Of Fantasies and Imagined Superheroes
One of the more paradoxical turns in too much current media coverage of the Biden administration and the ongoing GOP attack on voting rights is an argument from the left that if only President Biden were the equivalent of Superman or had tried earlier to press the two voting rights bills that have been stymied by a deadlocked and almost evenly divided Senate, with zero support from Republicans, the bills would have passed. Moreover, Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema made clear with their recent votes that they were more willing to protect the filibuster than secure the voting rights of vulnerable Americans. Both senators have suggested, against the evidence and the futility of their personal efforts, that Democrats had not tried hard enough to bargain with Republicans who had refused to support voting rights as a unified bloc. Meanwhile, elite political press commentators writing with grave concern that voting rights and security are being compromised in GOP-dominated states have lately argued that the Biden administration is to blame for what is, in fact, a Republican Party responsibility. This is nonsense.
I offer several prominent illustrations of such contentions and it would have been easy to select others. Here, for example, is Maureen Dowd on the question in a recent column in The New York Times. While she rightly notes the problem is not President Biden, she blames him for our country’s parlous democratic situation (and much else) anyway:
As hapless as Biden and his coterie are, we can’t give up on the president because he’s all that stands between us and the apocalypse at the hands of Trump, DeSantis, Pence, Kristi Noem and future Chief Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
One of the many fallacies of zany/creepy Sinema’s tremulous logic in her Senate speech about why the filibuster must be preserved is that she faults the Democrats for not working harder and striving more to bring Republicans on board for protecting voting rights.
Psst! Senator Sinema. That’s the whole point. Republicans don’t actually want everyone to vote, unless they’re rural or white. And they don’t want to help Biden. This is all to their advantage. McConnell is not a sucker.1
After making clear, accurately in my view, that Sinema is wildly off base in her claims, Dowd nevertheless called on Biden to “fix” matters magically. She blamed him for somehow living in the past, but never suggested how he might remedy matters as he faces a razor thin majority in the Senate and two Democrats who chose not to support voting rights legislation, when the Republicans filibustered it:
We want to see Covid under control. We want to see the sacred right to vote protected. We want the grocery shelves stocked with affordable milk and meat. We want a president who tells us that we will get through this and we will be stronger for it.
Joe Biden better Build Better or he won’t be Back. If he doesn’t turn it around, he has cleared the way to a Republican rout in this fall’s midterms. And in 2024, who knows how bad it can get? Poor us.2
Biden has in fact taken many of the steps Dowd broadly advocates and many more, but he has been met at every turn by a united GOP that has worked assiduously to undermine COVID mitigation efforts and control voting outcomes in 2022 and beyond. Nonetheless, Dowd’s argument certainly plays into the Republican strategy by arguing that somehow President Biden should magically make the nation’s ills right and that he has not done so, against enormous challenges and a GOP united against his efforts, makes him a failure.
Dowd has hardly been alone in her contention that Biden is responsible for Republican actions. Columnist Charles Blow has taken a similar stance. He is rightly aggrieved that Sinema and Manchin and the phalanx of Republican Senators have apparently successfully prevented any national attempt to ensure the voting rights of millions and have offered a range of opportunities for local official vote fraud, as GOP state and local officials work to prevent citizens from voting and to be able to overturn their collective will as they might wish. While acknowledging the continuing culpability of the architects of this travesty, Blow nonetheless has blamed Biden for not magically convincing those who have taken positions supporting voter suppression or vote manipulation to act otherwise:
After Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema made it clear that they were not in favor of altering the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation, essentially dooming the bills to failure and ensuring that Republicans could continue their efforts to unleash an era of modified Jim Crow, the best the White House could say not to sound completely defeated was that they were going to keep fighting. This “keep fighting” language is little more than a pep talk designed to prevent voters from falling into despair when the profound reality that their votes — and democratic rule itself — are in danger fully sets in. Well, I’m not interested in happy messages of hope. I’m irate. Failure on voting rights now would be historic. I never thought that my children would grow up to see Black people have less voting power than they did when I was a young adult.
I fully acknowledge that Republicans are the true villains here, but I must also acknowledge that the people who pledged to come to the rescue, the heroes of the story, were too distracted for too long to do all they could.3
For Blow, too, the President should somehow overcome the intransigent willingness of the GOP to undermine the voting rights of many Americans to secure their Party’s power in coming elections. In Blow’s view, Biden is culpable because he did not act to overcome this quagmire as quickly as he (Blow) might have wished. What neither he nor Dowd offer is any sense of how the President might have done so or what he could have done to overcome Republican officials’ collective opposition to ensuring voter/voting rights. Both writers are justifiably outraged, both acknowledge that it is the GOP that has created the concern, but both nonetheless place the blame on President Biden for not unilaterally overcoming the united corruption of the GOP.
