Effective Government is the Bulwark
It might not be the barrier you want, it might not be the best barrier, but it’s the barrier we have against a Trumpist resurgence in 2024.
This realization rankles the libertarian sentiments in me, and I’m sure it will instantly turn off a lot of people who read it, but that doesn’t make it untrue: The quickest, most surefire way to elect another Trump as president (and thus the greatest threat to democracy in the U.S.) is ineffectual government mired in gridlock.
So much of the discussion in anti-Trump circles about what led to Trump’s rise has boiled down to two main camps: Trump rose to power because of extreme economic anxiety or Trump rose to power because of vast racism. While both of these causes have tremendous merit and neither should be ignored, there is a clear third factor that often is neglected but I would argue is just as (if not more) crucial as the other two. Speaking globally and historically, right-wing authoritarian populists thrive in environments with ineffective government and where there is a pervasive sense that the government just doesn’t work. And not just that it doesn’t work well, or even that it doesn’t work well for you, but that that it just flat doesn’t work, period.
If you don’t believe me, then just take what Trump said at face-value. So much of his 2015–16 campaign was him saying that only he could fix the government, that only he would make better deals. Unfortunately, a lot of liberals and progressives missed this messaging; they saw Trump filtered through their virtue-signaling, decorum-obsessed media bubbles, so virtually all they heard about was the outrageous and bigoted parts of his speeches and rallies. But remember, those rallies were often 90 minutes to two hours long and if you pay attention to the whole long-winded riff sessions, he spent so much time building his claim of effectiveness, building his claim as a successful and efficient businessman, building his claim that he could make the deals the currant politicians couldn’t.
It is critical to understand this facet of how he became president. It’s also important to reflect on the fact that he was able to successfully convince people of these claims in the context of the end of Obama’s presidency.
Obama as Prelude
Trump wasn’t the first candidate to run for president on a message of fixing a broken system. The message that Barack Obama ran on in 2008 wasn’t about bringing the country together just for the sake of unity, it was about bringing people together in order to break up the gridlock in Washington. Consistently throughout Obama’s first campaign, polling showed that the most resonant part of his message was the idea that DC wasn’t getting done what it needed to, that Washington was broken. Once Obama won, he and the Democrats were extremely aware that voters would judge them on whether or not the government could actually deliver, or even try to deliver, on the promises they’d made. They also knew — especially Obama, I believe — that the stability of American democracy in a very real way depended on the federal government being able to come through for people and make a tangible difference in their lives.
Of course, Obama soon found out that was (and still is) a very difficult, practically Herculean task to undertake in our political system.
In the first two years of Obama’s presidency, he and a Democrat-controlled Congress passed a lot of legislation. Whether you liked what they did or not aside, the government was certainly effective, it worked. But these two years where immediately followed by six years during which almost no legislation was passed, six years where there was plenty going wrong in the country but the government was entirely unable to effectively address almost any of it.
For Democrats (especially Hillary Clinton in 2016), those six years eroded their ability to say messages like “elect us and we’ll help you”, “elect us and we’ll implement this agenda”. It didn’t matter that the Democrats and Obama tried like hell to get legislation through. It didn’t matter that Republicans refused to compromise a single inch with Obama on almost any issue. In 2016, Democrats were almost totally deprived of the of the ability to credibly run as change candidates, let alone as effective candidates. After all, nothing was happening under a Democrat’s administration, so why would that change just because you were elected?
In addition to an opposition party with an anti-governing philosophy of “obstruction at all cost”, the Democratic Party also managed to sabotage a fair deal of Obama’s agenda.
Now, the media, politicians, and people in general (myself included) often say “the Democratic Party” as if it was a singular entity, or at least a unified group. The thing is though that the Democratic Party is not just one single-minded entity, not in Congress in the electorate around the country either. When examining the gridlock of the Obama years, you have to keep in mind the extreme constraints placed on Obama by key hinge members of his own party.
For example, the Affordable Care Act is an entirely different law because Democratic senators Ben Nelson (NE), Joe Lieberman (CT), Mary Landrieu (LA), and a couple others insisted that there could be no public option. The ACA is a different and objectively worse law because of these “moderate” senators who said the ten-year cost had to be under $1 trillion (which resulted in this bizarre budget stipulation that didn’t allow the law to even really start for four years after being passed in order to keep the ten-year price below that amount). Those moderates also made sure that the subsidies and the aid the law offered were far, far less than Obama and most Democrats wanted.
