Pass the gavel

It’s our last hope.

In a little less than two weeks, the Democratic Party has a chance to win back control of the House of Representatives.  Should this happen, you can expect investigations on anything and everything related to the past activities of the slobs who presently govern us.  There will be grandstanding and grotesqueries.  There will be hot air.  There will be subcommittees on subcommittees for the examination of Jared Kushner’s underwear.   There will be pointless vengeance, and cops on the Hill, and there may, god help us, even be arrests.  It will be interminable, and it will be insufferable.  There is only one thing worse than the Democrats winning control of the House, and that is the Democrats *not* winning control of the House.

That would be a lot worse.  It would be so bad that I don’t even like to think about it.  But since there’s a decent chance that it will happen, I think we’ve got to stop what we’re doing (something to do with Gritty, I’m told) and take a good, honest look at what we’re up against, and the future we’re in for if the Republican Party maintains its House majority.  Because if you thought these past two years were a challenge to get through, they’d be a dainty prelude to the symphony of authoritarianism that would commence if the present direction of the country were to be ratified by voters on November 6.  We have one last chance to plot a course correction.  When you go into that ballot booth on the 6th — and buddy, you’d damn well better — you’ll have two options.  You can say, why yes, I approve of the policies that the regime in Washington is pursuing, and I wouldn’t mind one bit if they intensify.  Or you can help construct a bulwark against the tide.  It’s one or the other.

You wish there were more choices.  Me, too.  In a sane society, there surely would be.  There is a part of you — the noblest part, probably — that wants to reject my assessment altogether.  You don’t want to get in bed with institutional Democrats; you’ll back candidates who are unsullied by corporate money, or you’ll back nobody at all.  I understand the impulse.  But this time around, for the sake of national survival, you’re going to have to tell that voice to pipe down.  Allow me to explain why.

The American system of government was designed to prevent concentrations of power.  For every leader who thinks he had the right idea and won’t hear a counterargument, there are supposed to be two leaders in positions of equivalent authority whose role it is to throw cold water on the engine.  Ours is a complex society; that’s how we’ve been able to sustain human enterprise at the level and variety to which we’ve become accustomed.  The greatest threat to a country like ours is leadership that gallops off at top speed in a direction determined by a small group of like-minded executives.  That’s a sure way to keep half (and probably more) of the country pissed off and alienated all day.  Executives of both parties who’ve held the White House over the past sixty years have largely disregarded this, and they’ve looked to consolidate their power at the expense of those with the ability to keep it in check. In a way, you can’t blame them: expedience is an executive value.  Voters like men of action and expect their elected leaders to act decisively.  It’s the responsibility of the courts, the legislators, and the free press to say, nuh-uh, we need to build a broader consensus before we act.  This is government of the people, and that means all of the people; even those we find distasteful.

For the past two years, Republicans have held control of all three branches of government.  Unlike some, I don’t believe this outcome was engineered by wicked hackers overseas.  I see it as a considered decision made by voters.  That I also think it was an unwise decision is immaterial; American voters have made bad decisions before, and our right to choose wretched leaders if we want them is one of the cornerstones of civilian rule.  And many Americans do like to experiment: they threw the dice on a certain style of leadership in 2008, and threw them again eight years later on behalf of something quite different.  For reasons that I’ve outlined elsewhere, we’ve have come to demand governtainment, governtainment requires drama, and drama demands broad strokes and maybe even arch-villains to tilt against.  But even if you can’t resist a fireworks show, you must realize that concentrating power in the hands of any small group isn’t a risk worth taking.  The worry isn’t that you’re not going to get what you voted for.  The worry is you’re going to get far too much of it.

Unlike other single-party governments, this one didn’t take office with a head of steam.  This was because the vehicle of Republican ascension — its Presidential candidate — wasn’t trusted by the entire party.  Many Republicans had misgivings about their candidate’s priorities; others were plainly fine with them, but didn’t like his approach.  Some disliked his character on moral grounds, and some felt he wasn’t up to the job.  The new regime was loaded with people who didn’t know how Washington operated, and they stumbled out of the gate, making months worth of unforced errors.  What they could do with the blunt force of executive order, they did, but the rest of the plan took awhile to implement.  That bought us some time.

