An Open Letter to Democrats and the Left

A little more than eight years ago, I was watching the election returns at a bar in Arlington, Virginia called Mr. Days after a long election day and a long year of volunteering for John McCain’s presidential campaign. As the election returns came back showing a convincing Obama victory, I remember feeling sadness that my volunteer efforts had come to naught and concern for the future of the country.  I worried about our national debt, what our foreign policy would be under the new Obama Administration, and whether the economy would recover from the housing crisis and recession that followed.  I remember my fears and worries of a Democratic-controlled House, a Democratic-controlled Senate, and a Democratic President implementing policies I did not support and feared would cause great harm to the country.  I remember, too, how some Obama supporters in the bar gave me a little grief for having lost.  In short, I remember feeling a lot like how you are probably feeling now.  Believe me when I say I am sympathetic to your situation, because eight years ago I was living it myself.

And it was especially challenging in 2008 for those of us that supported John McCain. While the country was caught up in the genuine triumph of electing the first black president, my emotions were decidedly mixed.  I could not fully enjoy the historical moment because I knew that policies I did not support and in many cases fervently opposed would soon be enacted in law, regulation, and executive policy changes.

At the time, I consoled myself with the recognition that American history is replete with pendulum swings, and today’s majority will be tomorrow’s minority. I remember thinking that I would have to redouble my personal efforts to promote the policies I thought were the best for the country the only way I knew how – by working harder to get candidates I supported elected, by publishing articles and op-eds that explained my positions, and gathering peacefully to express my opinions at appropriate times.  And so, two months after Obama’s election, I found myself going door-to-door on behalf of a Republican candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates running in a February special election.

It is in that spirit that I ask you to consider how the opposition to President Trump’s nascent administration looks to those of us who voted for him. Nearly 63 million Americans voted for Donald Trump, including many who had not voted Republican for a long time.  It cannot be that they are all sexists, racists, white supremacists, dupes of the Russians, or some other pejorative.

The Republican Party and conservatives are not morlocks that have erupted from under the earth’s surface to reign terror upon happy eloi that were getting along just fine before we arrived. We are not a virus that has invaded the body of the Republic to transform it into a hateful mess.  We are not foreign invaders come to steal your property and destroy your communities.  We are your neighbors and members of your community that have a different point of view.

However, too much of the recent debate has portrayed us as foreign invaders upsetting the country’s inexorable march toward the “right side of history.” When you describe your opposition to the Trump Administration as “the Resistance,” you perfectly conjure a vision of the United States having been invaded by a foreign enemy.  “Resistance” brings to mind the Free French resistance or the Yugoslav partisans resisting the Nazis or indigenous peoples resisting colonial invaders.  When you hold massive protest marches the day after the inauguration – before the Trump Administration has had a chance to do anything – I can’t help but think you are protesting the fact of the Trump Administration and the fact that I and millions of other Americans supported Donald Trump’s election.  You are not protesting something the Trump Administration has done; you are protesting the fact that I am a Republican and I think the way I do.  When you describe a reasonable dispute over the proper number of immigrants, visitors, and refugees as a “constitutional crisis,” you paint those of us who support immigration changes effectively as rebels undermining the very fabric of the country.  That is not the basis of healthy debate.

Imagine how those who supported Donald Trump might feel watching Saturday Night Live open its first show after the election as if a national tragedy had occurred. Or how we’d feel watching the serious discussions of whether electors should be faithless and vote for someone other than Donald Trump.  Or facing the subtle suggestion that the Russians or “fake news” somehow tricked them into voting for Donald Trump, as if they have no capability to consume what they read and hear in a discerning fashion.

Consider also how we view the incessant boycotts of products and companies owned by people with whom you disagree. When you demand that department stores refuse to carry Ivanka Trump’s clothing lines or boycott Trump businesses, I see that as a direct attack on people that have the same outlook on government as I do.  When you hound Brendan Eich out of the company he helped create for having donated to a cause with which you disagree, that frightens me.  You are threatening someone’s livelihood because you disagree with their politics.  I see that and think it could be me you are trying to destroy.  There but for the grace of G-d go I.  I don’t look at such boycotts as simple exercises of free speech.  I view them as a deliberate threat to my existence – if I don’t conform to your world view, you might destroy my livelihood too.  Imagine how people feeling this way might react.  We might not be interested in debate, discussion, or compromise.  Instead, we might just be more interested in defending ourselves – and voting for those who we think will defend us most effectively.

I’ve had people come back to me and say, well, you would boycott people with whom you vehemently disagreed. You wouldn’t patronize a store run by a neo-Nazi or white supremacist.  To which I say, yes, that is true.  But now more than ever we need to be able to draw distinctions between mere disagreement, even passionate disagreement, and a battle with the Nazis.  Not every policy disagreement is good versus evil, the angels of progress versus retrograde neo-Nazis, racists, sexists, and white supremacists.  The Nazis, the Communists, and other embodiments of evil truly threatened peoples’ lives.  They killed people because of their religion, their sexual orientation, or their political views.  Donald Trump simply is no such thing.  We cannot have a rational discussion of issues if we equate Donald Trump, whatever personal and policy flaws of his you may perceive, and the embodiments of true evil that were the Nazis, the fascists, or the Communists.  Democrats used to speak all the time of nuance and shades of gray in foreign and domestic policy, and these are lessons it behooves us all to keep in mind as the Trump Administration takes shape.

Think, for a moment, how a Donald Trump voter might view the multi-front effort to prevent him from governing. There are unprecedented delays in approving his Cabinet.  There are executive branch civil servants conspiring to undermine implementation of the president’s policies.  California is openly contemplating secession and others are openly and seriously writing about impeachment or coups.  States, counties, and cities are considering making themselves sanctuaries for illegal immigrants in open defiance of federal immigration policy.  Members of Congress are already discussing impeachment and are on high alert flyspecking the administration to find any grounds on which to draw up the articles.

