The Case for Democratic Obstructionism

The next four years are going to be awful.  Even if you aren’t worried about Donald Trump and his incoming administration undermining democracy in this country–a threat I see as real–you should expect substantial cuts in the role of government in this country.  The 1% may cheer that development, but many others will suffer.

By 2020, the rich are likely to be richer, the poor to be poorer and much of the safety net to be only a vague memory.  There will be more impediments to voting, fewer protections for minorities of every definition  and our commitment to saving the planet will have been shunted aside.

This set of concerns doesn’t even touch national security and American policy toward the rest of the world.  A new round of foreign intervention?  Trade wars with former partners?  Stumbling into conflicts because no one listened to a briefing on the history of a region?  A convoluted relationship with Russia that mistakes their interests for our own?

The intensity of speculation about fundamental changes in the direction of American policy is in some ways astonishing given that the country is incredibly and almost equally divided on many of the important issues of the day.  Nevertheless, the early indications are that the President-elect and the Republican leadership in Congress are intent on pushing radical changes.

Hillary Clinton’s significant lead in the popular vote does not give her a claim to the presidency but it does undercut any argument that Donald Trump has a mandate from the American public. The reports by many of the country’s intelligence agencies that Russia deliberately intervened on behalf of Trump’s candidacy underscores political and moral arguments for a cautious and deliberative approach to change.

In the 20th Century, three presidents–Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan–won the kind of landslide victories that gave them a justifiable claim to a mandate.  Trump lost the popular vote and won the Electoral College as the result of close outcomes in a handful of states.  He ran a campaign that included few specific policy positions and, as we have learned since the election, he didn’t even mean many of those.

As his transition unfolds, we are seeing evidence that Trump’s Administration may take a highly conservative Republican approach to the Federal Government in some areas.  Those who hoped that he would be pragmatic and non-ideological may be sorely disappointed.  A number of his appointees come from the hard-line anti-government wing of the party.  Cabinet secretaries at Justice, Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Education and the Environmental Protection Agency give every indication of being fundamentally opposed to the  missions of their departments.

Moreover, and while this should be disturbing to many of his backers but probably won’t be, Trump has looked increasingly to the financial sector,  particularly Goldman Sachs, for filling high level positions.  Where once those people were demonized in his campaign, now they are the insiders.  In the same vein, there has never been an administration with so many former generals.

Another sign that the Republicans have an ambitious agenda comes from the Congressional side, particularly the ideas that House Speaker Paul Ryan has advocated over the years.  Repealing the Affordable Care Act is the advertised first move but how to replace it is far from obvious. Any plan offered by the Republicans could create both real hardship and chaos in health care.

Despite Trump’s promises during the campaign to safeguard Medicare and Social Security, those programs seems to be directly in Ryan’s crosshairs.  Other programs in danger, and this is far from a complete inventory, include environmental standards, trade agreements, the safety net for the poor, women’s healthcare, voting rights, LGBTQ protection, and  … this list could get really long.

What are Democrats to do?  While there may be some areas in which a cooperative approach can produce positive results–rebuilding the country’s infrastructure is frequently cited, although Congressional Republican support is far from certain–Congressional Democrats are really left with two options, neither of which is ideal, and which are in some respects contradictory.

One is to obstruct, to find every means of parliamentary and legislative resistance to the Trump agenda.  Many of those efforts are likely to fail, but a few may succeed.

Meanwhile, it is essential that the Democrats leave no doubt with the voting public –especially those who supported the new president –that Trump and the Republicans are responsible for enacting the changes that harm Americans.  For example, it’s already not too early to push the message that his cabinet is filled with former partners at Goldman Sachs and billionaires from businesses which profited off the backs of their workers.

For many years, Republicans have been far more effective than Democrats at winning the messaging wars.  It’s time for Democrats to pay serious attention to the importance of communicating with voters in language that resonates with them.  That was one of the keys to Trump’s victory.  Opposing his agenda will require a greatly improved outreach effort.

Given the intransigent Republican opposition to everything Barack Obama tried to do during his presidency, that party has totally sacrificed the moral high ground on political obstruction.  Add to that the refusal to even consider, let alone confirm, Obama’s Supreme Court nominee–and to hear some Republican Senators, who at the time assumed Hillary Clinton would win the election, assert that eight justices are enough–Democrats have a lot of public relations ammunition for resisting Republican measures.

Parallel efforts–beginning immediately to focus on the 2018 and 2020 elections in the states as well as for Congress, citizen activism including mass demonstrations, and support for organizations that can lead the legal fight against a radical agenda–are also critical.

The passive view, that things have always turned out okay in the past, is just too dangerous with a president who is as unqualified, erratic and demagogic as Trump.  As the American patriot Thomas Paine said during the Revolutionary War, these are the times that try men’s souls.

Writing today, Paine would certainly have included women as well.  These next four years will test everyone who cares about democracy and the values that have been fundamental to this country since its founding.