Joe Biden gave a hopeful inaugural speech. He spoke of national healing, compassion, action, unity:
For without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage. No nation, only a state of chaos. This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.
His call for unity is authentic; he wants to bring Americans together. I do too. I’m optimistic that he can at least turn down the temperature of the last five years that twice saw Trump’s impeachment, a raging pandemic, and a politics defined by anger, resentment, and division. My fear is that his administration’s calming tone and greater competency will only be temporary, the window dressing that covers the deep and institutionalized problems our democracy faces. It appears to me that one party is actively pursuing a path that is counter productive to a true and lasting unity.
I’m speaking of course about the Republican Party.
Republicans have pounced on his call for unity. Trump’s impeachment trial, Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, and his executive orders somehow negate his call for unity. If Democrats decide to hold Trump’s impeachment trial or enact an agenda they ran and won on, they are not serious about bringing Americans together.
There are two dynamics at play here: a willful hypocrisy and a blindness to what it would actually take to achieve real and durable unity.
Hint: the onus is not on the Democrats.
The GOP unity rave
Let’s begin with the COVID relief package Biden has been pushing.
The plan’s sum: $1.9 trillion. A large number, but in the wheelhouse of what Americans need. Republicans immediately cried foul and saying it reeked with disunity. In response, 10 Republican Senators came to Biden with a counteroffer: a roughly $600 billion proposal. For them, if Biden was serious about unity, this $600 billion package—less than ⅓ of Biden’s plan—was where they should start.
It seems unity only begins when Democrats accede to their proposals.
The $600 billion “counter” was not a sign of unity. It was deeply unserious and rooted in a Republican economic ideology that dates back to 1980 and expired about 10 years ago. In those days, deficits and debt were bad, unless they came from tax cuts for the rich and corporations. If you could cut social spending, even better.
Democrats have since decided to push the package through without any GOP votes, where legislation requires 60 senators to effectively pass. In a 50-50 Senate and Kamala Harris as a tie-breaker, their only option is to use an arcane Senate procedure called budget reconciliation. In a nutshell, if Democrats limit what is in the stimulus package to effects on federal spending and revenue, don’t change social security, and make sure the plan doesn’t increase the federal deficit after 10 years, they’ll be able to use budget reconciliation to pass the $1.9 trillion package. Without budget reconciliation, Democrats would need 10 votes from Republicans.
Of course using budget reconciliation has only further enraged the newfound cabal of “unity Republicans”. But they don’t care about unity, they care about winning back the majority in 2022. With this package, they are dusting off an old tactic from 2009 during the Affordable Care Act debate. During that time, Republicans were also in the minority. Instead of engaging with Democrats on healthcare reform, they did everything they could to taint the ACA. They said it was done “behind closed doors” and voted on strictly by party lines with no Republican support. This play was central for Republicans in the 2010 midterms, when they took back the majority. Voters that weren’t paying much attention just saw headlines saying Dems were rushing Obamacare through with no GOP input, despite consistent efforts to get their input. In a country where most Americans want to see both parties working together to solve our problems, this turned many people off.
Today Republicans are singing the same tune. Dems are “ramming this stimulus package through” or other hyperbolic phrases. They say Democrats need to commit to bipartisanship. But Republicans have no true interest in unity, and the most obvious individual to highlight is Mitch McConnell.
Mitch will bring us together
At the very beginning of Barack Obama’s term McConnell stated that his party’s goal was to make Obama a one term president. That was followed by years of obstruction and stalling. Federal court vacancies piled up and important legislation on pressing issues died in the Senate. Fast forward to 2017: Donald Trump’s in the White House and Republicans control Congress. Democrats were in the same position McConnell was during the beginning of the Obama years. They could have stopped Republican priorities if they didn’t meet the 60 vote threshold. Republicans wanted two things that Democrats wouldn’t give them: Obamacare repeal and tax cuts.
When faced with this obstacle, what did Mitch do? Did he seek to unify the country and work with Democrats to pass bipartisan legislation, like he wants Democrats to do with this stimulus package? Of course not. He passed tax cuts for rich people and attempted to repeal Obamacare using—you guessed it—budget reconciliation, the same process Dems are using today. In 2017, Mitch summed up his true feelings on unity responded to Democratic protestors during a speaking engagement he had in Kentucky be saying to a reporter, “winners make policy, losers go home.”
