Once upon a time, obstructionism was considered a shameful political practice. It was a nuclear option of sorts, one that was only to be deployed in rare instances where elected officials truly believed that a piece of proposed legislation would cause irreparable harm to American citizens or to democracy itself. It was effective, to be sure, but it also came with diminishing returns; elected officials, after all, are elected to govern, and a primary function of their job is to negotiate with their colleagues to find a solution that is agreeable to both sides. Any elected official who made a habit of not doing what they were elected to do was likely to find themselves voted out of office.
There is a reason obstructionism, at its core, once had a limited place in American politics: American politics were ostensibly about compromise and good faith. But that attitude towards governance has become outmoded, both among average citizens and elected officials. We have lost the ability or the willingness to compromise — where politics was once about how much you can get while giving away as little as possible, it is now about how much you can get without giving anything away.
Obstructionism resurfaced during President Obama’s first term. What was striking about its resurgence was that unlike in previous years, when obstructionism was practiced but not publicly embraced, its latest incarnation was proudly touted by legislators as their entire political strategy. Senator Mitch McConnell, then the Senate Minority Leader, confirmed as much in an October 2010 interview:
"The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."
-Mitch McConnell, October 2010
Prior to this admission, Senator McConnell had engaged in obstructionism in the traditional sense; that is, he found nitpicky arguments to hamper or otherwise block as much of President Obama’s legislative agenda as he could, but he was discreet about it — he did it in such a way that the intent behind his actions was open for interpretation. With his October 2010 declaration, however, McConnell dispensed with any pretense of good intentions. His was a proclamation that Republicans would engage in blatant obstructionism solely for the purpose of party over country. McConnell was able to do this because he reframed the debate: this was no longer about legislation, it was about the future of America as a democracy. And sadly, he was rewarded for it.
Though McConnell did not achieve his goal of a one-term Obama administration, he was able to handcuff some of Obama’s more ambitious policy proposals by wielding obstructionism as a cudgel for the rest of President Obama’s time in office. In doing so, he — perhaps irrevocably — changed the course of American politics.
Now the shoe is on the other foot. Democrats are no longer in power, and they’re faced with the same challenge that Republicans encountered following Obama’s election in 2008: to govern or not to govern?
In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election in 2016, many prominent Democratic legislators expressed a willingness to work with Republicans and the Trump administration to pass legislation they felt was worthy. It was the right call: many Americans had their faith in the government severely undermined on November 8th, and it was somewhat reassuring to hear that Democrats were — at least publicly — not willing to engage in the McConnell-esque tactic of taking their ball and going home. During the confirmation process for some of Trump’s cabinet picks, many Democrats were true to their word.
And then came the backlash.
Many Americans believed that to work with Trump at all was a fool’s errand, one that only enhanced Trump’s ability to pass damaging legislation. Soon after, individual Democrats in Congress were being singled out and publicly denounced on social media for having the temerity to cast a single vote in favor of anything Trump wanted. In short, Democrats have begun having their Tea Party moment — any Democratic legislator whose votes do not align with the ideological principles of the left now risks being considered insufficiently liberal to maintain their seat.
As a result, there has been a coalescence on the left around the idea that no matter the stakes, the best path forward is for Democrats to obstruct, without hesitation or deviation, any legislation introduced by Republicans for the duration of Trump’s time in office. After all, it worked for Mitch McConnell, and turnabout is fair play.
So should Democrats embrace obstructionism as an ethos?
At the moment, none of the legislation proposed by the Trump administration or Republicans aligns with liberal principles. The argument could be made that Democrats have a responsibility to at least attempt to negotiate on some of this legislation, to gain concessions wherever possible to ensure that if a bill is passed, the version that passes poses the least harm to the American public. Unfortunately, Republicans have an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives and a slight majority in the Senate, which means that no matter how much negotiation Democrats attempt, there’s still a strong likelihood that they won’t be able to impact the final form of the bill. Worst of all, none of the proposed legislation could even potentially be spun as a win for Democrats if it passes — if a harmful bill becomes law, nobody will care that it’s less harmful than it could have been.
Moreover, just as McConnell believed with Obama in 2010, liberals believe that this is no longer about legislation; it is about the future of this country. By that view, obstructionism is the only way to prevent America from going over the edge until reinforcements can (potentially) arrive in the 2018 midterms. Therefore, the thinking goes, it behooves Democrats to block everything; any passed legislation will be a feather in Trump’s cap- one that he can point to as an example of his success in his 2020 re-election bid.
But by engaging in absolute obstructionism, Democrats risk becoming a scapegoat for Trump and Republicans when the time comes to explain their as-yet complete inability to pass any legislation; moreover, Democrats would open themselves up to criticism from Republicans for putting party over country. The irony would be thick on both counts; Republicans do hold all the power, after all, and as the Russia investigation has shown, Republicans are clearly willing to do whatever is necessary to place party over country. But Republicans are also completely comfortable shamelessly contradicting themselves if it means scoring easy political points.
The problem is, there is a limit to the effectiveness of obstructionism. If this trend continues, elected officials will simply refuse to participate in the act of governance until the conditions are favorable for them to act. We'll have a Republican Congress that will do nothing but dig their heels in during a Democratic administration; then, when they regain the presidency, they’ll push through everything they can without input from their colleagues. In response, Democrats will employ the same strategy, and the cycle will continue ad infinitum. The result of these tactics will be a government that ultimately ends up at or near where it started, with a populace that has no faith in our leaders' ability to get anything done and angry that they aren't getting what they want.
Ultimately, the purpose of government is to govern. If Democrats can find common ground with Republicans on legislation (such as Trump’s proposed infrastructure plan), they would do well to work with their colleagues across the aisle. It may be idealistic, but somebody has to be the adult in the room.