It isn’t nice to block the doorway.
It isn’t nice to go to jail.
There are nicer ways to do it.
But the nice ways always fail.
-- Malvina Reynolds, “It Isn’t Nice”
In the wake of the midterm elections, there's tremendous pressure from all directions for Democrats to play nice with Donald Trump and the Republicans. That would be a huge mistake — for one thing, because Trump will attack them with outrageous lies whatever they do. There’s no cheese down the "playing nice" tunnel. No point going there. The only way to “play nice” on Trump’s terms would be to roll over and play dead, to let Trump be Putin, as he’s always yearned to be. Only a total sacrifice of American democracy — checks and balances, rule of law, consent of the governed, all of it — would be sufficiently nice in his eyes. And that might last 24 hours —48 hours tops.
I'm not saying that Democrats should prioritize oversight of this administration's sins and crimes above legislation: They need to do both. I see a lot to like in Ronald Klain's post-election Washington Post op-ed, "The first five things the Democrats should do with their House majority" — raising the minimum wage to $15, strengthening the Affordable Care Act, restoring the Voting Rights Act, passing a “non-porked-up” infrastructure bill, and granting legal status to the Dreamers. Klain argues that House Democrats should leave the investigations to Robert Mueller at first, and devote the first 100 days to passing those five pieces of legislation, and “then dare the Senate and the Trump White House to follow suit or be called out for their refusal to act.”
Great. But then what? What’s the big-picture for Democrats moving forward, knowing that Trump will always be Trump -- and that no one will stop him if they don’t?
The day after the midterms, Trump threatened "a warlike posture” if Democrats dared to exercise their oversight responsibilities. He even suggested using the Republican Senate majority to investigate Democrats. If Democrats were to “play nice” on those terms, they would simply be enabling Trump's war on America's liberal democracy. The only question would be how fast we demolish the rest of it.
And Trump is just the most extreme symptom of a larger disease. Before Trump, Republicans refused to work with Obama, deciding on the night of his inauguration to reject any bipartisan initiatives he proposed in favor of all-out war — a war that ultimately stripped him of his constitutional right and duty to fill a Supreme Court vacancy.
A principled model: Stacey Abrams
The attitude Democrats need to take now was flawlessly modeled by Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who did not play nice, but rose above bitterness. She spoke firmly as she told the world this week, “This is not a speech of concession, because concession means an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede that,” even though she acknowledged that “the law currently allows no further viable remedy” that might stop the election of Brian Kemp. Abrams went on to promise, “In the coming days, we will be filing a major federal lawsuit against the state of Georgia for the gross mismanagement of this election and to protect future elections from unconstitutional actions.”
Kemp, the former Georgia secretary of state responsible for the gross corruption of that election, responded with Trumpian gaslighting: “The election is over and hardworking Georgians are ready to move forward. We can no longer dwell on the divisive politics of the past but must focus on Georgia’s bright and promising future.” As if Kemp himself had just arrived from Mars and had nothing to do with those "divisive politics of the past.
But the gaslighting pretense of normalcy doesn’t just come from Republicans. The pressure Democrats face is exemplified by this pairing of Time magazine covers from 1994 and 2006 tweeted by Paul Krugman:
Of course, 1994 Republicans were pussycats by today’s standards. John Boehner, who helped craft the “Contract With America” for the 1994 midterms is viewed as the quintessential RINO today. Krugman's observation about the Sunday makes sense if, as one commentator suggested, you understand what mainstream journalists are actually doing:
My theory is that quite simply they aren't reporting on world affairs, they're writing a novel. And they've picked Republicans as their protagonists. So whether they win or lose, the question is always "what does this mean for Republicans going forward?"
Republicans are the protagonists in the American media for a number of simple reasons: First and foremost, who owns the media? Who pays for it with their ad budgets? Not workers, consumers, environmentalists, women or people of color, that’s for damn sure! Even MSNBC has long been filled to overflowing with “never Trump” Republicans and ex-Republicans, who vastly outnumber the far more numerous (in real life) Bernie Sanders types to whom an actual “Fox News of the left” would cater.
Speaking of Sanders, he’s a profound challenge to the “play nice” purveyors. On the one hand, his issue positions put him far outside the “mainstream” as they define it, yet are incredibly popular — even with Republicans. His top-ranked home-state approval rating among U.S. senators is another reflection of how broad his appeal is. On the other hand, Sanders does play nice in a very real sense: He regularly refers to “my Republican friends,” even when bluntly challenging their policies, and he’s worked hard to craft bipartisan legislation on veterans’ health care and VA reform, for example. In short, Sanders exposes how disconnected from reality the “play nice” imperative actually is. No one can seriously deploy it against him.
