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When Mitt Romney voted to convict then-President Trump in his 2020 impeachment trial, he stepped forward as an icon of truth in a party increasingly committed to lies. Many liberals felt a keen and unexpected thrill, watching Romney, the face of the 2012 Republican Party hold back tears as he called out Trump’s “appalling abuse of public trust.”
These moments became more frequent as America approached the election. Throughout the campaign, whenever (mostly former) fixtures of the Republican establishment stepped forward to denounce Trumpism, I saw liberal friends and family members who felt trapped in a four-year waking nightmare breath a sigh of relief. There is something exhilarating about witnessing conversion—or at least the return of something like sanity.
Was it possible that the conservative movement might wake up and take Trump out themselves?
That alliance of convenience, despite the stark policy differences that have characterized the two parties since 1980, seemed obvious and natural. And some long-time political rivals who saw a second Trump term as an existential threat to democracy managed to put aside other differences. The Lincoln Project sucked in millions of dollars from liberal donors. John Kasich and three other anti-Trump Republicans spoke at the Democratic Convention.
But this subset of the party faithful were not able to take back their own party, and the Republican establishment has circled the wagons around Trump in a desperate attempt to keep money and energy flowing from a disenchanted populist base.
Now, Representatives Liz Cheney (WY-01) and Adam Kinzinger (IL-16) are waging a lonely crusade in the House against a Republican leadership ever more beholden [AL2] to MAGA insanity. Yet what should be a natural alliance between Democrats and Republican officeholders willing to muster the political courage to buck their party’s incentive structure seems not to be emerging.
True, some Democrats have praised Cheney’s bravery, as she put her party leadership position on the line, and showed herself willing to lose it. Lead House impeachment manager and staunch progressive Jamie Raskin (MD-8) even called Cheney a “hero” on the Senate floor. Yet it is frustrating, and even baffling, that an ongoing, cross-party alliance is not coalescing in Congress around a pro-democracy legislative agenda.
One answer is Cheney herself and the history and policy that she represents. While she has continued an outspoken rear-guard action in Congress against the anti-democratic forces in her party, she also represents separate and older anti-Democratic tradition in the GOP. Many liberals and some libertarians reject any association with the scion of a political dynasty associated with lies that produced an endless, as well as the policies created to carry out that war: torture, drone strikes, black sites, the Patriot Act, human rights violations in Guantanamo Bay, and dystopian mass surveillance on an unprecedented scale.
As a result, durable coalition-building between the two parties must overcome a history of hostility, misaligned policy values, and disagreements about what democracy should look like—a history more than four decades old.
Republicans who lived through the 1980s often recall Ronald Reagan’s presidency as a halcyon moment for our nation’s democratic values. But many Democrats see those years differently—not as a golden age, but as a gilded assault on close-held conceptions about the proper role of government and its responsibilities to the American people. If Republicans saw Reagan’s “morning in America” as a triumph of inclusion and mutual understanding, many Democrats view the 1980s (whether accurately or not) as a transitional moment in which the GOP embraced the rhetoric of white supremacy and dog-whistle bigotry to drive political change.
What was perhaps more galling, and consequential, is that these tactics worked. When, voting on ideological lines, the Supreme Court handed the 2000 election to George W. Bush, Democrats believed—and with better reason than contemporary supporters of the Big Lie—that the election had been “stolen.” To a greater extent than it’s easy for many then-Republicans to understand, many Democrats hated Bush, and they may have hated his Vice President Dick Cheney—Liz Cheney’s father—even more.
Though the Bush administration made modest attempts to heal these tensions by emphasizing policies that aligned with a new “compassionate conservatism,” less than a year into Bush’s presidency, 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror gutted any possibility for a more centrist, cross-ideological vision that could build bridges across party lines.
Liz Cheney shares the hawkishness of the Bush administration, and it causes many progressive Democrats and libertarian elements of her own party to despise her. Her anti-Trump stance doesn’t mollify Cheney’s critics. In fact, until the 2020 election lie and the January 6 insurrection pushed Trumpism to a new level of delusion, some Democrats made the case that Bush was more of a threat to rights and liberties than Trump, and responsible for hundreds of thousands more deaths across the globe. President Bush’s book of painting was charming, perhaps. But as some critical voices argue, charm shouldn’t whitewash the damage his presidency did.
Beyond this contentious history, the Bush administration intensified the policy values gap set in motion during the Reagan years. Even Bush’s compassionate conservatism can be viewed as more style than of substance, though it did create more space for a less draconian immigration policy and facilitate the distribution of AIDS drugs abroad. But social policies at home were defunded and defanged, detaching the federal government further from the New Deal and the Great Society.
Now that the Democratic Party’s center of gravity has moved to the left on government spending, minimum wage, and social welfare policies, that gulf between anti-Trump conservatives and potential Democratic allies is wider than ever. Neither Cheney nor Kinzinger is especially “moderate” on these issues, so why should those on the left not see them as ideological opponents? And even if they were inclined to soften their traditional conservatism, maintaining this stance is essential to shoring up support with their own voters, who are shaken and angered by their stance on Trump.
So what kind of alliance is possible when emotion, history, and values stand in the way? Figures on the left can praise Cheney’s courage, and maybe it’s good when they do. But a pro-democracy coalition needs more than occasional praise.
If social and foreign policy is off the table, substantive legislative cooperation in the pro-democracy space should not be. The onus is just as much on the Cheney/Kinzinger wing as it is on the Democrats, perhaps more so. If Cheney reversed her refusal to link restrictive voting laws to Trump’s election lies, for example, she could take a pro-democracy stance without abandoning her conservative principles.
Cooperative pro-democracy work is essential, both rhetoric and action. Even if no one thinks there’s enough support to break a filibuster, the performance of collaboration is important in its own right.
Reagan and Bush-era wounds won’t close immediately, but they won’t close at all if they aren’t acknowledged and discussed. Sincere differences on government spending, guns, and abortion won’t simply evaporate, but common principles and a shared ethical commitment to honest elections could begin to push Trumpism into the past. A bipartisan alliance committed to restoring and remaking laws and norms after Trump might help create a partnership—a lasting supermajority coalition committed to democratic institutions and values.
Adam Littlestone-Luria is a Furman Academic Scholar at New York University School of Law and received his PhD in History from the University of California, Berkeley. He works in constitutional law, electoral politics, and history, and he also writes for the Washington Post and Just Security.