In a column for Politico last week, John F. Harris wrote about what he called a “centrist bias, flowing from reporters and sources alike” on Capitol Hill. This prejudicial impulse, he argues, orients the national understanding of political behavior toward “an admiration for difference-splitting, a conviction that politics should be a tidier and more rational process than it usually is.” It helps explain doubts about the perceived electability of paradigm-shifting figures like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, he writes, and even Donald Trump, who responded to GOP hand-wringing over the need to appeal to Latinos and black people by campaigning on naked white nationalism and winning the White House anyway. Harris criticizes this approach — and his own complicity — by arguing that fundamental change is made not by centrists, but by “people burning with grievances, obsessed with remedies, ready to demolish old power arrangements to achieve their ends.” Left largely unsaid is how embracing radicalism has rewarded one party disproportionately, at least in the short term: the Republicans, whose enthusiasm for extreme deregulation and tax cuts is enabled by their equal enthusiasm for often-vicious xenophobia and bigotry.
Whereas Warren and Sanders can only boast decidedly mixed returns for their leftward push so far, the GOP has reaped the spoils of its drift electorally to the tune of the presidency, the U.S. Senate, the Supreme Court, and more than half of state governorships and legislatures. But perhaps its more surprising enablers have come from within the Democratic Establishment itself, home to its purported political rivals.
Instead of condemning the Republican Party’s bigotry and treating its members like the existential threats to democracy they have become, some Democrats have clung to an ideal whereby ideological common ground and even bonhomie can still be found with the other side, regardless of their differences. This is apparently true even if those differences include the glib deployment of racial slurs, material support for terrorism, blaming victims of police violence for their own deaths, and calls for a national program to surveil Muslims that predate President Trump’s similar proposal. So it is that after Republican U.S. representative Peter King announced earlier this week that he won’t seek reelection in New York, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer gave him a glowing send-off: “Peter King stood head [and] shoulders above everyone else. He’s been principled [and] never let others push him away from his principles. He’s fiercely loved America, Long Island, and his Irish heritage and left a lasting mark on all [three]. I will miss him in Congress [and] value his friendship,” Schumer, a Democrat, tweeted.
Missing from this characterization of King’s commitment to principles is that his principles have frequently been monstrous. Foremost was his call for a federal program to monitor Muslim communities for terrorist plots, modeled after former New York Police Department commissioner Ray Kelly’s failed and almost certainly unconstitutional Demographics Unit, which was deployed in the tristate area between 2003 and 2014, before being disbanded. Bigotry aside, the program was totally inept. “[Not] one single piece of actionable intelligence ever came out of that unit in its years of existence,” Kelly’s successor, William Bratton, said in November 2015. The anti-terrorist verve that King has since tried to project by defending it is undermined further by his long-term support for the Irish Republican Army, whose methods of securing Northern Irish independence from Great Britain included terrorism. The IRA was responsible for 2,000 deaths during what became known, euphemistically, as the Troubles — the per capita equivalent of 700,000 deaths in the United States, according to the Daily Beast.
In addition to fundraising on behalf of the IRA, King was also among the NYPD apologists who sought to blame Eric Garner for his own death by chokehold in 2014. “If he had not had asthma, and a heart condition, and was so obese, he would not have died from this,” King told CNN after a grand jury declined to indict former police officer Daniel Pantaleo for wrapping his forearm around Garner’s throat and squeezing it until the 43-year-old black man succumbed to a fatal asthma attack. The congressman has since compared protesting NFL players to Nazis, complained that there are “too many mosques” in the U.S., and referred to Japanese people derogatorily as “Japs,” attempting to clarify later that he was merely “satirizing” actual bigots.
Despite this, Schumer’s office responded to criticism of his warm remarks about King by saying that the senator has “disagreements” with his Republican colleague, but “appreciated” King’s partnership in securing “much-needed federal aid locally post 9/11, Superstorm Sandy and backing universal background checks legislation,” according to the New York Times. Put another way: King’s bigotry and atrocious history of advocacy isn’t ideal, but Schumer could still work with him, therefore he’s “principled” and worthy of effusive praise — a characterization that amounts to a public laundering of sorts. The American right thrives on such generosity.
No matter how radical they get in their outlook, rhetoric, and policies, Republicans can consistently rely on older, more conservative Democrats in particular to accommodate their position and cast their behavior that falls anywhere shy of abominable as an appeal to the center. This is only possible in the world that John F. Harris describes in his Politico column — one where centrism is seen as inherently desirable even as radicalism more clearly charts the path forward. It’s only possible in a world where collegiality between political elites is prioritized over the well-being of their vulnerable constituents. If Schumer can look past King’s conduct in the name of such compromise, there’s good reason to believe that Republicans can move even further to the right and still be praised on the rare occasion that they deign to cooperate with Democrats. This bodes poorly for good-faith bipartisan alliances in the future. But it bodes even worse for the survival of multiracial democracy in America.