What keeps us from expelling fellow citizens

When a president suggests political opponents should leave the country, he must contend with those who know what binds a democracy.

Reuters
President Trump puts away talking points about four Democratic congresswomen while answering questions from the media at the White House July 15.

In American democracy, the interests of particular groups are often stereotyped, even dismissed by leaders. Some groups might be called “deplorables” or described as people who “cling to guns or religion,” as candidates have done. Last week, progressive and centrist Democrats descended into racist labeling of each other. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of “singling out” newly elected women of color.

What has wisely restrained such dart-throwing identity politics is a shared desire to sustain democracy itself. That takes humility about one’s own rightness as well as respect of minority rights. Those in a minority should not feel so excluded that they leave or destroy the system. Nor should a minority be asked to actually leave the United States, as President Donald Trump told four women in Congress to do in a tweet on Sunday.

Reaction to Mr. Trump’s banishment tweet was strong, notably among Democrats. But Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and a Trump supporter, asked the president on Fox News to see the four congresswomen as any politician should: “They are American citizens. They won an election. Take on their policies. The bottom line here is this is a diverse country.”

Rough politics is often smoothed over by accommodating a minority’s interests, or at least by giving minorities a platform in the public square to voice concerns. Someday the roles of a majority and minority might be reversed. Yet the tools and values of democratic engagement must endure.

As James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, the public good requires measures not be decided “by the superior force of an ... overbearing majority.” He argued against “some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens.” That is not always easy under a majority-rule system. It requires patience and the need to place a burden on the majority for strong justification of any measure.

The political passion to exclude others, as Abraham Lincoln stated, “must not break our bonds of affection.” Those affections, he added, arise from “chords of memory” as one nation and “the better angels of our nature.”

In U.S. history, “better angels” have often helped snap back American politics into its role as unifying a disparate people. Politics can divide people but should never eject entire groups of citizens. Elections do produce winners. But winners cannot take all and then send others walking.

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