GELFAND’S WORLD--President Elect Joe Biden asked for national healing even as he claimed victory as the newly elected president.
I'm somewhat OK with the concept of healing, but only if certain conditions are met. Mind you, there is a 100 to 1 chance that Georgia will elect two Democratic senators in runoff elections to be held later this year, in which case we can try for all the healing that is achievable. But in case of the other 99:1 likelihood, we will be back with Mitch McConnell running a Republican senate even as the new president takes office. And we can all remember how McConnell behaved as majority leader when he finally got control of the senate after the 2010 midterm elections.
A brief reminder: He continued his policy of trying to obstruct and sabotage not only Obama's projects, but the country as a whole. By doing as much obstruction as he could, he hoped to limit Obama to one term as president. It didn't actually work, but the country as a whole was hurt. In addition, McConnell violated a long tradition by refusing to allow the confirmation vote on a Supreme Court nominee.
Over the past decade, the senate Republicans and the current Republican president have routinely violated norms and traditions of the presidency and the senate. The country has been driven rightward to an extent that probably would not have occurred under a more civilized collection of Republican leaders.
The fact is that the Democrats will control quite a lot of power in the national government as of January, and they might think about making use of it. They can start by zero-basing a lot of the federal budget, and putting the formerly obstructionist red state congressmen and senators in the position of justifying the expenditures that would ordinarily go to their districts without even asking. In other words, if you want a favor, then you have to give a favor in return. That process would be the reality of national healing, rather than a merely symbolic hand-shake.
What sort of favors do the Democrats want?
We might start with a bill that seemingly everybody wants right now, which is another support package for people and small businesses that are being badly hurt by the economic dislocations created by the Covid-19 pandemic. This shouldn't be too much of a stretch. If it gets done while Trump is still in office, that's a plus. If it takes until the third week of January, at least it will have gotten done.
That might not be a major part of the healing process, but the next item would:
It's time that the Affordable Care Act be strengthened both as a working system and as a law that is not constantly being attacked by lawsuits and Supreme Court interference. Whatever the two sides may end up doing, the protection of those with preexisting conditions has to be maintained or even strengthened. Nobody expects to get Medicare for All passed anytime soon, but a truly affordable system for those without employment-supplied insurance ought to be obtainable.
But if the Republicans in the U.S. Senate refuse to go along with bolstering the Affordable Care Act, then it should be made clear to them that national healing -- which would include continued federal funding for their shipyards and military bases and defense plants -- is going to be similarly downgraded. Call it what you like, but the old fashioned system of Quid Pro Quo comes back, or both sides get hurt. Healing has to be a two-way street.
Eyeball to eyeball and other Cold War scenarios
One story from the Cuban Missile Crisis is that when John F. Kennedy put the Russians to the test and they publicly backed down, one of his aides described it as going eyeball to eyeball, "and the other side just blinked."
The Republicans in congress and the presidency have gone eyeball to eyeball with the Democrats a number of times since the days of Newt Gingrich. Each time, it has involved the Republicans threatening to shut down the government until they got their way. They usually have not gotten everything they wanted, but in each case, a lot of Americans -- particularly those on the federal payroll and the businesses that depended on government payments -- had a difficult time of it.
The problem for the Democrats is that they traditionally saw themselves as the party which supported and defended government services to the poor and to local governments. To the Republicans, it was -- at least officially -- much the opposite. They talked of making government smaller and eliminating some of its functions entirely, so a governmental shutdown wasn't as much of a blow to their principles as it would be to the other side. In short, the Democrats traditionally tried to avoid government shutdowns. The Republicans therefore had them at a disadvantage.
And that's where all this talk of healing vs going eyeball to eyeball comes in. The Democrats have to be willing to go toe to toe with the Republicans, even if it means accepting the threat of a shutdown. The country (and the Democratic Party) simply cannot allow the 51 or 52 senate Republicans to hold the country hostage on all of our critical needs.
So let the healing begin by all means, but hold some authority in reserve so that the Republicans will have to give something for everything they get. And make sure that you have leverage that exists chronically, for the next two years.
At the public and personal level, is healing even possible?
This might be the harder problem. It may be that there are a lot of Republicans who understand that Trump lost fair and square, and they are just putting up with his tantrum until the workings of the Constitution and state election laws force an end to the national embarrassment. But as the angry swarms of pro-Trump marchers show, there are obviously a lot of others who will never accept the idea that a Democrat could actually get more of the people to vote for him.