I do not use the word corruption lightly. It is clear the Party is now foursquare under the control of former President Donald Trump who has lied consistently and repeatedly about the supposed steal of the 2020 national election and the January 6 insurrection. His Party’s officials are now largely silent on his lies or are being driven from office by those espousing his empty claims. Indeed, some 71 percent of Republican party faithful purported to believe his fabrications in a recent national poll despite the complete lack of evidence for them.4 As political writer Charles Pierce has observed, the GOP has become a cruel and empty political force whose character many press commentators seem utterly unable to address:
The monster is the Republican Party, and the modern conservative movement that is its animating force. If the Republicans are Medusa, the modern conservative movement is her headful of snakes. It is bound and determined to destroy the current constitutional order and replace it with an autocratic plutocracy, because that is its only clear mission now. It is a party bereft of ideas and driven by a movement that has as its only fuel a reckless, poisonous nihilism.5
This last fact reminds one that large numbers of Americans ultimately have chosen to accept this cynical stance, and that fact is influencing GOP elected leaders who either believe they can use that willingness to accept lies to pursue power or pusillanimously are afraid to tell those citizens the truth. Whatever the case, the Party’s Senators have stood as a united group to prevent efforts to protect the voting rights and sanctity of millions of Americans.
In many ways, this disposition to blame Biden for what he did not create and has not sustained is not even the most difficult contention to understand. Many writers have gone further and offered a companion argument that GOP voters are the only appropriate arbiters of their misperceptions. David Brooks of The New York Times, for example, took this position in a recent column even as he acknowledged the good faith of one party and its adherents. As he did so, he simplistically lumped a wide range of individuals and groups into two very large categories and suggested they were engaged innately in a deep-seated contest:
Most bridge-building efforts are funded by and staffed by people on the Blue (left) side of the political spectrum, and many of these people are unaware of how their unconscious assumptions come across to Reds. For example, many Blues assume that the way to bring people together is to have conversations that stress our common humanity, that celebrate tolerance, empathy and diversity.
Reds hear: You’re going to empathize with my feelings, but you’re not going to engage with my substantive points. You value ethnic, racial and gender diversity, but you won’t value viewpoint diversity, especially when it is outside your moral framework. You want to converse, but you come into the room assuming that if I could be taught what is true, I’d be educated into Blueness.6
Brooks did not argue that the values Blues offer are misguided or erroneous, but instead that those hearing them reject them and that Democrats are to blame for those misperceptions, rather than the hearers who are willing to adopt those misapprehensions in the first place. Asking someone to embrace empathy is hardly the same thing as requesting that they accept only one point-of-view or perspective on policy yet doing so can make the difference between ostracizing someone based on their color, gender, ethnicity or other characteristic, and seeing them as a fellow human being and citizen. In other words, what Blue efforts ask most fundamentally, in Brooks’ terms, is that Red adherents foreswear a willingness to hate based on difference, which Trump and others in his Party have openly embraced and encouraged and which GOP efforts to control state and local voting outcomes have also echoed. Why should Blues be held responsible for that outcome rather than asking Reds to rethink their assumptions?
More to the point and more realistically, Brooks has argued the following in recent days:
When it comes to elections, the Republican Party operates within a carapace of lies. So we rely on the Democrats to preserve our system of government. The crisis of democracy is right in front of us. We have a massive populist mob that thinks the country is now controlled by a coastal progressive oligarchy that looks down on them. We’re caught in cycles of polarization that threaten to turn America into Northern Ireland during the Troubles. We have Republican hacks taking power away from the brave state officials who stood up to Trumpian bullying after the 2020 election.7
Sadly, Brooks is correct. We have only one political party that is willing today to defend self-governance. The other is content to mislead its followers and/or actively ensure they remain misinformed as democracy stands in peril.
