Over the past quarter-century, from the impeachment of Bill Clinton through the two impeachments of Donald Trump, American politics has been consumed with viciousness. The most striking line in President Joe Biden’s Inaugural Address was his call to restore mutual respect to public life: “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue.”
I don’t expect this to happen. In fact, I’d be stunned if it did. But before we simply give up on this hope as a feeble gesture or an antiquated delusion, it is worth thinking about what it would take to fulfill it.
“Unity” does not mean consensus. Democratic government is built on the premise of disagreement. Biden recognized that in his speech, telling Trump voters, “To all those who did not support us, let me say this: Hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart. If you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy.”
What unity means, or ought to mean, is a politics that allows for public debate in practical and measured terms. Under Clinton and Barack Obama, Republican opposition spiraled almost immediately into existential rage: The Clinton deficit-reduction plan would destroy the economy; Obama’s economic stimulus and health-care reform would trigger a Greece-like hyperinflationary spiral, an Ayn Rand nightmare come to life.
Conservatives experienced these terrors at the time as very genuine threats to their freedom and the American way of life. And then, during Trump’s presidency, they mostly shrugged off the neoclassical economic premises that had earlier driven them into such militant opposition. Trillion-dollar deficits, the government picking winners and losers, were no longer steps down the Road to Serfdom but mere aggravations. Even when conservatives saw Trump’s deviations from Hayek as suboptimal, they did not launch a tea party.
The difference between those responses is the space between politics as give-and-take and politics as culture war. And while it may be in the individual interest of most Republicans in politics, activism, and media to reduce all politics to the culture-war level, it is not in the national interest.
I do not mean to fully absolve blue America from responsibility. There is plenty of catastrophizing on the left, too. (And not just the far left.) But I do think Biden’s effort to reach out and find some modus vivendi with Red America is real and genuine, as were similar efforts by Obama and Clinton. Those presidents all understood, as progressives on social media may not, that opposing views need to be understood and accounted for.
Donald Trump did not. The whole premise of his candidacy was to wage uncompromising partisan war, to defeat and humiliate Blue America by any means at his disposal. Trump’s political agenda grew so detached from any practical goals that culture war became its entire objective. He governed like a message-board poster.
Most Republican voters admire his style. Many Republican elites secretly (or even not so secretly) loathe it. The party’s debate has largely centered on following Trump’s model or returning to Paul Ryanism. Their easiest choice in opposition will be to blend them together.
But they could, if they wish, try to work pragmatically with Biden. If their goal is to make the country a better place rather than to avoid the humiliation of a successful Democratic presidency, there are practical channels available to them. They can support investments in vaccination, which will allow for a more rapid return to pre-pandemic life. They can work on infrastructure and deployment of green-energy technologies that have become cost-effective. If they wish to prevent single-payer health care, they can shore up and expand Obamacare. If they oppose abolishing or defunding the police, they can support real reform to curtail the abuses few people can any longer deny. There is room for agreement on all these issues and more without surrendering to the far left or abandoning democratic capitalism.
I don’t expect them to accept Biden’s open hand. It hardly advances the interest of many Republicans to help make Biden popular and successful. Their fastest route to fame and power will be to denounce him as a socialist terror, as they did with the last Democratic presidents.
But they should contemplate where following their interests has brought them. Twenty-five years of angry Fox News shouting heads calling their viewers to the ramparts gave them a literal army storming the Capitol and braying for blood. That is the only place modern conservative politics can go. It is probably where they will go again. But we should be clear about it: They do have a choice to take a different path.