But Sanders is just one figure among many, like Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, Beto O’Rourke, dozens of newly-elected members of Congress and hundreds of newly-elected state legislators. To fully grasp the foolishness of the “play nice” imperative, there are four points to consider:
- The past history of how Democrats' "play nice" strategies have failed in the past.
- The asymmetry between Republicans' hardline ideological approach to politics and Democrat’s consensus-seeking pragmatism, and why Democrats can't keep doing that.
- The role of the press, punditry and political class more broadly in empowering GOP destructiveness, even as they convince themselves they're saviors of democracy.
- What Democrats can and should do instead of "playing nice" — pushing broadly popular proposals, and taking fearless principled stands, to define their own inclusive vision of what America can and will be.
We can use the first facet to map out an outline, within which the second two facets can be seen in action. After a few summary points, we can then turn to the last facet —what a real alternative looks like. And, surprise! It’s nothing like what most pundits might claim.
A sorry history of playing nice
There's a long history of Democrats trying to work with Republicans. Although the pundit class has always demanded it, and always obscured the results, the resulting disasters should be clear: An asymmetric war between ideological Republicans and "pragmatic" Democrats will always be won by Republicans, who care nothing about the destruction they create, notwithstanding Kemp’s crocodile tears about “the divisive politics of the past.”
Take government fiscal policy, for example. Ronald Reagan ran in 1980 on supply-side tax cuts, which he promised would balance the budget in four years. At one point he even claimed that "by 1983, my program can bring about a balanced budget and begin to bring in surpluses so that we can have additional tax cuts beyond those we have already suggested.” Instead, he produced massive deficits, sharply reversing the historic post-World War II downward trend in debt-to-GDP ratio. Reagan had to abandon his promise in late 1981, yet almost 40 years later supply-side tax cuts remain at the core of GOP economic ideology, without a shred of evidence to support them.
They are part of an economic fantasy that journalists insist on treating seriously, much like they long did the GOP myths of massive voter fraud and global warming denialism.
Looking at political conduct more broadly, Democrats have repeatedly dropped the ball on investigations of profound Republican wrongdoing, in part hoping for bipartisan cooperation that never happened. In 1986, they tried to investigate the Iran-Contra scandal by taking impeachment off the table at the start, and got a cover-up as a result, as was explained in former independent counsel Lawrence Walsh’s book, “Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-up.”
As I explained here in 2014, Iran-Contra stretched back to the Reagan-Bush 1980 presidential campaign and its "October Surprise" operation to prevent Iran from releasing its American hostages before Election Day. Dismissed as a conspiracy theory throughout the 1980s, this was finally investigated by a House committee headed by Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, who ignored late-breaking information confirming the story just as Bill Clinton was taking office in 1993, as investigative reporter Robert Parry detailed in an eight-part series, the “October Surprise X-Files,” just over two years later.
Years later, in 2013, Parry added more detail about a multi-pronged GOP counterattack intended to prevent the discovery of any connection between the October Surprise and Iran-Contra. The George H.W. Bush administration had directed an anti-investigative propaganda war that Democrats completely ignored. Democrats “turned the page” in the interests of bipartisan governance going forward, and were repaid with complete GOP legislative obstruction to everything Bill Clinton initially proposed, plus a presidential witch-hunt ending in Clinton’s impeachment five years later.
Democrats tried playing nice again after the theft of the 2000 election, when not one Democratic senator — and not even then-Vice President Al Gore — would support challenges brought by black House members. After that, Bush ran the table with disastrous GOP policies, for which Democrats once again refused to demand accountability for, either after winning the House in 2006 or the White House in 2008.
Rather than pursuing a sweeping repudiation of Republican policies and practices, Barack Obama instead sought to be a great bipartisan healer. He eschewed holding Bush administration figures or predatory Wall Street bankers accountable, in the interests of “looking forward, not backward.” In the end, both the Tea Party and Donald Trump succeeded in large part because Democrats failed to vigorously investigate, punish and reverse what Republicans had either done or enabled.
Obama’s repeated efforts to work with Republicans were systematically thwarted, stemming from a plan developed at a high-level GOP strategy meeting the night of Obama’s inauguration, as reported in the introduction of Robert Draper’s book, “Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives.”
The kicker? Kevin McCarthy — newly elected as GOP House minority leader for the next Congress — played a key role in setting their course. "If you act like you're the minority, you're going to stay in the minority," he said, according to Draper. "We've gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign." Which is exactly what they did — even though Obama’s stimulus bill was about one-third tax cuts, even though Obamacare was modeled on Mitt Romney's Massachusetts legislation and largely derived from the Heritage Foundation, even though Obama pledged to cut entitlements (a 30-year GOP wet dream) and “expend political capital on the issue.”
