Democrats and independents who support President Joe Biden, we need to talk. About talking.
Specifically, we need to talk about criticizing Biden, and whether doing so is harmful. Many of the president’s supporters are fearful that any negative comments about Biden just play into the hands of Republicans. As a reaction to this fear, they discourage criticism of the Biden administration, particularly on social media, which is prone to hysterical partisanship even on a good day.
This is a mistake, both as a political strategy and as a matter of civic virtue. Democrats who fear the weaponization of dissent are, in fact, playing into Republican hands. Nothing could serve the Republicans better than to have the Democrats become a mirror of the GOP. To do so is bad for Biden, for the last remaining sane major party in American politics and for the habits of democratic citizenship.
Right decision but getting lots wrong
I say this as a Biden voter who has written and commented at length about what I think is the bungled American pullout from Afghanistan. Yes, I think Biden made the right decision. Yes, I think the cowardice and craven opportunism of the Trump administration dealt Biden a bad hand. Yes, I think the pullout was likely to be messy no matter how well planned it was.
But that doesn’t mean I am also required to say I think Biden’s team did this well. I could name any number of moves I think were wrong, almost all of them emanating from a dysfunctional policy process. The president was dug in on a deadline; the State and Defense departments don’t seem to know what the other is doing; the National Security Council seems to have failed in its job to provide the president with the best range of options from the key departments; the intelligence community is bickering over who got which things wrong.
Even the speechwriting shop has bombed twice, sending Biden out to the podium with meandering speeches in which Biden’s writers attempted lofty rhetoric when the moment called for a resolute and sober leveling with the American people about what’s happening now and what happens next.
But these arguments, for people determined to protect Biden at all costs, are irrelevant. Their answer is that Trump was worse, that criticizing Biden undermines him at a crucial time, and that any such criticisms will be turned into ammunition in the coming electoral cycle.
Enough of this fearfulness.
First, Democrats should ignore the GOP and its carping about Biden. The Republicans have ceased to be a vessel for any kind of ideas. They are going to attack Biden because demonizing their opponents is the only card they have left to play. They have decided on minority rule, even if it means overturning elections, and if they capture the House in 2022 – which is more than possible – they will impeach Biden and figure out the reason later.
Forget about persuasion. Democrats are not going to start voting for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem because of the mess in Kabul, and Republicans were not somehow gettable voters who are going to be scared off by a foreign policy blunder. We’re too polarized for that.
The Democrats, if they wish to be a governing party, must treat the GOP the way the adults in the dining room treat the rowdy kids at the children’s table: Ignore their screaming, and limit the damage they can do to the room. Express valid concerns to the White House, ask what legislative or other remedies might help, and get on with the business of running the country.
Second, governments do not improve without honest critics in their own party. A party that shouts down dissent in the name of winning elections and demands absolute fealty toward the leader is … well, that’s the modern Republican Party. The GOP has no platform, no direction, no groups within it to drive policy or do anything beyond injecting the requisite number of voters with pure rage. When internal dissent collapses, parties become little more than vehicles for extremist kooks. The Democrats are better than that.
GOP is beyond reasoned debate
Third, to avoid dissent for the sake of politics is to corrode the norms that undergird everything about the American system of government. To criticize our politicians is to ensure that they, and we, remember that they are our fellow citizens and not gods. We are accountable for our choices to elect them, and they are accountable for their decisions as stewards of the public trust. No man or woman is above this basic principle.
Finally, dissent and disagreement – conducted with honesty, candor and good faith – strengthens the habits that matter in a democracy: fairness, reason, tolerance, responsibility, understanding. Recently on this very opinion site, my friend David Rothkopf defended Biden’s handling of the Afghan operation, and I found that I agreed with him more than I disagreed, but that our differences on the subject were important and worth talking about.
This is more than just kibitzing over military operations; this is what citizenship looks like. Two people who care very much about their country are trying to find where we think we agree and where we diverge. We hope to enlighten each other and any of our fellow citizens who read our arguments.
Republicans, by contrast, are beyond hope on the issue of reasoned debate. But the rest of us can improve the public space with more argument rather than less. We do no favors to the president or to our constitutional system by living in fear of what the worst among us might do with our views; we can only control what we say, and what we think, and what we believe would be best for our nation.
If that means having discussions that make those of us in the same political boat uncomfortable, so be it. Discomfort is part of being an adult, but if we choose good faith discussions with each other instead of being paralyzed by fear of our political enemies, we can emerge from those discussions stronger, better citizens and more likely to prevail when working together for a common goal – including in an election.
Tom Nichols (@RadioFreeTom) is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and an instructor at the Harvard Extension School. His new book, “Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from within on Modern Democracy,” was published Aug. 19. All opinions are his own.
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