Will The ‘Lewis Gambit’ Work?

Vlad Remmer Professor
In American politics, much as in the professional game of chess, the opening is defined by one’s deep understanding of the opponent’s played history, and carefully tailored to achieve specific range of advantages. We, as observers of the game, should soon realize the strategy at play.
The exchange between John Lewis and president-elect Trump escalated immediately after this civil rights icon and house representative since November 1986 told host Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press” “I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president.” Trump immediately scourged the civil rights legend, tweeting, “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart … “
In an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Pence softened the tone of counter-attack and acknowledged “For someone of his stature [Rep. John Lewis], not just in the civil rights movement, but in voting rights, to make a comment that he did not consider Donald Trump to be a legitimate president I think is deeply disappointing.”
In an apparent sign of escalation in support of rejectionist-opposition a number of Democratic lawmakers came with announcements that they will boycott President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration. Some members of Congress have said they will be protesting in Washington, D.C., and in their districts instead. More than 126,000 people have signed a petition organized by progressive social activism organization CREDO Action that says: “Democrats have a choice: They can either champion progressive values, join the public resistance against Trump’s hate and refuse to attend the inauguration, or they can attend the inauguration, normalize Trump’s bigotry and stand idly by while he sets his dangerous agenda in motion. This is not the time for compromise or decorum.”
Pence dismissed the boycott efforts on “Face the Nation,” and expressed hope that Lewis [and those who have chosen to follow in his footsteps] “will reconsider his statement and will reconsider attending the inauguration and join us so we can come together to take on the intractable problems that have been facing Americans.”
Indeed, threat of boycott in presidential inauguration pays dividends when obstinate stance yield benefits in future political maneuvering. Engagement in boycotts and rejectionist-opposition to incoming administration result in one or more of three major negative outcomes: marginalization of the constituency they represent, further empowerment of the party in power by affording more powerful mandate to lead, unexpected changes to electoral dynamic — coalitions that would otherwise form will not prevail in advancing ideological or economic interests. Economics of boycotting inauguration and political opposition especially disastrous for the African-American community in inner-city since it may relegate the Black Caucus to the position of vocal opposition without tangible influence in the competition for scarce federal resources.
Marginalization is enhanced when embattled elite media will begin to fade away — as multiple studies demonstrate that the rejectionist-opposition movement will receive little airtime or any other form of support from the establishment media whose survival now depends on millions supporting the president-elect Trump. The decision to boycott inauguration and engage in opposition movement is merely one piece of a larger campaign designed to incite frustration and deleterious internal tension within African-American community, by doing so, mobilize street protests and other forms of civil unrest as we have seen during this presidential campaign.
In this sociopolitical environment Democrats, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, have to weigh out the benefits and losses they incur in pursuit of openly conflictive posture with president-elect and the party currently in power, since at the essence of such pursuit lays hard to reconcile ambiguity. The ambiguity in ideas and values now embraced by members of the Congressional Black Caucus and it’s allies, is rooted in its dual nature as both an agent representing new civil rights movement attempting to represent grievances and assert interests unique to African-American community, and political actors representing constituency irrespective of race, social or economic status. As members of a new civil rights movement, this Democrats fully accept the preeminence of interest expressed by African-American civic and religious activist leaders, and have to base their electoral programs and policy prescriptions on primacy of those interests and views expressed. As elected members of congress, they are required to exhibit higher degree of flexibility, perhaps even replacing the idea of strict adherence to increasingly radical expressions by groups like Black Lives Matter with the mere requirement that laws and policies be reflective of their frame of reference.
However, due to rejectionist-opposition movement’s innate ideological rigidity, the latter may only exacerbate its own deleterious internal power struggle. Such movement will have hard time retaining support of the devoted civil rights enthusiasts if they perceive the action as renunciation of values of African-American activism as the basis for legislation. In fact, any such perceived weakness on the part of Black Caucus organization and collective action will deepen the chasm between this political elites and the activist community they allege to represent, and will further the perception of the Black Caucus irrelevance.
Representative John Lewis and his fellows Democrats understand that even loosing gambit comes with zero cost to their collective action, and yields optics of activism, creates imaginaries of relevance and staying in power, since they trust with their hearts that the president-elect Trump will deliver on the promise he gave to African-American community — promise of jobs, safety in inner-city communities, a promise of American Dream for all Americans. Seems like Democrats are bound to win with Trump, no matter outcome of the game they play.

Vlad Remmer is associate professor of International Studies. He researches and writes about political movements, economics, and energy security. Vlad Remmer holds advanced degrees in Chemical Engineering and Political Science. Follow on Twitter @remVmer