So why did they do that? What was their logic for marring the chief policy accomplishment of their own party’s president?
It seems to me that these moderate (i.e, conservative) Democrats who hold this infuriatingly tremendous leverage in Congress actually believe that making bills smaller, slower, less visible, and more complex is the way to get reelected. And if you think that makes sense, keep in mind that Republicans wiped the floor with those Democrats in 2010. Regardless, there are still a few of these Democrats left in the Senate and even more still in the House, consistently working to push the Democratic agenda to the right (think members of the Blue Dog or Problem Solvers caucuses). These Democrats are operating based on the demonstrably failed political theory that they can make every piece of legislation a little bit (or a lot) worse but they will still survive, despite the fact that nobody likes their party because they can’t accomplish anything. This idea may have once worked, but not anymore. It doesn’t work in our modern, hyper-partisan context where there is a 96% party correlation between how voters choose their Senate and Presidential candidates.
There are still Congressional Democrats who believe that theory, and they are the the single greatest threat to their own party right now. They are the problem with the Democratic Party, and they’re exposing themselves in the debate over the filibuster going on right now. At present, in the Senate, the Democrats who have come out forcefully in favor of letting the GOP prevent the majority party from governing at all are Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), and two or three other Senate Democrats have expressed definite hesitation in removing the filibuster. On the bright side, this is great progress; the fact that Chris Coons (DE), Michael Bennet (CO), and even Jon Tester (MT) are supportive of ending the filibuster now. Even just a couple of years ago, no one would have seriously believed that those three would agree to get rid of the filibuster.
Something I do have to give Manchin credit for doing is something that is incredibly difficult in American politics and something that almost no one is able to do. That is, remain a Democrat in an extraordinarily red state. There are very, very few elected deep-red state Democrats out there and the Democratic majority would not exist without Manchin.
Keep in mind that Manchin only won by 3% in 2018 after winning by 24% in 2012. Honestly, I think that no matter what he and the Democrats do, Manchin is very unlikely to win reelection in 2024, and I imagine he is fully aware of that too. So with that in mind, when I think of Joe Manchin I think two things. First, I believe he is far more likely to win reelection if Democrats as a party are seen as governing well and effectively, regardless of whether or not the filibuster remains in existence or not (at the end of the day, I doubt that makes or breaks anyone’s vote). Second, even if killing the filibuster and getting the Democratic agenda passed keeps Manchin from being reelected, at least he did something. If Manchin does what needs to be done to fulfill the Democrats’ promises and that results in hime being kicked out of office, at least he would know that he had helped a lot of people (especially when the realistic alternative is looking increasingly like losing without helping anyone).
That conviction, that fulfilling promises to help people was worth an increased risk of losing, was Obama’s when it looked like the ACA was going to die as a bill in the Senate, when his own Chief of Staff and many of his fellow party members were telling him that he was doomed to lose in 2012 if he kept pushing it forward. Manchin needs to realistically look at the 2024 situation in West Virginia and ask himself if he honestly expects to win again anyways, and then follow up that question with the acceptance that lose is almost inevitable, so why not do what he can to help people and secure the Democratic Party’s future without him in the meantime. I believe that Manchin truly does want to help his constituents, so he can accept that he likely only has three more years to do so, I think he will.
(I’m not so sure of where Sinema’s convictions are coming form. She lives in trending-blue purple state without even half the political or electoral concerns that Manchin has to deal with.)
How Should Democracy Work?
One point I want to make is that the outcomes you hope for from any system are brightly reflected in the processes within the system. Process matters, especially in a democracy. Generally the public thinks that a democracy should work by the public electing people based on their agendas, then those agendas (or at least a rough version of them) is legislated into law. Then of course, the public judges the results of the agendas and choose whether to reelect or throw out the governing party based on how those agendas impact the real world.
However, what we have now is more along the lines of the public votes for the agenda they prefer, and then — depending on the electoral college or district gerrymandering or what have you — the people with the most votes may or may not be elected to office. Of course, even if they are elected and sworn in, they’re unable to govern anyways and instead of basing reelections on the effects of the majority’s agenda, the public just argues about why nothing is getting done.
