What We Talk About When We Talk About Checks and Balances

"Liberal" is really just another way of saying American.

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I believe Nancy Pelosi when she said the congressional elections were about health care. Polls suggest as much. As did the shameful lying among Republican candidates. That includes the president. Donald Trump et al tried to convince voters that the Democrats threaten Obamacare, not the Republicans. Health care really mattered to voters. Best to lie to them in order to avoid reminding them you nearly took it all away.

And I agree with Pelosi and other Democratic leaders that they should focus on health care, infrastructure, wages and other policies that people really do want and would vote for if the Republicans would just stop scaring with stories of immigrant murderers and rapists. Governing the country with competence, intelligence and an eye for the common good is about as effective a contrast to Trump as one can imagine.

But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that voters also said they want the Democrats, who will take charge of the House in January, to check and balance the power of the executive. They have seen his behavior over the last two years and they don’t like disrespecting the rule of law, undermining law enforcement agencies, and otherwise turning what should be the neutral prosecution of justice into a partisan wrecking ball.

Put another way: voters do not want a king for a president. So they empowered the opposition to make sure the United States remains a liberal democracy.

I don’t mean “Democratic” or anything associated with a party. By “liberal democracy,” I mean the set of values that go into making a government one that’s of, by and for the people, not groups or interests. Congressional oversight isn’t partisan (at least it doesn’t have to be), but it is inherently liberal. It makes sure that those with power use that power responsibly and for the benefit of all Americans. That this president sees oversight as partisan is all the more reason to remind people what liberalism really is.

Liberalism isn’t only about individual liberty. It isn’t only about equality and rights. It isn’t only about freedom to choose. It is about those things. That won’t change. But it’s also about creating a system of rules, norms and just laws that prevent power from corrupting society and thus making all of us less free. It’s about channeling power to serve individuals so that we can honor our moral obligations to each other.

I don’t recall any Democrat speaking in these terms. If they did, they folded those terms into a message with broad appeal for the purpose of winning. My point isn’t to criticize Democrats. My point is to tease out what midterm voters are really saying when they say they want Congress to check the president. My point is to get more people to see that a “liberal” is really another way of saying American.

But that’s only one part of my goal. The other is to encourage Democrats, especially those considering the presidency, to wrap themselves in the tradition, and talk about liberalism in appealing ways, perhaps in ways that reclaim and redefine the tradition.

An American president should welcome congressional oversight in the name of accountability and transparency—two hard-core liberal values. Trump isn’t. He’s threatening “investigations” of his own. A monarch would do that.

An American president should call for every vote to be counted in Arizona and Florida—again, a liberal value. Trump isn’t. He’s calling for elections officials to stop counting while the Republican candidates are ahead. An autocrat would do that.

An American president would stop foreign saboteurs from ever meddling in our elections and undermining popular sovereignty—a quintessentially liberal move. Trump isn’t. He’s sandbagging the Mueller probe. He looks away while Kremlin agents hack and hack. That’s not what an American president does. But a despot would.

It would be tempting to say that all a Democrat need do is stand against Trump in order to appear liberal and genuinely American. But that would mean that liberalism only stands against things—whether that’s monarchy, authoritarianism, despotism, or fascism—and not for them. That’s actually not the case. Still, over time, we liberals came to believe it, because we came believe what our enemies said we believed.

“Liberalism has never been a fixed or unified creed,” wrote Helena Rosenblatt in The Lost History of Liberalism: from Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century. “... What is new is the way liberals today describe themselves and what they stand for.

They overwhelmingly stress a commitment to individual rights and choices; they rarely mention duties, patriotism, self-sacrifice, or generosity to others.

These terms are conspicuous for their absence in the contemporary liberal lexicon. Liberals have conceded the high ground to their adversaries.

Our enemies are right. Liberals stand against the abuse of power.

They are wrong too. We stand for America.

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