage in gerrymandering, they don’t do it to the same degree or with the same flagrant intensity as Republicans. Similarly, Democrats do engage in “Constitutional hardball”—“high-stakes behavior” that aims to “fundamentally alter institutional relations to one party’s advantage in some sense that violates previous understandings of the bounds of acceptable political combat”—but, again, much less often. There is almost nothing comparable to the Merrick Garland stunt spearheaded by Mitch McConnell during Obama’s second term—it may even be a high water mark for Republicans, though Democrats shouldn’t hold their breath. 

Republicans continue to lambast Democratic platforms as fundamentally illegitimate since they are focused on handouts and giveaways, but this shouldn’t make us lose sight of the fact that Republicans at this point have totally refused to even suggest what kind of platform or policies they wish to pursue. What Democrats are doing—or hoping to do—when they are in power is called governing, something Republicans have been increasingly uninterested in doing. Even their largely do-nothing-slash-everything program that aims to roll back programs and regulations remains deeply unpopular not only with most Americans but with large parts of their own base.  

In truth, it doesn’t really matter which story is more accurate. The point is that both sides have “felt unfairly treated by the other” and that, at this point, the game has a “tit-for-tat, reciprocal quality, which makes it very hard to assign overall blame for the ongoing deterioration.” 

Take the Garland fiasco again. Many Republicans smugly gesture to the controversy surrounding Robert Bork’s nomination some thirty years ago as the beginning of hyper-partisan Supreme Court nominations. With historical permission slips and just-so stories like these, Republicans have provided themselves with a self-serving narrative that, according to Will Wilkinson, makes their extreme actions seem “morally okay, maybe even urgently necessary.” After all, the fate of the country, if not freedom itself, hangs in the balance, as Michael Anton’s famous Flight 93 election piece made perfectly clear. This apocalyptic tone about American society, of course, ran the gamut, from fears about increasing immigration to debates over moving the top marginal tax rate up a few percentage points. “In their minds,” Wilkinson goes on, “mundane left-right differences about tax rates and the generosity of the welfare state are recast as a Manichean clash between the light of free enterprise and the darkness of socialist expropriation.”

Yet in treating history books as a game of connect-the-dots, we miss—on purpose for Republican strategists—the ratcheting up of these tactics over time. When it looked like Clinton might become president in 2016, whispers started circulating about the necessity of blocking every single nominee—by whatever means necessary—for the next four years. Serious political commentators should have little to no doubt that this sort of talk would have found serious avenues had Hillary won. Indeed, it happened four years earlier.

Both sides, in other words, blame the other for starting it—where “it” is pretty much everything wrong with America and, in some cases, the world. This, again, isn’t new, though it’s hard not to feel like we’re experiencing some kind of breaking point. As Sam Rosenfeld documents in his book The Polarizers, the postwar period saw a ratcheting up of partisan intensity as each party tried to shore up its ideological core, often by whatever means necessary. But the point is that both sides have viewed their tactics as defensive. In 1983, Newt Gingrich, emphasizing this they-started-it dynamic, opined that “Liberal Democrats intend to act bipartisan before the news media while acting ruthlessly partisan in changing the rules of the House, stacking committees, apportioning staff and questioning the administration.” The rest, as they say, is history.  

One of the primary questions Sargent addresses in this short book is whether fair play on the political battlefield is even possible—or even appropriate given where we’re at now. To put the point in starker terms, the question is one of strategy, and really only applies to one of the parties at this point: Given the GOP’s blatant disregard for fair play—all the while insisting they are only reacting or responding in kind—how should the Democrats respond?

The ideal of fair play

Playing fair, however ill-defined and slippery, makes intuitive sense to most people: everything runs better and partisan temperatures are cooler when everybody generally abides by the same norms and rules. Plus, it’s just unfair to exempt yourself from norms that you expect everyone else to go along with. It’s even worse when you engage in norm-breaking knowing other people won’t do anything to stop you. So while norm-breaking isn’t illegal, people do—in the abstract at least—tend agree that it’s generally a bad thing. “It would seem to follow,” Sargent writes, 

that governing norms are inherently good things that should be maintained at all costs. If both sides simply refrain from pushing the envelope—if both sides refrain from constitutional hardball—the system would immediately function more smoothly and salutary democratic outcomes will follow.

But this, as Sargent notes, isn’t the whole story. “Sometimes,” he goes on to write, “norm-breaking—or the full exercise of power—is essential for the sake of improving and advancing our democracy.” In short, we have to seriously wrestle with the fact that it’s not so much about norm-breaking per se, but norm-breaking in service of what end.

