Everyone was young once, and some of us were young in the sixties, and we were going to change the world – but it refused to change. Many took to the streets in Chicago in 1968, or wish they had, to change things by disrupting the Democratic National Convention. Do that, shame them, and that party would become the antiwar party, not the sort-of antiwar party. Everyone knew the Vietnam War was worse than pointless by then, it had become shameful. Lyndon Johnson knew. He refused to run for another term. Things would change, but Gene McCarthy, with a strong showing in the early primaries that had let Johnson know he’d lost his mojo, had given up early on, and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated that summer, a few months after Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Bobby Kennedy’s last words, just after he won the California primary, were “Now, on to Chicago!”
He never made it. All the Democrats had left to offer to America was the hapless Hubert Humphrey. The Republicans had Richard Nixon, who spoke of law and order, and respect for things as they had always been. He stopped the antiwar left, with some sort of revolution on its mind, dead in its tracks.
Nixon won easily, and he had let the nation know that the war would not end unless we had “peace with honor” – but there really was no honorable way out. The war would go on and on and on. Gerald Ford finally pulled the plug, long after Nixon had resigned in disgrace.
Things finally worked out, but none of this had anything to do with taking to the streets in 1968, or at any other time and place. The voice of the new generation was heard. It was loud and clear, but those who run the world carried on as usual. The times weren’t a-changing. This wasn’t the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius. The new generation should have realized that in 1969 when that song became a smash hit for The Fifth Dimension – one of the slickest pop groups around, a group that even your perpetually terrified Republican mother could love. They made a ton of money. Harmony and understanding, and sympathy and trust abounding, and the mind’s true liberation, were another matter. Those five things didn’t show up in real life. They never do.
But why not try just one more time? Joe Biden did. That’s what Andrew Sullivan explains here:
Chris Wallace of Fox News called Joe Biden’s Inaugural address the best he had ever heard. John Heilemann almost likened it to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. It wasn’t, of course. But in celebrating this country’s liberation from a uniquely delusional, malevolent sociopath in the White House, and his violent mobs, they may be forgiven for a little hyperbole. And Joe Biden’s speech, the most important he has given in his life, was definitely a good speech. It did what it had to do. It wasn’t “some weird shit” as George W. Bush is reported to have said about Trump’s. But equally, it wasn’t fresh or eye-opening; it had none of Obama’s rhetorical genius; or Reagan’s. There is not a line in it that we will be able to remember for very long.
But it matched the occasion: it was conventional, banal even, and anodyne. And how much we’ve missed banality! Biden boldly asked us to be against “anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness,” and to reaffirm the “history, faith and reason” that provides unity.
Sure. Okay. At that level of pabulum, who indeed could differ? And a nation united in pabulum is better than one divided into two tribal camps waging an “uncivil war” against each other about everything.
And if Biden sticks to this kind of common ground, it will serve him well.
Sullivan doesn’t expect that:
Biden has shown this week that his other ambitions are much more radical. On immigration, Biden is way to Obama’s left, proposing a mass amnesty of millions of illegal immigrants, a complete moratorium on deportations, and immediate revocation of the bogus emergency order that allowed Trump to bypass Congress and spend money building his wall. Fine, I guess. But without very significant addition of border controls as a deterrent, this sends a signal to tens of millions in Central to South America to get here as soon as possible. Biden could find, very quickly, that the “unity” he preaches will not survive such an effectively open-borders policy, or another huge crisis at the border.
He is doubling down on the very policies that made a Trump presidency possible. In every major democracy, mass immigration has empowered the far right. Instead of easing white panic about changing demographics, Biden just intensified it.
That’s just one of Sullivan’s many gripes, which seem to be about Biden’s refusal to tell everyone on the right that their fear and anger are both justified, Ease their panic. Lie to them.
