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The Long, Bumpy Path Toward a More Principled Politics

Sincerity would be nice, but we can start without it.
March 8, 2019
The Long, Bumpy Path Toward a More Principled Politics
Rep. Steve King. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A funny thing has been happening in Congress lately. Party leaders have awakened to the threat of their own extremists, and have begun to try to hold them accountable. The attempts have been sometimes feeble, and it hasn’t been pretty, but it could lead to a better politics.

It began when Rep. Steve King, Iowa caucus power-broker and longtime advocate for a “great wall” on our southern border, asked a New York Times reporter “white nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive?” The outcry was swift, and it was not limited to mainstream media or progressive websites.

In a staff editorial, National Review condemned King’s history of “racial demagogy.” The editors urged Republicans to “police their own” and deny support for the congressman in the next primary and (if necessary) general elections. Ben Shapiro, who had defended King from racism charges in the past, called for his censure and urged followers to support his (already declared) Republican primary challenger.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy quickly stripped King of his committee assignments. “This is not the first time we’ve heard these comments,” McCarthy told reporters. “That is not the party of Lincoln and it’s definitely not American.”

Were these denunciations sincere? Did Republicans suddenly discover that the congressman who openly displayed a Confederate battle flag in his office and said “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies” had white nationalist sympathies? It seems more likely that Republicans recognized that by enforcing a principle against one of their own, they would gain leverage to deploy that principle against their opponents.

That dynamic has been playing out over the past month as Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has been called out for multiple anti-Semitic comments. In mid-February she tweeted that Republican support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins” from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Her history of anti-Semitic dog whistles—in 2012 she wrote that “Israel has hypnotized the world”—kept her from getting the benefit of the doubt. Republicans, citing their handling of King, pressed Democrats to demand tougher consequences than the apology initially demanded by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and given by Omar.

“There were consequences to what [Steve King] said, and unless Rep. Omar resigns from Congress, at minimum Democrat leaders should remove her from the House Foreign Affairs Committee,” Vice President Mike Pence told MSNBC.

Democrats didn’t. And then last week Omar invoked the classically anti-Semitic “dual loyalty” trope when she accused pro-Israel advocates of bearing “allegiance to a foreign country.” This time her remarks divided the party, with progressives pushing back against and delaying a proposed anti-Semitism resolution. (The resolution did not name Rep. Omar, unfortunately, and was rewritten to include references to white supremacy and Islamophobia. It passed Thursday afternoon.) Democratic whip James Clyburn attempted to excuse her comments, bizarrely, by citing Omar’s experience as a Somali refugee. He did not explain how others who fled Somalia, like activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, have managed to avoid indulging in anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Democrats don’t have a monopoly on anti-Semitism, and the GOP needs to step up its own norms enforcement here. Congressman Matt Gaetz faced no official sanctions for inviting a right-wing Holocaust denier to the State of the Union. Nor was he punished for speculating that George Soros was financing a migrant “caravan,” fueling an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that “globalist” Jews are secretly attempting to subvert the U.S. through unrestricted immigration.

The King and Omar controversies can be easily dismissed as examples of Washington cynicism and hypocrisy, and indeed those exist in abundant quantities. But look a little closer, and you might see the bloody birthing process of a political norm. “Are Republicans tougher on white nationalists than Democrats are against anti-Semites? Our political panel debates tonight.”

If Democrats can finally muster the courage to clearly and specifically denounce anti-Semitism in their own ranks, they will be positioned to better challenge anti-Semites on the right as well. The same applies to Republicans.

Partisans are very good at policing one another. An entire industry has emerged to catalog the outrageous comments and gaffes of the opposition party, whether it’s Media Matters and Right Wing Watch on the left or the Media Research Center and Twitchy on the right. As mobilization tools, these efforts might be effective. As instruments of persuasion, not so much.

For every gaffe or slur they document, there’s a countervailing whatabout or tu quoque. After a while, the relentless pounding of these artillery exchanges can begin to seem a little pointless. To advance requires commitment, and it’s risky.

In political terms, committing to a principle means accepting that it can be used against one’s own party as well as the opposition. And what can begin as a tactical sacrifice can result in strengthened norms.

The Democrats’ evolution on sexual harassment is instructive. After demanding that Senator Bob Packwood resign over a pattern of sexual harassment and abuse in 1995, they reversed course for President Bill Clinton, defending a president who faced a series of allegations from women like Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Juanita Broaddrick. Democrats were rightly perceived as hypocritical on the issue.

But when reports of Senator Al Franken’s sexually inappropriate behavior emerged last year, Democrats called for his resignation. Cynics observed that this was politically advantageous, given that Roy Moore, who’d been credibly accused of preying on underage girls, was at that moment campaigning for a special election to serve Alabama in the Senate. But whatever the motive, the principle that sexual misconduct will not be tolerated was strengthened.

Or look at Republicans who face the decision of whether to support the president’s decision to overrule Congress and fund a border wall through his emergency spending authority. While Rep. Justin Amash and Sen. Rand Paul’s opposition to Trump’s declaration is most likely rooted in their long-standing skepticism of executive power, this is not the case for everyone. Many Republicans, even those who support the border wall, have come to see the practical case for blocking Trump, if only to avoid setting a precedent that a Democrat could use to declare a climate change or gun violence “emergency.”

Could we also see this approach to executive power extend to personal corruption, or respect for the rule of law? If Republicans take a more enlightened view of their self-interest, one that takes a longer term accounting of benefits and costs, we might.

The good thing about principles is that they’re timeless, and they don’t care if you believe in them or not. Yes, it would be nice to have better people in politics, but as James Madison observed, “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Hypocrisy isn’t a virtue, but it isn’t the worst thing in the world either, because at least it recognizes the value of the norm it pretends to respect.

But as long as we’re pretending, why not pretend to be principled? Take a few honorable stands against your short-term political interest, then ask why the opposition won’t do the same. Maybe start by denouncing anti-Semitism in your own backyard while demanding your neighbor do likewise.

Your motive might be cynical and self-interested, but if it’s good politics and leads to a decent outcome, who cares?

Christian Vanderbrouk

Christian Vanderbrouk is a writer in New York City. He previously served eight years in the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: .