Responsibility and law and order first, then – perhaps – we can begin to heal

It is both fascinating and infuriating to watch members of the GOP, long self-identified as the party of “law and order,” “personal responsibility,” and more recently the leading actors in the “Blue Lives Matter” playacting exercise, suddenly calling for “healing” and “unity.” If the mob that descended on the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday had actually been made up of leftist thugs, these same sensitive souls would be calling for putting the culprits in the same cages they’ve used for children on the Mexican border.

The law is clear about what seditious conspiracy is and how it should be punished. The Constitution – from which the ability to enact laws is derived – similarly includes specific punishments for persons holding state or federal offices who participate in an insurrection. Why don’t these “law and order,” “personal responsibility” Republicans want to follow those laws and punish the criminals who broke them? Why, after a generation of pious bullshit, are they suddenly leading a chorus of “Kum Ba Yah?”

There are two reasons, one more immediate and one the result of long-term trends and choices made by the leadership of the Republican Party.

In the immediate timeframe, there are credible reports that members of Congress themselves may have been involved in the planning and execution of the “rally” on January 6th, including providing information to leaders of the Capitol riot on where key members of Congress would be located and possibly how to move through the labyrinthine corridors and tunnels that make up the Capitol complex. If true, any member of Congress who was involved must be removed from office per Article III of the 14th Amendment. Beyond the individual humiliation of being removed from office, the loss of multiple GOP representatives and even senators would also affect the balance of power between the parties. While the Democrats currently hold both houses of Congress, the margin is slim in the House and as close as it could be in the Senate, where each caucus (including independents who vote with the Democrats) has 50 seats, making Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote if needed.

The long-term issue for Republicans has been how demographic change in the U.S. has been eroding their influence and voting numbers. This isn’t new. It’s been discussed for half a century, ever since the GOP developed its “Southern Strategy” in the wake of the civil rights movement in the sixties and particularly after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited discrimination based on race in voting and had the potential of adding millions of largely Democratic votes to the rolls.

Republicans could have changed their strategy and tried to reach out to the growing numbers of Hispanics and other immigrant populations. They even commissioned a report in 2012 after Barack Obama’s re-election that called for “an extensive outreach to women, African-American, Asian, Hispanic and gay voters [and] backing “comprehensive immigration reform.”

Sally Bradshaw, a Florida GOP strategist and one of the project’s co-chairs, said the party has been “continually marginalizing itself and unless changes are made it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future.”

“Public perception of our party is at record lows,” Bradshaw said. “Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the party represents and many minorities think Republicans don’t like them or don’t want them in our country. When someone rolls their eyes at us they aren’t likely to open their ears to us.”

Bradshaw added that the GOP “needs to stop talking to itself” and needs to open the tent in order to win presidential elections in the future.

“We have become expert at how to provide ideological information to like-minded people but, devastatingly, we have lost the ability to be persuasive with or welcoming to those who don’t agree with us on every issue,” Bradshaw said, noting they need to be “inviting and inspiring.”

Sound advice, right? But GOP leaders instead decided to double-down on their appeals to white, mostly male, and mostly less-educated, voters with a combination of fear-mongering, racism, white nationalism, xenophobia, voter suppression (including successful efforts to weaken the Voting Rights Act) and even religious fanaticism, both through conventional Christian groups and the rise of the QAnon mythos in the past few years.

This is how people who knew they were losing control of the country they’d always dominated behave. It’s a desperate defensive action by conservative Republicans (who are, incidentally, neither conservative nor small-r republicans) to hold on to power. Under other circumstances, appeals to healing and unity would have been welcomed. But where were those appeals for the past four years (and even during the Obama presidency)?

There can be no healing, there can be no unity, until those who created the environment that made it possible for a fraud like Donald Trump to be president of the United States recognize their culpability and accept the reality of the situation. That includes, first, acknowledging – with no hesitation or caveats – that the 2020 election was held fairly and Joe Biden will be president beginning at noon on January 20. Those responsible for the outrage of 1/6 then must be held accountable, through arrests, fair trials, and appropriate punishment; expulsion from Congress where required by the Constitution; and even the impeachment and conviction of the president for his support of the actions of last week.

Only then will we truly be able to move beyond this dark time in American history and attempt to heal and find common ground. It will not be easy and there are no guarantees, but our children and grandchildren deserve nothing less.

A dog and pony show and the case for the American Party

There are now about a dozen Republican senators who say they won’t vote to certify the results of the presidential election unless an “emergency 10-day audit” is done of all of the votes cast. This follows dozens, possibly over 100, of Republican representatives in the House saying they will also contest the results.

Anyone for a Dog and Pony Show?

Since it only takes one representative and one senator to force a debate over a state’s results, it’s now virtually guaranteed that Congress will waste time on January 6 doing a dog-and-pony show for Donald Trump and his supporters. There’s no chance it can succeed: Democrats have control of the House and – barring a bizarre defection of several Democratic representatives to the Trump side – eventually each state that’s disputed will be upheld, because both the House and the Senate would have to vote to throw out results and potentially replace them with alternate electors. So, no, that’s not happening.