One of the most pressing questions during the Trump presidency was how Democrats should respond if and when they took back power. Some counseled staying the course: Democrats should just play politics as usual. To be sure, staying the course means different things to different people, but the point is that Democrats shouldn’t engage in the kinds of tactics Republicans have routinely employed for the last four decades. Nonetheless, they should fight hard for their agenda. “Democrats have a chance now,” Nancy Gibbs wrote in March of this year, “even as they pursue their agenda, to embrace a respect for the rule of law and restoration of constitutional norms that moderates and principled conservatives value.” This strategy, of course, hinges on just how many “moderates and principled conservatives” there are running around, and how many of them would be responsive to Democratic proposals. Democrats need to remember that while there is some distance between the Republican party’s base and its establishment actors (which we might see widen in the latest news about Texas’ abortion law), the former, when forced to choose between the parties, will often go the way of partisanship.

Others, unsurprisingly, argue that it’s time for Democrats to grow a spine and fight fire with fire. “Democrats,” writes Rob Goodman, “should plan to treat political norms, when and if they’re in charge of a unified government, the way Trump and the Republicans do. They should be readying a program of systematic norm-breaking for partisan advantage—but only if they are willing and able to follow it through to its conclusion.” What Goodman means here is that norm-breaking by Democrats is justifiable only if it succeeds in erecting institutional barriers that prevent the other side—Republicans—from hitting back if and when they are back in the driver’s seat. Although it’s unclear that there can be even temporary finality in politics, Goodman is right to point out that playing Constitutional slow-pitch, not going all in, would only result in a worse spiral. “The worst course of action,” Goodman writes, “would be an unfocused, impulsive, spasmodic program of norm-breaking, one that begins without a sense of where it is supposed to end. In that case, the logic of escalation will supply an ending.”

Intellectually speaking, David Faris seems to be the beating heart of this approach, whom both Sargent and Goodman cite. His proposals range from the unlikely to the possible: break up California (giving Democrats more representatives), grant D.C. and Puerto Rico statehood (doing what’s right for the people in those places while also giving Democrats more representatives), killing the fillibuster, packing the courts with left-leaning judges, and eliminating lifetime tenure of Supreme Court justices. This is Goodman and Faris’ endgame. If these were all pursued with the same ferocity that Republicans pursue their agenda—by whatever means necessary—there’s a good chance that there would be a permanent realignment in American politics. And outside of breaking up California, many of these things are commonsense proposals. They aren’t simply ways to increase Democratic representation; they are genuinely solid small-d democratic reforms. 

Fair play in the partisan vortex

But Republicans will no doubt look at these policies and see, well, dog whistles. Breaking up California and granting statehood to D.C. and Puerto Rico? A power play to increase Democratic majorities. Limiting the tenure of Supreme Court justices? More opportunities—with those new majorities and steady electoral wins—to seat more liberal justices. Killing the filibuster? Democrats just want to be able to pass whatever they want to pass without Republican support.

The odd thing is that it’s genuinely difficult for Republicans to be against any of these things as policies; the only legitimate way to be against them is by, ironically enough, framing them as Democrats playing hardball in order to beef up their constituencies and maintain power. Of course, this would be a legitimate criticism if it came from anywhere but the party that has quite literally done anything and everything to ensure they stay in power by whatever means necessary. But more importantly, it’s just not clear that all of these are purely power plays. 

The people of Puerto Rico and D.C. just aren’t represented and that’s the unfair part. Some form of representation is, or is supposed to be, a cornerstone value. You can call it low-blow power play, but you still have to come up with good reasons why it’s a bad move outside of simply impugning the motives of Democrats. Limiting the tenure of judges would make the entire judicial nomination process less partisan since there will be less of a need to take extra-Constitutional measures in order to block a justice. Killing the filibuster could also be painted as little more than an expedient move, but nearly everyone would probably agree that as a country we already have some of the most restrictive requirements for passing fairly routine legislation of any democracy. We also shouldn’t forget that Republicans have chipped away at the filibuster themselves when it served their own purposes. When they couldn’t push Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch through, Republicans simply changed the rules to say that a filibuster couldn’t be used to block a Supreme Court nominee.

But even outside of some of these bigger plays, there are, as Sargent notes in his book, other things that Democrats should work to push through that would give Republicans an even bigger headache trying to push back against. In other words, things that aren’t hardball plays at all. 

