Trump will be president. But how should Democrats respond? After all, months of repeating the mantra “when they go low, we go high” has left Democrats with precious little to show. In contrast, decades of dirty tricks, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and dumb luck has consistently enabled the Republican Party to turn fewer voters into a nearly unprecedented amount of power—control of the majority of state legislatures, governor’s mansions, the presidency, both chambers of Congress, and soon the Supreme Court.
Yet Democrats have been bewildered in the face of Republican intransigence. Their posture of moderation and assumption of good faith has left them vulnerable to Republican shenanigans. Rather than try to find places where they can work with Trump, Democrats should find ways to slow down his fatally flawed agenda by, for instance, slowing down the confirmations of Trump’s nominees. This can happen at the state level too: Democratic policymakers should prioritize long-term success by easing voter registration and empowering unions. Democrats need to become more comfortable stretching the limits of their power and less inclined toward unrequited bipartisanship.
How appeasing Republicans endangered Obama’s agenda
From the beginning, President Obama believed he could transcend partisanship. In his 2008 victory speech, Obama famously declared that “We have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and always will be, the United States of America.” Yet the first few years of Obama’s presidency laid bare the unreality of his premise. As of this August, eight years after Obama became president, only 27 percent of Republicans believe Obama was born in America and thus the legitimate president of the United States. According to the 2016 American National Election Studies survey, 53 percent of Republicans believe he is Muslim. Just days after Obama’s victory speech, Rush Limbaugh claimed that he hoped Obama would fail. Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell immediately set in motion a counter-agenda of massive resistance to the first Black president’s agenda. Negative partisanship (the increase in distrust toward the opposing party) has increased under Obama, and he has the widest partisan divide in approval ratings of any modern president.
Repeating the mantra “when they go low, we go high” has left Democrats with precious little to show.
The passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), while historic, illuminates many of these core problems. Early in the Obama administration, former Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle dropped out of the running for Secretary of Health and Human Services, despite his excellent credentials, to avoid perceptions of corruption. Democrats worked to make the ACA budget-neutral, weakening the program without winning any support among Republicans. To worsen the problem, the Obama administration failed to offer voter registration in the health care exchanges, which would have mobilized people to protect their new benefits in the voting booth. While the ACA is a historic piece of legislation, it attempts to achieve, in the words of political scientists Matt Grossman and David A. Hopkins, “Democratic goals through Republican means.” The problem is that conservative mechanisms are often quite unpopular (the individual mandate is the most unpopular part of the law) and that Republicans have easily sabotaged key parts of the act, such as when they cut off money necessary to maintain the exchanges. Conservative mechanisms like tax credits are also “submerged” in the tax codes or through subsidies to employers so that few Americans realize how much they are benefiting from the government. Many of these decisions seemed defensible at the time, and it’s unlikely that Democrats could have won, say, a public option. But combined, the posture of compromise and respectability weakened Obama’s core legacy.
Given how poorly their current strategy has served them, how should Democrats react under Trump? Now, as never before, Democrats have a mandate for opposition. Trump is historically unpopular (and will only grow more unpopular). He lost the popular vote, a fact that does not affect the outcome of the election but can be a powerful cudgel for Democrats. Finally, Trump poses a historic threat to our institutions. Already, pretenses of common ground have eroded—the infrastructure bill Democrats have signaled they’ll support is really just a hand-out for big business.
Now, as never before, Democrats have a mandate for opposition.
This is not to say that Democrats cannot strategically make alliances and use internal divisions within the Republican Party to their advantage. Far from it. The Democratic strategy should be to exploit any and all tensions within the Republican coalition, in order to grind the conservative agenda to a halt. But the goal is not to implement policy—the space for bridging partisan divides is more invisible than ever. Former Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner famously said about Obama, “Judge us by how many laws we repeal.” Success for Democrats should be defined by laws and appointments denied or delayed. If Republicans were interested in bipartisanship, they had plenty of outstretched hands in Obama’s early term. Were they interested in working together under Trump, their first major action would not have been to set into motion a repeal of Obamacare without any replacement.
From the impeachment of Bill Clinton to Bush v. Gore, to racially-targeted voter suppression, birtherism, and a legislative coup in North Carolina, the Republican Party has embraced any method, however illegitimate, to erode democracy and strengthen their own power. When norms, democracy, or legitimacy have collided with the Republican Party’s raw pursuit of power and oppression, they have been thrown aside. When Republicans deny the civil rights of LGBTQ people, when juries declare that Black lives don’t matter, the response must be more than simple dialogue. The Republicans will betray any norm to hold desperately to power. The plans they have floated range from an evisceration of the safety net to a mass, racially motivated deportation. This is not the time for mediation. This is the time for resistance.