Tag Archives: Charlie Sykes

When Partisanship Overwhelms

When I was researching various aspects of American polarization for my most recent book, I came across Lilliana Mason’s all-too-accurate summary of the role political identity currently plays. Mason, a political scientist, argues that “A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preferences as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.”

Partisanship has increased to the point that parents today disapprove more strongly of their children marrying across party lines than across racial or religious ones.

Political scientists tell us that Democrats and Republicans like each other a lot less than they used to because people today have “sorted themselves” into parties of the like-minded–their partisan affiliations reflect their attitudes on race, religion and ethnicity, as well as economic and social policy.

More troubling is the fact that close identification with a political party actually changes ideological commitments–today, when a political party takes a position, partisans who originally felt otherwise fall in line.  They don’t change parties; they don’t even demur. They change their original positions.(Think about the  acquiescence of Republican lawmakers and voters to policies of President Trump, like tariffs and family separation, that are wildly at odds with longtime Republican positions.)

Obviously, intellectually honest people don’t allow partisanship to trump (no pun intended) their beliefs. Their numbers aren’t large, but I give big props to the “never Trump” Republicans and former Republicans like Charlie Sykes. Sykes was a talk radio conservative who teamed up with Bill Kristol in 2018 to establish a conservative site called “The Bulwark.” The Bulwark argues–along with people like Joe Scarborough of “Morning Joe” and GOP strategist Rick Wilson–  that Trump has blatantly violated foundational conservative principles, from foreign policy to federal deficits, that were once deemed basic to Republican identity.

In a recent article written for the Bulwark, Robert Tracinski argues that today’s excessive, arguably fanatical partisanship has overtaken rationality. He begins by pointing to Rush Limbaugh’s obvious hypocrisy in ignoring characteristics in Trump that he excoriated in Democrats.

“That Limbaugh is being a complete hypocrite is a trivial observation,” Tracinski asserts. “If a Democratic president had been caught doing this, of course Limbaugh would be screaming for his impeachment with equal volume and ferocity. What is more interesting is the rationale he offers: a simple appeal to hatred of the opposition — as a justification, as an inducement, as an end in itself.”

But the fact that Trump isn’t a Democrat, Tracinski stresses, doesn’t make him a good president. And Limbaugh, he adds, is typical of all too many Republicans who are more interested in partisanship than conservative principles.

“Conservatives have sold their souls for the sheer pleasure of partisan hatred,” Tracinski laments. And it’s not going to be easy to break this spell.”

Tracinski also lambasts Sen. Lindsey Graham in his piece, noting that as much of a Trump sycophant as he has become, he was “left out of the loop” when Trump decided to withdrawn U.S. troops from Syria.

“But why should Trump have consulted Graham?,” Tracinski asks. “He’d already sold his soul. He’d already indicated that he will back Trump no matter what; so, why should Trump bother to inform him about future compromises that will be required? This is where everyone will end up eventually.”

Hatred of “the other” takes many forms. When your partisan affiliation becomes the most important aspect of your identity, loyalty to your political tribe overwhelms everything else–common sense, the values you espouse, the obvious evidence of betrayal.

Reasonable Americans watch the embarrassing spectacle that is Donald Trump and find it difficult–if not impossible–to understand how anyone could continue to support this pathetic, ignorant, self-absorbed child-man. Tracinski may have solved the conundrum: the “base” isn’t supporting Trump so much as they are defending their identities–and indulging their hatred of their tribal opponents.

Unfortunately, tribal warfare is inconsistent with democratic self-government.

Boiling The Frog

Charlie Sykes is a former conservative talk-show host. Very conservative. He is also the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind, and has been one of the most articulate voices criticizing Trump and the Republicans who have been willing to trash their conservative convictions in return for deregulation, tax cuts and ideological judges.

Sykes recently had a scathing article in Time, in which he made an important point.

Political parties do not lose their souls or their identities all at once. Usually, it is a gradual process of compromises that make sense in the moment, but which have a cumulative effect — like a frog being gradually boiled.

The analogy to the frog being boiled applies to more than the transformation of a once-serious political party into a cult of crazy.

What worries me–and a whole lot of political scientists–is increasing evidence that the democratic norms we rely upon to make government work are also being slowly “boiled.” Pleas against “normalizing” Trumpism are based upon the very reasonable fear that by the end of this very abnormal Presidency, the American public will have become accustomed to the petty outbursts and childish behaviors that have embarrassed and endangered us internationally and brought our national government to a screeching halt.

As Sykes points out, Congress’ failure to   discharge its constitutional duty as a co-equal branch of government is wholly attributable to the Republican Party. He understands why:

There are obvious reasons why Republicans have been so unwilling to stand up to President Donald Trump: political tribalism, transactionalism, anti-anti-Trumpism and, yes, timidity. While expressing dismay in private, GOP officials know that the Republican base remains solidly behind Trump. In a hyper-partisan environment, standing on principle can be dangerous for your political health

The problem is, in supporting Trump, they’ve betrayed the core principles that previously defined their party.

The price of the GOP’s bargain with Trump, however, has continued to rise. Republicans in Congress now not only have to swallow Trump’s erratic narcissism, but also his assaults on the very core principles that supposedly define their politics: fiscal conservatism, free trade, the global world order, our allies, truth and the rule of law.

They know that his crude xenophobia, his exploitation of racial divisions, his chronic dishonesty, sexism and fascination with authoritarian thugs pose a long-term danger to the GOP’s ethical and electoral future. But most remain paralyzed by fear of a presidential tweet. So even when appalled by the casual and calculated cruelty of a Trump policy like separating families at the border, few speak out. And despite expressions of dismay, it seems unlikely that Congress will take any meaningful action to confront Trump’s appeasement of Russia’s Vladimir Putin or to limit this President’s power to launch destructive trade wars. This reticence to challenge Trump is especially striking, given Trump’s propensity for caving on issues like paying for The Wall, when Congress refuses to budge.

Ultimately, as Sykes demonstrates, we’re back to boiling that frog:

Yet what Republicans in Congress have found is that rubber-stampism can be addictive and all-consuming; every time they allow a line to be crossed, it is harder to hold the next one, even if that next one is more fundamental. Republicans have made it clear that they have no intention of providing a meaningful check on Trump, and the next Congress could be even worse: from Georgia to Wisconsin, GOP candidates are vying with one another in their pledges of fealty to Trump rather than to any set of ideas.

This reality is what makes the upcoming midterm elections so critical. Whatever differences we may have with the various candidates running as Democrats, voting for Republicans who have pledged their fealty to Trump–or failing to vote– should be unthinkable. Whatever their deficits, the Democrats are still a political party. Today’s GOP is a dangerous, irrational White Nationalist cult.

As Sykes puts it:

Unfortunately, it’s hard not to see this as a watershed. Republicans have not only ceded ground to the President, they have done so at profound cost to the norms of liberal constitutional democracy. Power ceded is difficult to get back; moral authority squandered is often lost forever. (See: the acceptance of presidential lies, embrace of incivility and indifference to sexual misconduct.)

The problem here is not merely political, but also constitutional. The failure of Republicans to hold Trump accountable underlines what seems to be the growing irrelevance of Congress as a co-equal branch of government.

I have major policy disagreements with Charlie Sykes–and with Steve Schmidt, George Will, Jennifer Rubin, Peter Wehner, David Frum and the many, many other principled conservatives who have spoken out strongly against Trump and his corrupt and thuggish administration. But I respect their intellectual integrity.

If America is ever to have a responsible conservative party again, they will be the people who build it.