Unfortunately, time is up.  This administration has purged its internal enemies, straightened itself out, and is now talking in one awful voice.  The rest of the party has fallen in line behind the executive with the sort of unanimity that we all should hate to see in a pluralist society.  The Republicans in positions of legislative authority who tried to put the brakes on the White House won’t be around after this election: some are retiring in frustration, some are rightfully ashamed of what’s going on and are bowing out, some have capitulated, and a couple have actually bought the farm. The queasy, nose-holding party of 2016 has been transformed, emboldened, homogenized and pasteurized.  By 2019, there won’t be any anti-establishment Republicans left.  Those Republicans who’ll form the next Congress will go along with the executive branch no matter what it does.  They’ll cover for all ethical lapses, and gloss over the daily mendacity with a smile.  Should the Republicans maintain their legislative majority, they will move forcefully, and in unison, on an agenda that, in their view, will have been ratified by the electorate.  And if we fail to vote these guys out, this won’t be an unreasonable assumption.

What would that agenda be?  By now you know.  It combines nativism with regressive economics and a near-comical contempt for science.  Expect all of that in overdrive, plus an augmentation of the unearned swagger that makes this regime so infuriating to follow.  Some 2016 Republican voters reckoned that the bigotry was just fun and games on the campaign trail, and that once in office, these guys would drop the act and govern with sensitivity to the diversity of modern America.  That argument was always a weak one, and now it’s off the table.  They’re are dead serious.  They’re not open to persuasion; they’re ready to proceed, and if you happen to be in the way of the bulldozer, they will run you down without blinking.

In a healthy, balanced democracy, none of this would survive challenges in the courts, which are supposed to be staffed by sober-minded, deliberative people whose hands aren’t soiled from intra-party scuffles.  That safeguard has gone out the window, too.  Bush vs. Gore confirmed what we already suspected: the Supreme Court has become just another extension of party politics.  With every predictable 5-4 decision, the case for the Court’s autonomy gets harder and harder to defend.  What’s more, people like it this way — they support candidates who promise to deliver court seats to judges whose ideological positions mirror theirs.  In 2018, there is not much desire left for judicial independence.  We expect justices to rule (increasingly, we even say “vote”, which gives the game away) according to the priorities of the executives who appoint them, and when they don’t, we get mad.  We recently watched a Supreme Court nominee angrily denounce the opposition party on live television.  Naturally, the members of that party voted against him; the members of the other party loved him for it.  His talking points were interchangeable with those that Republican candidates use while campaigning.  In other words, the mystique is gone, the masks have fallen, and nobody expects a judge — even a Supreme Court judge — to be anything other than a political operative.  The nominee believed that the Democrats were trying to torpedo his candidacy on that basis.  The Democrats, just as clearly, felt that he was being put on the bench in order to run interference for members of the administration in legal hot water.  The terrifying thing is that they’re probably both right.

Republicans will maintain their majority on the Supreme Court for the foreseeable future.  Any challenges to extensions of executive authority will meet the same fate as the opposition to the travel ban: right down the tubes, by the score of five to four.  Discriminatory policies, ridiculous gerrymandering meant to retain legislative majorities, voter suppression, you name it, the highest court is going to find a justification for all of it.  That’s what they’re there for — that’s the job for which they were hired — and that’s why the Republican leadership resorted to dirty pool to keep Merrick Garland off of the Court.  For the next two years, minimum, the executive branch will be operating without meaningful judicial oversight.  They’ll be able to do whatever they want to do, to whomever they want to, and if you’re cool with this because you figure you’re not in the crosshairs, I remind you that today’s conciliator is often tomorrow’s target.

So forget the courts.  The House of Representatives is it; it’s the whole ballgame, the last line of defense between you and your friends and a regime that acts with entitlement but no sense of proportion.  If you’re concerned about what it would mean for this administration to operate without fetters, you must vote to deny the Republican Party a House majority.  That needs to be your sole objective on Election Day.  All others are secondary to the point of irrelevance.  We in the Jerz often complain, and justifiably so, that our votes aren’t as consequential as those in neighboring states. Usually that’s true.  Not this year, though.  The imprimatur can be taken from the Republicans in four or five districts — and all of those races are real ones, and they’ll be decided by thin margins. If the Republicans are stopped, Jersey will have had plenty to do with that; if they aren’t, that’ll mean that Jersey didn’t care.  Cry no tears for the regime: they’ll still be able to make plenty of trouble even if the Democrats do manage to win back a small amount of institutional power.  They just won’t be able to run the whole show without consequence — which, I remind you, is something nobody ought to be able to do in America anyway, and that nobody could do if our whole system wasn’t on the fritz.

