The Case for Forbearance

Why Democrats Shouldn’t Play Political Hardball

In the weeks and months leading up to last November’s elections, a number of progressives floated political reform fantasies that would dilute the structural advantages enjoyed by Republicans. If Democrats won control of the Senate, they argued, they should use their power to eliminate the filibuster, grant statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and expand the size of the Supreme Court. These musings rose to a fever pitch amidst the successful Republican push to nominate and confirm the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s successor just weeks before the election – behavior that stood in stark contrast to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s 2016 refusal to even hold hearings for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland on grounds that such an appointment was inappropriate in a presidential election year. 

Though President-elect Joe Biden beat President Trump with a decisive national vote margin, Democrats didn’t fare as well as they’d hoped in House and Senate races across the country. The Democratic majority in the House fell to just eleven seats, while Democrats picked up just one seat in the Senate. But victories in both of Georgia’s Senate run-off elections have delivered Democrats control of the Senate on the strength of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote. That in turn likely revives hopes that the aggressive agenda of political reform articulated by progressives before the election could move forward, at least in part.

Moving forward, though, Democrats would be wise to exercise forbearance when it comes to replying in kind to years of Republican political hardball. That’s not to belittle the very real frustration and anger many Democratic partisans feel over the brazen power politics practiced by Republicans, especially over the past decade-plus. The flagrant hypocrisy of Sen. McConnell’s approach to election-year Supreme Court vacancies would be cause enough for indignation, to say nothing of repeated Republican obstruction of rational governance across the board. Under the rules established by Republicans, everything not expressly forbidden is permitted – leading many Democrats and progressives to believe that they ought to play by these rules, too. 

Beyond this basic sense that Democrats should fight fire with fire, there’s a more strategic argument that they should escalate to de-escalate. To bring Republicans back into line and pull the nation back from the precipice of raw power politics, Democrats need to engage in power politics of their own – at least until Republicans agree to restore a series of informal rules regulating political conduct. There’s a certain persuasive logic to this approach, analogous to the successful “tit-for-tat” strategies used to induce cooperation in prisoner’s dilemma games. Under a variant of this family of strategies, Democrats would play hardball according to McConnell’s rules until Republicans give up on hardball themselves.

But as recent events have shown, the nation’s civic health is even worse than imagined. Those of us concerned with repairing the country’s political and social fabric must first do no harm – and that starts with exercising forbearance in our own political conduct. Given the slim margins held by Democrats in the House and especially in the Senate, it’s hard to see how pushing through statehood for Washington, DC and Puerto Rico or expanding the number of seats on the Supreme Court would improve matters. Eliminating or substantively modifying the filibuster should be undertaken in the face of clear Republican obstruction of President Biden’s core agenda of COVID recovery and economic rebuilding, not as a pre-emptive measure. Where escalating political hardball to de-escalate it possessed at least some logic before last November’s election, fighting fire with fire now threatens to inflict permanent damage to American politics and society.

That doesn’t discount the justice of, say, statehood for Washington, DC or absolve the Republican Party of its immense responsibility for our current predicament. But statehood for Washington, DC and self-determination for Puerto Rico should proceed deliberately and methodically. They should be framed and understood as matters of basic fairness and democratic principle: the residents of Washington and Puerto Rico deserve the same right to full political representation enjoyed by their fellow citizens. Casting statehood for both territories as a matter of retaliatory power politics makes little sense, particularly when adding two new states only changes balance of power in the Senate on the margins

When contemplating such moves, Democrats need to take the potentially severe costs of raw power politics into serious consideration. Forbearance in the face of President Trump’s attempted putsch and general Republican cynicism isn’t satisfying in any respect, but the stakes for the country are much larger than any questions of partisan political advantage. Shorn of any semblance of legitimacy beyond the exigencies of power, America’s political institutions would become even more dysfunctional and our national politics even more vicious. Democrats, progressives, and indeed all Americans committed to democracy have good reason for grave concern – and the duty to at least try to arrest their nation’s ongoing slide into the abyss of political chaos.

It’s best for President-elect Biden and the upcoming Congress to focus first and foremost on the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recovery instead. Accountability for the Trump-incited assault on Congress and American democracy remains imperative, but it’s best left to incoming Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Department of Justice and the relevant oversight and investigation committees of Congress. Resorting to political hardball now may make a number of Democrats and progressives feel better, but it’s no substitute for full accountability for the deeply disturbing events of January 6 or the swift passage of an effective program of pandemic relief and national economic recovery.

Mending the political and social fabric of the nation after the last two-and-a-half months – to say nothing of the last four years – requires forbearance on the part of Democrats, progressives and all those concerned about the fate of American democracy. That doesn’t mean refusing to look backward and only looking forward – it means trusting that the new administration and new Congress will take their obligation to hold those responsible for the attack on our democracy with the full force of the law both seriously and literally. But it also means that we should heed Lincoln’s call “to bind up the nation’s wounds” – and that starts with first doing no harm ourselves.