Can the Cycle of Revenge Politics be Broken?

If you’re a Democrat, have you convinced yourself that if Biden is elected the country will return to some semblance of normalcy — like if a resolution that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west came to the floor, it could survive a senate filibuster?

Is it even remotely farfetched that the evangelical right, unable to continue molding the entire judiciary in their own image, would suggest that it is unsettled science?

[If you lean Republican, hang in there; only a few more lines before I get to the left].

Or that Mitch McConnell would summon the cynicism of elections past — to make Biden a one-term president — and try to deny him even this token win? Or that the malignant trio of Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity would trot out spokespersons from QAnon and Patriots for Unproven Scandals (PUS) to breathlessly explain that the sun’s movements are controlled by a secret cabal headed up by Hillary Clinton?

No, not farfetched at all.

Because our political differences have become so emotional, so filled with rage, that neither party can stomach giving the other party a win — the good of the American people be damned.

Need proof?

If you are a Democrat, were you really happy that Trump got Al Baghdadi, because, you know, Trump? Did you try to find reasons to underplay agreements brokered by the administration with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to establish diplomatic relations with Israel? And when Trump “discovered” hydroxychloroquine, did you cheer on every study that proved its ineffectiveness?

Now, the Republican party has its own ‘splainin to do.

While tit for tat political spats have been with us since the squirrel lobby attacked George Washington for taking down that cherry tree, the case can be made that the malevolent revenge variety was perfected by the right.

Let’s go back a few administrations.

The right would probably posit that the fangs came out when Bush II became president. And there’s some truth to that. But it would also have to ignore that when the Supreme Court handed Bush the election based upon a ruling so spurious that it explicitly stated it could never be used as precedent in another legal proceeding, that the left had reason to be a bit miffed.

Moreover, after the attacks on the World Trade Center, our political parties seamlessly came together. And while that unity degraded over time, it never devolved into spittle specked rage.

No, that rage was reserved for Barrack Obama.

Was it because he was Black? Or because he had the gall to suggest that America, in all its greatness, was not perfect? Or that he was the coolest kid on the block with an outside shot to match?

We can pretend we don’t know.

But we do.

Presidents have been elected time immemorial with dissenting voters and opposing parties being unhappy. But there’s unhappy, and there’s pathological intransigence. As different as black and white. Literally.

Feel free to pretend otherwise.

But what you can’t ignore is that from day one, the Republican party consistently rebuffed Obama’s efforts to reach across the aisle, sometimes in such spectacular fashion as to block ideas it had previously supported.

Take health care reform.

It’s well known that the individual mandate, the most controversial element of the Affordable Care Act, was endorsed by the conservative Heritage Foundation. In fact, it was modeled after legislation enacted by Republican Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts. What’s more, to make the legislation more palatable to the right, the left sacrificed its beloved public option. In the end, then, a bill that checked off many of the boxes the right wanted.

And yet, it mounted a full-throated, don’t tread on me, teabag wearing, effort to block the legislation anyway.

And that was just the beginning.

At nearly every turn, Mitch and his merry band of bill-i-busters managed to block up Obama to such a degree that no amount of indignant outrage could shame him enough to bring the president’s legislation to a vote.

And then there was the coup de gras, denying Obama his constitutional right to replace the deceased Antonin Scalia with Merrick Garland (a justice lauded by many Republicans for his balanced interpretation of the law).

So even if Trump didn’t so gleefully goad the Democrats, the party was loaded for bear when he took office.

Now, Jesus may have said to turn the other cheek, but when both are raw from being slapped around with self-righteous glee, it isn’t an option.

So, should we be surprised when Nancy Pelosi sticks it to McConnell with a second round of coronavirus relief that is littered with liberal “gotchas”? Especially after he so smugly reversed his contemptuous rationale for not considering Merrick Garland to make way for Amy Coney Barrett on the Supremes?

It may not be nice, or good for the American people over the short term.

But with the possibility that the Democrats could retake the senate, who among the left could resist such a fuck-you-farewell to Mitch?

But here’s the thing.

Also sensing a Biden win — but hoping the Republicans hang on to the senate — Mitch saw Pelosi’s fuck you and raised it with one of his own.

Because if past is prologue, it’s more than possible that he has slow-walked the bill not out of principle, but because he knows that the benefits will mostly be felt in 2021. And with Biden in office, the political rewards will accrue to the Democrats. Plus, if it was passed under his watch, it would be more difficult for him to transform back to the deficit hawk that quashed so much of Obama’s agenda, and use it to deny Biden the funds he’ll need to restore the country post-coronavirus.

And that’s just pre-revenge.

Imagine what Biden will face from the right after Trump was subjected to unrelenting and unapologetic derision from a press exacting its own revenge for being called human scum.

And should he lose, well, the left will completely lose its collective mind.

Regardless then, we’re heading into another four years of political pugilism that will leave the entire country bloodied.

Which brings us to the most important question?

Is it even possible to break the cycle of revenge?

To do so, the aggrieved party must deny itself the all-consuming desire to exact revenge, and believe that in doing so, the other side will not take advantage of their generosity and feel emboldened to continue aggrieving.

So right off, as long as Mitch McConnell is senate majority leader — or can use the filibuster to enact his agenda from the minority — we can forget about peace in our time. If any bridges to the left remained intact before the passing of RBG, he burned them spectacularly to the ground. No Democrat will ever — ever — give an inch to McConnell because they would be cartoonishly foolish to expect he would ever — ever — offer them the same.

But let’s take toxic Mitch out of the equation.

What then?

With the combination of (a) for-profit, 24/7 cable news outlets that must cater to their “base” to maintain their ratings, (b) the freedom social media provides to anyone with a smart phone to spew uninformed invective from afar, and (c) the success of bad actors to feed citizen pundits with “content” whose sole purpose is to inflame division, it’s hard to imagine anything other than a political climate stoked with rage that similarly stokes revenge.

Perhaps then, the only way to break the endless mobius strip of fuck-me-fuck-you(s), is to be confronted with a catastrophic event that so supersedes our political affiliations that to hold onto them would be utterly shameful, and is long enough to allow past grievances to heal.

Which is why COVID-19 has been such a wasted opportunity. It could have, nee should have, been the event that reset the political clock and stripped away party affiliations to fight a common enemy. But somehow, we managed to turn even the simple act of wearing a mask into a politically drawn line in the sand.

What should have brought us together, set us further apart.

Buckle in.

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Dexter Braff

Dexter Braff

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