There is a time and a place for civil disobedience. The civil rights movement’s use of civil disobedience to bring an end to the odious and immoral practice of Jim Crow segregation was a shining example of the power of civil disobedience to right moral wrongs.  But not every policy dispute is a fundamental moral question.  Not every disagreement involves the moral equivalent of fighting and overcoming segregation.  Deploying civil disobedience over every policy dispute ensures that we will be at each other’s throats over every disagreement.  Imbuing every policy decision with moral and virtually religious significance ensures conflict well out of proportion of the issues at hand.

Finally, I can’t help but have a sneaking suspicion that Democrats would be “de-normalizing” any Republican who was elected president. A lot of Democrats claim that Mitt Romney or even George Bush would be acceptable as compared to Donald Trump.  But four years ago, Mitt Romney – an absolute choir boy in the annals of presidential candidates – was made out to be a heartless plutocrat who bullied kids in high school and killed a woman with cancer and, according to one Obama ad in Ohio, was “not one of us.”  And I don’t need to rehash all the lovely Bushitler comparisons and the dark night of fascism that supposedly descended on the country during Bush’s presidency.  Donald Trump may seem different than his Republican predecessors, but from where I sit he is getting the same treatment as his predecessors did.

We are at a precarious moment in the history of our Republic. The anger and vitriol occasioned by the 2016 election and its result threaten to make partisan gridlock quaint.  This moment requires Republicans be gracious in victory and President Trump reach out to include Democrats in crafting his policies.  But this moment also requires something from you, the Democratic and leftist opposition.  And to be fair, I acknowledge it requires more from you than it does the Republicans.  Just as eight years ago, it required more from Republicans like me than Democrats.  I know it is easier to be gracious in victory than defeat, having been there myself.

For the sake of our Republic, I ask Democrats to forcefully, firmly, and unequivocally disown political violence in any form. I implore you to publicly come out and disown the use of the martial term “resistance.”  Call it principled opposition, loyal opposition, whatever you want.  But drop “resistance.”  Imagine what you would have said about Republicans if we had declared ourselves “the resistance” to Barack Obama in 2009.  You would instantly have drawn parallels to the “massive resistance” of the South to desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s.  You know you would have said using the term “resistance” was inappropriate, and you would have been correct.

There should be no rationalizing the riots on the Berkeley, NYU, or other campuses. Rather, leading Democrats should make full-throated condemnations of such violence.  Republicans will make such condemnations, but they have no effect; it is us they are protesting.  Your voice carries significant weight.  If Democrats condemn and forcefully disown the political violence, even if it ostensibly supports ends with which you agree, you will do the country an enormous service.  Republicans are all too familiar with having to answer for every off-the-wall and objectionable statement an individual Republican has made.  We have been called to account for the objectionable statements of Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, and others, and you demanded we disown these statements, which we did.  More famously, William F. Buckley read the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement in the 1960s.  Democrats, it is your turn to disown the extremists in your midst.

Democrats should also not encourage, support, or enable the civil service from resisting the decisions of the president, the chief executive of the country. Such resistance is an extraordinarily dangerous development.  In effect, it is a rebellion against the president from within the Government.  Our country cannot function if the will of the voters as expressed in their election of the president can be thwarted by unelected bureaucrats.  The danger inherent in such a development should be obvious.  Voters will eventually figure out that the executive branch only functions when Democrats are in power.  Such an executive branch would find its claim to authority eroded and ultimately lost.

Democrats, you have an extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to tolerance, to freedom of speech, and to the Republic itself. By firmly encouraging civility and respect for those who disagree, you will render an immense service to the country, far beyond winning any given election.  The restoration of our civil discourse would be an extraordinary accomplishment in these fractious, polarized times, and you are positioned to have a greater influence than anyone in making this happen.  I know it is not illegal to boycott businesses of those with whom you disagree, but it is not healthy for the body politic and for our shared community of E pluribus unum.  By discouraging resistance by executive branch civil servants to Trump Administration policies, you will maintain the norms that have kept the executive branch functioning and maintain the respect all citizens have for our government.  These are norms that I will respect when the shoe inevitably is on the other foot and the Republican party is in the minority again, if those norms remain in place.  By unequivocally denouncing violence of any form and those who use it or accept it as a fact or feature of left-wing protest, you will do more for free speech and protest movements than any protest to date by restoring the credibility and the relevance of the voices of those protesting.

But know this too: we are watching how you have reacted to this election. And for me, time is running out for you to show that you will accept, however grudgingly, the results of the 2016 election.  Time is running out to show that you are willing not only to return to the norms of civil discourse, but to enforce those norms on those within your party that stray from them.  You are running out of time to demonstrate that you are not going to reflexively oppose everything the new president does because he has an (R) next to his name.  Otherwise, I can only conclude that you do not really mind that your supporters are accusing me of racism, sexism, and whatever other -isms or -phobias they can think of.  I will be forced to conclude that you don’t entirely mind violence in the name of a progressive cause.  And I’ll know that you would gladly stand by while your supporters destroyed my business or livelihood because I disagreed with them on one policy issue or another.

I want healthy debates. It makes me rethink my own arguments and positions.  But I want to engage in these debates viewed as an equal, not as someone who is on the “wrong side of history.”  So please, debate particular issues when you disagree and seek common ground where you think you can.  But most importantly, understand that we who voted for Donald Trump care about the fabric of the country too – not just what the law permits and forbids, but the social compact between us as citizens that ensures not mere compliance with the laws but community harmony and respect.  That, more than any bill you pass or block in the next two years, would be a worthy legacy of the 2016 election.

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