The whole thing is performance art, and Republicans, especially those senators who are up for re-election in 2022, will need to make a difficult decision: decline to participate in this nonsense (and potentially get a primary challenge from a MAGAite two years from now) or go along (and give their future Democratic challenger plenty of attack ad fodder). I’m guessing at least a few more will join in the fun, now that they’ve been given cover by the first dirty dozen.

Who are they really doing this for? The hardcore Trumpites/MAGAites are always going to vote for “whoever isn’t the Democrat.” But there are significant numbers of voters who occupy the center-right and even the center who might be swayed – one way or the other – by the way each senator votes in a few days. You remember, those centrists who everybody on the left and the right dislike so much because we can’t make up our minds which extreme we want to throw our weight behind.

My guess is that there are at least 50 percent of Americans who might identify themselves as either center-left, center, or center-right. I haven’t found a poll that asked the question that way; Gallup asked people whether they were “conservative,” “moderate,” or “liberal” in 2019 and got the following results:

Source: Gallup

It’s interesting to me how consistent the percentages are across demographics. Men and women differ in their leanings toward right and left, and younger people are more moderate and liberal, but generally the cumulative percentages are pretty consistent. Let’s assume that not everyone who self-identified as “conservative” in this 2019 poll is rabid Trump fan who buys his hats and flags and goes to every rally that comes near their hometown, but instead voted for Trump because he was nominally a Republican and was absolutely not Hillary Clinton.

Using the percentage of homes in my neighborhood that still have their Trump flags and yard signs out two months after he lost an election versus the number who had them up before the election, let’s say that maybe 20% of Americans are hardcore Trumpites. Using the concept of a standard distribution, or more-or-less perfect bell curve, let’s say there are also 20% of Americans who are solidly, even over-the-top, left-wingers (this would include any real socialists or Communists, which certainly isn’t a majority of Democrats, no matter how many times Trump says so).

Admittedly, this isn’t scientific, but think about it – if the people on the fringes were really equal to the overall percentages who voted for Biden and Trump in November, we’d already have a full-scale civil war underway. The fact that we don’t seems to me to prove that most people are in the middle and aren’t willing to fight for either the current president or the next one.

Okay, so that leaves 60% in the middle. Even if we fudge a bit and give each wing an extra 5%, you still have 50% of voters who aren’t interested in being on the fringes and might be willing to work together.

This is how government worked, most of the time, anyway, when I was growing up. It wasn’t perfect, but there were Blue Dog conservative Democrats and there were socially liberal Republicans and there was a playing field in the center where they could meet, negotiate, and make things happen. That’s gone right now; compromise is evil and consorting with the enemy is punishable by the worst possible threat – a primary challenge.

Because the two parties had members across the spectrum back then, the two-party system worked. It doesn’t anymore. We need a third party that appeals to the 50 to 60 percent in the middle. That won’t be easy; both existing parties have millions of reasons (dollars and voters being two categories that come to mind) to make sure it doesn’t happen. But if you could do it, you could dominate American politics for generations, holding the center with half of the seats in Congress while the Rs and Ds play backbench games on the right and left.

Let’s call it the American Party.

The Gold War

What percentage of members of Congress really want to make things better for their constituents and the nation?

James Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"
Jimmy Stewart would not lie to me.

I confess that in my younger years, I believed that number was pretty high. I knew there were some representatives and senators who were in politics for themselves, for the fame and hopefully the fortune. But they were the exceptions. Maybe I took Mr. Smith Goes to Washington too seriously. I mean, would Jimmy Stewart lie to me?

Today, though, I feel like the ratio has turned the other direction. Members of Congress spend so much time trying to get re-elected, pretty much from the first moment they arrive in Washington, according to this 2016 60 Minutes feature from 2016 with then-Rep. David Jolly (R-Florida). He discussed the CBS interview the next morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe:

In that environment, is it any surprise that doing the actual work of Congress takes a back seat? The stakes are extremely high, especially for U.S. representatives who have to face voters every two years, and therefore require constant financial support for their next election from both individual contributors and their party. They have to spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to fundraise – becoming “a mid-level telemarketer, dialing for dollars,” according to fellow former Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minnesota), who co-sponsored the “Stop Act” with Jolly in 2016 to try to reduce the amount of time members of Congress spent on the phone with potential donors. And in order to get the precious funds they need from their party or certain major contributors, they also have pledge their devotion to political causes or positions that have almost nothing to do with the well-being of their own constituents, and that often are at odds with the principles and goals they had when they originally decided to run for public office.

“They put you on the phone and it’s a script,” says Jolly. “It’s a cult-like boiler room… where sitting members of Congress are compromising the dignity of their office… It’s shameful.”

Former U.S. Rep. David Jolly (R-FL) in 2016

Since the presidential election two weeks ago there have been comparisons to the country being as divided as we were just before the Civil War in 1860. I doubt we will see armed insurrection; if we’re not willing to be inconvenienced by wearing masks, I can’t see us having the will to have our lives interrupted by widespread street fighting. But it’s not hard to imagine two massive partisan armies, with PACs as the booming artillery, special interest groups as the armored cavalry, and thousands of medium to large individual donors barking battle commands to their foot soldiers: our representatives and senators in Congress.

Call it the Gold War.