Charles Krauthammer wrote a well-meaning column last week condemning both Donald Trump's belligerent rhetoric and the tactics of protesters seemingly out to silence him. He probably goes too far when he describes the protesters as "totalitarian," but that's an issue for another time. The real problem with his column is that, in attempting to explain why Trump, his more pugnacious supporters, and the protesters are all wrong, he unwittingly explains part of the nation's belligerent mood. He does this in one sentence: "Politics is the civilized substitute for settling things the old-fashioned way -- laying your opponent out on a stretcher." This is a dig mostly at Trump, who's expressed nostalgia for a former time when the sort of agitators who disrupt his rallies would be stretchered out of them. But I'm not sure whether Krauthammer himself entirely understands what he wrote.
In what way does politics substitute for physically beating down your opponent? According to Krauthammer, it's a more civilized way of settling things. But if more people in 2016 seem to want to beat opponents down, or drown them out by screaming, that's probably because politics, i.e. elections, seem less and less capable of settling anything, because no one really acknowledges that they are -- figuratively speaking, for now -- beaten. There's no deference to the electorate by those in the political minority, and the presidential electorate gets the least deference of all. In part that's because American constitutional government limits the amount of deference a President can expect. Our system of checks and balances gives each legislator in Congress the prerogative to defy the President, a power exacerbated by partisanship, while the President's own prerogative is inherently limited by the Constitution. No American is obliged to give the President anything he wants simply because he won an election. At the same time, Americans feel that elections entitle the President or the winning party to something, but they see the major parties conceding virtually nothing. They may even agree with strategies of obstruction, depending on who the President is, while complaining that politics accomplishes or settles nothing.
With the modern intensification of ideology and identity politics, more Americans may feel that the winning candidate or party simply doesn't represent them and thus is owed nothing by them -- not even the benefit of the doubt for a "honeymoon" period. It was probably inevitable that this would rub against the democratic (or should I say "populist?") grain. Whatever the Constitution says, common sense tells people that the result of an election should settle something. Specifically it should settle that the country should move in a chosen direction whether the opposition likes it or not, though within constitutional bounds. Common sense probably tells people that those who supported the losing side have an obligation, if not to roll over and obey, then to respect that the winning party represents the majority and can't be treated like an alien menace, subject to something more akin to unconditional resistance than to principled opposition. Common sense most likely tells people that the opposition may have a right to say that the winning side is wrong, but also has something like a moral obligation, presuming that democracy itself is a moral imperative, to give the President or party in power a chance, if not the benefit of the doubt.
The anger of 2016 is based largely, I suspect, on a feeling that politics settles nothing because no one will give anyone else a chance. Democrats, liberals and progressives -- throw some other groups in and call it "the Left" -- are angry because they feel that Republicans have never given President Obama a chance. Trump's supporters started angry over many things but are growing even more angry that many seem unwilling to give Trump a chance. Behind all this is a feeling, perhaps incompatible with the Constitution, possibly consistent with "authoritarian" impulses elsewhere in the world, that opposition needs to be toned down to some extent between elections. That feeling is complicated in this country by both the First Amendment and the fact that, for now, the U.S. is governed, if that's the word, by a concurrent majority, a Democratic President and Republican Congress checking each other. But who thinks things will be settled if a Republican (especially Trump) wins the White House while the GOP retains Congress? Or if the White House remains Democratic and that party reclaims the Senate, as some think possible? Yet this country, to coin a paradox, will never get moving again until some things are settled, and on an instinctual level both the protesters trying to bumrush Trump rallies and the Trump supporters itching to clobber the protesters seem to understand this. They may recognize that if politics alone doesn't settle things in the way Krauthammer suggests, they may have to be settled the old-fashioned way. If Americans want to avoid that sort of settlement, they should acknowledge that no matter what their political philosophy or their demographic stake in government, they are answerable to everyone else in the country and bound in some inextricable and irrefutable way --which still needn't put a gag in their mouths -- to the will of a majority of their equals. In short, if your party or your candidate lost, you can't act like the other one didn't win, or else winning means nothing and neither does democracy. Such an acknowledgment may come hard to those conservatives who want government to do nothing or those liberals who want elections to settle nothing (if settling things requires any self-restraint of opinion), but that would only confirm our established impression that neither liberalism nor conservatism as practiced here can help us much. What does that leave?