The television sitcom Parks and Recreation is one of only a handful of fine moments in television’s recent history. Whoever came up with the idea of a show having a rabid libertarian as the director of a city parks department — the very archetype of comfortable bureaucratic inefficiency — I mean, the jokes write themselves! It was a stroke of genius.
And, apparently, also prescient.
Because the longer I watch the ongoing battle between Donald Trump and the self-styled resistance both from outside and from within “his” own executive branch, the more I feel like I’m back in Pawnee, watching the perpetual struggle between Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope. Only now, the lovable, misfit characters on both sides have been replaced by a bunch of immoderate, self-promoting activists working to undermine the political system within which they operate, and the stakes are immeasurably higher.
Every day, another inflammatory statement from Trump. Every day another leak from within “his” administration. I don’t see a brave President standing up against over-politically correct opposition. I don’t see a brave resistance movement trying to safeguard American values against an authoritarian.
What I see is a political system at war with itself and tottering on the brink of collapse, and everyone wants in on the action.
This has been building for a while.
It started in earnest with Republican opposition to Bill Clinton. It continued with Democratic opposition to George W. Bush. We pushed right through Republican opposition to Obama, and here we are with Democratic opposition to Trump.
At each stage, the opposition became more impassioned, more shrill, more militant. Not once has the “fever broken” upon a new election, to paraphrase our past President. Instead, with every change in power, it’s built, climbing up on the shoulders of the prior generation to new heights of angry intransigence until we’ve reached the current point.
If we think that this fever infecting our political interactions will break with Trump’s defeat, I fear we’re allowing ourselves to be deluded once again. Not only because history suggests that is unlikely, but because now, we see not only interparty warfare but a challenge from new actors — proudly politically-motivated bureaucrats.
This, I fear, is a new battleground, a second front in the opposition’s perpetual war on the party in power. Attack it from outside. Control the Congress and stalemate legislation. But now attack opposing leadership from inside as well, with constant leaks from resistors on the inside, brazenly coordinated for maximum effect with rival campaigns, opposing political leadership, and sympathetic media. When was the last time you consistently saw a President’s private phone calls with foreign leaders leaked through the press?
I think that this prospect should terrify us. Not that it hasn’t ever happened before, but this seems different. It’s not a rare, shadowy thing. And it seems to me much more the ongoing bureaucratic apparatus (call it the Deep State, the Blob, or whatever name you want) using the political actors rather than the other way around. Or maybe it’s an opposition alliance with the bureaucratic branch. I’m not sure exactly how to see it, but I fear it will become a new normal, a Resistance characterized by the honored resistance double agent actively working on the inside to overthrow. Why? Because every election’s result is illegitimate — due to voter suppression, fake news, Russian interference, too much campaign money, systemic faults that empower the privileged, and on and on.
There’s no logical limit on this type of rationale, and so, I don’t believe this will all stop with Trump.
Do you want to see the next iteration in the war?!
Then Viva la Resistance!
Maybe it’s not this bad, and I’m being overly melodramatic. Maybe my own unconscious bias is leading me to read more into this than I should. But I think this is the direction we are headed, far too eagerly, and we need to take care.
There is a place for capital-R Resistance movements, where a system has become so impossible that it necessitates departures from political norms. But it seems to me we are rapidly entering a perpetual state of Resistance. And perpetual Resistance movements are a sign of systemic dysfunction, rather than a series of heroic reactions to objectionable policies and personalities (as objectionable as certain policies and personalities might be).
As we contemplate what types of objectionable things justify departures from what once were shared political norms, we’d do well to consider the following lines from Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons”:
And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned around on you–where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast–man’s laws, not God’s–and if you cut them down…d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
This is not a plea for the Democrats to allow themselves to be steamrolled by Donald Trump. Or vice-versa, should things change after the next election. But it is a call to acknowledge legitimacy where it exists and to confine opposition to prescribed political channels. At this point, I frankly don’t care who takes the hit by stopping the escalation, because I’m more worried about the systemic damage than any harm that I think can be done by one party or another.
Political opposition is normal. It’s hard for me to quantify when we’ve crossed the line from normal opposition to perpetual Resistance Maybe I’m overreacting and seeing something new in what’s always been there. I can’t be sure, but I will say this: When we start brushing aside norms to get at evils, as we perceive them, we should have a clear idea of what we’re doing. We’re not only resisting an administration; we’re undermining a system. Sure, it may have been undermined by someone else first, but we’re participating in the game and moving it ahead. Our actions will have a cumulative effect.
When we get so carried away in the virtue of a cause that we toss norms to the wind we throw the baby out with the bathwater. Political, social, societal norms aren’t the “other means stuff” in contrast to the “results stuff” that really matters. They’re everything. They are the 10 Commandments, the Golden Rule, what take us from the State of Nature to a purposeful life in society with our fellow beings. Rebellion against them in opposition to an administration or person is not so much an act of opposition, as an act of revolution. America can handle Trump. America can handle Obama. I’m not sure it can handle their “heroic” Resistors.
As boring and marginally effective as it often seems, there is order in adherence to a set of time-tested political norms. It’s not far from Viva la Resistance to Viva la Revolucion, and revolutions are uncertain things.