Bipartisanship as patriotism

I started quietly screaming here.

But my deep revulsion for what the United States government, my government, the government elegantly outlined in our founding documents, is doing along our southern border (not the northern border with majority-northern-European Canada, mind you) boiled over the other night in this (annotated) 1,000+-word reply to a similar cri de coeur on the Bone and Silver blog.

The US faces an epistemological crisis. Some 20-25% of the population–primarily rural white Protestant men with at most a high school diploma (culturally conservative, isolationist, economically populist)–has been conditioned by right-wing propaganda (Fox News, talk radio mostly) for 30+ years to believe that all of their problems are caused by a long list of “others”: blacks (dangerous criminals), Spanish-speaking immigrants (drug-lord rapists and murderers who want your jobs), Muslims (terrorists), LGBQT folks (out to destroy your families), the mass media (lying to you), liberals (wimpy snowflakes who hate you and your values and *your* country) and the globalist-coastal elites (sending *your* jobs and country overseas, or something).

[Eds. note: I have no idea how large this segment of the population is. Trump’s 2016 share of the voting-age population was 25.0%, according to data from here and here. While not all Trump voters fit this characterization, an identical 25% (on average) support Trump’s recent immigration actions. And about 24% of American adults solely get their news from Fox News. The overlap between these groups is probably quite large, though well below 100%. Still, even if the percentage is only half of my upper limit—12.5%–that is still 1 in 8 Americans over the age of 18.] 

The crisis is that these Americans literally live in a different reality, with different news sources and accepted truths. This self-contained echo chamber is the only way they can sustain their paranoid grievances. And what they most fear is not loss of economic status but loss of racial/cultural status. They see an encroaching diverse modernity in which they have little-to-no status, which existentially terrifies them.

And so they cultishly follow an autocrat who echoes and validates their worst fears:  Mexicans and Muslims and transgendered folks and black athletes and liberals and Democrats and the media and China and our allies (Canada? Really?) are out to get *them*.

They are so deep in this twisted (yet infinitely self-justified) worldview that they no longer see these “others” as human beings, at some primitive level. *They* are animals who will “infest” (in 45’s words) THEIR country and destroy THEIR way of life. 

Yeah, you say, but they are outnumbered at least 3-1, so why is this happening?

This 20-25% of the population has an outsized influence on the Republican Party (which has cynically nurtured their paranoia for political gain since Nixon was first elected president in 1968), particularly which Republicans get nominated—and especially since the election of an urbane black man as president in 2008. That was a bridge too far for them, and for the Republican Party, who (to prevent losing nominations to further-right-wing candidates) vowed absolute opposition to him. They are also geographically dispersed across enough districts to elect enough like-minded Republicans to effectively control a majority of state houses and the United States House of Representatives. And, in a 17-person field, they coalesced around Trump early enough to allow him to win the nomination, sweeping aside an establishment that could not (or would not) coalesce around a more “mainstream” alternative (not that their choices were all that impressive). Once the Democrats nominated the equally-flawed Hillary Clinton, after Democrats had controlled the White House for 8 years…well, he still only won by 77,000 votes in three states (while losing the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points—the Electoral College’s Republican advantage at work again).

The thing is, 45’s policy advisors–including the all-but-Nazi Stephen Miller–truly think that they beat Clinton not because she was a bad candidate at the wrong time, but because they mistakenly believe that most of the country is as right-wing nationalist/racist as they are. Here, they are flat wrong, but for arcane structural reasons, it may still take a tidal wave of Democratic votes to wrest back the House this November (the Senate will be tougher, but I am optimistic). 

And as with any tribalist cult, they make up in passion and cunning what they lack in numbers, including voting at higher rates, while using every trick to maximize their electoral advantage (less through gerrymandering than through suppression). They do this because they legitimately see the “not-them” as Manichean enemies who must be stopped at all costs. For them, ends justify cruel, immoral and, yes, anti-democratic means: when push comes to shove, safety/security generally trumps (pun intended) liberal democracy. 

