Every so often, and frequently with no one paying much attention, something happens in Washington that goes against the grain. This month, House Democrats unveiled articles of impeachment the same morning they announced a deal with the Trump White House updating NAFTA. If everything in Washington centered on conflict, President Donald Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would never have been able to align themselves on a major trade agreement.
And yet there they were, serving up evidence that division and consensus can sit, however uncomfortably, side by side.
What did that moment tell us? Riven though we are, we are also, on many matters, united. The paradox of this moment presents Democrats with an opportunity.
Trump knows that conflict is his lifeblood. Division fit the 2016 zeitgeist, a moment when the electorate was hungry to give the elite a long-awaited comeuppance. And the president can still find plenty of places in the country where his hateful rhetoric finds a hungry audience.
But things have since taken a turn. Today, the president’s inability to get more than 45 percent in most polls suggests the electorate’s thirst for conflict has morphed into something else — namely, an equal desire for consensus.
Ahead of 2020, voters are desperate for someone who will tap into the lost sense of community that Barack Obama embraced when he famously argued at the height of our national split over Iraq that “there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.” They are in search of someone who will provide a more accurate picture of how much we agree on, someone who will shine a light on how we can rise above the conflicts that divide us.
The evidence is irrefutable. By a margin of 74% to 21%, Gallup polling this year found that Americans believe trade is an “opportunity for economic growth through increased U.S. exports” as opposed to a “threat to the economy from foreign imports.” Some 83% of Americans believe that “dreamers,” the undocumented adults brought to the United States as children, should be protected from deportation. And 83% support staying in NATO, despite the White House’s insistence that the United States is getting a raw deal.
Consensus is deeper than we like to admit — it’s reflected in the country’s preferences on foreign, social and economic fronts alike. Roughly 80% believe that humans are driving climate change. A poll in 2018 found that more than 3 in 5 Americans believe that government is doing too little to preserve the environment, and that only 9 percent believe that government is doing too much. Roughly 2 of every 3 Americans favor stricter gun laws. And a broad majority supports making the tax code more progressive.
This paradox — that conflict and consensus coexist — raises for Democrats a strategic choice. If Trump is going to do his best to deepen the conflict, should we do the same? Or, after three years of enduring the White House’s efforts to pit community against community, should we lean into the exhausted electorate’s desire to embrace a leader who will bind up the nation’s wounds?
Rather than try to win the race to the bottom, I believe we would be better off promising the American people a vision that brings the country together around a common cause and common purpose.
Having watched Trump’s political success — cognizant that, far from draining the swamp, the Trump White House has made politics much more treacherous — some have concluded that we should throw his strategy back in his face. They want to out-Trump Trump. But that would be taking his bait. Trump’s campaign strategists would inevitably like nothing more than for us to respond to his bullying in kind because they know that would undercut our biggest advantage — namely that Democrats project the cool, calm, capable alternative to the president’s chaos, crassness and conflict.
Rather than try to win the political Hunger Games, I believe we would be better off promising a vision that brings the country together around a common cause and common purpose.
Some may accuse me of being Pollyanna-ish — there’s a first time for everything. But at a moment when so many Americans agree on a wide range of crucial topics, we should strike a more vivid contrast by setting Trump’s divisiveness against our belief that America is far more than the sum of her disagreements.
We don’t need to tell Americans that the president’s decision to bully Greta Thunberg was wrong — they know that. We don’t need to tell them that his Dec. 18 attack on Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and her late husband, John, was beyond the pale and beneath this nation — they know that as well. The surest path to victory is to prevent Trump from playing the victim or anti-establishment outsider — and to ensure that we never let him infect our message with his invective.
Democrats will be tempted to respond to the name-calling in kind — to paint his supporters with the same broad strokes they paint various communities within our coalition. Many of us will want to put the differences between us and them in the starkest relief. We should be strategic. To set the most powerful contrast, Democrats should build a bridge out of today’s dystopian reality and into an age of greater consensus. We need to convince the American people that our party is capable of repairing the torn fabric of national life.
Rahm Emanuel is a former Democratic mayor of Chicago and a three-term member of the U.S. House. He was White House chief of staff under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2010.