Despite this history of past bad faith, no one is lecturing McCarthy and the soundly defeated House Republicans on the need to play nice. Instead, the dominant leadership story is all about plans to oust Nancy Pelosi, primarily driven by conservative Democrats who have adopted GOP talking points to attack her (not McCarthy) as a polarizing leader who stands in the way of playing nice and getting things done.
Progressives have problems with Pelosi too, but that’s a much more nuanced story, as Norman Solomon lays out at TruthDig, arguing that “progressives should not reconcile with Pelosi, any more than they should demonize her. The best course will involve strategic confrontations — nonviolent, emphatic, civilly disobedient — mobilizing the power of protest as well as electoral activism within Democratic primaries.” He cites as an example the Nov. 13 “Green New Deal” sit-in at Pelosi’s office.
Instead of “niceness,” principles
That brings us back to the fourth point — what Democrats can and should do instead of "playing nice": Pushing broadly popular proposals and taking principled stands, to define in detail their own inclusive vision of what America can and will be.
The Green New Deal is an excellent example. It’s more fleshed out now than previously, but it remains true to the essence (“Millions Of Clean-Energy Jobs”) that received 70 percent support in the “Big Ideas” poll commissioned by the Progressive Change Institute in January 2015, which I wrote about in my first Salon story about the Bernie Sanders campaign.
In her proposal for a Select Committee on a Green New Deal, Rep.-elect Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., lays out a detailed blueprint for what the plan is intended to do, as well as how the legislation will be developed. It includes the following 10-year goals:
- One hundred percent of national power generation from renewable sources;
- Building a national, energy-efficient, “smart” grid;
- Upgrading every residential and industrial building for state-of-the-art energy efficiency, comfort and safety;
- Decarbonizing the manufacturing, agricultural and other industries;
- Decarbonizing, repairing and improving transportation and other infrastructure;
- Funding massive investment in the drawdown and capture of greenhouse gases;
- Making “green” technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major U.S. export, with the aim of becoming the undisputed international leader in helping other countries transition to carbon-neutral economies and bringing about a global Green New Deal.
But it also includes a profound social and economic justice dimension:
The Plan for a Green New Deal (and the draft legislation) shall recognize that a national, industrial, economic mobilization of this scope and scale is a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation. ... [It will provide] all members of our society, across all regions and all communities, the opportunity, training and education to be a full and equal participant in the transition, including through a job guarantee program to assure every person who wants one, a living wage job ... [and will include] additional measures such as basic income programs, universal health care programs and any others as the select committee may deem appropriate to promote economic security, labor market flexibility and entrepreneurism.
It’s hard to imagine just what “play nice” advocates would have us do instead—other than watch helplessly as our climate grows increasingly inhospitable to human life.
But that’s just the point: The “play nice” advocates don’t actually have concrete solutions in mind. They aren’t even sure what the problems are. Their only real priority is an atmosphere of fake bipartisan comity. The American people as a whole are much farther along than that, as Klain's “First Five Things” op-ed suggests.
Stacey Abrams’ leadership in voter registration and empowerment provides another crucial link. As long ago as 1999, the book “Reading Mixed Signals” by Albert H. Cantril and Susan David Cantril made it clear that nonvoters and occasional voters are far more supportive of government programs than likely voters are. If Americans voted at the same rates as other countries — because they believed their votes really mattered — the results would be nothing short of revolutionary. Georgia wouldn't be the only red state turning purple, perhaps even blue.
What’s more, voters are far more supportive of specific government programs than they are of “government” in the abstract. Turning to specific spending questions on 10 items, the Cantrils found that support for increased spending was at least 67 percent on nine out of 10 -- a landslide majority in any election. This is one more powerful reason to argue for unapologetic progressive leadership, pushing specific plans. Voters will support them — if they can get their voices heard -- and progressive voices are most easily heard when they speak directly to concrete concerns.
Finally, the same holds true for congressional oversight. From investigating specific documented wrongdoing (as opposed to fantasies like Benghazi) to ensuring proper reliance on science at the EPA, the public has long supported vigorous oversight — right up to the level of the Oval Office. Richard Nixon had to go because he was caught red-handed and was flagrantly exposed as a crook. Bill Clinton lied about a private, consensual affair. MoveOn.org’s proposal for censuring him was a better match for how the majority of Americans felt. But too many other examples — most notably Iran-Contra, the October Surprise and Nixon’s interference with the 1968 Vietnam peace talks — were never fully aired in public. The more such secrets are kept from the public, the more public trust erodes. If “playing nice” means refusing to ask hard questions, there’s nothing nice about the road to ruin it leads us down. Principled leadership, on the other hand, points us toward a better way.