Seats in the Senate are also up for grabs, but because of their apportionment, it’s not too realistic to imagine that the Democrats could take control of the chamber.  Normally, this wouldn’t be a disaster, but to say that the present Senate leadership is marching in lockstep with the administration is an understatement; on some days, I imagine that the Majority Leader is the main architect of this entire fiasco.  As for the press, I’m afraid we’re not the light to guide the country free from the thicket.  In this piece, I explained how the emphasis on search-engine and social-media optimization has created an environment that best suits demagogues and celebrity trainwrecks; that was written in late 2017, and I’m sad to say that nothing has changed.  But you shouldn’t need Politico to tell you that something is amiss.  You already know that the only way out of this is the way in.  Elections got us into this trouble, and only elections can steer us home.

Friends, your vote is not a mirror to your soul, or a binding promise, or sacred expression of your most cherished priorities.  A vote is just a tool — one of the few you have at your disposal.  Admittedly, it’s a meager one.  But if this tool was truly powerless, officials in Georgia and North Dakota wouldn’t be trying as hard as they could to take it away from people who might use it against them.  This November, you’ve got two ways to use that tool.  You can loosen the screws on the black iron gates that are swinging all over America, or you can let those gates slam shut.  That’s it; that’s the choice.  A Republican majority in the House will complete the assumption of absolute authority that began with the 2016 election.  The only way to avoid total Republican rule is to grant that majority to the Democrats. There is simply no other knight on the battlefield capable of joining the fight. Laugh at the rusty armor if you must; throw some stones if you have to.  But this year, vote smart.

A day may come — and hopefully it will come soon — when you will be able to relax and vote for the Green, or the Libertarian, or the Marijuana Freedom Party, or write in your Uncle Lou, or stay at home and play videogames while responsible grown-ups decide how the pie is sliced.  But when there are no reasonable adults in view, that means you have to be the wise one.  You have to put aside personal preferences and make a strategic decision that’s right for the country.  In order to make sure that the day comes when we can again afford to be creative with our votes, we need to recognize that our system of government is facing an existential threat.  That’s not hyperbole: the consolidation of power under one banner — any one banner — is always an overture to autocracy*.  Any time we give the same group of guys the ability to determine the rules, enforce the rules, and judge whether the rules are fair, there’s a possibility that they’ll rip up the current codes and replace them with ones that allow them to replicate their power.  The only thing that prevents them from doing just that is their consciences.  Look at our current leaders.  Do you trust their consciences?

Modern Republicans like to argue that any small bit of resistance they encounter constitutes obstructionism.  They will tell you that divided government frustrates the will of the people, who, they believe, demand prompt, friction-free customer service from elected officials.  It’s worth remembering that real American leaders have never required unanimity to make meaningful, positive changes. They’ve understood that, in a complicated country, opposition is inevitable and needs to be expressed, and attempts to iron it out or shut it up are unhealthy.  Compromise is frustrating, but it also forces people to see through the eyes of others, and take their concerns seriously.

Right now, the regime isn’t listening to you.  The members of this ignorant and remarkably intemperate administration are doing whatever the heck they want, whenever they want, just because they can.  They believe they can bully their critics into submission, and they’ll proceed accordingly, and with absolute arrogance, for as long as we let them.  Do not underestimate their ability, or their inclination, to rewrite the basic rules of American government in order to accommodate their desire for executive authority.  They got off to a shaky start, but lately, they’ve been consolidating their power with the sort of ruthlessness that ought to give any patriot the chills.  On election day, we’ve got one final opportunity to slow them down. I don’t say this lightly: should we miss this chance, we may never get another.



*I do also object, strongly, to ideological conformity among Democrats, but that’s not the trouble we’re facing in this election.  We’re not close to that.  We’ve got to fight the dragon in front of us, not the one that might trouble us down the road.