On Feb. 7, 2017, the United States Senate voted to approve Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. As the Editorial Board of the Miscellany News wrote last December, Betsy DeVos will be, by far, the most unqualified Secretary of Education in American history and a danger to the future of public education.
The Senate vote was significant in many ways: for one, 46 Democratic senators (along with two liberal independents and two Republican defectors) unified to oppose DeVos’s nomination. Because of the 50-50 split, Vice President Mike Pence had to break the tie. The New York Times reported, “It was the first time that a vice president has been summoned to the Capitol to break a tie on a cabinet nomination, according to the Senate historian” (“Betsy DeVos Confirmed as Education Secretary; Pence Breaks Tie,” 02.07.2017).
Though the Democrats managed to oppose DeVos, their inability to halt this nomination underscores broader failures of resistance to Trump’s authoritarian agenda. For example, progressive heroine Senator Elizabeth Warren voted to approve Dr. Ben Carson for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Banking Committee. Warren claimed that Carson “made good, detailed promises” relating to housing policy (Politico, “Warren defends her vote for Carson amid liberal ire,” 01.25.2017).
And yet, Dr. Carson’s advisor, Armstrong Williams, previously stated that Carson took himself out of consideration “because Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency…The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency” (LA Times, “Former presidential candidate Ben Carson says he won’t join Trump’s Cabinet because he has no government experience,” 11.30.2016). If Carson doesn’t consider himself is qualified, why should any senator?
Though Warren’s vote can be traced to legitimate concerns about conservative backlash and pragmatic posturing, the lack of Democratic intransigence points to a larger history of reactive politics since the 1980s and 1990s. After the widespread popularity of Reagan’s economic policies in the 1980s, the Democrats, in their decision to nominate Bill Clinton for President in 1992, chose to embrace a platform of free trade, fiscal responsibility and budget deficit reduction—a near-mirror of Republican economic policy, as seen in the consequences of The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (The Atlantic, “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done”, 03.1997).
In the realm of foreign policy, Democrats and Republicans haven’t differed that greatly either–especially in the era of Obama’s drone strikes. However, where Democrats and Republicans do radically diverge is on social issues–issues that can be as life-or-death as economics or foreign policy. And yet, despite this real danger, the Democrats have yet to fully show the determination necessary to fight it.
The Democratic party as we have seen it in the first weeks of the Trump presidency is one that is, overall, meek and complacent, particularly compared to the attitude of the Republicans during Obama’s time in office. For eight years, Republicans staunchly disregarded any political etiquette in order to attempt to block Obama in any way they could. Democrats under the Trump administration, in contrast, have thus far been criticized for a lot of talk with no action.
In the name of polite politics and out of fear, Democrats so far have more or less sat back and let Trump compile a completely inexperienced and dangerous Cabinet. Not a single Senate Democrat voted “no” on every one of Trump’s cabinet nominations (The New York Times, How Each Senator Voted on Trump’s Cabinet and Administration Nominees,” 02.07.2017). This complacency is unacceptable when Trump’s political moves put so much of the nation in danger, and it cannot continue as Trump moves past initial nominations and executive orders into larger goals such as repealing the Affordable Care Act. In order to move forward with as little damage as possible under the Trump presidency, the Democrats need to assert that the Trump administration is not politics as usual and obstruct his agenda at every possible point.
With large public demonstrations all around the country such as the Women’s March and the airport protests against the Muslim ban executive order, there seems to be a disconnect between the vigor of the average citizen in the fight against Trump and those with substantial political power in Congress. However, the night before DeVos was confirmed, the Senate Democrats held the floor overnight in order to protest the nomination before the final vote on Tuesday afternoon. This is a sign of life for which many have been waiting. Democratic compliance thus far may have been strategic in order to prevent creating an image of total obstinance that the Trump administration could exploit. The DeVos protest, however, was a step in the right direction that must continue as the political battles become tougher and even higher-stakes, and Democrats must not be afraid to be relentless when necessary.
If the Republicans were able to make life as difficult as possible for the Democrats for eight years due to ideological difference, the Democrats are certainly justified in utilizing the same tactics to preserve justice and save lives. Former Deputy Chief of Staff to Harry Reid, Adam Jentleson, wrote for the Washington Post about the potential power for the Democrats of withholding consent (The Washington Post, “Senate Democrats have the power to stop Trump. All they have to do is use it,” 01.27.2017). This requires at least one dissenting person to be on the floor at all times to withhold consent when the majority leader proposes to move forward on a matter. This tactic will involve the same dedication seen in the overnight DeVos protest.
The Democratic party failed by nominating Hillary Clinton, who was doomed to lose due to her lack of appeal to the average American. But they must continue to be held accountable for what goes on under the Trump administration, regardless of whether or not one considers oneself to be a Democrat. Though it may seem like we are powerless, by refusing to remain silent we can light a fire under the Democrats by letting them know that complacency with this dangerous administration is not an option, that their actions during this time will be remembered when they are up for re-election.
As for us, as citizens and college students, one of the most important things we can do is to call our congressional representatives. This easy form of activism in large volumes encouraged two Republicans to flip on the DeVos vote. Though in this case activists were just short of success, this is a sign of potential for the future. In addition to contacting representatives, if you have the means to do so, donate to organizations with the power to pick up politicians’ slack. These could include the ACLU, whose lawyers got the first temporary block of the Muslim ban, or Planned Parenthood which provides valuable services and will suffer under the current administration. Such efforts, hopefully together with the more systematic and institutional power of the Democratic Party, may go a long way in contributing to the fights against what are going on in this country at the moment.
— The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.