President-elect Joe Biden’s victory offered the cheerful prospect that we might begin to detoxify our politics. Maybe we could forget Donald Trump for a while and argue with at least a touch of civility about the actual problems our country faces.
Moreover, bypassing more polarizing alternatives, Biden’s own party chose the candidate most likely to be acceptable to the other side, itself a form of outreach.
And the GOP’s response to the outreach? With just a handful of exceptions, abject refusal to stand up against the anti-democratic lunacy of Trump’s efforts to nullify the results of a fair election.
It is also a warning: Anyone advising Biden and members of his party to turn the other cheek and reach out to Republican congressional leaders as though none of this has happened is urging them down the path of political suicide.
Ronald Reagan’s expression of hopeful skepticism, “trust but verify,” is far too optimistic for what Biden faces. Republicans aren’t simply denying him a honeymoon; they’re either acquiescing to or advancing Trump’s bid to cast Biden’s presidency as illegitimate from the start.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) rightly received praise last week when he condemned Trump for putting “overt pressure on state and local officials to subvert the will of the people and overturn the election,” adding: “It is difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action by a sitting American president.”
But Romney’s statement is more a reason for distress than hope. It should not take political courage — whether from him, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie or GOP state officials in Michigan and Georgia — to recognize the simple fact that Biden won. Nor do you have to be liberal to recognize that a legal strategy based on throwing out ballots cast in heavily Black Detroit or Philadelphia is racist.
And you only need to honor the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and Dwight D. Eisenhower to be horrified that the Republican National Committee made itself the venue last week for an incendiary, untrue and insane statement by Trump lawyer Sidney Powell. Her screed was worthy of some marginal, anti-democratic, far-right nationalist party in some other country.
“American patriots are fed up with the corruption from the local level, to the highest level of our government,” she said, making you wonder who is president. “We are going to take this country back. We are not going to be intimidated. We are not going to back down. We are going to clean this mess up now. President Trump won by a landslide. We are going to prove it, and we are going to reclaim the United States of America for the people who vote for freedom.”
The ballots of the majority that did not “vote for freedom” by Powell’s bizarre definition — nearly 80 million so far — can be tossed into the dustbin.
That’s the party Biden has to deal with. And he can take no comfort if Republicans who stayed mum during Trump’s attempted election theft turn around later and pretend that they had nothing to do with this. Their silence is complicity.
This presents a challenge to those of us on the progressive side who in the past respected conservatism as a coherent and morally serious worldview. We saw it as a set of ideas, advanced by thinkers such as Edmund Burke and Robert Nisbet, dedicated to preserving what is good in our institutions and traditions. Even when we emphatically disagreed, we could understand why they might be skeptical of the unintended costs of some of the reforms we might put forward.
But now we confront a form of conservatism that openly disdains democracy, its rules and its obligations. In his book “Democracy and Tradition,” the philosopher and religion scholar Jeffrey Stout argues that “one thing a democratic people had better have in common is a form of ethical discourse, a way of exchanging reasons about ethical and political topics.”
Stout is a realist who knows that democratic citizens can spend a lot of time “slapping one another in the face.” But when politics is reduced to all slapping and no reasoning, and when the words “take this country back” mean keeping the loser of a free election in power by manipulating the truth and the law, we have traveled a long way from the democratic tradition.
Those who lack the conviction to sustain that tradition by defending rationality and the democratic rules of engagement forfeit their standing to ask the rest of us to believe that they are operating in good faith.