In the 1850s, there was a political movement called the Know Nothings. They were fundamentally populist, but they also were intensely xenophobic, racist (although they opposed slavery), and anti-Catholic and Irish. Their name derived not from professed ignorance, but because they were instructed to say, “I know nothing,” when asked about their organization. The Know Nothings evolved into The American Party, which had a short life as a major political party.
It would be understandable if you think I’m comparing them to today’s Republican Party. I’m not, because as questionable as their philosophy was, they believed in using government to do something. Today’s Republican Party, by contrast, is the Do Nothing Party, in Washington, in Frankfort, and throughout the country.
When I worked as a Senate staffer in the 1970s, Republicans actually wanted to do things. They wanted to protect the air and water. They wanted to protect consumers. A lot of them aggressively worked to get us out of the Vietnam War. They believed in a limited, but strong federal government that could help make life better and safer for their constituents.
When I arrived in Congress in 2007, Republicans still cared about education and health care, and while we differed on the details and the urgency, most Democrats and Republicans recognized we could frequently work together to pursue a more perfect union.
Then came the Tea Party, and then came Trump, and now the Republican Party doesn’t want to do anything except to keep Democrats, and citizens, from trying to make the country better.
Let’s review the issues facing the country.
On education, the Do Nothing Republicans want to cut federal spending and undermine public education through charter schools. They don’t want to do anything about $1.7 trillion in outstanding student debt.
On health care, the Do Nothing Republicans tried for eight years to repeal the Affordable Care Act without offering an alternative, and the Trump Administration consistently sabotaged the Act, aka Obamacare, through executive action.
On infrastructure, the Do Nothings promised a major initiative and never came up with one, and in fact, opposed a Democratic measure that passed the House.
On immigration reform, the Do Nothings blocked comprehensive reform in 2013, and during the Trump years did everything they could to make immigration more difficult and crueler, while doing nothing to fix our broken system.
On virtually everything else — the climate crisis, voting rights, housing, poverty and food security, pension reform, cybersecurity, big tech, and, of course, gun safety — you name it, the Do Nothings are, and have been, missing in action.
Their record and their attitude as legislators — their first responsibility under Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution — is not just dismal, it’s nonexistent.
I don’t think it’s unfair to conclude that the Do Nothing Republican Party cares about only three things: cutting taxes, eliminating government regulations and filling the federal courts with conservative justices.
Indeed, that’s all they’ve done when they have controlled the White House and Congress.
They could argue, as many Republicans have over the years, that the primary responsibility of the Congress is to support the military, and that the federal government has no role in any other realm of society. But they don’t do that. They just don’t do anything.
What could be stronger evidence of their lack of interest in legislating than the fact that they did not even propose a platform at their convention last year?
And that brings me to Mitch McConnell, the leader of Do Nothingism, who refused to bring 400 House-passed bills to a Senate vote over the past two years and calls himself the legislative Grim Reaper. His raison d’être has been to fill the federal courts with young, conservative judges. The critical question is: To what end?
McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, has built his legacy by blocking Democratic judicial nominees and filling federal court vacancies with young, conservative and sometimes woefully unqualified judges, as if that is an accomplishment in itself. And what could he possibly expect the country to get out of those judges? I would argue that he doesn’t know and doesn’t care; he simply wanted an electoral issue to motivate conservative voters. In other words, it’s just another example of how the Do Nothing Republican Party only wants to be, as in be in power, and not to do, as in do something for the American people.
Hopefully, over the next few years, President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats will demonstrate what a government looks like if the people who run it actually want to do something. If we do, I think the people will like it.