New Era of Apartheid Politics

The long era of bipartisan compromise is dead.

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The conventional wisdom, at least among liberals and leftists, is that the long era of bipartisan compromise ended with the election of country’s first black president.

That’s not quite right.

That era ended in the autumn of 2007 when the first too-big-to-fail Wall Street banks started failing. Fearing the worst, then-President George W. Bush turned to the US Congress. He asked for $700 billion to stabilize Wall Street and the economy generally. Republican John Boehner was at that point the House Minority Leader. He told the former president that his House conference would not support a bank bailout.

Boehner knew what Bush knew. Officials then believed, or said they believed, that they could avoid an economic crisis, at least mitigate one. Though John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, supported passage, Boehner said no. That forced Bush to plead for Democratic support. With majorities in both chambers of the Congress, they gave the president their blessing, believing they did what needed doing.


Once a Republican was president again, the GOP ceased caring about state’s rights, deficits, and even the constitutional order itself.


Saying no did more. It gave the Republican Party massive leverage that came in handy after US Senator Barack Obama won the presidency. The first thing the new chief executive did was ask the Congress for nearly $800 billion in stimulus in order to soften the impact of a growing financial panic. Again, Boehner’s conference said no, and in saying no, it forced the Democrats to take all the responsibility for saving the economy. Instead of being punished for their betrayal, however, the Republicans were soundly rewarded. Two years later, John Boehner was speaker of the House.

Scholars and intellectuals often point to Senate Majority Mitch McConnell as the grave digger of democracy. He broke from all historical and constitutional norms by refusing to allow a Senate vote on Merrick Garland, Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. But John Boehner had a shovel, too. He traded his party’s patriotism for partisan advantage. He sabotaged the unspoken agreement that had for years governed both parties: during national crises, love of country trumps all. In this sense, Boehner was a pioneer. He blew up that agreement. It’s no wonder, really, that Donald Trump believed the current Democrats would cave to his demands for a southern border wall after he shutdown the federal government. It’s no wonder that Donald Trump’s champions say there’s nothing wrong with Russians helping defeat Hillary Clinton.

Joe Biden is now running for president. The former vice president says he can restore the old consensus. While that sounds good to voters fearing another Trump term, that’s not going to happen. First, because you need Republican buy-in. Second, as Dissent’s Richard Yeselson wrote, because “Biden is a wan, restorationist candidate for a moment which requires large transformations of US democracy, capitalism, political structure and political culture—yesterday’s man.” Even so, Yeselson said, “a lot of Dems would feel great if Trump were defeated, and think Biden can do it.”

Even if Biden means it and tries restoring the old consensus, it won’t take long for him to realize fully that such overtures are doomed. Boehner shed the party’s patriotic pretense when he sabotaged Bush. The GOP also shed all pretense to being a conservative party. Once a Republican was president again, it ceased caring about state’s rights, deficits, and even the constitutional order itself. Trump’s election launched a new era in which the GOP overtly embraced the politics of apartheid.

During the 2016 election, the commentariat was preoccupied with the question of what Republicans were going to do in the face of changing racial demographics. Social scientists predict that white Americans will be in the minority some time in the next 25 years. Trump was on the side of white supremacy. What was the party going to do? We thought he couldn’t win, because we assumed that the bipartisan consensus was still a thing. But states elect presidents, not citizens. The Republicans therefore can rest easy knowing that they can win national elections for decades, long after white voters have become a minority, without winning the national popular vote.

Minority rule won’t stop with national elections. It’s being codified into law. The Senate is larding the federal judiciary with partisan hacks, creating conditions that could reverse gains made by the gay rights movement, women’s movement and civil rights moments. The Supreme Court signaled recently that it’s OK with putting a citizenship question on the next census, threatening funding for populous liberal states. As demographics shift, I’d expect GOP judges to make room for protected class status for white Americans. Biden may not admit the old consensus is dead.

But that won’t matter. Dead is dead.

—John Stoehr

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