Outnumbered in both houses of Congress and defeated in the presidential election, Democrats have been scrambling to find a viable political strategy in their new role as the minority. Some have called for collaboration with Trump on issues of mutual concern, others have advocated for outflanking the president on support for the working class, and still more have promised to fight Republicans tooth and nail.
However, there is one idea that has made headway in some liberal intellectual circles that is both politically dangerous and morally dubious: Democrats should do nothing and let government falter, then swoop in come election time and claim to be the solution to Washington’s ills. New York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait has argued that Democrats should take a page out of Mitch McConnell’s playbook by obstructing government as much as possible. Then he said Democrats should “disassociate [themselves] from the outcomes, wait for the government to collapse, and then [be] in power again.” While this blueprint may have worked for Republicans in the short term, it is the wrong course for the party of FDR and Kennedy.
First, lawmakers are not elected to sit on their hands and look the other way as public institutions flatline. It is a privilege, not a right, to serve in the halls of the Congress and weigh in on the most important issues of our time. Voters have entrusted these men and women to make decisions in their interest, and to ignore one’s civic responsibilities for political gain is a breach of the democratic covenant between constituent and representative.
That is not to say that Democrats shouldn’t fight Republicans over values of great importance. The courage of Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker is needed now more than ever, but this courage must be drawn from a place of love, not hate. A contrarian knee-jerk reaction to everything opponents say simply because it was said by opponents is a mentality better left for the schoolyard than the Senate floor. Democrats must be for something, not just against something.
Furthermore, McConnell’s strategy may have won the GOP the 2016 election, but it is clear that his party is not equipped to govern the 2017 United States. Republicans have spent so much time battling Obama and Senate Democrats that they have lost sight of their own vision for the country. The party was a coalition build on divisiveness, so it is no surprise once they won the majority that Congress remained divisive.
Look no further than the Republicans’ efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare. They had been railing against the Affordable Care Act for the better part of a decade, claiming that it would lead to burgeoning deficits and death panels. But now that they can gut it, they have done nothing of the sort. They cannot agree on a substitute for the policy, which incidentally was modeled on Republican Mitt Romney’s healthcare plan in Massachusetts, because they never actually had a plan to replace it in the first place. However electorally beneficial blind antagonism may be, it is does not make for a governing philosophy.
Finally, Democratic voters do not respond well to the politics of fear. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign did a remarkable job of painting Trump as an unqualified crackpot, as evidenced by his record low early approval ratings. However, angst over a Trump presidency did not bring the left-leaning supporters to the polls needed for her to win. The election proved that disdain for one’s opponent is not a powerful enough force to overcome an enthusiasm gap, and a McConnellesque strategy would suffer from the same shortcomings.
The voters that elevated Obama to the White House were largely young, female, and of color. He was able to turn out these groups in unprecedented numbers because he made the disadvantaged feel like they had the power to change the world around them. It was a message of hope, not fear, that lifted the spirits of the Obama coalition and drove them to the polls. If only ultra-reliable voters came out on election day, then Republicans would win every time. But Democrats win when they inspire.
The next four years will undoubtedly be a difficult journey. But in the words of John F. Kennedy, “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”