The recent debate over a Congress member’s obscenity reveals something interesting and troubling not only about the style of our public discourse but also the substance of our politics: the contemporary American Left’s growing disenchantment with the traditional American politics of pluralism.
The obscenity was provided by freshman House Democrat Rashida Tlaib, who made news by using a colorful 12-letter word to call for the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Although many of Tlaib’s colleagues were quick to condemn her choice of words, the Washington Post’s Molly Roberts came to her defense. Asked Roberts, “What’s so wrong with motherf—er?”
Roberts was willing to defend Tlaib’s use of obscenity because she thinks it manifests the fighting spirit that will be required for “the left half of the left” to “push broader boundaries” and thus to achieve its grand political objectives.
“The liberal vanguard Tlaib belongs to seeks massive change, from Medicare for all to a grand climate bargain,” she wrote. “ They see no hope for compromise now, so they look to a future of Democratic control, when ramming transformation through will require breaking things.”
Roberts’s approval of this kind of politics is surely shared by many on today’s Left. Yet it represents a significant departure from the kind of politics that mainstream American liberalism embraced until just recently.
A generation ago, many on the Left emphasized the politics of pluralism. This was the familiar refrain of liberal icon Mario Cuomo. The statesman in a pluralist society, the late governor of New York contended, is obliged to govern by principles that are acceptable to the wide variety of groups who make up the country.
American democracy, in this view, is a process of competition and compromise among groups. This was understood both to be a necessity that must be acknowledged and also a blessing for which to be grateful. America, the older liberals reminded us, is a large, diverse country made up of many different interests. Therefore, the necessary and healthy politics for such a country would be a process of finding political accommodations acceptable to these various interests. Simple majoritarian domination of public policy was, liberals warned, not only difficult to achieve but also fearful to contemplate, since it might not adequately respect the rights and interests of all the groups that make up our society.
This was not only the liberal understanding but the mainstream understanding of American politics. It could be traced all the way back to the argument of James Madison’s Federalist 10. In that celebrated essay, the Father of the Constitution noted that majority tyranny is much less likely to exist in an extended republic, because such a society is made up of a large number of competing factions animated by different passions, interests, and opinions. Governing majorities in a large republic are likely to be moderate majorities, because they can only be assembled on the basis of compromise and coalition building.
As we learn from Molly Roberts and the Washington Post, however, many on the Left today seek a politics of radical transformation. They yearn for and expect to achieve an ideologically unified and politically disciplined majority that will control all the institutions of government and therefore will be cable of “ramming transformation through” even if this means “breaking things.”
In truth, you don’t have to know the American political tradition all the way back to James Madison to see that this kind of politics is counterproductive both for the Left and for the country. You only have to be able to remember the last 10 years. After all, it was only in 2009-2010 that the Democrats, controlling the presidency and both houses of Congress, used their new-found power to “ram through” Obamacare over the strenuous objections of much of the country. In their zeal for “breaking things” they broke their congressional majorities and, with them, President Obama’s hopes for any further significant legislative accomplishments.
This approach to politics is unhealthy for the country because it encourages citizens to look on each other not as fellow Americans with different concerns that should be accommodated to some extent, but instead as ideological enemies who decisively and irrevocably must be defeated and subordinated. This can only foster rancor and retaliation.
Indeed, it was precisely a reaction to this kind of thinking—manifested in the insulting claim that Trump supporters are “deplorable and irredeemable”—that helped to power Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. Presumably this is not an outcome the Left was hoping to achieve, but it is a natural consequence of their-all-or-nothing approach to politics.
Avoiding these pitfalls would require the Left to give up its dreams of radical transformation and to instead embrace the traditional politics of American pluralism and the gradualism that accompanies it. What would they get in return? They would get the satisfaction of participating in self-government and finding common ground even with people very different from themselves in order to make marginal improvements to the country.
That’s not a bad deal. It is in fact the path chosen by almost every great political leader and movement that has made a positive contribution to America’s political history.
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