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Fighting the Politics of Against

In the two weeks since the election, this blog has been quiet. Every time I thought of something to write about, events overtook my plans. I tried to explain the different colors of America (blue, red, and purple), but that seemed old-hat. I thought about discussing voter suppression and gerrymandering following the results in Florida and Georgia, but others already wrote about it in a more timely and effective manner.

So now on this Thanksgiving weekend, this quintessential American tradition, I’m ready to write again. And where do I start? Why, with Emmanuel Macron, of course.

In case you’ve forgotten, Macron was elected President of France in 2017. Macron’s ascension to power, with 66.1% of the French popular vote, provided some reassurance that western democracies hadn’t been entirely taken over by right wing populist extremism.

Today, Macron’s approval rating has dropped under 30%. French citizens have been protesting in the streets, leading to massive and sometimes violent street protests. What gives? After all, the policies that the French are protesting should not be coming as a complete surprise. Macron is doing what he promised during his campaign—enact social and economic reforms to revive the French economy.

Part of this is an affliction common to the French populace. Francois Hollande, Macron’s predecessor, saw his approval rating plummet from 61% shortly after his 2012 election to as low as 4% in November 2016. Seen in that light, President Nicholas Sarkozy’s 20% approval rating five years earlier seems like reason to celebrate.

But this is more than a French problem. Rather, it is a condition particular to democratic governments, a condition I call the “politics of against.” It is so much easier to run against something than to be for it. Once you outline a policy, then all its potential warts and contradictions are exposed, and opponents are able to line up support.

Autocrats don’t have this problem. Rulers like Putin in Russia, Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, and the ruling family in Saudi Arabia have sidelined much of their political opposition and thus don’t need to worry about lack of support. They have no need to build coalitions or to work to convince the voting public. Citizens and politicians are already on their side—they have little to no choice—so it is somewhat easy to govern by decree and by fiat.

Macron doesn’t have this luxury. Nor did Angela Merkel, who found her support eroding the more she tried to address Europe’s immigrant problem. Speaking of western leaders, would anyone want to be Theresa May these days? And even Justin Trudeau of Canada—so popular among Democrats in the U.S.—finds himself with declining approval numbers, as he is essentially tied with the opposition party in advance of next year’s national elections.

You can argue the particular policy merits of these leaders’ programs. Perhaps Macron is too enamored with free market ideas at the expense of unions and the rural populace. Perhaps Merkel developed a tin ear to the cultural and economic fears of her citizens, particularly in East Germany. And May—well, after her country’s initial Brexit vote, she may never have had a chance. But the larger point still holds: leaders of democratic governments face an erosion of support when they set out to make policy.

If it is difficult to be for something, the politics of against is much more direct. In our own country, Senate Majority Leader McConnell used this strategy to perfection by resisting President Obama’s policies and pointedly snubbing his Supreme Court nominee (as well as a number of lower court justices). Such tactics help lead to the impression that government is ineffective, a “swamp” that needs to be “drained”—in the words of our current president who played this game to perfection in his mind-boggling run to elected office.

The politics of against also explains our current president’s success in retaining a base of support. While his 40% approval rating is low by historical standards, he can still count on a corps of committed loyalists. There are large parts of the country where his Electoral College prospects are completely secure, and if he can somehow work his magic in a few swing states, it is not out of the question to see a pathway for his reelection.

The current president’s magic is simple. Unlike his friends in Russia or Saudi Arabia, he does not have the ability to threaten his foes with physical violence or death. His game is to be an illusionist who works his smoke and mirrors in an outright con, getting his audience to look away at opportune moments. His trick is to play the politics of against, railing against enemies—James Comey, Hillary Clinton, Central American immigrants, federal judges, Democratic representatives, as well as his own law enforcement agencies and staff members. Acting the part of a perpetual outsider running against the very government that he himself is supposed to lead, he has retained the support of his loyalists, who have not questioned the fact that very little policy comes out of the White House (other than a tax plan that overwhelmingly favors people such as the current president and his family).

Potential populist charlatans loom in countries like France and Germany as well. They have already taken power in Italy and managed to hoodwink the British into supporting the nonsense known as Brexit. The challenge is on us, the audience, to see through the trickery. How can we do that?

We need to be “for” and not “against”. In our country, we need to talk less about the current president and more about what we support. Democrats in the House, I’m talking to you: hold hearings on policy, write bills on policy, pass legislation on policy—to expand health care, protect the climate, and build infrastructure. Here’s an idea: How about a 21st century domestic Manhattan Project/Marshall Plan to protect our lands against the ravages of wildfires and other climate risks, and rebuild burned out areas so that they can last safely and securely for the foreseeable future?

This will of course invite opposition from those who play the politics of against. You can be sure that McConnell will not be on your side and the current president will tweet his scorn. Ignore that. Show the country—indeed the world—how in a true democracy the politics of for can defeat the politics of against.

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