Mitch, please stop, your deep belief in unity and bipartisanship is overwhelming me…
Where this unity “debate” is most dangerous is with Trump, the GOP’s growing authoritarian wing, and their awareness that in a culturally liberal and ethnically diversifying America, the best way to win is to entrench minority rule and curtail democracy.
The GOP and ruling by minority
On January 6th, Donald Trump told a crowd of rowdy supporters to march on the U.S. Capitol where Congress was counting the certified Electoral College results, which would cement Joe Biden’s victory. They walked to the capitol as a crowd, and quickly turned into a mob. They violently entered the building with the expressed purpose of stopping our constitutional democracy from performing a basic and foundational function: certifying the presidential election results.
Trump didn’t like the outcome, so he wanted his brainwashed sycophants to change it for him, the constitution be damned. The charges in Trump’s impeachment trial are that the president incited and directed this mob. Republicans however, say that Trump’s impeachment trial is yet another sign that Democrats are not serious about unity. To them, this impeachment trial is another iteration of Democrats obsession with Donald Trump and their disingenuous calls for unity.
Besides the obvious falsehoods leading up to the impeachment trial, think about the implications here. Republicans think that if you are a president in the last months of your term and you lose reelection, you can not only incite violence, you can channel it to stop a constitutional process. The impediments of unity here are not Democrats—and some Republicans—attempts at accountability and deterrence. It is the Republican Party and the fealty they pay to their base, one that has shown increasing antagonism towards democracy.
The GOP already has disproportionate influence in our system of government. They have outsized power in the Senate, the Electoral College, the Supreme Court, and they gerrymander House districts. Yet, there have been countless instances throughout America where when Democrats beat Republicans, the GOP further entrenches their minority rule. In Wisconsin, the state Republicans significantly curbed the powers of the newly elected Democratic Governor Tony Evers. The same thing happened in North Carolina after Roy Cooper won the Governor’s race in 2016. And after losing to Joe Biden, GOP state legislatures have been rushing to enact stricter measures around voting in attempts to ensure their opponents have a harder time casting a ballot. This is on top of years of voter ID laws, voter roll purges, modern day poll taxes, and shuttering polling places, just to name a few.
Republicans have been moving away from the foundational norms and values of our democratic republic for some time. When they lose the game, they change the rules so that in the next election their chances go up.
What real unity looks like
Picture two teams on a basketball court, Team R and Team D. All of the facilities and equipment are there. Both teams are “unified” in their understanding that they are about to play a game of basketball: you have to dribble to move, you can’t step out of bounds, every basket is two points unless it’s made from behind the 3-point line and so on. Without these rules and procedures, it’s just 10 people running around a gym.
What if Team R decides— after it loses a few games—that it is just going to change the rules? Why make their own team better when they can just sabotage their opponents? Maybe, when Team R shoots a 3-pointer it’s really 4 points. Maybe they say that Team D needs to prove that their players are actually members of the team by showing some ID. Team R just “heard” that there are teams out there with players who originally signed up with other teams but are playing for Team D. They provide no evidence, but continue pressing. Eventually, the rules favor Team R so heavily that it doesn’t even seem like they’re playing basketball anymore. They’re playing “Team R wins or they change the rules”.
That’s what’s happened to our politics. In order to maintain both power and their ideological beliefs, Republicans need to change the rules of the game and make it harder for Democrats to win. They pass voter-ID laws, purge voter rolls, pass gerrymandered district maps, and reap the rewards of the institutional bias our government has for smaller, rural states; states Republicans dominate in. They continue to entrench minority-rule and placate a growing authoritarian base voter who wields outsized influence in the Republican Party.
The Republican Party’s calls for unity are not serious. They are hollow. If they truly hoped to achieve unity, that would mean they understood that democracy—the rules and foundation of our system—come first. For true unity to be achieved, it is Republicans that need to do the leg work, not Democrats.
It can start with this impeachment trial, but I’m not holding my breath.