That may be a bit too harsh. Sullivan is a more subtle thinker than that. But subtle thinking is rare now. Slate’s Jordan Weissmann sees this:
Joe Biden used his inaugural address this week to call for a new era of national unity, promising to put his “whole soul” into bringing the country together after the vitriol, violence, and collective trauma of the Trump years. And how are Republicans responding? Largely by trying to club the president with his own words, accusing him of being “divisive” every time he opens his mouth or signs a sheet of paper…
Some conservatives have worked themselves into a righteous huff by accusing the president of demonizing them during his speech, in which he said the country faced “a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat” and urged Americans to “reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”
To the average listener, these lines may have sounded like a straightforward acknowledgment of the fact that a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters, a number of whom were decked out with white supremacist symbols, had just sacked the U.S. Capitol after being fed lies about a stolen election. But Republicans like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said they took personal offense. “If you read his speech and listen to it carefully, much of it is thinly veiled innuendo calling us white supremacists, calling us racists, calling us every name in the book, calling us people who don’t tell the truth,” he told Fox News.
Joe didn’t say that, so Weissmann says this:
Assuming it isn’t just pure bad faith, Paul’s reaction seems to say more about him than it does about Biden.
Rand Paul may have looked in a mirror, but others were just trying out this and that:
Most Republicans seem to have wisely chosen not to align themselves with a group of insurrectionists. Instead, they’ve stuck to accusing Biden of preaching togetherness while governing as a partisan, or pairing “unity themes and divisive actions,” as Sen. John Cornyn charged. Some are keeping the criticisms vague and general. Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that a “radical leftist agenda in a divided country will not help unify our country, it will only confirm 75 million Americans biggest fears about the new administration.” Others have singled out specific moves, such as Biden’s executive orders aimed at halting new fossil fuel development. “When it comes to energy policy, the Biden administration is off to a divisive & disastrous start,” Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso carped.
Even niche regional issues risk separating Americans back into warring camps, if Republicans are to be believed. Mitt Romney, for instance, suggested that Biden’s moves to restore the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah back to their previous sizes, after Donald Trump slashed them with a controversial executive order in 2017, “will not solve the root of the problem and will only deepen divisions in this country.”
And it’s all nonsense:
All of these criticisms amount to a single idea: that Biden is somehow betraying his promise to try and bring together the country by fulfilling his campaign pledges and governing like an actual Democrat. This claim is fundamentally wrong, but it benefits from having just enough surface-level plausibility that some reporters and reflexively centrist pundits may buy it. After all, when a sitting president does things that the opposition party doesn’t like, it is by definition divisive, in the sense that it leads to disagreement. There is no real way around that fact.
In short, he is not doing what they want. But why should he? This is not their world:
Republicans oppose many policies that are overwhelmingly popular with the public, such as raising the minimum wage or reducing carbon emissions, and while Democrats might create conflict in Congress by pursuing them, they wouldn’t necessarily be dividing voters in a meaningful way. Furthermore, many of the conflicts tearing the country apart are fundamentally cultural battles over identity that have very little to do with specific policy debates in Washington, and it’s possible for Biden to present himself as a president who – unlike Trump, who constantly denigrated his opponents – respects and cares about voters who didn’t back him without caving in to Republicans on, say, the size of a national monument or whether we allow oil drilling in Alaska.
So it comes down to this:
The whole point of Biden’s inaugural was that we need to coalesce around some of the basic civic and democratic ideals that Donald Trump tried to shred so that we can go back to disagreeing about policy without trying to murder one another. As the president put it: “Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”
He asked Americans to relearn how to love their neighbors; he did not promise to make Republicans happy with every executive action. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous.
But it may be effective. It’s the attitude. Politico reports this:
When Joe Biden issued an executive order this week requiring mask-wearing on federal properties, it was framed as the least controversial provision he would issue early in his presidency.
“It’s not a political statement,” he said, “it’s a patriotic act.”
But shortly after the newly elected president uttered that plea, some Republicans made clear that even this ask wouldn’t go over well with them.
“The Biden administration is already headed in the wrong direction,” Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) said on Friday. “Continued federal overreach won’t end the Covid-19 pandemic or put food on the table.”
And within days, it became clearer that opponents wouldn’t just complain about the mask mandate, but actively fight it, too.
“Definitely expect lawsuits from our state, private lawsuits,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas-based GOP strategist and former campaign manager to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
And of course this too is nonsense:
While Republicans are warning about the potential for overreach, it does not appear that the White House will take a direct role in penalizing those who flout the mask mandate. A White House official said that agencies will be tasked with enforcing the order as they see fit. National parks also must abide by the mask order, but the White House says it is allowing for officials overseeing the parks to create their own guidelines for indoor and outdoor spaces on their properties.
