As we enter what feels like day 245 of the debate over whether it is acceptable or praiseworthy or somehow ominous to be mean to Trump administration officials in public, the takes are beating down on us like a baseball bat. Heckling the officials responsible for the family separation policy and other loathsome initiatives is bad. But it's good, actually, and besides, Republicans started it. The larger argument has spawned a spinoff debate over California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the most prominent national politician to openly advocate for hassling cabinet members, who has been called the "face of the Democrats" by Donald Trump. There's even talk of this anger costing Democrats the "high ground" and somehow harming the party's chances in the coming midterms.
The party brass has condemned Waters's remarks, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer going so far as to opine, “If you disagree with a politician, organize your fellow citizens to action and vote them out of office, but no one should call for the harassment of political opponents. That’s not right. That’s not American.”
American history is full of protests far more aggressive than the sort we're bearing witness to now. But in the abstract, this sort of condemnation makes a certain kind of sense. Though no prominent public figure has explicitly called for anything violent or illegal, it's not hard to imagine shouting matches and businesses refusing service to Trump aides giving rise to even more divisive and disruptive behavior. Conservatives could refuse to serve liberals at their own restaurants. Mobs of protesters and counter-protesters, including armed factions, could trail prominent politicians. For a preview of what the worst-case scenario would look like, imagine the recent street battles between the alt-right and antifa multiplied times 100. Very few people want to live in a country where the political arena looks like a literal battleground.
But debates over the virtues of aggressive protest are far less important than understanding the roots of the current moment of rage. Looking at the policy that sparked the most recent protests is instructive. The choice to separate migrant families at the southern border was made entirely by the executive branch, with no input at all from Congress. That's because lawmakers have failed for decades to pass a badly-needed compromise bill that would address the status of the millions of undocumented people in the US while also boosting border security. Though factions on the left and right have opposed such a compromise for various reasons, the most recent failures can be blamed on the hardcore anti-immigration conservatives who scuttled the Senate's "Gang of Eight" compromise in 2013.
Had Congress passed something resembling reform, maybe the temperature on the issue would have been lowered enough that Trump's xenophobic campaign wouldn't have attracted so much support. But instead the legislative branch did not act at all, allowing first Barack Obama and then Trump to make policy on their own. Congress didn't even move to fix the problems created by the family separation policy, instead leaving it to Trump to issue an executive order on the matter that was confusingly worded and almost immediately began to cause chaos on the ground. On immigration and so many other matters, Congress has made itself irrelevant. The real action these days comes through executive orders that are then challenged in court by the opposition.
It's obvious that the country is gripped by many serious problems that cry out for serious change. You could talk about the broken healthcare system, crushing student loan debt, an election infrastructure vulnerable to hacking, or any number of other issues. Yet lawmakers are sitting on their thumbs. The lion's share of the blame surely goes to the GOP, which obstructed Obama's every move for years and then, when given total control of the federal government, chose to spend its time in power doing nothing but passing donor-friendly tax cuts. But the lack of oversight is a bipartisan problem—a Senate bill proposed by Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Bob Corker designed to clarify the shaky legal status of America's many ongoing wars would in practice cede to the executive some of Congress's constitutionally-granted (though infrequently used) ability to declare war. The most important task of the legislative branch at this point seems to be approving (or not, in the infamous case of Merrick Garland) the president's judicial appointments.
Given all that, it's no wonder ordinary people feel disenfranchised and powerless—and that they are expressing themselves outside normal channels. The American system has eroded so badly that congressional elections can seem like an afterthought, with all the power in the presidency. What's more, the electoral college system incentivizes presidential candidates to focus on a few swing states at the expense of huge population strongholds like California, New York, and Texas. If you live in one of these places, chances are your vote doesn't feel like it matters in a deeply profound sense. You may also be literally disenfranchised thanks to gerrymandering and Republican-led efforts to make it as difficult as possible to vote, especially if you are poor or not white.
Calls for civility should be regarded with as much skepticism as Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan. Liberals like to ask: When was America great, and for whom? Similarly, if we want to return to an environment where norms are respected, we should be clear about who needs to do what to repair those norms. The two parties have fundamentally realigned in the last two and a half decades, with the Democrats shifting slowly to the left and the Republicans moving more sharply to the right. Are we asking for the return of moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats? In an era where the GOP is led by Trump, that seems like a laughable fantasy. On the other hand, if we are asking for Democrats to be the adults in the room, shouldn't we also ask for Republicans to moderate their impulses to retain power by any means necessary?
A clear-eyed view of the political scene reveals a bleak landscape. Congress has failed or just flat-out refused to govern. The all-powerful presidency is controlled by a TV star who sometimes doesn't seem to understand the issues and represents only the most hard-right edge of his own party. The courts have become just another partisan battleground.
Incivility will not solve these problems. In fact, it seems likely that this will just add to them by fueling greater polarization and, potentially, actual violence. But under the circumstances, the underlying rage seems justified. If politicians in DC want a less furious country, they should do something to solve the problems that have made everyone so angry.
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