The political writers blaming the Biden administration, or the Blues, for Republican stands exhibit two misguided tendencies as the nation continues to confront a democratic crisis created by the leaders and followers of the GOP. First, Brooks, Dowd, Blow and many others have argued that “if only” Democrats or the President had adopted a different political calculus or strategy, the calamity would magically have been overcome (or in Brooks case, to be fair, might be overcome in the undefined future). Like Brooks’ predilection to assume that Reds are rightly perceiving the issues before them rather than being systematically misled in their fears, apprehensions and hatreds by GOP leaders and affiliated media, Dowd and Blow appear to believe in an “if only” magic dust that would enable Democrats and a handful of Republicans of goodwill to surmount uniform GOP unwillingness to participate in governance and to redress the lies the Party has adopted. Second and importantly, there is no strategy, no mystical formula that will preternaturally overcome the deliberate and continuing efforts of the Republican Party to secure power at any cost or to rethink its singular nihilistic position of seeing its role as ensuring the failure of the “other” party rather than the success of the nation or indeed, even the health of its population without its adherents changing their views and positions—and that they have been unwilling or unable to do.
As I have pondered this turn in so much political press coverage and opinion columns addressing the current regime crisis, I have been reminded of President Abraham Lincoln’s insight that those prosecuting the Civil War would not be persuaded to believe in human equality on “strategic” grounds. Rather, he unflinchingly embraced the imperatives of freedom and equality for their own sake and consistently sought to explain that principled stance to the American people, which for Lincoln included the citizens of the country’s southern states. We now have a situation where one party has abandoned governance and democracy alike to follow a charlatan and to embrace a raft of lies. No “strategy” or imagined Superhero action will soon persuade them to do otherwise as long as many Americans choose to follow that individual and to accept his party’s embrace of his fabrications. Blaming those honestly seeking to address their Constitutional duties for the choices of those who have clearly forsaken any such course constitutes an in-principle, unconscionable and indefensible moral and ethical bankruptcy.
As one confronts this scenario, one may take solace in the hope that those who stand on democratic principles ultimately enjoy the high ground and the singular advantage of promoting human freedom. As Abraham Lincoln warned in his “House Divided” 1858 address accepting his party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate:
Whenever, if ever, he and we can come together on principle so that our great cause may have assistance from his great ability, I hope to have interposed no adventitious obstacle. But clearly, he is not now with us—he does not pretend to be—he does not promise to ever be. Our cause, then, must be intrusted to, and conducted by its own undoubted friends—those whose hands are free, whose hearts are in the work—who do care for the result. Of strange, discordant, and even, hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought the battle through, under the constant hot fire of a disciplined, proud, and pampered enemy. … The result is not doubtful. We shall not fail—if we stand firm, we shall not fail. Wise councils may accelerate or mistakes delay it, but, sooner or later the victory is sure to come.8
The lesson here seems clear. Those blaming Democrats and President Biden for Republican Party choices should rethink their stands and realize that the present crisis will not be remedied by clever strategy, but instead by millions of Americans coming to recognize what is at stake, in principle, and to realize who has created the governance precipice the nation now confronts. Persuading millions to blame those not responsible for their democratic imbroglio will certainly not help to address this dilemma. Such action will instead only strengthen the individuals seeking to undermine the principles in which our regime is rooted. One might conclude Dowd and other political commentators are engaging in a dangerous whimsy when they offer such arguments, and they should consider those contentions much more carefully before advancing them. President Biden certainly recognizes the challenge confronting our polity and he has consistently acted in good faith as he has sought to address it, whether or not one agrees with his every choice. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Republican Party and its leaders.
1 Dowd, Maureen. “More Mojo, Joe,” The New York Times, January 15, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/15/opinion/biden-senate-mcconnell-sinema.html, Accessed January 16, 2021.
2 Dowd, “More Mojo, Joe.”
3 Blow, Charles. “Failure on Voting Rights Would be Historic: Democracy is Losing,” The New York Times, January 16, 2022, https://nyti.ms/32ozZEU, Accessed January 16, 2022.
4 Cuthbert, Lane and Alexander Theodoridis,” Do Republicans really believe Trump won the 2020 election? Our research suggests they do,” The Washington Post, January 7, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/01/07/republicans-big-lie-trump/, Accessed January 10, 2022.
5 Pierce, Charles. “The Elite Political Press is Incapable of Looking the Monster in the Eye,” Esquire, January 18, 2022, https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/politics/a38807280/trump-movement-elite-political-press/, Accessed January 18, 2022.
6 Brooks, David. “The Sidney Awards,” The New York Times, December 30, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/30/opinion/brooks-sidney-awards-2021.html, Accessed January 17, 2022.
7 Brooks, David. “Why Democrats Are So Bad at Defending Democracy,” The New York Times, January 6, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/06/opinion/democrats-fail-defending-democracy.html, Accessed January 15, 2022.
8 Lincoln, Abraham. “House Divided Speech,” Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln Online: Speeches& Writings http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/house.htm, Accessed January 17, 2022.
January 24, 2022