It is a curious thing. Back about thirty years ago, the Republicans were on a spree out here in California. Republicans held the California governorship for a 16 year period, from 1983 to 1999. Along with electoral success, there developed an attitude -- a lot of Republicans simply could not understand how any rational person would ever vote for a Democrat. To me, that's taking ideological bias a bit far, but you could read it and hear it in their words.
And with that attitude came strong denial whenever one of them would lose. We even went through a phase in which the Republican Party talked about using the recall process on newly elected Democrats. They even succeeded a couple of times, most notably with regard to governor Gray Davis.
So there is fertile ground to be plowed by the die hard Trump contingent. Stoked by Fox News -- and now by even more extreme "news" organizations -- they will work on the never-say-concession people. And out of that continuing movement, the United States will continue to be split and polarized.
Now I'm going to go counter to one of my CityWatch colleagues and suggest that the right wing in this country has been the scary group. It may be that a few outspoken pro-Trump people missed out on job opportunities in Hollywood (a topic for a later column perhaps) but come on . . . How many times have we seen news feeds of bearded fellows in camouflage carrying semiautomatic rifles around in otherwise civilized public places? One notable scene was at the Michigan legislature, but the scenes in Texas have been many-fold. And isn't it clear that the purpose for doing this sort of thing is to intimidate people?
And the mass murder at an African American church in the south shocked most of the country. But it goes further back. For a time, sniper attacks on abortion doctors were occurring on a yearly basis. It's true. To borrow an old phrase, you could look it up.
We are in a long-term national schism in which the right wing, combined with a substantial group of opportunistic but otherwise ordinary conservatives, have adopted an attitude in which they cannot believe that any normal person could be a liberal.
Looking at my bookshelf, I see a collection of "conservative" books. Here are their authors and titles, in case you would like to buy them:
Michael Savage: Liberalism is a Mental Disorder
Tammy Bruce: The New Thought Police: Inside the Left's Assault on Free Speech and Free Minds
Ann Coulter: How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)
Listening to talk radio the other evening, I heard a similar sounding attack on all things liberal -- and even centrist, actually.
The leaders of the right wing seem to attribute all manner of thought crimes to their enemies. Liberals are accused of Marxism, socialism, and wanting to take away our cherished freedoms even as they steal our elections. Donald Trump said many of the same things while he was campaigning in Florida.
It all looks like a mirror image of reality to me. But mainly, I wonder how the process of national healing is possible if the intent of the right wing is to destroy their perceived enemy. And by the way, there is a carefully analytic group of center-leftists who, looking at the policies of the Trump GOP, seek to utterly destroy the Republican Party as an active political power.
So, looking at reality, as best I can see it, I wonder if there is any healing to be had.
A possibility, dim at best, but perhaps achievable
There is one fact that seems to be missing from the discussion. I know that there is a substantial bloc of Americans who are neither radical left nor radical right, but basically just ordinary people. Bluntly speaking, the center left -- liberals, as I call them -- are not Marxists or socialists in the old, 1920s sense of the words. We believe that there is a place for government programs even as we believe in the Bill of Rights. Right now, we are concentrated on fixing an inadequate health care system because it is an ongoing misery for a lot of Americans. Not only that, but there are working systems in Europe and Asia that show how well things can be done. The term Democratic Socialist used by Bernie Sanders, for example, has nothing to do with the old system that was imposed upon the Russian people by the old Soviet Union.
These simple facts seem obvious and clear to me, since I deal with liberals in my daily life. The fact that the organized right wing continues to misconstrue everything we say does not make for any sort of healing, much less any political compromise. The first element of the healing process would be for the broad center -- somewhat left and somewhat right -- to recognize each other as something different from the monsters we portray each other to be.
Perhaps this also implies that my liberal colleagues need to recognize the center-right as being our fellow human beings. I suspect that we are doing this better than the hard-right, but that could just be my own personal point of view shining through.
But here's the problem. The hard-right has a vast propaganda apparatus consisting of hundreds of talk radio stations, the Fox network, and even more extreme networks cropping up. Apparently the newbies think Fox is too liberal, because it recognized the reality of Trump's election loss. They continue to portray us normal, centrist people as monsters and simpletons and fools. Interestingly, they don't generally attempt to evaluate liberal thought or even offer an intellectual critique, they just toss out insults. Apparently, if you are a right winger, the name Nancy Pelosi is enough to trigger your anger.
The right wing noise machine is going to continue to be a problem for any sort of national healing.
Perhaps Joe Biden possesses the kind of political genius that can cut through this knot, but I have my doubts. Good luck to him in trying to make it happen, but in the meanwhile, the Democrats in congress need to learn how to make use of what political power they have, and to agree to bear the consequences when McConnell's senators fight back.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)