Why “Taking the Moral High Ground” is Destroying American Democracy
Why American Democracy is Dying
Say for the sake of argument, you’re a democratic senator who’s been in office since 2010. You witnessed Senator Mitch McConnel (R-KY) famously say, “my number one priority is making sure Obama is a one-term president,” when the Democrats were drafting legislation to help the US recover from the greatest economic recession since 1929. You were also there to see Republicans block every single one of Obama’s cabinet appointees, forcing the government to shut down. You remember in 2013 when a bill that established universal background checks for firearms was filibustered in the senate after over 20 kids were murdered in their own school. In addition, you saw Republicans refuse to hold a vote for the replacement of a Supreme Court nominee under a democratic president, only for them to jam in 3 supreme court justices in just 4 years. Not to mention, you witnessed the United States Capitol be attacked by domestic terrorists who attempted a coup d’etat, where they tried to hang the Vice President of the U.S. on orders from the current president at the time. Meanwhile, two cops died in the fighting. Some months down the line, a bill was passed in the house that would set up a bipartisan commission to investigate the events of January 6. Republican senators make several demands about the bill and democratic leadership caves to every one of them. Later, a vote is held on the bill and it fails. Not even 10 Republicans vote in support of it.
After seeing all this, the media points out that all of these things could be avoided if you killed the filibuster rule, a relic of the Jim Crow era. But how can you criticize them for playing partisan politics if you’re going to do the same thing? So being a mature person, you grit your teeth and do, well, nothing. This is the case with Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kirsten Sinema (D-AZ). Manchin said it himself in his Op-Ed “I support the For the People Act, but it must be passed in a bi-partisan manner or I won’t vote for it”. By doing this, he’s kept his integrity and seized the moral high ground. But in response, the Republicans seize control of their own state’s elections, giving them the power to dismiss the results of a presidential election if they choose to. Next, they seize the supreme court, which takes up cases that could take away the rights of women and eliminate gun control measures. Eventually, Manchin and Sinema agree to vote for S.R.1 after caving to every Republican demand and taking out all of the most important aspects of the bill. Finally, a vote is held, and to no one’s surprise all 50 republican senators vote against it and the bill is filibustered. Regardless, Manchin and Sinema reaffirm their commitment to preserving the filibuster. They both personally vowed to not get rid of or weaken the filibuster in any capacity, even refusing to bring back the talking filibuster which was the rule until 1975.
After all this, republican senators say the Democrats are dividing the country, and one of them even says that Joe Biden is more left-leaning than Vladimir Lenin. Think of the position this puts democratic senators in. They’ve been shamed for the exact behaviors Republicans have been committing for the past 12 years! Noticing all this, the solution seems simple. No matter what Democrats do, Republicans will call them socialists and say “so much for the tolerant left”. If the GOP is going to claim you’re governing in a partisan way when you’ve tried to compromise every step of the way, you might as well ignore them and pass legislation that the country overwhelmingly supports. But clearly, it’s not that simple, or I wouldn’t be writing this article. Republicans are striking at something more fundamental to American liberalism.
The modern American democrat is in an unenviable position. You need two things to win an election: votes and funding. There are many things voters overwhelmingly support, such as medicare for all, gun control, and climate change initiatives. However, these are the exact things big-ticket donors despise, which makes building a coalition on the left hard. Faced with this challenge, liberals tend to turn away from policy and focus again on things that are usually uncontroversial like process, decorum, compromise, and bipartisanship. To be fair, these are things that everyone left of center misses in Washington. But, none of these things are results, they are a means to getting results. This causes the modern democrat to over-focus on how to get things done, and not focus on what should get done. Think about Manchin’s statements about President Biden’s infrastructure bill. Manchin is quoted as saying he supports a big infrastructure bill paid for by tax hikes, but it must be passed in a bipartisan way, unlike the American Rescue Plan.
Just recently, President Biden released a statement saying that he has come to an agreement for a bipartisan infrastructure bill, where the Democrats heavily compromised on everything they wanted. Just one day after the announcement was made, Republican Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) came out and vowed to filibuster the new bipartisan bill, even after the Democrats caved to all their demands. What’s their reasoning for this? Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi came out and said that she wouldn’t hold a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill until a separate reconciliation bill is passed that addresses key parts of the democratic agenda such as child tax credits, home elder care, and free community college. But this isn’t news to Republicans. Biden released his infrastructure plan and family plan side by side almost two months ago and laid out his strategy. When asked about the two bills on June 14, Republican Senators Todd Young (R-IN) and Mike Rounds (R-SD) acknowledged that they couldn’t stop the separate reconciliation bill from passing. So why are Republicans pretending to be outraged now? Because this statement wiped out the Republican party’s strategy to defeat the partisan bill. Agreeing to the bipartisan bill was the best way to throw a wrench into the democrat’s plan. By agreeing to the “bipartisan” parts of the plan such as new money for roads, bridges, and broadband, it would make it harder for moderate democratic senators to vote for the partisan bill. Who could’ve known that Republicans were negotiating in bad faith again? For Democrats, this forms a philosophy about government that is both highly flawed and highly exploitable. The valuing of means at the expense of ends. In Manchin and Sinema’s minds, it’s better to pass a bipartisan bill that worsens the conditions of U.S. citizens rather than passing a partisan bill that improves the lives of U.S. citizens.
After witnessing the classlessness of Republicans, the democratic senator throws up their hands and says “Screw it, I’m going to do what Republicans should be doing. I’m going to look for compromise and avoid partisan politics. Even if our democracy falls apart, no one can say that I didn’t do my job”. Once upon a time, Democrats genuinely believed this was leading by example. But I don’t think they’re under any illusions today that this will appeal to Republican’s better nature. But Democrats keep doing it because on some subconscious level they believe it. To us as citizens, the most important question is “what happens next”? Republicans break a rule, Democrats take the high road, and what happens next in practice? The answer is: Republicans get what they want, and Democrats get a philosophical victory. But when the questions that govern our lives are: ‘Will my child die in the emergency room because I can’t afford their medical treatment’? Or ‘Will I get shot by police’? Unless a philosophical victory will get my child a blood transfusion, trusting the system and following the rules to the bitter end is a horrible idea. I wish I could say that Republicans are solely responsible for the downfall of American democracy, but the sad truth is Democrats will be just as responsible if they continue to enable Republicans. As Democrats like Manchin and Sinema continue to take the “moral high ground” our democracy will continue to fall apart. Republicans will continue to pass their rebranded version of Jim Crow through voter suppression, our earth will be destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of people will continue to die needlessly.