For example, independent redistricting is also just fair, plain and simple. It’s unclear what the Republican response to anti-gerrymandering campaigns has been or even can be. As far as I can tell, the Republican response has just been to either double down on the hardball—well it’s not illegal—or, in a desperate rationalization to keep power, they will reach for, of all things, democratic arguments about how unelected boards or judges shouldn’t be given that kind of power, which is a laughably inadequate arguments given the explicit aims of the boards—fair districting, not Democratic-leaning ones—and the current status quo in which Republicans get to draw the maps however they want. In other words, we should pursue this, as Sargent writes, “not necessarily because this will help Democrats, though it might, but because it might edge the House of Representatives in a more, well, representative direction.”

Or, if all else fails, Republicans will “both sides” the issue, completely ignoring the differences between how much and often the parties engage in gerrymandering efforts. And it’s similarly unclear that something like automatic voter registration only helps Democrats; many poor and working class whites who would no doubt vote Republican but who struggle to get to the polls would also be registered.

Either way, anything Democrats propose, from the relatively benign—automatic voter registration—to the radical and unlikely—breaking up California—will nonetheless be interpreted in the Republican propaganda machine as crass power plays. But Democrats should focus less on duking it out on the narrative battlefield and fight the Republican narrative—which there is very little chance of changing anyway—with institutional changes like the ones Sargent suggests. It’s possible that these institutional changes will actually have the unintended effect of moderating the GOP’s messaging strategies.  

The point is, there’s no changing what gets plastered across the Fox News ticker every night. What we need to do, according to Sargent, is “take the weaponry out of GOP hands.” Which, as close readers will note, does not mean putting the weaponry in Democrats’ hands. Conservatives have already made a choice: in the face of a declining, largely heterogenous and increasingly radical base, they have chosen to go to war with the system itself rather than play by its rules. Democrats need to do everything in their power not to play the same power-grubbing game or even keep the system afloat as is, but to bolster it with new, bolder protections to voting rights in the form of independent redistricting, automatic voter registration, and even statehood for those unrepresented. 

This will inevitably be viewed as an act of aggression—but so will anything. As Sargent says, the right has “unshackled themselves from any empirical obligation of any kind in depicting the left and the Democratic party [accurately],” which creates a “pretext for a whole spectrum of anti-democratic activity, from voter suppression to the Arizona audit and the dry runs at overturning future [electoral] outcomes.” 

Some have argued that Democrats should have some faith in the demographic shifts currently underway, but that faith has to be buttressed by clear repudiations of Republican attempts to combat that demographic shift by rigging the system. Forcing Republicans to fight fair on the electoral battlefield—more voters, more equal districts—will, in the best case, force them to temper their resentment-centered politics and start appealing to broader swathes of the population. This, in fact, is the only way the Republicans can win going forward outside of further entrenching its minoritarian bulwarks. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson write, “the goal should not be to make our politics more Democratic; it should be to make our politics more democratic.”

It’s tempting—and easy—to attribute most of the problems with our current system to both sides, Republicans and Democrats. This is certainly the baseline assumption for many Americans, especially those exhausted with the news, the non-stop 24-hour commentary, and the constant bickering between parties and partisan ideologues. But while there are issues that split the electorate and the parties for legitimate reasons, voting and representation shouldn’t be one of those issues. If the Democrats do indeed play Constitutional hardball and push through all kinds of bold voting protections, it’s hard to believe historians will place this action in the same camp as something like the blocked nomination of Merrick Garland. The uncertainty surrounding these kinds of moves has less to do with rightness or wrongness of the acts themselves and more to do with how an increasingly radical Republican party might react to them. 

To be against hardball in principle is to blind us from the realities that, well, often merit playing hardball. The question isn’t, “Should we play hardball?” but rather “Hardball in service of what end?” Nonetheless, Sargent gestures toward how difficult it can be knowing when and how to play hardball:  

the urgency of the ends simply will at times make hardball procedural escalations … appear more justifiable. There’s no easy way to resolve whether or when this is right, which must be undertaken on a case-by-case basis, and will always be the subject of intense contestation.

To put the point another way, there is just no clear agreement about when a line in the sand has been crossed or even where the lines are, as is evidenced by the various opinions about what Democrats should do now that they have power. All we can do is insist, over and over, that voting must be one of those lines and act accordingly. This is Democrats’ Flight 93 issue.

Featured Image is of the January 6 insurrection, by Tyler Merbler