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How “abolish ICE” illustrates the importance of party politics

Don’t deport my mom
(Obama-era photo chosen intentionally.)

After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise primary victory over incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th District last week, a series of arguments have broken out about whether her platform, which includes an “abolish ICE” plank, is an effective roadmap for Democrats moving forward. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand also came out last week in favor of abolishing the DHS agency, the first senator to do so.

As this position gains strength, there’s been a round of criticism about whether it makes for good politics, as well as, of course, a number of discussions about whether it’s good policy — and what that policy would look like. I’m largely ducking both of those questions; I’m not an expert on immigration policy.

As to whether it’s good politics, I think we have some preliminary evidence that it’s compelling to some constituencies within the Democratic Party. It has a specific and clear message; it combines an ideological commitment with a concrete policy action. It differentiates the parties and defines what an election victory would mean.

This has the potential to strengthen partisanship in important ways. Maybe it will come off as too far from the status quo and fall flat electorally, or distract from more popular issues. In case there was any doubt remaining, I’m not much of a fortune-teller.

But as I’ve written many times before, strong partisanship really needs strong parties to be a positive force for democracy. For slogans and ideological commitments to translate into meaningful policy action, we need mechanisms to resolve disagreement, create compromise, and compensate the “losers” in the coalition.

Some of the debate around the idea of abolishing ICE is whether the proposal means dismantling the agency and reassigning many of its functions to parts of the government with different personnel and institutional cultures.

Among the alternatives is a more radical reimagination of US immigration policy. How will these alternatives be considered and debated? Who will decide whether the policy is a fundamental change or simply an institutional rearrangement? And when that last decision is made, how will the losers of the debate be persuaded to stay in the coalition instead of holding out for a better alternative?

The rules of Congress itself — where this debate would hypothetically take place — answer some of these. But these rules have increasingly placed power and responsibility with party leaders, thus making party organizational strength a key factor in governance.

The same movement that wants to move the Democrats’ policy agenda to the left has also aimed its criticisms at the institutions and structure of the party. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing specific leaders or processes, but there’s real danger in delegitimizing the whole idea of a party with leadership and structure.

This, not the dangers of extremism, is the main lesson from the Tea Party for those who are inspired to create a liberal mirror of that movement. The lesson, of course, works both ways. Successful politics needs both ideas and structures to hammer out disagreements. Energized activists need to honor the latter, but long-standing party politicians would also do well to understand how the political landscape is changing, and to respect the work and commitment of those who want to move in a new direction.

Conservatives, including, but not limited to, the Tea Party, have also learned about the difficulty of dismantling institutions. Perhaps the most obvious example is the promises of Ronald Reagan to get rid of the Department of Education, which has become a common talking point in Republican presidential primaries but hasn’t amounted to much else.

Any expert on bureaucracy will tell you that governmental institutions are very resistant to being eliminated. This is true no matter how evident proponents think the case is for morality or efficiency or both. If Democrats want to make these changes into a top governing priority, they’ll need party leaders with leverage, legitimacy, and a keen eye for whipping votes.

The last time an abolition movement “anchored” mainstream party politics, it happened at the birth of a new, more ideologically oriented party. The Republican Party emerged, in part, from the wreckage of a Whig Party that had become ineffective and stale, embracing compromise to the point of moral noxiousness.

It’s not obvious to me that we are at that moment, or that the contemporary Democratic Party has gone the way of the Whigs. But it’s also relevant to consider the legitimacy problems the party faces today and the tensions between its history as a group-based coalition and the move to make it a more distinctly ideological party today.

Even a more ideologically oriented party needs ways to deal with internal disagreement and make decisions that the coalition can live with. Part of democracy is replacing the institutions you destroy. This lesson applies well beyond immigration policy.