The thing is, though, even if Democrats win back the House (likely) and the Senate (30% chance?) and a bunch of state houses…actually, many good things will happen (if only by preventing more bad things from happening). But the crisis will still exist. This squeaky-wheel minority will, if anything, feel more aggrieved and more isolated and more desperate to fight inexorable change. And Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones and the National Enquirer and Breitbart will continue to echo and amplify their increasingly-distorted reality, not only because it serves their own interests (and bottom-lines) to do so–they also genuinely fear the consequences of suddenly backing off decades of crazy-stroking. 

So how do we fix this? How do we get a sprawling, impossibly-diverse nation of nearly 400 million people back on the same “we are all in this together” page (begging the question whether, besides WWII, we ever were)? How do we get these reality-denying folks to accept the reality of climate change, the trade-offs between secure borders and nurturing compassion, the tragic consequences of an overly-gun-permissive society (the unique Constitutional protection afforded guns has morphed into Constitutional protection of THEIR way of life—restricting the former is a direct assault on the latter), the value of expertise, the benefits of a multi-cultural/multi-ethnic society (a wider talent pool, if nothing else), and so forth?

I have absolutely no idea.

But as I see one California couple raise nearly $15 million almost overnight on Facebook to provide legal services for these newly-detained immigrants and their lost children, as I see more and more Republicans abandoning/staring down their party (thank you, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker), as I see the mainstream media absolutely refusing to back down from their Constitutionally-protected duty to investigate and report and expose, as I see Robert Mueller—a lifelong Republicandiligently pursuing his own investigations, as I watch previously apathetic citizens taking to the streets in protest…I have hope that the “sensible” (if not always ideologically-unified) 75+% will regain the “values” upper-hand and restore everything I have always loved about my country. 

The aggrieved minority may never accept what we understand as reality, because it is too existentially painful. But they are still my fellow Americans, and I must share our nation with them, just as they have to share it with folks like me. All I can do is continue to call out their nonsense in the clearest possible terms in the perhaps-naive hope that enough of them will eventually snap out of it.

Otherwise…we may simply have to wait as their numbers shrink even further, as the demographers insist will happen. 

Do not give up on this country…we ARE better than this.

Upon further reflection, though, I do have one practical suggestion, however, though it may not appeal to everyone: active bipartisanship.

It is telling in this regard that my second-ever post presented my bipartisan bona fides. My goal was to insulate myself against criticism (yet to materialize) that my liberal Democratic views biased my political and cultural data analyses. My meticulous sourcing also serves that purpose—allowing critical readers to fact-check my assertions and draw their own conclusion. In this, my academic roots clearly show: transparency in methods, data and sources.

But I think that post also stemmed from my hope that sufficient elected Republicans would stand up to the newly-elected President, thwarting his most anti-democratic impulses.

Shockingly few Republican elected officials, however, have done so. Yes, Republican Senators Susan Collins (Maine), John McCain (Arizona) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) voted NOT to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And Republican Senators Bob Corker (Tennessee) and Jeff Flake (Arizona), both of whom chose not to seek reelection in 2018, have at time publicly expressed deep reservations about President Trump.

But those moments have been few and far between. The reality is that Republicans, for all their protestations, have mostly voted for whatever President Trump has wanted. According to the FiveThirtyEight vote tracker, the median Republican United States Senator (51 currently serving) has voted with the President’s position a median 93.2% of the time, with 41 (80.4%) voting with his position at least 90% of the time; the “least” loyal Republican Senators were Rand Paul (Kentucky) and Collins, who still supported the President on at least 75% of votes. The obeisance was slightly higher for Republican members of the United States House of Representatives (US House; 235 currently serving who have cast at least one vote[1]): median support was 96.2%, with 193 (82.1%) voting with the President at least 90% of the time; the two least-loyal Republican House members have only voted with the President half of the time—Walter Jones (NC-3; 52.2%) and Justin Amash (MI-3; 53.0%). Curiously, the most vulnerable Republican House members, the 22 who represent congressional districts Clinton won in 2016, backed the President a median 97.0% of the time.

Instead, the few “profiles in courage” have come from state houses. Thirty-three states currently have Republican governors, with 16 having Democratic governors; Alaska Governor Bill Walker is an Independent.

