Extortion Tactics Have No Place in American Democracy

From the beginning, the government of the United States has been founded on compromise. The Constitutional Convention created the House to give big states their due power and the Senate to protect the small states. Slave states wanted their representation in Congress to reflect their whole population, slave and free, while free states wanted representation determined only by free residents. They settled on counting 3/5 of the slave population.

Through the early 19th century, a series of compromises held the Union together: You can have Missouri as a state if we can have Maine. We’ll start a Bank of the United States, but with a charter that will need to be renewed. (It wasn’t.) Henry Clay was known as the Great Compromiser. It was a compliment, not an insult.

That pattern continued into the 20th century: Your district wants a bridge, mine wants a dam; let’s do both. Urban liberals want to fund food stamps, while rural conservatives want farm subsidies; let’s combine them into one bill.

That’s how American democracy is supposed to work: Different parts of the country may be rivals, but they’re not enemies, so win/win solutions are possible. Along the way, we discover things that just about everybody wants: safety from invaders and criminals, not letting poor people die in the streets, security in old age, good schools, effective responses to epidemics, and so on. So you fund the things that everybody wants, and you make deals on the rest. If I want your support for something you don’t care about, I’ll offer to support something you do care about too.

But something changed in American politics after the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, and it got worse after the Tea Party wave of 2010: Republicans began to adopt extortion tactics. Rather than offer quid pro quo deals to Democrats, they began packaging demands and threats: If you don’t give me what I want, I’ll do something that nobody wants. I’ll shut down the government, I’ll run us into the debt ceiling. I’ll sabotage the nation’s credit rating. Coast Guard families will be going to food banks. The FBI won’t be able to pay its informants. Air travel, going to the national parks, or even just eating food will get riskier. Then you’ll see how serious I am and understand that you have to give me what I want.

Gingrich ultimately changed his stripes; he and President Clinton worked out any number of compromises, as President Reagan and Speaker O’Neil had a decade before. They controlled spending at the same time that they raised taxes, and guess what happened? The deficit went away.

But extortion tactics were never officially renounced, and over the last decade Republicans have gone back to considering them a legitimate option. To get ObamaCare passed, President Obama needed a House majority and 60 votes in the Senate. But Republicans tried to extort a Democratic Senate and President into repeal as soon as they controlled only one house of Congress. (It’s worthwhile to try to picture the reverse situation, because it’s so hard to imagine: Picture Obama taking office in 2009 and threatening to leave our troops in Iraq stranded and unsupplied unless Congress passed his health care plan.)

And now President Trump (who was elected with 46% of the vote and has never had an approval rating over 50%) is trying to extort funding for his unpopular wall.

Partisan extortionists usually try to cloud the issue, but the difference between extortion tactics and ordinary politics is not at all hard to see. Extortion arguments have a don’t-make-me-do-this quality similar to kidnappers’ ransom demands. It isn’t that anybody wants the government shut down, it’s that one side is willing to do it to get what it wants. It’s also not hard to tell which side is extorting: Look at the issue in question and ask yourself who wants it. During the recent shutdown, the central issue was the Wall, and Trump wanted it. He wasn’t willing to make a positive offer to Democrats, so instead he threatened them with a government shutdown. The media’s popular two-sides-bickering narrative wasn’t remotely accurate: Trump was extorting, and Pelosi was resisting extortion.

Democracy can’t go on like this forever. Eventually, some leader will get elected on an openly anti-democratic platform, arguing that our constitutional system is too cumbersome to work any more. Once he gets into office, he’ll provoke an extortion crisis as a way of proving his point: How can we support a system of government that allows stuff like this to happen? Are we willing to stand by while the country falls apart, or do we want the leader to declare a national emergency, abolish Congress, and make things work again?

The way out of that scenario is for the public to re-establish the norm that extortion is not legitimate. The right way to make change is to assemble a majority, and any leader who offers a short-cut around that process — even to get something we think we want — deserves our scorn.

