The democratic world is burning, and we have a president obsessed with a purely symbolic, trivial and politically manipulative fight over a wall — a giant piece of concrete that he laughably promised would be paid for by Mexico.
You can surely be entertained by President Trump’s encounter Tuesday with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. At issue was money for Trump’s border monstrosity. You could say Pelosi and Schumer won since they trapped Trump into saying that he’d be “proud” to shutter the government to get what he wanted.
And you can be impressed by Pelosi’s cool slap-down of Trump’s mansplaining and her challenge to Trump to try to get his wall through the House during the final days of Republican control. Her educated hunch is that the votes aren’t there. Presiding over the demise of the wall would be a lovely way for Speaker Paul Ryan, once a vocal friend of immigrants, to go out. And is it any wonder why House Democrats overwhelmingly want Pelosi to return as speaker?
Yet the Oval Office spectacle should alarm a serious country. Trump’s alacrity about closing down parts of our federal apparatus over a piece of absurdist art loved by his rally-goers is one more sign of his utter contempt for the painstaking tasks of governing.
Federal employees, who do the day-to-day work, are fully aware of this. For 15 years, the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service and Boston Consulting Group have surveyed job satisfaction at federal agencies and departments. Their latest study, released Wednesday, found that the number of employees who would recommend their agency as a good place to work dropped to 60 percent of federal offices.
Wasting time and taxpayer money preparing for a completely unnecessary shutdown won’t improve morale.
But it’s worse than this. However critical any of us might be of our country’s flaws, we like to see it as presenting at least a passable portrait of what self-government looks like.
So even as they stand up to Trump (which the defeated Republican majority in the House did not), Democrats have to keep an eye on what governing looks like. While Republicans in the Senate won’t warmly receive bills sent from the Democratic House over the next two years, Pelosi and her colleagues need to model what good government might involve. And they can usefully learn from the crises afflicting democracies in France and Britain.
There are many reasons that French President Emmanuel Macron, whose ongoing defense of democratic values remains admirable, is in such trouble. One of the primary causes: his failure to understand that his promise to transcend left and right included a pledge to reconstruct the social contract and offer genuine uplift to those on the margins of the economy. In practice, he has been far more attentive to the conservative, pro-market side of his agenda. The revolt in the streets reflects the ongoing pain of those — many live far from the prosperous metropolitan centers — who feel as left out as ever.
Macron responded, only after his situation became untenable, by rescinding a fuel tax increase and proposing new benefits for low-paid workers and pensioners. The lesson for centrists is that restoring moderation to politics requires a genuine engagement with social reform. The lesson for Democrats is not to forget that their egalitarian obligations extend both to inner cities and to our nation’s small towns and rural areas — even places that voted for Trump.
In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May survived a no-confidence vote on Wednesday, but only after promising to step down by 2022 in the face of widespread opposition within her own Conservative Party. There was no way that any plausible deal she negotiated to take Britain out of the European Union could live up to the extravagantly unrealistic promises made by those who persuaded 52 percent of the electorate to support Brexit. Already restive voters are angrier than ever in the face of shambolic governance.
Memo to all politicians: Don’t confuse boldness with wild pledges that can never be kept.
A normal American president would be reassuring democratic forces in both France and Britain. Trump is enjoying the chaos.
It’s true that because Democrats control only one house of Congress, it will be hard for them to do much more than hold Trump accountable for his irresponsibility. But they must always be mindful that because governing is their stock in trade, a complete collapse of confidence in our capacity for self-rule will — fairly or not — hurt them, too.