We’re taught that civic involvement is a good thing for a democratic society, and that’s true. But too much of a good thing can also be a bad sign.
A populace obsessively focused on politics, battling around the dinner table and marching in the streets, studying up on Supreme Court precedent and possessing a newfound interest in states’ rights, is a very healthy response — to a very serious illness.
No one pays much attention to the workings of a clock that’s ticking along — or a government that is, either. But when politics dominates our interactions rather than kids, jobs, hobbies, friends, worship and backyard barbecues, it means the situation is not OK.
In the past, such impassioned movements to force needed change have worked, even as the institutions of our nation — the media and courts and electoral process — shaped and moderated them. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s successes in creating a social safety net came after the marches and Hoovervilles and unrest of the people. Our withdrawal from war in Vietnam was, in part, the result of dedicated pro-peace activism that gradually shifted national support away from that conflict. The battle for equal rights for black people was won largely in the streets where Americans marched and fought.
The people speak. The system works. This is our process. But to enact real fixes, it’s necessary to move past angry commotion and come to cooperation.
Seen one way, this moment of unrest has been going on since Donald Trump was elected president more than three months ago. Town halls held by members of Congress across the country are being disrupted by those who are furious at the plans of Trump and want their representatives to oppose him.
Tea party led us here
In Long Island’s 1st Congressional District, Lee Zeldin became so unnerved by the aggressive public opposition that he canceled a big public meeting scheduled for April in favor of teleconferenced town halls and smaller in-person gatherings.
This national moment of unrest, however, has been going on since Barack Obama was elected in 2008 and his Affordable Care Act spurred widespread public activism starting in 2009. The man Zeldin beat to take the seat, Democrat Tim Bishop, faced angry mobs coming to his events with a coffin as a prop eight years ago.
To his credit, Bishop put up with and facilitated the opposition’s attempts to voice its anger after he took a few weeks to think it through, moving his events to bigger spaces to accommodate the angry crowds. That may have helped him hold his seat in the next two Republican wave elections. But when Zeldin — a Republican state senator with a strong military record, deep roots in the district and unquestionable tea party bona fides — defeated Bishop in 2014, it was related to the larger movement.
And the tea party didn’t limit itself to going after Democrats. Conservative dissidents also took down the careers of many moderate and even conservative Republicans they deemed to deserve that party label “in name only.”
What we are seeing now, as angry liberals take to social media and the streets, is act two of the same unrest — the response, in a deeply divided nation, to the triumph of Trump and the often-dark worldview of his supporters.
The tea party largely managed to immobilize Obama on significant policy issues, making Obamacare the last serious legislative victory of the administration, forcing spending cuts and ending chances for a comprehensive deal to reform immigration.
More obstruction will hurt
The two rebellious stances aren’t equal. Blocking immigrants who’ve been contributing to our society for 20 years from gaining legal status is wrong. Fighting to keep the beneficial parts of the ACA, which gave Medicaid to 14 million very needy people and health insurance to millions of others who had been unable to get it, is right. The tea party people were correct in fighting for better jobs and fairer trade deals, and less government corruption, cronyism and incompetence, and the anti-Trump protesters agree.
But there was a huge cost to the full-on obstructionism of the tea party, as there will be to full-on obstructionism of liberals if they pick that path. We lost eight years in which financial crises facing Medicare and Social Security got worse, the nation’s roads and bridges and other infrastructure crumbled further, a lack of immigration reform left 11 million people living in the shadows, and other nations benefited from unfair trade practices. And crony capitalism and corruption still enriched insiders and infuriated everyday Americans.
Most people on either side of this conflict are not marching. And most people support moderate, common-sense solutions to our serious problems. If Trump and Republicans can provide worthwhile solutions on any issue, they deserve to be supported. Where they bring bad ideas, they need to be opposed.
But we have to put the needs of the nation above the culture war. We can’t afford eight more years without progress as the mantle of “the party of no” is handed off from the Republicans to the Democrats.