Smack them with their own bat.
That was the gist of, “Hey Democrats, Fighting Fair is for Suckers,” a provocative jeremiad that Politico ran on Independence Day. In it, writer Rob Goodman argued that, after Republicans have killed all the old political norms – denying a Supreme Court nominee a hearing, for example – it’s silly for Democrats to go on playing by the rules. Why obey the law in a lawless world?
“Norms are only norms when they are mutual,” wrote Goodman, “fairness is only fair when it’s shared. Democrats aren’t justified in breaking norms because they’ve been ‘wronged.’ They are justified because the current system has ceased to function.”
It’s possible to feel simultaneously uneasy at the brute force politics Goodman envisions – like packing the Supreme Court, for starters – and yet compelled by his larger point: Democrats must realize that they’re in a back-alley brawl, not a pillow fight. That they don’t get this yet can be inferred from the new slogan House Democrats unveiled last week: “For The People.” While that’s an improvement over last year’s “A Better Deal,” with its musty scent of leftover Roosevelt, it still doesn’t suggest a party ready to rumble.
In that, the party is disconnected from its people, who are viscerally furious. Democratic leaders don’t seem to know what to do with that anger. Indeed, they seem to fear it.
To a degree, that’s understandable. Next month marks 50 years since the Chicago convention wherein Democratic anger – and police brutality – split the party, alienated voters and helped make Richard Nixon president. But their palpable discomfort with the outrage of their constituents suggests Democrats have over-learned the lessons of that debacle.
Consider last month when Trump officials were being harassed in public and Rep. Maxine Waters went rhetorically rogue. If it was hypocritical for Republican leaders – some of them barely housebroken – to start chirping about civility, it felt weak and mealy-mouthed for Democratic leaders to join them.
They seem to be holding out hope of an eventual return to “normal.” But normal – i.e., the pre-Trump world – is gone for good. When in history has a social upheaval – and that’s surely what this is – ever brought us back to where we started? So instead of pining for what was, Democrats must figure out how to thrive in what is. Besides, it’s not as if the people are without reason for rage. From the corruption at the EPA to the caging of immigrant children to a nonstop litany of lies and alibis to the betrayal summit in Helsinki, the reasons could not be more clear – or righteous.
Republicans, it must be said, have never feared their voters’ anger. No, they curate it like a flower. And if that sense of seething resentment has led to a spike in right-wing terrorism, it has also led to control of Congress, most statehouses, the Supreme Court and the presidency.
Meantime, the political party that has won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections struggles to find its voice. It’s lovely that Democrats have a new slogan, but what they need is a new attitude.
No one wants to see a spike in left-wing terror to match the spike on the right. But neither should we want to see any more of Democrats grabbing their ankles and saying, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” as the paddle comes down. Somewhere between those extremes, the party must carve itself a path.
Democrats can begin by recognizing the opportunity at the heart of their problem. The choice here, after all, is simple. They can continue to deny the people’s righteous anger.
Or they can use it.
Email Leonard Pitts Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.