Democracy & Elections

A Coalition of All Democratic Forces, Part I: A Political Focus on What's Truly Important

Benjamin Wittes
Monday, October 17, 2016, 3:33 PM

The past two election cycles, my wife and I have hosted a “No Cheers, No Jeers,” non-partisan election returns party.

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The past two election cycles, my wife and I have hosted a “No Cheers, No Jeers,” non-partisan election returns party.

Our friend circle is politically diverse, so the party consists of discussing the election returns but—whoever wins—without whoops of joy over the vanquished. And at the point at which the losing presidential candidate concedes, we have developed a lovely tradition: one person who voted for the losing candidates toasts the winning candidate, and one person who voted for the winner toasts the losing candidate.

These toasts are, by design, sincere, not snarky or filled with back-handed compliments designed to be more back-handed than compliment. They represent a deliberate effort to force ourselves to find, on Election Day itself, what we admire about the candidate and the political movement we rejected and either are sorry or would be been sorry to see prevail. They are a reminder that what unites us as citizens of a rule of law democratic polity is much vaster than what divides us.

We will not, this year, be hosting this party.

The reason is that we could not in good conscience give a sincere toast to Donald Trump whether he wins or loses—nor could we ask for one from our friends. What’s more, virtually none of our Republican or conservative friends are supporting Trump (though they are quite divided about whether or not to support Hillary Clinton), so the premise of the party is somewhat faulty this year. The party would not be bringing a divided polity together over food and the celebration of our democratic institutions. At least as regards opposing Trump, the candidate himself has already done that—minus the food.

And that point has huge implications.

Over the past week, I have had three conversations that have crystallized for me an idea—or perhaps I should call it a mood—with which I have been toying for some time. The first was with Quinta Jurecic, Lawfare's associate editor, who observed that in this election cycle, she doesn't care much about policy—though Quinta is someone with decided policy views on a raft of issues. The fundamental division for her is now between everyone who believes in the rule of law and the essentials of constitutional democracy, and is thus opposing Donald Trump, and those people who do not. She thus feels a new political kinship for everyone for whom opposing Trump is a pre-political commitment, even those who disagree with her about everything else.

The second conversation was with my wife and older child, both of whom stressed the importance of what my wife calls “national healing” after the election. Assuming Trump does not win the election, how do we begin the process of governing across the yawning divide his candidacy has revealed? How do we give the Republican Party the chance to evolve back from the monstrosity it has become in this election cycle into a normal conservative party that has a respectable place in our democratic dialogue? How can we tamp down the flames the Trump candidacy has stoked? How can Hillary Clinton possibly hope to find partners with whom to govern? How can we learn once again to disagree within agreed-upon frames of democratic reference?

The third conversation was with a friend and former colleague who posed the following stark question: How would you feel in your most fundamental engagement with the idea of America if you woke up on November 9 to find that Donald Trump had won? The belief in the American system, after all, is a belief in its circuit breakers: the idea that the electoral process prevents a true madman from ascending to the presidency, the idea that the crowd ultimately has at least a modicum of wisdom, the idea that the two-party system functions as a filtering device controlling (in a useful way) access to the levers of power. What if it’s all wrong? What if the mob with the pitchforks and torches can actually make a grab for the nuclear codes and get them? What then?

Because let's be frank: This is not an election on which democratic forces can reasonably disagree, one which pits one candidate with flaws, virtues and one set of policy ideas against another candidate with flaws, virtues, and an opposing set of policy ideas.

Toasting Mitt Romney (against whom I voted) was easy for me (and it would be even easier today, as he has revealed himself to be a man of significant public virtue and courage over the past few months). And come on: Who was really afraid, and I mean really afraid, of a John McCain presidency? Toasting Barack Obama was also not hard for our Republican guests who did so, because whatever one thinks of his policy ambitions, Obama is a man of decency and seriousness.

But this election is a different kettle of fish, one that pits a normal candidate—that is, a woman with flaws, virtues and policy ideas—against a man who menaces American democracy.

If that sentence strikes you as wrong, partisan, or overheated, read no further. I’m not going to try to justify it here, and this article and those that follow it are not intended for you. They are, rather, directed to those who believe, as I do, that Trump poses a unique set of threats, and that the fact that he commands the support of something like 40 percent of the voters in this country poses a related but different set of threats.

We can hope that the threat posed particularly by Trumpism—both the man himself and the grotesque cabal that surrounds him—will dissipate after the election. But the threat posed by his voters will certainly not. That is a threat with which we will be contending for a long time. And it is a threat, I want to argue, before which most of our conventional political differences pale in importance. Which is another way of saying that the political defense of America’s fundamental democratic institutions, norms, and modes of political engagement cumulatively requires sustained attention from across the political spectrum. And that defense is far more important than the advancement of any particular conventional political agenda by any particular faction along that spectrum.