At least one attorney who has headed a court case opposing mask mandates, said the language in Biden’s order appeared tightly written, perhaps in anticipation of legal challenges.
“In the summary I reviewed, I see evidence of careful thought and planning to anticipate challenges,” said Seldon Childers, a Florida attorney who has a pending case challenging mask mandates. “I think they will probably prevail on having authority regulations.”
But forget the legal stuff:
Scientists and epidemiologists say mask wearing is a critical means to slow the spread of Covid. And it wasn’t a surprise that Biden made the mandate one of his first acts in office. Throughout the campaign, he had pledged to take the action on the first day of his presidency.
But the pushback has, nevertheless, been visceral. A month ago, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) was chiding Biden’s mask mandate idea on Twitter. “On day one,” he said, “I will tell you to kiss my ass.”
And he did. But there’s much more going on:
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough tore into Fox News on Friday, rebuking the widely watched conservative network over two recent segments in particular – one of which he described as “especially sick and damaging.”
The co-host of “Morning Joe” first slammed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) – who is now a Fox News contributor – for falsely asserting Thursday that President Joe Biden’s team is made of “radicals who believe if they could exterminate the Republicans, that would be one way to get to unity.”
“Let me say that again for Fox News sponsors,” Scarborough said. “They’re getting people who are Fox News contributors, who are saying that Democrats – Joe Biden and Democrats want to, quote, ‘exterminate all Republicans.’”
Yeah, but it’s just Newt. He’s like that, but of course that will be the word now – extermination – genocide. Grab your guns, and then there was this:
Scarborough then called out a claim from Tucker Carlson, the network’s prime-time personality. Earlier this week, Carlson said that the thousands of troops sent to secure Washington ahead of President Joe Biden’s inauguration (and following the U.S. Capitol riot by pro-Trump supporters incited by the former president) were just a political weapon being used by the Democrats to say, “We’re in charge now.”
“This is sick,” Scarborough said of Carlson’s declaration. “It’s especially sick and damaging. Here we are, what, a couple weeks after an insurrection against the United States of America?”
Scarborough went on for a bit, wondering what will happen now that Carlson and Fox News have identified this country’s military as the Democratic Military, out to intimidate all Republicans. Are they the enemy now? They would stop patriots from storming the Capitol and assassinating Pelosi and all the rest, to reinstall Trump as president once again. That would make our military the bad guys. Carlson said there was no reason at all for them to be there for the inauguration, other than to intimidate the real patriots there and all across America.
Carlson is who he is, but Greg Sargent sees beyond him:
Let’s talk about the real reason for all this anger. It’s because Biden placed the primary blame for our recent breakdown precisely where it belongs: On right-wing extremism.
Biden did state clearly that unity requires “the defeat” of “political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism.” As it happens, intelligence services agree that violent white supremacy is “the most persistent and lethal threat” facing the homeland, and that Trump’s lie about the election’s illegitimacy threatens to incite more extremist violence going forward.
To be clear, this cannot mean intelligence or law enforcement is used in any way to denigrate or target legitimate right-wing political activity. Such overreach is a genuine danger with a long history in this country. We need to draw a hard line against it and not let that line get fuzzy.
But Biden is absolutely correct in saying that the primary threat to unity in this country – to civic peace, to democratic coexistence, to mutual acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the opposition – is the bundle of right-wing movements he described.
And if so, then this:
Right-wing extremism is responsible for the crisis we all just lived through. Full stop. This is not to say left-wing extremism is never a problem or that the protests over the summer didn’t get violent at times.
Rather, it’s to say that our post-election cataclysm was entirely driven by a war on democracy waged entirely by the right. The sentiments unleashed and harnessed for this purpose dramatically dwarf anything we’ve seen recently on the left.
So, don’t lie:
Republicans want to cast our problem as one of generalized division. In fact, it is that anti-democracy forces have waged sustained warfare, sometimes violent, on pro-democracy ones.
Republicans want to make all this disappear, precisely because many of them actively encouraged and fed all those sentiments. This does not mean they are directly to blame for the violent storming of the Capitol. But it does mean they bear culpability for feeding the authoritarian and democracy-despising impulses that drove the assault.
