Counting the Costs of Partyism
A graduate student with whom I am privileged to work recently recommended that I read Yale University historian Timothy Snyder’s book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017). I have since done so, and learned as I did that its profundity, elegance and clarion call to awareness have provoked thoughtful discussion since its publication. In 20 succinct essays, Snyder reminds his readers of the precursors to tyranny in multiple cases during the last century. He is well-known as a historian of central Europe and his efforts to draw on the lessons of the emergence of oligarchy and authoritarianism in that region in the 1930s are especially well-informed and well-drawn. I want to discuss the third of his lessons, alongside evidence of its emergence in our current national context. Before doing so, and as a foundation for what follows, I provide Snyder’s definition of tyranny, as that concept was understood by this nation’s Founders:
In founding a democratic republic upon law and establishing a system of checks and balances, the Founding Fathers sought to avoid the evil that they, like the ancient philosophers, called tyranny. They had in mind the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of law by rulers for their own benefit (Snyder, 2017, pp. 9-10).
This description is important for its own sake and as a portrayal of a key motivating factor of today’s GOP leadership, which has demonstrated contempt for members of the other major party and for their own supporters as they daily lie and posture concerning the aims and purport of their actions. Republican party leaders have so far gained the support, if not the informed consent of their supporters, by appealing to their fears (real and imagined), prejudices, partyism and single-focus policy concerns. The last listed include efforts to address supposed/contrived attacks on religious freedom and the right to bear arms and limiting or eliminating abortion rights (Sunstein, 2019).
Partyism, as Harvard University law professor Cass Sunstein has recently defined the term, occurs when “those who identify with a political party … become deeply hostile to the opposing party and believe that its members have a host of horrific characteristics” (Sunstein, 2019, p. 257). Sunstein has also argued that,
An important consequence of partyism is to ensure that people with a strong political identification will be relatively immune from corrections, even on matters of fact, from people who do not share their identification (Sunstein, 2019, p. 265, emphasis in original).
With this backdrop in place, I turn to Snyder’s third proposition, “Beware the one-party state,” which he described, in terms hearkening to the Founders, as occurring when, “A party emboldened by a favorable election result or motivated by ideology, or both, might [seek to] change the system from within (Snyder, 2017, p. 28). Four examples of GOP leader choices in recent years illustrate the lengths to which that group has evidenced partyism and has been willing to go to maintain its political power and to change the American “system from within.”
First, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.), indicated in 2010 that contrary to the oath he had taken to serve the Constitution and not his Party, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President [Barack] Obama to be a one-term president” (Kessler, 2012). The GOP leader offered this comment not long before the mid-term election in that year and at that time McConnell also suggested that the President’s fiscal policy, designed to help pull the nation out of the deepest recession it has experienced since the Great Depression, and his corollary policy regarding the national debt were key premises he would need to reverse to obtain any hope of Republican support. As shifting either course was imprudent, given the parlous state of the economy, the President did not change direction on those matters and won reelection handily anyway. He was continuously portrayed nonetheless by McConnell and other Republican leaders as a spendthrift, to put the various criticisms leveled at Obama politely. These officials argued that Obama’s fiscal pump priming of the economy (also supported by his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush) during its historic downturn and slow recovery was wrong headed in the extreme. Meanwhile, the consensus among economists was that, if anything, and owing disproportionately to Republican opposition, the U.S. federal government had actually been insufficiently aggressive in addressing the global downturn. The Senate Majority Leader and other GOP officials, however, were less interested in that fact than in scoring partisan points against the Obama administration, whatever their economic or policy consequences. They worked hard to persuade their rank and file, particularly, that their counter positions were reasonable by arguing, without evidence, that the economy would correct itself and that Obama’s policies were inapt since the government, like households, should never run a deficit. That this contention was neither accurate nor prudent did nothing ethically to prevent Republican leaders from advancing it in the name of partisan power.
Second, the substantive stance McConnell took concerning government spending and the public deficit when inveighing against Obama abruptly disappeared when Donald Trump was elected President and sought to enact a large tax cut that would redound disproportionately to the most well-off members of American society (Ghilarducci, 2019). McConnell and other leaders dropped all of their prior objections to deficit spending in a far more robust economy than Obama confronted, and supported legislation that sent the U.S. government annual deficit soaring to $984 billion in 2019 (Long and Stein, 2019). Meanwhile, Trump and his party’s action has added $2 trillion to the country’s debt (Bryan, 2019). McConnell and other GOP leaders have said nothing about the harm this might constitute for the nation, despite their previous opposition to far smaller deficit and debt levels in deeply straitened economic circumstances. The hypocrisy is clear and massive, as is the willingness to do and say anything to serve the Party’s key supporters and ideological tenets, irrespective of their long-term consequences.
