We’ve Entered the Era of ‘Total Politics’

All that matters is what’s possible, not what’s prudent.

Illustration of chess pieces.
Illustration by Ben Hickey

Updated at 10:40 a.m. ET on April 18, 2023.

On April 6, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to expel two Democratic lawmakers for disrupting the chamber to protest gun violence. It was an exercise of raw political muscle, a move by Republicans to punish two young Black men for refusing to abide by rules of decorum, and to send a message.

On Monday, the Nashville Metropolitan Council voted to appoint Justin Jones to fill his newly open seat. On Wednesday, Shelby County commissioners followed suit and reappointed Justin Pearson too. These are sharp replies from two progressive bodies to the legislature.

Conflict between different levels of government is nothing new, but the eagerness by both sides to thumb their nose at opponents is emblematic of what we might call total politics. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nations pioneered “total war,” in which every element of society was mobilized and became fair game for military operations—the goal was simply to win. Total politics applies the same approach to partisan conflicts. Those in power use every legal tool at their disposal to gain advantage, with little regard for the long-term downsides. Total politics dismisses both the existence and value of neutral institutions; it (mostly) respects rules but not norms. All that matters is what’s possible, not what’s prudent.

Total politics is everywhere you look. In just the past week or two it’s popped up in Austin, Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott has announced his intention to request a pardon for a man convicted of murdering a Black Lives Matter protester, even before proceedings are complete. Elsewhere in the state, in Amarillo, conservatives sought to put an incendiary abortion case into the hands of a federal judge they correctly believed would grant them the decision they wanted. Total politics is in Manhattan, where District Attorney Alvin Bragg brought 34 felony counts in a vague case against former President Donald Trump. It’s in Wisconsin, where a progressive candidate defeated a conservative candidate to claim a nonpartisan judicial seat, in a race featuring unusually partisan campaigns fueled by outside money, and where Republicans in the state legislature responded by threatening to impeach her even before she’s heard a single case. It’s in Montana, where GOP lawmakers want to rewrite election laws for one cycle and one race only, to make it easier to defeat incumbent Democratic Senator Jon Tester. It’s in Washington, where some House Republicans are pushing to reinstate a rule that would allow them to target specific federal employees by reducing their salaries.

This kind of behavior is often called “constitutional hardball,” but that term is flawed. Not only is it reminiscent of the former MSNBC host Chris Matthews, but also (somewhat in contrast to that association) it sounds like a good thing: Who wouldn’t want their representatives to play hardball? Calling it “total politics” better reflects how these maneuvers enlist every aspect of government, including ostensibly neutral, nonpartisan elements, into a ruthless battle. The essential characteristic of total politics is that it uses real powers that exist under the law— although its practitioners sometimes also use other means—but pushes them to their limits.

The recent boom in total politics likely stems from a rising sense that politics is life-and-death and every election represents an existential threat to the country as one or the other party conceives of it. If you view each election and each battle as apocalyptic, then the sensible choice is to use any means available, no matter the long-term consequences: After all, if you lose (the thinking goes), the long-term consequences are irrelevant.

This tendency is particularly pronounced on the right, where Trump has argued that he is the only force that can save America as conservatives know and love it, and his acolytes have compared elections to Flight 93. That might explain why so many of the examples of total politics here come from Republicans, though Democrats are not immune. In recent years, some Democrats have explicitly called for progressives to adopt the tactics (though not the policies) of more extreme right-wing factions like the House Freedom Caucus.

Tennessee provides a vivid example of how total politics draws on existing powers but produces novel and negative consequences. The House has a mechanism for expelling members, and it exercised it. The law also provides for home-county commissions to fill the seats, though the framers probably didn’t intend for expelled lawmakers to be sent right back. The question is what’s appropriate and politically wise. The House has used its expulsion power only twice since the 1800s. The recent instance displayed racist dynamics at work, given that members declined to expel a third lawmaker, a white woman, who had protested alongside the two who were expelled. As my colleague David Frum tweeted, “The Tennessee Republicans are now represented as bigots and Ku Kluxers. Maybe they deserve it. If not, then they’re idiots.” The expulsions were both an abuse of power and totally legal.

Tennessee is, as my colleague Ron Brownstein writes, more an omen than an outlier. One reason the legislature feels safe moving so truculently is that Republicans enjoy a gerrymandered majority that is all but immune to challenge. This is itself a product of total politics: In states across the country, partisans (especially in the GOP) have pursued the most aggressive gerrymanders they can sustain under the law.

Similarly, it’s legal for plaintiffs to game the federal-court system to try to draw a favorable judge. For example, anti-abortion activists who sued the federal government over approval of mifepristone, a drug used in abortions, knew that by filing suit in the Amarillo division, their case would almost certainly be assigned to Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee with strong anti-abortion views. They got Kacsmaryk, and they got the ruling they wanted—a decision saying that the FDA’s decision was improper. Judge shopping, as this is known, is a loophole that exists in the system and is used by plaintiffs of many political views from time to time, though conservatives have in recent years employed it with particular effectiveness. But it also plainly makes a mockery of the hope that judges will rule impartially and that justice is roughly equal in any federal court anywhere in the United States, and it thus delegitimizes the judiciary.

Identifying what is total politics and what’s a reasonable reaction to a new situation is naturally somewhat in the eye of the beholder. For example, some Republicans claimed that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe and the first impeachment of Donald Trump were both this sort of legal-but-abusive tactic. (Never mind that Mueller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a Republican Trump appointee.) Proportionality is a good test: Trump was impeached for trying to extort Ukraine for his own political gain; the Tennessee lawmakers used a bullhorn on the floor of the legislature. Which of these seems to merit a very rare sanction?

Donald Trump’s bid to stay in power following the 2020 election is a good example for understanding the boundaries of total politics. In attempting to subvert the election, Trump and his allies employed some tools of total politics, including an aggressive suite of lawsuits and explorations of how state legislatures could set aside popular votes using existing laws. As they were quick to point out, some of these steps echoed measures that Democrats had contemplated or employed in the past. But committed to the pursuit of victory, Trump went a step further, not just pushing rules to their limits but actively violating them. The campaign sought to seize voting machines, pressured election officials to tamper with results, and ascribed invented powers to the vice president.

Total politics is enticing because it dangles the prospect of crushing opponents without having to bend or break any rules. In practice, however, it not only undermines the legitimacy of the system and the results it produces—see the widespread criticism of Kacsmaryk’s decision—but it encourages a cycle of escalation. By sending the two legislators back to Nashville, the councils in Tennessee are escalating an existing conflict, where in the past they might have sought to smooth things over with the state government. To be fair, the Nashville Metro Council already has some bad blood with the state legislature—thanks to an ongoing total-politics attempt to shrink the council in retaliation for blocking the 2024 Republican National Convention from coming to Music City.

The combination of this alarmist approach and the recursive nature of total politics, encouraging the same from its targets, means that it is likely to only become even more ubiquitous. The limits of decorum and precedent will continue to loosen, and the valorization—some might say pretense—of impartial court systems and law enforcement will be less and less regarded. It’s hard to imagine anything breaking the cycle of total politics other than some sort of crisis—and a crisis is just what this cycle may bring.

This article previously misidentified the conservative candidate for Wisconsin’s Supreme Court as an incumbent.