The Democrats Are Getting Their Hands Dirty—And That’s a Good Thing
Ever since Sartre wrote about it in his eponymous play, and perhaps even before him, there has existed, in ethics, the concept of “dirty hands.” As ubiquitous throughout the span of history’s revolutions as it is in daily American politics, “dirty hands” is the notion that, in order to facilitate for a moral ideal in the long-run, one must violate the very moral code that such an ideal prescribes in the short-run. Put simply, to have “dirty hands” is to operate with small-scale pragmatism in order to foster large-scale idealism.
On Friday evening, the entire Democratic minority in the United States Senate, accompanied by five Republicans, voted against an interim funding bill for the U.S. government. They did so, because the resolution failed to guarantee that certain undocumented immigrants would not be deported. In turn, they plunged the government into an immediate shutdown, forcing the closure of all non-essential public services across the nation. The hands of the Democratic party, pitifully pristine in the face of the political disappointments of the past few years, were suddenly — and beautifully — dirty.
The hands of the Democratic party, pitifully pristine in the face of the political disappointments of the past few years, were suddenly — and beautifully — dirty.
The forces that led to this shut-down have been brewing in plain sight for some time. Since October of last year, Congress has neglected to draft and pass a comprehensive, permanent set of federal spending bills, instead resorting to short-term appropriations bills that simply cover government expenditures for weeks or months at a time. Parallel to all this stopgap funding, congressional Democrats have been vying for a guarantee from their Republican counterparts that an Obama-era immigration policy, known as Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA), would remain in effect, despite President Trump’s call to terminate the program by March of this year. The policy protects from deportation undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, through no fault of their own. These members of American society, some in the workforce and some still in preschool, are known as DREAMers. Enabling them to preserve their lives in America has been one of the Democratic Party’s chief mandates since 2016, and, when the Republicans refused to guarantee their protection through bipartisan immigration reform, the Democrats, refreshingly, stood up.
Lead by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the party dug-in. With the help of five Republican senators, Friday’s spending bill failed, public parks closed, and the negotiations between lawmakers continued.
Outside the walls of Congress, there was excitement from some and rage from others. Pollsters were immediately released into the public, tracking the American people as they attempted to assign blame. Favourability ratings for House and Senate Democrats wavered and fell. Not soon after, the party began to feel the full weight of a dissatisfied populace on its shoulders.
However, this speedy public outrage has been seen before. In 2013, eager to largely eliminate the Affordable Care Act — Obamacare, as it is colloquially known— from the federal budget, Republicans spurred a 16-day government shutdown of their own when they refused to pass a spending bill that did not contain this provision. Standing staunchly in the face of endless voter criticism and Democratic-orchestrated attacks, the shut-down endured. Not only did the Republicans recover rather swiftly from the temporary drop in the polls, the imposition of the shutdown had offered lawmakers a highly visible platform on which to present the negatives of Obamacare to the nation once more, resulting in sweeping Republican gains in both chambers of Congress.
Ever self-conscious, though, the Democrats of this past weekend lacked the confidence to do what the Republicans had done to them four years earlier. With their dirty hands exposed to an always-reactionary American public, the Democrats became sheepish and repentant.
By Monday morning, the parties struck a lukewarm deal: the Democrats would surrender enough votes to allow for a three-week spending bill to pass the Senate and reopen the government. In exchange, the Republicans would merely hear an ambiguous Democratic proposal regarding DACA and the DREAMers by February 8, all the while engaging in a second round of bipartisan negotiations to the same effect. The Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, did not discuss how many of his senators would vote for such a bill, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan neglected to comment as well. The Democrats had, once again, capitulated.
But, in the face of a lackluster conclusion, we ought not forget the victory that came out last weekend. For a few moments in the Friday evening dusk, a Democratic party beleaguered and scarred by its poor performances in the 2014 and 2016 elections proved willing to show its teeth.
But, in the face of a lackluster conclusion, we ought not forget the victory that came out last weekend. For a few moments in the Friday evening dusk, a Democratic party beleaguered and scarred by its poor performances in the 2014 and 2016 elections proved willing to show its teeth. For a couple of mornings and afternoons, they toyed with government services and inspired a period of national uncertainty. But they did so, because they hoped to secure the futures of more than 700,000 children and young people living throughout the country.
Yes, this shutdown ended prematurely. Yes, the Democrats did eventually succumb to that gnawing self-awareness that perpetually scares them away from taking any worthwhile political risks. But this first attempt at vibrato is evidence that the Democratic party is trying to shake its anxious identity. It is evidence of a caucus finally ready to take on Republicans by joining them in the mud.
The February 8 immigration proposal deadline provides Democrats an opportunity to wade deeper. Perhaps next time, they will confront their legislative obstacles with more resilience and less fear.
For now, though, the party has taken a step in the right direction, and that is an internal victory worth celebrating.