Partisan Litmus Tests Reinforce the Very Culture They Attempt to Undermine
The contemporary political era is one in which the tired old cliché “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” has become a guiding maxim. If the populace — acting in concert as one united entity — comes to a consensus over the unacceptability of an issue, failure by individual politicians to adequately demonstrate the appropriate level of consternation at the outrage du jour becomes tantamount to that individual being complicit with the offending actor.
This culture has come to prominence in part because of a politics increasingly driven, not by issues, but by the personalities of elected officials. Yet, the follies of such unipolarity — chiefly the highly divisive nature of such a system, which admits very little room for anything other than allegiance to one actor or other — are reinforced by the very culture against which anger, even when justified, is directed.
The litmus test being given to Republican over the Trump administration’s (now defunct) policy of separating children from their parents, who have brought them into the country illegally, illustrates the folly of such thinking.
There is a general sense that those who do not come out and denounce the president are implicitly supporting him. But while moral principles should never be negated by the considerations of in-the-moment political expediency, moral choices involve free thought and volitional choice; they cannot be forced upon people. A moral dichotomy wherein one side demands others come into line with their way of thinking and condemns those who fail to meet their criterion of support involves force. It elevates one side above the other, giving them legitimacy to cast judgment upon their fellow citizens, who are not similarly free to object. If the force behind the president’s immigration policy legitimates branding him a fascist, then more vocal opponents of the policy, who engage in over-the-top hyperbole and go so far as to invoke images of Nazi concentration camps and compare supporters to Nazi guards who simply carried out orders, must also be branded fascist. Both parties refuse to tolerate dissent; both parties bully and use force to bolster their public position.
But the Trump administration is not rounding up those who speak out against its policies and opponents of the separation practice are not launching a coup against Republicans in office. In truth, neither side is truly fascistic in action, even if their rhetoric may run in that direction.
Calling up such imagery takes debate away from legitimate problems with public policy and puts it into a realm of emotionalistic sophistries, utterly unmoored from the very real failings of politics. It does a disservice to legitimate critique on this front by allowing sweeping rhetorical claims to become the center of attention. Contentious debate focuses not on facts, but partisan spin, wherein the priorities of an argument hinge entirely upon one’s political loyalties.
But, more than this, it establishes a false dichotomy — -Trump or the resistance, conservative or liberal. By pitting the electorate and elected officials into such starkly contrasting camps, from which there is no diverging, the incentive for truly independent agents to buck their party and act on principle is diminished.
If there is a litmus test, applied by partisans of both parties in and out of government, with which would-be politicians who would like to act purely on principle must contend, actual moral stands become impossible. Their actions are interpreted by members of their own party — chiefly as a betrayal, to be weaponized in the next election — and by members of the opposing party: they do not come out strongly enough in opposition; they do not come out soon enough in opposition; they come out in a way that simultaneously benefits their own position. Individual action can never simply be a simple act of intellectual disobedience, done, not as an act of subversion or support for one party or another, but simply because the application of reason to reality demands it.
When independent and morally-motivated political stances are so spun, it is easier for individual representatives to simply bite their tongue and sit back. Particularly when the rhetoric of opposing factions is characterized by extreme hyperbole — as is the case with those who compare Trump’s separation policy to Nazism — would-be dissidents may hesitate by aligning themselves with such factions, particularly when speaking out against their own party’s position is likely to lead to isolation and the inability to effectively wield their powers of office.
Such a calculation might look like cowardice, but lest political considerations be completely disregarded, it must be remembered that those without power have no chance to exercise their influence and move legislation towards the better. Mark Sanford, the soon-to-be ex-Congressman from South Carolina, provides a very good example of this. Reviled by the president for his principled opposition and, lacking any real support or recognition for his moral free agency, Sanford was successfully spun by Trump’s sycophants as regressive, an individual not motivated by principle, but the desire to stand as a roadblock in the president’s quest to restore American greatness; he lost an election to a woman who sees her sole goal as a representative to support the president.
In a recent op-ed published in The Washington Post, Sanford bemoaned the fact that dissenting voices are quashed in the age of Trump. He is correct, but, conversely, dissenting voices also receive little support from factions of the opposing party. As a reliable voice against the unilateral excesses of Trump’s power, Sanford should have been championed by liberals. The fact that their ideologies ultimately diverged is irrelevant; the principles of restraint in keeping with duly enacted law and respect for individual sovereignty ought to be points around which all can rally.
The sad example of Sanford’s defeat illustrates another important and ancillary point: the left-right tribal dichotomy of contemporary discourse reinforces the unipolar culture that has come to define politics. Under Obama, right-wing activists complained bitterly and effusively about abuses of executive power, just as now do left-wing activists about Trump. But adjudicating political actions in reference to the degree to which they repudiate or embrace presidential behavior, whether this comes in the form of rhetoric or action, only reinforces the supremacy of the president.
Sanford lost because Trump and his devotees successfully painted the Congressman as against the president, which is not the truth of the matter. It was the violation of principle to which Sanford objected, not, primarily, the man guilty of abuse. As a Congressman, Sanford is a member of a separate and coequal branch of government. He is a legislator; the president is not. Even supposing that the president has an actual mandate from his voters to govern in a certain manner and pursue specific policies, this is not binding on Congress, even for members who share the same partisan affiliation.
Partisan litmus tests, which demand legislators cleave to or reject party completely, only reinforce the idea that it is the president alone who, as figurehead of the party, has legitimacy to set agendas and demand compliance from his fellow party members in Congress. They elevate the unipolarity of the political geography, merging the culture of partisanship with the basic institutional tenets of governance. The morality of Congress ought to be focused on their actions, not the degree to which they support or undermine the president’s behaviors, particularly those that relate to directions given to executive agencies. Principle, if it is to have any meaning, cannot be hobbled by demands for partisan obeisance. An act of moral objection is carried out by an individual of conviction; it must be seen this way and not positioned in the grander scheme of rhetorically-driven kill-or-be-killed tribal politics.