Throughout much of the democratic world, political systems are organized into a variety of parties that stretch across the political spectrum. Those parties usually lobby for power at the local level, winning seats in parliaments and then using those seats to exercise authority at the national level. Multiple minority parties form coalitions to claim a majority and elect Prime Ministers or other executives.
Our founders, however, had something else in mind. Leery of the idea of tons and tons of small (and often extremist) parties, they developed a system that would naturally lead to only two parties, each of which would need to appeal to more than half of Americans to hold policy-making sway. They did this by creating a First-Past-The-Post Presidential election format that awards all of a State’s Electoral College delegates to the single candidate who gets the most votes in a particular state, and then requiring a majority of electoral votes to win the Presidency. Having the broad support of 30 percent of Americans will win a candidate exactly zero electoral votes if he or she doesn’t win states outright. There are no points for second place, and winning only counts if you win a majority.
As a result, our politics is largely organized into two teams. One wears blue and wears uniforms with a donkey logo, and one wears red and sports an elephant (it is not, however, the University of Alabama…that is a different team that wears red and uses an elephant mascot). There are some other teams, but they are basically lunatics and no one likes them. Looking at you, Jill Stein.
Since we only have two teams, anyone who seeks a place in American politics needs to pick a side. Running for office is hard work, requires a big organization and is nearly impossible to do if you can’t leverage the resources of one of those teams. All of this together leads to a very “Us against Them” mentality among anyone who participates in or closely follows politics. Sure, there are some of us who follow all of this pretty closely without choosing to join either team, but frankly, we are pretty rare. Partisans run the political show.
One side effect of having two and only two teams, and a corollary to “Us v. Them” is what I am going to call “Both Sides Syndrome,” a moral equivalency affliction that leads interested parties to excuse the worst behaviors of their team by noting something somewhat similar that someone on the other side did. It is, in another sense, the exact opposite of occupying the moral high ground: rather than proving that your own side is objectively better than your opponents, you justify your own terrible behavior by arguing that it is proportionally terrible to that of your political opponents.
Ignoring for the moment that the “both sides do it” equivalencies are generally one-sided, the overall result is, not surprisingly, a race to the moral bottom that harms only the Republic. When given a choice between occupying the moral high ground and resorting to “well, they did it first!” choosing the latter (which is always the easy choice) is a short-sighted solution that invariably ends up harming the political process.
As an example, let’s take a look at this week’s confirmation hearings of Donald Trump’s cabinet appointments. While the Senate rarely actually votes to reject a nominee, it has been somewhat common for Presidents to withdraw the name of a candidate who faced strong enough opposition to make his or her successful confirmation unlikely. (Also….procedural question: how exactly can the Senate be debating the nominations of people who cannot have been nominated yet because Trump isn’t President yet? Have they actually been formally nominated by Obama to ease the process, or is this a completely pre-emptive hearing ahead of a vote when the candidates are actually nominated? I digress…)
Hanging over these hearings is the harsh reality that Democrats, absent the cooperation of at least three Republicans, have no real power to block any of these nominees. The reason, of course, is that the Senate no longer allows filibusters of Presidential appointments (other than Supreme Court Justices).
In a November 2013 move that was, even at the time, very obviously short-sighted and counterproductive, Harry Reid forced through a change in Senate rules to strip a minority party of its historical right to protest appointments it disagreed with. Senator Reid did this because he was politically lazy and either assumed that the Democratic majority was permanent, or simply didn’t care because dealing with the ramifications would be someone else’s problem. The Senator is now conveniently retired.
The result is that Democrats, who in other years would have had the political capital and procedural tools to derail at least one or two key appointments, are now reduced to the hypocritical grandstanding of speeches that are clearly intended more as campaign ads than as real opposition to cabinet picks. As we often see in battles of “they did it first-ism,” each party tends to escalate the discussion just a little bit each time around. This time, rather than just enjoy their unfettered access to install whoever they see fit, Republicans are going a step further and not even pretending to properly vet the nominees that they were likely going to approve anyway. In doing this, they save the potential embarrassment of some closet-skeletons for their people, but they do so at the obvious price of making it that much easier for Democrats to do the same when they inevitably hold the Senate or White House or both. These are not hard things to predict.
Of course, Republicans are not above setting their own behavioral precedents, which they most recently did by refusing to consider Merrick Garland’s appointment to the Supreme Court, and by announcing publicly that they were not going to do so. In doing so, they pointed to the words of Joe Biden, John Kerry, Harry Reid, Chuck Schumer and other leading Democrats who had all vowed to do almost exactly the same thing under similar circumstances. The President, so aghast at the refusal of Republicans to give his nominee a vote, attempted to block votes on both John Roberts and Samuel Alito during his time in the Senate.
Can there be any doubt, really, that the Founding Fathers intended for nominees to be given an up or down vote in the Senate? Keep in mind; we aren’t talking about the Senate’s right to reject a Presidential appointment, which is clear and unassailable. We are discussing his practical ability to even make an appointment. What the GOP has done is establish that, from now on, Presidents only have this right during the first three years of their term (unless they have a friendly Senate). In the unlikely event that Democrats win the Senate in 2018, is there really any reasonable chance that they don’t extend that same window to 18 or 24 months?
The problem with all of these decisions – and on SCOTUS nominations, we can go all the way back to Ted Kennedy’s declaration in 1987 that qualifications and character are no longer enough, now politics matters – is that they invariably lead to escalations. Kennedy blocks Bork, and Biden embarrasses Thomas then makes his theoretical “Biden Rule.” Republicans start blocking Clinton’s lower level judges. Democrats ratchet that up, including documented efforts to block judges only because they think seating them will look good for Republicans. Using that as their justification, Republicans upped the ante again, blocking at an unprecedented rate, and blocking lower and lower down through the court system.
This certainly makes each side feel triumphant while in power and vindictive while out of power, but the end result is not very hard to predict: a hyper-partisan, non-functioning government. Sadly, that seems to be the result that most voters actually want. As I have written before, most of our governmental problems are results of politicians doing exactly what their voters want them to do. This is no exception. No one from either party has ever paid an electoral price for escalating the “Us vs. Them” battles, and each party’s base now has little tolerance for de-escalation.
Left absent then, is the moral high ground that would allow either party to genuinely claim “We don’t play by their rules. We are better than that.” Sometime shortly after he is sworn in, Trump will nominate a Supreme Court Justice. Under the guise of Garland equivalency, Democrats will do all that they can to deny that Justice a vote in front of the Senate. It won’t matter whether their complaints are reasonable or not or whether they find the nominee palatable or not: they will try to block him or her because they feel like they owe retribution to the GOP.
In response, the GOP is likely to discuss killing the filibuster on Supreme Court Justices in addition to other nominees. After all, they’ll say, Harry Reid did it first. Or, maybe, despite their cries in protest over the elimination of the filibuster just three years ago, they would rather expand it to include legislative matters. They may need to do that to repeal the Affordable Care Act that they so often like to remind us was “shoved down our throats entirely on party lines.” The vote is almost sure to be, you guessed it, right along party lines.
There seems to be no serious support from within the GOP for slowing down the nomination process until standard ethics vetting can be completed. Democrats are suddenly highly concerned over our fiscal inadequacies. Russia is – whoa, how did this happen? – our biggest geopolitical foe. A disinterested and infective press is suddenly a danger to the Republic. The list of issues that either matter or don’t depending on which team you are on is really long, and it is not getting short.
Meanwhile, the moral high ground remains a barren, desolate place that no one seems interested in occupying.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.