Opinion

How to rise above the partisan fray

A view of America from above the scrimmage

As a liberal centrist, I'm used to taking heat from both sides of our political and cultural divides. When I criticize progressive "woke" trends, the left lashes back. And when I take aim at intensifying anti-democratic derangement among rank-and-file Republicans, the right retaliates.

The latter happened most recently just days before the end of 2021, when I wrote a column suggesting that it's bad for people in rural parts of the Midwest to be flying "F--k Biden" flags outside their homes, and almost equally bad to convey the same message with the mildly clever euphemism, "Let's go, Brandon."  

Most of the vitriol hurled my way in response didn't so much defend such vulgar and civically poisonous gestures in their own terms as accuse me of hypocrisy and bad faith for claiming in the column that I never saw equivalent flags and yard signs during the presidency of Donald Trump. Actor Robert De Niro said "f--k Trump" on national television! Comedian Kathy Griffin pretended to behead the 45th president in a video posted online! Meanwhile, for four long years, Democrats everywhere expressed their conviction that the president and those who voted for him were deplorable racists!

I wrote in the original column that the only imaginable justification for flying an intentionally insulting flag about the president and those who voted for him was "turnabout is fair play" — and that's exactly what right-wing readers of the column appealed to. That's too bad, because it's a distraction from the simple point I was trying to make, which is that it's terrible for Americans to be engaging in politics this way, no matter who does it, or who did it first.

But it's also bad because the right is increasingly using the same move (the left started it!) to justify everything from obstructionism about investigating the violence on Capitol Hill a year ago this week to fantasies of using government power to crush both political opponents and private media companies that deplatform public figures for spreading lies.

So I'm giving it another try in this column, my first written in 2022. Moreover, because it's my first of the year, I also want to go further, to lay all my cards on the table, making as clear as I can precisely where I stand on the threats posed by the right and the left so that those who disagree with this, or subsequent columns, will engage with the arguments and evidence presented there and not go easy on themselves by dismissing me as a hypocrite operating in bad faith. What this country most needs right now is honest thinking from above the partisan fray. And this column is my modest contribution to that effort.

The first thing to be said is that the left has indeed gotten some big things wrong. Some celebrities made foolish, incendiary remarks about Trump during his presidency, just as some left-leaning journalists and academics went too far in reducing Trump's appeal to racism. Woke trends in elite institutions are often bad and should be resisted in most cases. The looting and rioting that accompanied or followed lawful protests after the police killing of George Floyd was terrible and should have been more widely condemned instead of excused. The decision of some activists to adopt the "Defund the Police" slogan was politically disastrous and downright atrocious for public safety.

As I said, this stuff is bad and deserves to be criticized, as I have done and will continue to do in my own writing. But despite what my old friend Rod Dreher and those who think like him would have you believe, none of it is totalitarian. It is political. To the extent that this behavior and these ideas are unpopular, Democrats who fail to distance themselves from them will pay a political price — as they did in falling short of expectations during the 2020 election cycle, and as they look likely to do in the 2022 midterm elections. A political party that gets penalized at the ballot box obviously isn't totalitarian. Neither can it serve as justification for the right to adopt anti-democratic tactics in response.

Which is precisely what the right did following Trump's loss in November 2020. If Trump had actually won the election, if he had really been denied his victory by fraud perpetrated by the left, then everything that he and his most passionate supporters said and did in the two months following the vote would have been justified. A violent insurrection, efforts to prevent the certification of the official (but fraudulent) result, and plans for a coup to keep the actual victor in office — all of it would have been called for by the manifest injustice of what the president's enemies were trying to achieve.

But of course, none of this was the case. There is no evidence of systematic voter fraud in even a single swing state, let alone in all of them. Trump was lying, constantly, continually, about all of it — precisely in order to give himself and his party and his most passionate supporters permission to abandon democracy altogether in favor of a tyrannical power grab.

That part is key — absolutely essential — for understanding where the United States finds itself in 2022, not from the right, not from the left, but in reality itself. The left does some bad stuff, but only the right has actively sought to overturn a presidential election on the basis of outright lies.

And it hasn't stopped there. With a tiny handful of admirable exceptions, Republicans in Congress have actively sought to downplay the seriousness of what happened last Jan. 6 and during the weeks leading up to it. Others on the right have been going much further, laying the intellectual and moral groundwork for even bolder power grabs or efforts at succession and civil war in the future.

Those who stake out these positions always have an excuse or a justification for their willingness to shred democratic norms and laws. Someone on the left has always said or done something awful that supposedly poses an existential threat to freedom and makes another round of escalation not only acceptable but necessary. That's certainly the way it works in warfare. If an enemy army makes gains through ruthlessness, self-defense may require matching or even surpassing that brutality.

There are just two problems with looking at contemporary politics this way.

First, as we've seen, the left's ostensibly ruthless, precipitous act (stealing the 2020 election) never actually took place. It's as if the United States bombed its own navy at Pearl Harbor in order to give itself a pretext to go to war with imperial Japan on the grounds that it was certain to do something equivalently destructive down the line.

Second, treating half of the country as posing a threat equivalent to a hostile foreign power can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. All of us — right and left, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives and centrists — are parts in a larger whole, a polity. We disagree with one another about what's best for the whole, but we affirm a set of common rules for the sharing of power among the parts, for ruling and being ruled in turn. That's what democratic politics are all about.

But it only works if we treat those on the other side of political disputes as fellow citizens, as parts in a common whole. Deny that basic equality and mutuality often enough and long enough and the sense of commonality will break down. The polity will divide into two and more pieces, each of them forming a new whole, each viewing the other as an Other.

Does the left do this with the right? It sure does. But the right does it, too — and since the 2020 election, it does it more intentionally and mendaciously, like it's committed to the deliberate gutting of the country's civic life for the sake of political gain.

That's what America looks like at the start of 2022 from above the partisan fray.

More From...

Picture of Damon LinkerDamon Linker
Read All
Putin calls America's bluff
President Biden and Vladimir Putin.
Opinion

Putin calls America's bluff

Biden-Hogan 2024?
President Biden and Larry Hogan.
Talking Points

Biden-Hogan 2024?

Biden bungles at-home COVID tests — again
President Biden.
Talking Points

Biden bungles at-home COVID tests — again

How to actually fix America's election problem
Donald Trump.
Talking Points

How to actually fix America's election problem

Recommended

Over 2,400 Sunday flights canceled as winter storm strikes East Coast
Canceled flights
Speed Reads

Over 2,400 Sunday flights canceled as winter storm strikes East Coast

Synagogue hostage-taking suspect was British
FBI Dallas Special Agent in Charge Matthew DeSarno
a not-so-great briton

Synagogue hostage-taking suspect was British

10 things you need to know today: January 16, 2022
Glenn Youngkin
Daily briefing

10 things you need to know today: January 16, 2022

Suspect dead and all hostages safe after FBI storms Texas synagogue
Colleyville police car
Tragedy averted

Suspect dead and all hostages safe after FBI storms Texas synagogue

Most Popular

Will 2022 bring another Miracle on Ice?
The Miracle on Ice.
Samuel Goldman

Will 2022 bring another Miracle on Ice?

California deputy DA opposed to vaccine mandates dies of COVID-19
Kelly Ernby.
covid-19

California deputy DA opposed to vaccine mandates dies of COVID-19

Omicron may be headed for a sharp drop because so many people are infected
Dr. Janet Woodcock
Omicron Blues

Omicron may be headed for a sharp drop because so many people are infected