I respect my colleague Greg Weiner’s work very much. I learn from it, and my disagreements with him are usually about things that are both complicated and matter a great deal. And on that note I must say that I disagree with elements of the argument he presented this week quite strongly. I will even go so far as to say that I take issue with it!
In short: Greg thinks that we need less politics, and I think we need more. Of course, this depends on what we both mean by politics.
If we set the bar at how Trump understood it, then of course we need less of it – less Tweeting, less destruction of norms, less obstruction, less race-baiting and hate and cruelty, less existential projection onto a culty leader. Yes to less of all of this, and by these standards, I think Biden will do just fine.
But if it means that we ignore the actual problems and conditions that made Trump possible (inequality, racism, general malaise, obstructionism), let alone the country’s current crises – the pandemic, the crisis of democratic legitimacy, the climate crisis, conspiracism and the epistemic crisis afflicting the right – then where will that take us? I think it is possible to acknowledge how important it is to turn down the overall temperature for a while, and allow the country some time to relax and heal, without sweeping all of these very real problems under the rug. It is fine and good to take a step back from the brink and reassess, but ultimately the current moment calls for more politics – including more engagement and pressure from citizens who want to see these problems addressed – rather than less.
To defend his anti-politics stance, Greg quotes Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who spoke in 1969 of how government cannot provide values, meaning, or inner peace to people’s lives. We often hear a similar refrain from the right today, who speak about “the liturgy of leftism,” and how “politics has become like a religion to them,” and so forth. This bad-faith rhetoric goes back at least a generation and has often been put in the service of climate denialism (and against environmentalist “fanatics”).
I am not in total disagreement with Moynihan’s sentiment – and I certainly agree that there should be plenty of room in modern, liberal life for people to concern themselves primarily with other sorts of things – but to me the idea that it’s somehow wrong to find meaning and purpose in politics sounds rather aloof, and a bit naive. Why shouldn’t people devote themselves to public causes? Did people invest too much meaning in the Civil Rights Movement? Or in Feminism? I, for one, do not like to think about where we’d be without the political engagement that we’ve seen in resistance to Trump over the last few years. Some people, like Ross Douthat, think that we might be in a better place if everyone had responded more dispassionately. That counterfactual world of strictly-observed acquiescence just doesn’t make political (or moral) sense to me.
Greg’s overall point involves the important matter of executive overreach and the use of executive orders in lieu of legislative action. For the record, I am in agreement with my colleague that the reliance on executive orders is undesirable and even dangerous. It worries me, too. It is especially concerning, I think, because of the anti-democratic conspiracism that is taking over the GOP, especially now at the state level, where election law is determined. Very few GOP leaders have stepped up to acknowledge Biden’s legitimacy, even though a violent mob attacked Congress less than a month ago. In several states, state-level officials have moved to sanction leaders for acknowledging Biden’s win. This is a party that can no longer be trusted to protect elections. I also worry about executive orders because there is a (growing?) cohort of influential people on the right, a cohort that includes former Attorney General William Barr and Adrian Vermeule, who believe that executive authority in this country has been too weak (subsumed under the powers of the “administrative state”).
An over-reliance on executive orders is a big problem. But the authoritarianism lurking at the heart of the Trumpified GOP is worse.
In short, I worry that Greg’s approach underestimates the seriousness of the country’s problems, as well as the real harms caused by Trump. It minimizes the Republican party’s decades of obstructionism. It minimizes the extent to which the GOP’s very existence depends on grievances that are fueled by ongoing government dysfunction and policy nihilism. It minimizes an essential asymmetry in our politics: the GOP’s has become genuinely anti-democratic and anti-government, and the Democratic Party hasn’t. And it all-but ignores the relentless bad-faith of a right-wing party and media universe that accuses Democrats of “divisiveness” within weeks of a violent insurrection perpetuated by supporters of their own party, and while continuing themselves to indulge in a massive, fraudulent, democracy-destroying lie.
There is no (fully) safe harbor from these kinds of political realities. And now is not the time (for Democrats) to back down.
The New York Times Editorial Board had a piece out today that had a similar angle to Greg’s. Here’s a response to the Board’s piece that I find compelling, by David Roberts (he is not one to mince words).
Greg’s piece also reminded me of an Op-Ed by David Brooks from a week ago or so, which cautioned that “we need more political apathy in this country.” In a way, yes, and in a way, no. I like some of what Brooks has to say in the column. I think it suffers a bit from the knee-jerk both-sidesism pathology that so often afflicts centrists and the media (again, not all political engagement is created equal!), but I appreciate that Brooks acknowledges that Democrats may need to end the filibuster if they face nothing but obstruction from Republicans in the coming months.
On a lighter note, here’s Obama’s take on some of this (from an earlier time, courtesy of David Roberts’ thread):