The fundamental division in the United States today is not between Left and Right but between, on the one hand, a populist mob enraged by elites and fundamentally seeking to blow up Washington and, on the other hand, all of those people who—whether liberal or conservative in orientation—aren’t willing to throw out our fundamental values, ally ourselves with dictators abroad, demonize whole ethnic or religious groupings, and indulge the notion that things like expertise don’t actually matter in government. The breakdown of basic democratic norms seems to be spreading; over the weekend, a local GOP office in North Carolina was firebombed and vandalized with anti-Republican messages. The essential question we face as a political society right now is not whether we are or should be a liberal or conservative nation. It is whether we believe in rule of law institutions or mob rule led by demagogues. It’s not a whole lot more complicated than that.

I want to suggest that whether one is a liberal or a conservative or a centrist, one needs to see oneself first as a member of the country’s democratic forces, and for these forces to prevail, they need to be in coalition—if not in agreement—with one another.

At least until Election Day, the political leader of that coalition is and must be Hillary Clinton—and she will remain its leader if she wins the presidency. This is a deeply uncomfortable fact for many conservatives, for whom, rightly or wrongly, Clinton is a toxic figure in her own right, one to be opposed tooth and nail.

I feel for conservatives on this; I really do. It is far easier to be a part of a broad political coalition when that coalition is not led by someone personally hateful to you, someone who also represents a set of political ideas you cannot abide and do not support.

But Clinton’s democratic foes also need to understand that however flawed she may be, she is not wrong when she says that, at least right now, she is the only thing standing between America and a political apocalypse of sorts.

Back when David Duke was running for governor of Louisiana against a corrupt incumbent who later went to prison, a bumper sticker made the rounds in that state that said “Vote for the Crook: It’s Important.” I don’t personally think Hillary Clinton is a crook, but I accept that a lot of conservatives do. And this bumper sticker reflects what I think is the right ordering of political priorities for those who hate her but also understand him and the forces he represents. Even if one cannot vote for Clinton, it’s a matter of intellectual and moral discipline to accept that she is running against a far greater political threat—and to thus accept that she is the standard bearer of the democratic forces, at least for now.

Clinton’s accidental ascendance to this role also puts an unusual burden on her, and on her presidency if she wins. It is not altogether unlike George W. Bush, who ran for president promising a humbler foreign policy only to find that 9/11 fundamentally reoriented the entire purpose of his presidency.

Hillary Clinton, as the accidental inheritor of the role of leader of the coalition of democratic forces, needs to understand the coalition she represents in a fashion far more inclusive than a normal presidential candidate does. To wit, she needs to understand her coalition as extending far beyond her actual voters, as including a lot of people who do not support her and will rally against her at the earliest opportunity to find a different democratic banner.

This coalition most emphatically includes every conservative, however much she may loath Clinton, who did not seriously consider voting for Trump and never let political expediency or social pressure sway her. It has pride of place for current officer holders like Sens. Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse and Lindsay Graham, who have refused to try to thread the needle, the threading of which has so deprived men like Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz of their public honor. And it particularly includes the world of conservative intellectuals and former officials—and there are a lot of them—who have never blinked at the need to reject Trump and Trumpism, whether they have endorsed Clinton or insisted on a vote of conscience. It is Clinton’s peculiar duty to represent these people, whether they accept her representation or not.

The immediate task of this broad pre-political coalition will and should be different depending on the outcome on November 8. In the event of a Clinton win, the need to sustain this pre-political coalition while the Republican Party recovers should fundamentally change our expectations of a Clinton presidency. As I’ll argue in the next installment of this series, it should push Clinton to run something far more like a government of national unity than a conventional Democratic administration.

In the event of a Trump win, as I’ll describe in the final installment, it will require an intense mobilization of all democratic forces to defend the institutions the candidate has promised to corrupt and to attack.

For present purposes, the key point is that whichever side wins, we have to imagine this coalition as including everyone whose voting behavior in this election was fundamentally democratic in character. This will mean putting aside, or deemphasizing, some pretty fundamental points of political and policy disagreement to focus on the protection of democracy and its institutions and the restoration of confidence in them.

What does this have to do with national security? Everything.

For the United States, national security necessarily means more than just prevailing over rivals and preventing violence against the country and its allies. It means survival as a thriving democratic political culture.

Right now, at least in my view, no foreign actor threatens that survival even a tenth as much as does the public fracturing we are currently experiencing domestically. No damage ISIS threatens worries me as much as does the flirtation of large swaths of our population with a frankly undemocratic movement that organizes itself as a cult of personality and trades openly in lies and delegitimizations of our institutions and elections and almost as openly in racism, xenophobia, and threats of violence.

There has always been a fundamentally cross-ideological approach to protecting the country’s national security. Bringing about a coalition of all democratic forces is just the application of that approach to foreign threats to what has become a domestic national emergency.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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