Ohio Governor John Kasich famously challenged Trump from the (relative) left during the 2016 Republican presidential primaries and caucuses; he remains a vocal thorn in the President’s side. Three other Republican governors: Baker, Larry Hogan (Maryland), Phil Scott (Vermont)—remain enormously popular (68% approve/18% disapprove, on average) in states that are 24.1 percentage points more Democratic than the nation as a whole (using this calculation). Besides being genuinely likable, they remain popular by working—often in direct opposition to “their” President—closely with their states’ majority Democratic legislatures, carving out socially moderate-to-liberal and fiscally conservative positions.

Although I have lived in Massachusetts for most of the last 30 years, I never really followed Baker’s ascent, though I knew he was the chief Republican “up-and-comer” after his successful stint directing Harvard Pilgrim Health Care starting in 1999. In 2010, he was the Republican nominee against incumbent Democratic Governor Deval Patrick; Baker lost 48.4 to 42.0%.

charlie baker

A few months later, I was sitting in a Boston restaurant having lunch with my then-supervisor, when she nudged my arm. “Isn’t that himself?” she asked. I turned around to see Baker walk right near out table.That was when I realized how TALL he is (6’6”).

On August 25 of the previous year, Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy had died, after serving in the US Senate for almost 47 years. A special election to fill the seat through January 2013 was held on January 19, 2010. Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley and little-known Republican State Senator Scott Brown easily won their primaries, and the prevailing wisdom was that Coakley would easily prevail against Brown. Instead, Brown upset Coakley 51.9 to 47.1%. (I drove through central Massachusetts with both daughters the weekend before the election, seeing no Coakley signs but quite a few Brown signs; uh-oh, I thought).

Four years later, with Patrick term-limited, Coakley was now the Democratic nominee for governor, seemingly a stronger candidate after her upset defeat. Baker was again the Republican gubernatorial nominee. And this time he won, 48.4 to 46.5%.

I did not vote for Baker in 2014 (just as I did not vote for Republican gubernatorial nominee William Weld in 1990 when he was, in many ways, more liberal than Democratic nominee Jon Silber—I now regret that vote). However, watching the debates between Coakley and Baker, I was struck by how much I LIKED Baker. Where Coakley was robotic and stiff, Baker was warm and engaging. His Harvard-educated brilliance shown through, but with an appealing everyman demeanor: he was clearly enjoying himself.

Because I think Coakley, with her flaws, would still have been a good governor, I do not regret my vote. But neither was I particularly upset that Baker won.

And since then, I have only grown to respect Baker more. He is more fiscally conservative than I would prefer, but his consistent willingness to call out Trump when necessary, well, trumps those positions.

I was wavering on voting for him this November (regardless of who the Democratic nominee is) until he forcefully “revoked his decision to send National Guard helicopters and personnel to the Southwestern border,” citing the inhumane treatment of children by the Trump Administration.

That did it: Nell and I will be voting to reelect Baker this fall, even as we joyfully vote for Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren and our member of Congress, Joseph P. Kennedy III, also a Democrat.

Here is also why I will be voting for Baker in four+ months.

If I am calling on select Republicans to defy their President and work in a bipartisan fashion with Democrats, it would be massively hypocritical for me not to support a more-than-reasonable Republican who has done exactly that. Every time I cheer a former Republican speaking out against the President on MSNBC, I need to be able to match that gesture with one of my own.

Simply put, I cannot ask someone to do something—be actively bipartisan—without being willing to do the same thing myself.

Moreover, the only way to break down the tribalist partisanship that causes us to see persons with the wrong “label” as a mortal enemy is to elevate bipartisanship into an act of patriotism.

The stakes of the Cold War were so monumental that partisanship was supposed to stop at the water’s edge: there was to be no squabbling over matters of life and death. While that was not always true, particularly as the Vietnam War divided the Democratic Party and Democrats took President Ronald Reagan to task for his aggressively anti-Soviet Union posturing, that credo still serves as an excellent model for reimagining bipartisanship as patriotism.

Would I still vote for Baker if he were not heavily favored to win, meaning Nell’s and my votes will in no way be decisive? I do not know, to be honest. But were he not so effective AND anti-Trump, he would not be so popular, so the question kind of answers itself.

It is exceptionally difficult for lifelong partisans like me—this will only be the second time I vote Republican—even to consider opposing point of view (though it can be done), let alone voting for a candidate of the opposite party. But I firmly believe these actions are the best—maybe the only—ways to begin to solve our current epistemological crisis.

Until next time…

[1] 240 overall

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