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A few weeks ago, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saved the global economy. That is, he stopped actively preventing Senate Democrats from raising the debt ceiling. McConnell was met with a speech by his Democratic counterpart Sen. Chuck Schumer which called for a more bipartisan approach and condemnation from former Republican president Donald Trump. Though his caucus still supports him, many Republican senators are reportedly unnerved about what they perceive as McConnell caving to the majority. McConnell made a sensible decision, ending his own political stunt before it could cause trouble for ordinary people. Why the opposition from so many Senate Republicans?

Both Trump and McConnell are intent on regaining congressional majorities in the 2022 midterms. Team Trump, with its most prominent leaders lacking institutional power, can focus on attacking McConnell and any Republican not loyal enough to the former president. That includes accusing even the appearance of political weakness, even when necessary to stop a global economic meltdown, of helping the Democrats. Trump and his allies’ reaction to the debt ceiling suspension is an excellent example of how far modern partisans will go to win a political fight. They will condemn a member of their own party for making a reasonable choice. 

It also shows how internally polarized the Republican Party has become. Schumer’s partisan speech was expected. He is a Democrat, and Democrats attack Republicans. In the past year, Republicans have intensified attacks on each other, even beyond the rate they’ve been at since the Tea Party era. Republican primaries for the 2022 midterm elections prove this, with many key races being between a McConnell-backed conservative and a Trump-backed “America First” candidate. To stand out, candidates need to tear down their Republican opponents and engage in eye-catching political rhetoric, like allowing the U.S. to default. 

Intra-party conflict is not new. Years ago, then-President Trump berated prominent Republicans, not just McConnell but also Sen. John McCain, for their inability to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Though polarization within the Trump-led Republican Party has peaked in the aftermath of the 2020 election, it can be traced back to the failure of Republican efforts to dismantle Obamacare, a genuine policy disagreement among prominent conservatives. 

The Republicans are certainly not alone in their discord. Democratic primaries during the Trump administration were laden with progressives intent on ousting lifelong moderates years before the current McConnell-Trump feud. Let’s not forget that September ended with a sparring match between progressives and centrists that brought the Infrastructure and Jobs Act to the brink of being totally scrapped. Thankfully, President Joe Biden was able to step in and stop, at least temporarily, the complete destruction of his domestic agenda. He did so by physically going to the House of Representatives and telling his fellow Democrats that they will make a compromise — a later vote on infrastructure for a smaller price tag on the Build Back Better Plan. He did not insult centrists on Twitter for neglecting his priorities, nor did he publicly threaten the progressive Democrats holding up a bill he supports.   

Unlike the opposition, Democratic feuding has yet to transform into ceaseless character assassination and primary challenges. Democrats still believe that good policy, not just cynical political maneuvering, can win them reelection. But the present intraparty battle over the filibuster, voting rights and the Build Back Better plan are testing the left’s ability to remain policy-focused. Instead of focusing on confronting key centrists with evidence supportive of progressive policy or negotiating an equitable solution, Democrats are increasingly resorting to personal attacks reminiscent of those launched by Republicans.  

In Arizona, progressives are already preparing to challenge Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s reelection in 2024. Just a few weeks ago, protesters followed her into the bathroom, recording her the entire time. The news has been bombarded with stories about Sinema’s connections to lobbyists, framing her as an immoral corporate mouthpiece. A similar exploration of Sen. Joe Manchin’s ties to West Virginia’s coal lobby is making headlines. Manchin is a well-known centrist from a red state. Sinema ranked more conservative than Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., in her first two years in the Senate and became a member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition during her time in the House of Representatives. Maybe they are corrupt, maybe they have been for years. Maybe they genuinely believe a smaller package is what their constituents want and need. Regardless, repeatedly rehashing the motives of both senators leads debate away from the popular aspects of progressive policy. Instead of investigating why they maintain a particular position, time would be better spent explaining why that position is wrong.

Many believe the two key centrists are wrong, I count myself among them. But that does not merit harassment nor public attacks on these two Democrats’ strength of character. Not just because it’s impolite or because it prevents constructive policy debate, but because it can paralyze an entire party. Every article accusing Sinema of working for the pharmaceutical industry is an article that could have been about the benefits of allowing the government to negotiate Medicare prescription prices. Every story connecting Manchin to the coal industry could have covered the danger climate change is bringing to West Virginia. And these types of personal attacks do little to sway voters in a progressive direction. Tweeting about how Manchin is a Republican in disguise or Sinema is a chronic attention-seeker is not going to persuade anyone. Talking about the benefits universal pre-K would have for American children, though, just might. Personal attacks drown out the benefits of the plan in question. Republicans began their downward spiral over a legitimate policy debate. If Democrats are going to succeed, they need to engage in honest negotiation instead of public shaming. If the Build Back Better plan fails, if demonizing centrists becomes the norm, future generations of Americans will have to solve still-unaddressed issues with broken political institutions.

Quin Zapoli is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at qzapoli@umich.edu.