Forbearance and mutual respect. Ever heard of these terms? If you’re older than 47, or are a student of American history these terms should be have a familiar ring. They are the “norms or unwritten rules” which fill in the gaps our governing document – the Constitution – leaves open to interpretation or changing times. They explain politics in these United States operated from the late 19th Century through three-quarters of the 20th Century. They also explain why nothing like the election of President Donald Trump and his democracy destroying administration had not happened in this country since the Civil War.
In their book “How Democracies Die,” Steven Livitsky and Daniel Ziblatt propose that the Constitution is not enough to prevent an autocratic leaning leader like President Trump from shaking the very foundation of our democratic republic and perhaps even toppling the government. They point to other non-coded traditions long established here in the United States that complement the Constitution and enable the government to function ... or at least to a degree it has not during this administration or the previous couple of both parties.
Forbearance in American politics is the recognition of the party not in total power that the “other” side was voted in and deserves their – at least partial – cooperation and patience. After all, what goes around comes around and eventually the political party with the most members elected to our Congress will run afoul of the majority of voters and lose their majority and power. Mutual respect is the understanding that although the other party’s viewpoint doesn’t align with yours, they deserve your respect as fellow Americans and patriots who are working together with you for the betterment of this country. Not exactly the viewpoint demonstrated by the last 40 years of politics in America.
And yet that’s exactly what Americans thought and felt about politics in this country pre-1992. According to Livitsky and Ziblatt a 1960 poll “asked Americans how they’d feel if their child married someone who identified with another political party.” At that time only 4 percent of Democrats and 5 percent of Republicans said they’d feel somewhat unhappy. By 2010, 33 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans said they’d be unhappy. And by “2016 a Pew survey found 49 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats” said the other party makes them afraid. I’ll bet that if reading this and you were honest with yourself, you’d probably feel the same way today. If you are in the majority of people in Central Pennsylvania today, you’d probably feel betrayed if a daughter or son said they were going to vote Democratic in 2020.
When I graduated college in 1983 if someone described to me “a country in which candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of stealing the election or establishing a dictatorship, and parties used their legislative majorities to impeach presidents and steal supreme court seats ...,” I’d have thought they were speaking of some Latin-American or other third-world country. However here we are in 2019 and the “other” side are portrayed as “traitors” or “un-American.” That wasn’t always the case, and unfortunately for those of us who from 1972 through 2008 considered ourselves solidly conservative and Republican ... the change from respected opponent to traitor was caused by, you will probably deny it, Conservative (and eventually Tea-Party) Republicans.
One of the originators of this shift from mutual respect for political opponents to disdain and vilification was none other than Republican Newt Gingrich. When elected after two failed attempts in 1978, Gingrich said to fellow Republicans, “You are fighting a war. It is a war for power ...” Later in the 1990s Gingrich advised his fellow Republicans running for Congress to use terms such as, “pathetic, sick, bizarre, betray, anti-flag, antifamily, and traitor,” when talking about their Democratic opponents. During his tenure the use of congressional filibusters by the minority party went from seven to eight per year during the 1970s to 80 for the year from 1993 to 1994. The party of “No” was thus invented.
Lest you Republican stalwarts think President Trump is the poor victim of this game of toxic politics, a quick review of recent political history will point out your too obvious error. Days after his election, Republican Congressman Paul Brown said President Obama’s administration would usher in a “dictatorship comparable to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.” Sarah Palin Claimed Obama was a “closet Muslim ... He’s no Christian ... we’re seeing a Socialist Communist in the White House.” And a “millionaire real estate developer” from New York claimed Obama wasn’t even a legitimate American citizen. Senate Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell, took the position that the highest objective of their legislature was to make sure Obama served only one term.
Senate Republicans broke with tradition which had lasted from the establishment of our Republic when 46 Republicans wrote an open letter to the leadership in Iran insisting that President Obama had no authority to negotiate a nuclear deal. Republicans first held our economy hostage under Obama when they refused to raise the debt ceiling in 2011 after years of both Democratic and Republican majorities doing just that. Finally in 2016 the Republican Senate refused to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Before 2016 a president’s nomination hadn’t been refused since the era of Reconstruction after the Civil War.
The point is dear readers, the America you and I were born into doesn’t exist and may not be a “Democratic Republic” by the time we leave this earth ... if the norms and traditions of our first 200 years don’t start returning to normal in 2020. The next time you hear our president “joke” about not leaving office, or some conservative news outlet suggests a “Trump Dynasty” is upon us, consider whether you want to live in the United States as defined by the likes of Presidents George Washington (who refused another term and a monarchy), Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln or a Autocracy ruled by the Trump Family.