The up side of confrontation is minimal and the costs are high. But as Republicans now know, failing to stand up for your values is a deadly mistake.
Progressive activists briefly took over parts of Madison, Wisconsin’s state capital, last week. But this wasn’t a protest. It was mob violence, pure and simple. In the process, the mob tore down two statues. One of them, “Forward,” was erected in 1895 as a symbol of Wisconsin’s progressive roots. The other was a statue of Hans Christian Heg, a staunch abolitionist who fought for the Union and died in battle against the Confederacy. And Democrat Tim Carpenter — a self-described gay, progressive Wisconsin state senator — said protesters beat him up when he stopped to take a picture.
In the Republican news bubble, this is huge. Everybody’s talking about it. Democrats, however, are mostly alternating between trying to ignore it and making excuses for it.
I completely understand why Democratic Party leaders are motivated to gloss over things like this. People who engage in this sort of behavior are fanatical, emotional and not always open to rational persuasion. They’re hard to deal with directly but will (usually) exhaust themselves if you just nod your head and let them vent. They’re also theoretically on your side and some of them devote a lot of time as volunteers. In short, the up side of confronting them, at least in the short term, is minimal while the costs are high. But in the long term, failing to stand up for your values is a deadly mistake.
The danger of staying silent
Party leaders, at their best, ought to be a source of wisdom and perspective. More to the point, they ought to be a source of guidance and moral authority. When activists at the fringes of the party go off the deep end and try to take the party with them, it’s up to those leaders to pull the party back. It’s tempting to try and harness their “energy” and it is certainly easier to ignore them than to confront them. Do not go down that path.
As Republicans, we know. Donald Trump did not spring forth fully formed from the mind of Steve Bannon. The path that eventually led to Donald Trump was littered with tactical compromises and decisions to look the other way. As an example, when birtherism raised its head, many of us Republicans rolled our eyes and tried to figure out the easiest way of placating these people while keeping them on board. What we should have done is confront them. Some of us did. The late senator John McCain did. But the party as a whole did not, and now we are paying the price. Republican Party leaders thought they could ride the tiger and then found they couldn’t get off.
You, Democrats, are now facing the same risk. You may scoff that Republicans are uniquely susceptible to these malign influences, but this is an accident of history rather than evidence that the Democratic Party is somehow immune to its own fringes. You have your own versions of QAnon conspiracy theorists, birthers and cultural warriors straining towards the political mainstream and yearning for a leader who will “own the cons.”
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As leaders, it is your responsibility to rise to the moment and this does not mean stampeding to the left in a horizontal version of a race to the bottom. It means setting limits and saying “no.” Some things on the left wing of your party are too far left, are too radical, and you should speak up and say so.
If you want to be in favor of removing Civil War monuments, that’s fine. But they need to be removed through the ordinary democratic process rather than by mobs with ropes. When an activist like Hawk Newsome, the president of Greater New York Black Lives Matter, says, “If this country doesn’t give us what we want, then we will burn down this system and replace it. All right? And I could be speaking figuratively. I could be speaking literally,” it calls for a firm response.
Don’t join Republican leaders in infamy
That kind of talk is anathema to any responsible political movement and you should say so in no uncertain terms, like these: “No one is going to burn anything down and we reject the very notion. Yes, America has problems and yes, we are going to fix them. But as Democrats, we do not tolerate threats of violence and mob rule from anybody, whether they are gun-toting Trump supporters or even our own activists.”
Republicans have learned from bitter experience that you must resist the urge to remain silent in the hopes that it will all blow over and things will get back to normal. It is true that whatever the current over-the-top demand is, it will likely fade. But these demands cause serious damage nonetheless. Your failures to push back are corrosive and lend an ever-increasing aura of legitimacy that will eventually allow unsound, irresponsible, and possibly downright insane ideas to break through into the mainstream.
Trump and what he has done to the Republican Party are unquestionably the fault of the Republican leadership and its failure to set limits and fight for the party’s traditional values. But unless they want to join Republican leaders in infamy, Democrats in positions of leadership should be chastened rather than smug. There, but for the grace of God, go you.
Republican Chris Truax, an appellate lawyer in San Diego, is CEO of CertifiedVoter.com and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.
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