Large swaths of the GOP spent months feeding the lie that the election’s outcome was illegitimate. They stood by while Trump whipped up his supporters into believing that delusion and tried to corruptly strong-arm officials into helping him steal the election. After the assault, more than 100 congressional Republicans voted to overturn the results.
That didn’t work, but this isn’t over:
Their game now is to extort a price in exchange for agreeing that Biden is actually pursuing unity. That price is that Democrats must refrain from holding them accountable for all they’ve done to feed the impulses that threatened to tear the country apart.
Republicans now think they can exploit a tendency in press coverage to place the entire onus of “unity” on Biden. The president promised unity, but he hasn’t soothed Republicans, who say he’s being divisive. Why can’t he deliver unity?
We are not required to play this game. Biden may or may not succeed in securing “unity.” But Republicans don’t get to unilaterally dictate in advance what counts as a true attempt to achieve it.
In fact, they lost, and Jamelle Bouie sees this:
Donald Trump was a stress test for our democracy. And as we begin to assess the damage from his time in office, it’s clear we did not do especially well.
Forces we thought would constrain Trump out of simple self-preservation – public opinion and the demands of the election cycle – were of no concern to a president with ironclad loyalty from his base and a multipronged propaganda network at his side.
Institutions we thought would curb his worst behavior – the courts, the federal bureaucracy – had a mixed record, enabling his desires as often as they stymied his most destructive impulses.
And Congress, designed to check and challenge a lawless president, struggled to do its job on account of partisanship and party loyalty. With just 34 senators on his side, a president can act with virtual impunity, secure in the knowledge that he won’t be removed from office, even if the House votes to impeach him and a majority of senators wants to see him go.
That’s a structural issue, but this was too close a call:
Yes, we held an election, and yes, Trump actually left the White House – the Secret Service did not have to drag him out. But the difference between our reality and one where Trump overturned a narrow result in Biden’s favor is just a few tens of thousands of votes across a handful of states. If it were Pennsylvania or Arizona alone that meant the difference between victory and defeat, are we so sure that Republican election officials would have resisted the overwhelming pressure of the president and his allies? Are we absolutely confident the Supreme Court would not have intervened? Do we think the Republican Party wouldn’t have done everything it could to keep Trump in the White House?
We don’t have to speculate too much. At points before the election, key actors signaled some willingness to stand with Trump should the results come close enough to seriously contest. And recent reporting from Axios shows that the plan, from the start, was to try to use any ambiguity in the results to claim victory, even if Trump lacked the votes.
We were saved, in short, by the point spread. This does not reflect well on American democracy. But it does make clear the source of our dysfunction: The Republican Party.
And now everyone has seen what that party is:
The Republican Party in 2021 is a party in near total thrall to its most radical elements, a party that in the main – as we just witnessed a few weeks ago – does not accept that it can lose elections and seeks to overturn or delegitimize the result when it does. It disseminates false accusations of voter fraud and then uses those accusations to justify voter suppression and disenfranchisement. It feeds lies to its supporters and uses those lies, as Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley did, to challenge the fundamental processes of our democracy.
When in power in Washington, the Republican Party can barely govern, and when out of power, it does almost everything it can to stymie the government’s ability to act. And it was the party’s nearly unbreakable loyalty to Trump that neutered the impeachment power and enabled his fight to overturn constitutional government, which ended on Jan. 6 with a deadly mob wilding through the Capitol.
To even begin to fix American democracy, we have to make the Republican Party less dangerous than it is.
But that won’t be easy:
The optimal solution would be to build our two-party system into a multiparty one that splits the radical from the moderate Right and gives the latter a chance to win power without appeal to the former. But this requires fundamental change to the American system of elections, which is to say, it’s not going to happen anytime soon (and may never).
The only other alternative – the only thing that might force the Republican Party to shift gears – is for the Democratic Party to establish national political dominance of the kind not seen since the heyday of the New Deal coalition.
That is, win every election by a ten to one margin – at least ninety percent of the vote every single time. Otherwise, you cheated! But that’s unlikely too, but do something:
The crisis of our democracy is far from over. The most we’ve won, with Trump’s departure, is a respite from chaos and a chance to make whatever repairs we can manage.
But really, only one thing will fix this. Harmony and understanding, and sympathy and trust abounding, and the mind’s true liberation. Really? Nothing will fix this.