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  • George Washington, Jr.  On January 28, 2019 at 12:21 pm

    Good explanation. Too many people think the narrative is equal on both sides – Trump stubbornly wants the wall, and Pelosi stubbornly opposes it. Putting it in terms of Trump saying “give me what I want or else” and Pelosi saying “no” makes the issue much clearer.

    • L. D. Dewees  On January 31, 2019 at 12:29 pm

      I just saw something on CNN (I don’t watch, it popped up while I was changing channels…). The show was Inside Politics and the host was suggesting that some Democrats oppose the wall SOLELY because Trump supports it.

      I wanted to throw something at the TV, but I can’t afford a new one! Both siderism is KILLING our country.

      • George Washington, Jr.  On January 31, 2019 at 2:55 pm

        I’ve heard that many times, in the form of claims or even direct quotes implying that Pelosi, Schumer, Obama, Clinton, or some other Democrat supported a wall on the southern border, until Trump came along, so now they’re opposing it out of pure spite.

        The reality is that barriers are a valid means of border control in certain areas, along with field agents, drones, cameras, detectors, immigration judges, and other elements of a rational policy, and of course Democrats support this approach over half-baked plans like Trump’s wall that have not been adequately studied or whose costs have not been estimated.

        And of course, right after the conservative says “Democrats wanted a wall until Trump did,” their next statement is “Democrats want open borders.” So which is it?

  • Nancy F Browning  On January 28, 2019 at 12:37 pm

    Can you please change “he” to he/she or “their” in this sentence?: “Once he gets into office, he’ll provoke an extortion crisis as a way of proving his point.” I know men are more likely to negotiate this way, but it’s best to use non-gendered pronouns. Thanks.

    • weeklysift  On January 29, 2019 at 3:29 pm

      It’s a weakness in my imagination. I can’t picture the first American fascist dictator as female.

  • jh  On January 29, 2019 at 2:54 pm

    I don’t even understand the media’s portrayal. When Trump talked about DACA and Dreamers, the first thought in my head was “Aha, human hostages”. Not only that, what happens when you give into a spoiled toddler’s tantrum. It only teaches that toddler to throw another tantrum.

    I really hate this adversarial approach to governance. Maybe it’s too many lawyers and not enough community organizers in our elected offices? Maybe it’s the extremely tribalistic propaganda machine on the conservative side that promotes a zero sum us-vs-them scenario? A purist ideology that refuses to compromise because they regard compromise as something that is evil?

    I’ve gotten more adversarial as well. Tit for tat so to speak. Sometimes, you have to slap the bully hard.

    At the end of the day, America is eating itself. Meanwhile, the Chinese are going to build a moon base and all I can think is “It was supposed to be us.” I’m so tired of being second place and not having big visions of what our future will be. I’m so tired of the conservative “What about the money?” game. Yes. I acknowledge that money is nice. But I’d rather throw that 5 billion in the form of an endowment to NASA and other science programs so they aren’t beholden to some political hack and can really push the limits of humans. Religion gave me … thoughts and prayers. NASA has given me LED lights, foam mattresses, small cameras and so much more. And not only that, the 5 billion that’s used on a NASA means scientists and researchers getting paid and eventually, us reaping the big reward of having a better world. (Foam mattresses are definitely more comfortable than coil mattresses. Water purification is a good thing. Even side discoveries have the potential to be blockbuster commercial products. I really hate the conservative’s hatred of education and the bourgeois number counting of scientific endeavors that ignores all the end results. At the end of the day, I don’t care if a scientist is studying duck penises because I’m pretty sure that we can commercialize duck penises for some damn purpose and even if it doesn’t produce anything, something else will arise from that research that will benefit me even if it’s just pure knowledge.)

    • weeklysift  On January 29, 2019 at 3:33 pm

      I’ve always hated those stories about scientists who are studying something that sounds ridiculous. That stupid Galileo is dropping cannonballs off the tower again. That idiot Fleming is messing around with moldy bread. And don’t get me started on Franklin out there flying his kite in the storm. What a loon!


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