Third, early in 2016, during Obama’s second term, when a Supreme Court vacancy occurred with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, McConnell again took the lead to prevent the President’s legitimate nominee from gaining a hearing in the Senate, breaking all precedent norms and past Constitutional practice to do so. McConnell gambled that a Trump general election victory would give the GOP control over who would gain the seat. The stunt represented a naked use of political power to prevent legitimate governance from occurring in the name of partisan claims. McConnell and Senate Republicans denied the President of the United States his rightful Constitutional role to obtain Senate consideration of his nominee for the Court, and thereby implicitly and explicitly contended that no member of the other party should legitimately play such a role. Most Constitutional scholars were dismayed and outraged at this turn while McConnell, who views everything through the lens of party positioning and power, has since made it clear that he considers this action to undermine the Constitutional governance norms attending the Court nomination process as his finest hour (Danner, 2018). That is only so if you are willing to sacrifice the nation’s governance and separation of powers doctrine to partisan claims, and to delegitimate other duly elected actors in so doing. Such is a sign of sickness, not of strength, in the Republican party.
Finally, I turn to our present Constitutional impeachment crisis for additional evidence of growing GOP partyism. That investigation was brought on by a whistleblower’s credible allegations that Trump misused the authority of his office to pressure a foreign leader, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, to launch an investigation into potential electoral rival Joseph Biden and his son to spotlight in the coming 2020 political campaign. Multiple witnesses have argued that Trump urged Zelensky to take this course while withholding both military aid to Ukraine and a White House visit by the Ukrainian president as potential payoffs for compliance. While the facts to date appear incontrovertible, the President and Republican congressional officials have offered a unified phalanx of obfuscations and demurrals regarding that evidence. More, they have attacked personally the career civil servants, military and other officials who, obeying subpoenas, have testified under oath concerning what they saw and heard. This has occurred while many GOP leaders have privately observed that they believe little of what they are arguing, but are instead taking their positions to support their party, fearful of losing their Senate majority and the presidency, and therefore of their lead governance role, if they do otherwise (Alberta, 2019). If the current claims are true, these Republican officials are openly supporting not only fabrications, but a President guilty of criminal conspiracy, corruption and disloyalty to his country. What is more, if the present allegations against Trump are ultimately born out, these GOP leaders not only will have taken this position on grounds of party power, but will have done so in clear violation of their sworn fealty to the Constitution.
It seems clear that one major rationale underpinning the Republican Party leadership’s current willingness to tolerate the incompetence and apparent lawbreaking and corruption of the President is predicated on partyism. Likewise, a strong share of the continued support of the GOP rank and file is also likely rooted in this phenomenon. Unlike past elected officials in times of Constitutional crisis, elected Republican leaders today appear willing to countenance clear evidence of corruption and conspiracy and all that such portends for the legitimacy of the U.S. regime and governance for no other reason than the preservation of their party’s continued political power. Snyder has shown that democratic regimes have fallen into tyranny in the modern era for less robust reasons than these. One may only hope that our nation can overcome this indefensible and cynical partisan choice in the coming national election, despite the deceptions and scheming of this small group of deeply misguided actors.
Alberta, Tim. “Who will Betray Trump?”, Politico Magazine, November 8, 2019, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/11/08/trump-impeachment-republicans-congress-229904, Accessed November 10, 2019.
Bryan, Bob. “How Trump’s $2 trillion in debt compares with Obama, Bush, and Clinton,” Business Insider, February 20, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-national-debt-deficit-compared-to-obama-bush-clinton-2019-2, Accessed November 26, 2019.
Danner, Chas. “McConnell says Kavanaugh Outrage will ‘Blow Over’— and GOP Takeover of Courts will Continue,” New York Magazine, October 6, 2018, http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/10/mcconnell-gop-court-stacking-will-outlast-kavanaugh-outrage.html, Accessed November 25, 2019.
Ghilarducci, Teresa. “Five Good Reasons it doesn’t feel like the Trump Tax Cut Benefited You,” Forbes, April 9, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/teresaghilarducci/2019/04/09/five-good-reasons-it-doesnt-feel-like-the-trump-tax-cut-benefited-you/#9b5988a13e0b, Accessed November 25, 2019.
Kessler, Glenn. “When did McConnell say he wanted to make Obama a ‘one-term president’? The Washington Post, September 25, 2012, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/when-did-mcconnell-say-he-wanted-to-make-obama-a-one-term-president/2012/09/24/79fd5cd8-0696-11e2-afff-d6c7f20a83bf_blog.html, Accessed November 25, 2019.
Long, Heather and Jeff Steiner. “The U.S. deficit hit $984 billion in 2019, soaring during Trump era,” October 25, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/10/25/us-deficit-hit-billion-marking-nearly-percent-increase-during-trump-era/, Accessed November 25, 2019.
Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017.
Sunstein, Cass. How Change Happens. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2019.
December 3, 2019