I love Michelle Obama. I mean, who doesn’t? Brains, class and grace wrapped in badassness, with biceps to boot! Her words during the election season were a constant source of inspiration, and no phrase more embodies her ability to rise above the political fray than, “When they go low, we go high.” This became somewhat of a rallying cry for the left, as we were assaulted daily with racist, misogynist, homophobic, bigoted vitriol from the Republican nominee.
We are at the beginning of a new Congress, and Donald Trump will soon take the oath of office. With all due respect to First Lady Obama, we have to ask ourselves: Can we go low now?
Can we go low now
— jess mcintosh (@jess_mc) December 17, 2016
It is not a question to take lightly. We can’t give up what makes liberals and progressives what we are – a group that fights for a better country and better world for everyone. A group that supports inclusion, diversity, and crazy notions like health care for everyone and clean air and clean water for all generations to come. A group that values each person for their inherent dignity, no matter where they are from, what goddess (or god) they worship, and no matter who they love. We don’t stoop to mocking, threatening behavior because that’s not who we are.
However, politics relies on a shared view of what political norms are, and the acceptance that both sides are rational, patriotic participants, differentiated by policies and political philosophies. It assumes that all sides accept that facts and science have no partisan agenda, but rather political agendas should be based on data and facts. It depends on a shared sense of decency, and a media willing to be objective rather than catering to false equivalencies of “both sides are the same.” Unfortunately, Republicans are single-handedly shredding these shared norms, and thus the field of play is changing.
David Leonhardt in the New York Times recently used the tired trope that in the asymmetric political environment today, Dems are fighting with a knife while Republicans brought a gun. Unfortunately, this idea fails to capture the broader picture.
To alter Leonhardt’s metaphor, think of partisan politics as more of a fight among siblings. Leonhardt imagines that one sibling is now using a different weapon. But it is so much more. In the past, siblings would stop fighting and unite if the neighborhood bully came by. Now, one of the siblings is willing to partner with the neighborhood bully, even if that means the destruction of the siblings’ own home. This same sibling is recklessly using said gun, disregarding any norms of previous fights, and no longer caring about collateral damage. All that matters is expressing anger and lashing out. Whatever commonality bound the siblings together was unilaterally withdrawn.
The fight is no longer between two political parties. Republicans have shown a willingness – glee, even – at the prospect of hurting innocent bystanders. Going back to the 2011 debt ceiling standoff, Republicans were more than willing to destroy our fragile economic recovery for the sake of… what? Political posturing and the unrelenting desire to put the Black Man in his place.
Once the Supreme Court overturned parts of the Voting Rights Act, GOP-controlled legislatures went on a racist binge to make it harder for poor people and minorities to have their voice heard. Rather than protecting the right to vote, Republicans turned their back on the very essence of democracy.
Senate Republicans denied even a hearing for Supreme Court nominee, premised on the ludicrous notion that a (Black) President doesn’t have the authority to fill a court vacancy for an entire quarter of their term. Meanwhile, after the governor’s election was finally certified in North Carolina, Republicans called a special session for a last-minute power grab away from the incoming Democratic governor. Rules and logical consistency don’t apply to Republicans any more. Power and rigid loyalty to the party are all that matters. Responsible governing is no longer their concern.
Democrats are now responsible not only for promoting our agenda, but we are left alone in caring for the very well-being of our country. It happened in the debt ceiling debate. It will happen again with the forthcoming Obamacare repeal. Republicans will happily strip health care from the most vulnerable (many who tend to vote Republican) with no plan to help. Democrats will be left fighting both for principles and to help the very Republicans that voted to put someone like Trump in office. “Collateral damage” is no longer anything negative; rather, potential pain in hostages is another weapon Republicans will seek to use to force the hands of Democrats to agree to even more draconian measures.
How does one work in a system that is controlled by fact-denying nihilists hell-bent on tearing everything down? Can we avoid going low?
It’s a new world, and we need a new playbook for resistance. Unfortunately, the old playbook is based on bygone principles that the Republican Party has discarded. Going high, as First Lady Obama advises, is in part predicated on the ability to shame Republicans into acting like decent human beings. Chief among what the Republican Party has abandoned: the ability to feel shame.
Appealing to basic humanity no longer works on Republicans because, through electing Trump, the Republican Party has shown a willingness to abandon any notion of common decency. If Trump mocking a disabled reporter, bragging about sexual assault, or gratuitously insulting a family who sacrificed their son for our country will not shame Republicans into opposing Trump, we can safely assume that Republicans no longer have any sense of decency.
Unfortunately, this means that stories about children losing their health care might not move the needle when discussing a replacement to Obamacare. Why do we think Republicans would care about those children? Likely as not, Trump will mock children dying from cancer as he runs for re-election in 2020, to the cheering of massive crowds (and a timid rebuke-but-I-am-still-endorsing-him statement from Paul Ryan).
Even pointing out facts is a lost cause, because facts no longer matter, either. Beyond all the hype about “fake news,” (which is important), Republicans have long since abandoned facts and science as grounds for public policy. From climate deniers to pushing false narratives about abortion, Republicans, as a party, have abandoned any pretense of even pretending to care about … well… reality.
But more worrying, the Republican base has shown an uncanny acceptance of conspiracy theories, following the lead of Donald “birtherism” Trump. Anything terrible about the left will be believed (Pizzagate) and shared on Facebook a gazillion times, creating a Republican base that cannot – and defiantly will not – be reasoned with.
With this, what is the new playbook for resistance? How do we continue to fight for a country, norms, and ideals when the party in control follows no rules other than the will to power? Going high, as First Lady Obama advises, can’t shame the shameless. Neither can we abandon that which makes us who we are, so we cannot go low.
We must take a third route: When they go low, we go hard.
We have to beat Republicans at their own game. We have to use every rule, every parliamentary procedure, and every antiquated process to stop today’s Republican Party from pushing their bigoted agenda. I’m not an expert on Senate or House rules, but I know those staffers exist. And I am not just talking about the House and Senate floor – we need to resist at the committee and sub-committee level. Stall. Block it all. Refuse unanimous consent on everything from tax cuts for the wealthy to renaming post offices. Gum up the works with total abandon. Resistance must be uniform throughout the Democratic Party. Not half-hearted resistance. Complete resistance.
While we encourage our allies at the federal level to go hard, those of us not in elected positions need to be constantly vigilant ourselves. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in The New Yorker, “Now is the time to speak up and to wear as a badge of honor the opprobrium of bigots.”
Every time Trump nominates a racist to a cabinet position, we must remind Trump voters that they empowered this racism.
Every time Trump slights women, we must remind Trump voters that they empowered this misogyny.
Every time Trump utters bigoted bullshit, we must remind Trump voters of the responsibility they bear toward amplifying this bigotry.
To again quote Adichie, “Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just.” Trump, and his supporters, must be held accountable every step along the road to whatever dark place Trump is leading us. The chorus of righteous indignation must drown out the hatred and vitriol hoisted upon us. Daily, our chorus will grow in numbers and strength.
Is calling out racism and bigotry “going low”? Absolutely not. We will soon have a White House and Cabinet full of white supremacists, homophobes, misogynists, and all manner of sycophants. Calling that out – in both the administration, the GOP Congress, and in their supporters – is nothing more than speaking truth to (white) power. We give people the opportunity to change, but we do not – even for one moment – allow Trump or his supporters to pretend that they are doing anything other than empowering bigotry, hatred, and divisiveness.
As Ali Davis writes:
“They will learn that if you hassle a Muslim, the gays are coming for you too. If you attack a person of color, the women are also coming after you. If you harass an immigrant or an Asian or a transwoman or a Latinx or a pagan or a lesbian or a Jew or any one of us, we are ALL coming for you.”
In addition to resisting the Trump/Republican agenda, we must support and sustain liberals at all levels of the government. We must re-take governorships in 2018. We must fight – tooth and nail – for every state house and state senate seat in 2018. We must elect progressives up and down the ballot. We cannot wait until 2020 to organize; now is the time. Now must be the time.
The resistance should not be a permanent state for liberals. We who still believe in the power of government to be a force of good in the lives of Americans and our brothers and sisters around the globe need not abandon all hope.
However, we must resist until one of two things happen:
First, reasonable Republicans (and I still believe they exist, cowardly quiet though they presently may be) retake their party and commit to being a partner in governing our country. We need not agree on everything, but there should be an agreement about how government functions and the norms of behavior. Reckless disregard for our Constitution and foreign meddling in our elections, for example, should be opposed by everyone, no matter who the meddling helps. I want to see a Republican Party built on principles, propelled by conservative ideas of how to make our country better. I may not agree, but at least I would have respect for the ideas that came from Republican leadership.
The second option would be for reasonable Republicans to abandon their party and create a new conservative party. Given that politics is run on money, if enough Republicans were willing to abandon the shitshow of a party that Trump inherited and is creating, then there could be a partner in democracy.
Given that Republicans allowed their party to be transformed into the love-child of a train wreck and dumpster fire, it is on them to figure out how to get it back in order. But if they do, even if we disagree with their policies, we must take a seat at the table and work with them, for the good of our country.
Resistance won’t be easy. It will be more than liking posts on Facebook and Tweeting out “THIS! SO. MUCH. THIS.” when John Oliver has an epic takedown of Trump. Resistance requires hard work. It will take organizing. It will take phone calls. It will take time and energy and money. There will be setbacks. We will fail at times. When hope seems to be lost, when our opponents go low, we will be strengthened by luminaries from our past like Maya Angelou:
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
The only other option is to sit back, do nothing, and allow Trump and his cronies to ruin this beautiful country that we love so much.
I, for one, will not sit idly by.