So we have to ask ourselves: is that the way we want things to work? Or does the latter description sound much more preferable?
This is the problem facing the Democrats now. Democrats campaigned in 2020 on a bold platform and the public elected them. If the Democrats are unable to get that bold agenda legislated, the public will feel lied to and their disillusionment will increase even more. It won’t matter how hard the majority of Democrat House or Senate members tried, it won’t matter how hard Biden tried. The public will not forgive failure and it will hold the whole party collectively guilty. Democrats ran saying they would pass a $15/hour minimum wage, but come 2022 if all they can say is “well, we tried but two or three of us didn’t want to scrap the filibuster… so now you don’t get anything”, then no one is going to believe in the that party or their 2024 presidential candidate. And the Republicans will win.
This is why the matter of efficient government that passes tangible and visible legislation has to be framed around the goal of preventing the next authoritarian populist like Trump from getting power. Personally, I believe that implementing the bulk of the Democratic agenda would be very good for society, I like the majority of their 2020 platform. But the benefits that agenda can deliver pale in comparison to the benefits of preventing the next Trump.
I know I’ve been hard on the Manchin and Sinema type Democrats, but I do believe that they part of the coalition that wants to protect liberal democracy. I do not think that they are deliberately trying to sabotage their own party or allow Josh Hawley to be the next president. I think that’s where their actions very well could lead but I don’t think that’s their intention.
Historically, after defeating a proto-authoritarian, many of the “normal” politicians and partisans have the tendency to brand themselves as “defenders of the system” or something like that. And because that’s how they see themselves, they immediately whip-back to defending the same dysfunctional and ineffective system that led to the authoritarian taking power in the first place. The word “reactionary” is typically associated with conservatives, but it applies to these democratic centrists as well; they are genuinely appalled by the defeated authoritarian, so they react by trying to be the opposite of the authoritarian in every way. Unfortunately, this means that since the authoritarian was upset with the broken system, they pretend like it wasn’t broken at all, leaving voters who are upset with the system without a voice other than the next authoritarian-wannabe to appear.
But for politicians who do genuinely care about democracy, the reaction should be the opposite of that. In the wake of a near-death experience for American democracy (like the Trump presidency and coup attempt), returning to the pre-authoritarian status quo is the last thing we should do. Serious reflection about what led to someone like Trump being elected in the first place is necessary, and democratically working to address those concerns has to happen. If they aren’t addressed democratically, then they will be addressed anti-democratically.
These centrist Democrats like Manchin and Sinema also need to accept three facts about the Republican Party. One, the Republican Party — the party of which a majority of its House members voted to overturn the 2020 election — still reflects and embraces Trumpism and shows no signs of stopping. Two, the Republican party has an electoral advantage in the House, it has a huge electoral advantage in the Senate, and it has another huge electoral advantage in the Electoral College. And Three, because of those first two facts this party cannot be allowed to come back into power quickly, it has to remain beaten for a period of time.
Staying within democratic boundaries, the best way to do keep the Republicans out of power is to actually fulfill the agenda that Democrats promised people they would when the people choose Democrats by a massive margin over the Republicans. Failure to do so would not only be a failure to resist the anti-democratic party, it would be to stand aside and hold the door wide-open for them.
The False Promise of Compromise
This idea that Republicans and Democrats working together harder is somehow the appropriate response to Trump and Trumpism is deeply ingrained in that centrist area of American politics. I don’t think it necessarily comes from a bad place; in fact, most of the time I’d say those centrists actually believe it when they say that more bipartisanship is the answer to the anti-democratic threat. Last November, Manchin told the New York Times that ending the filibuster would “break the Senate”, and that the minority party had to have input or else the Senate would just become a glorified House and no longer be a truly deliberative body. He was even specifically asked if he would support scrapping the filibuster if that was the only way to get a needed COVID relief bill through, and he said no. To Manchin, literally the number one thing voters from all sides are expecting his party to deliver is not worth the cost of the filibuster. That seems insane, but Manchin’s reasoning essentially boiled down to his belief that Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell would be able to work things out together.
I have no reason to think that sentiment is not coming from a good-faith place in Manchin, I think he genuinely believes that. I also don’t think Manchin is a stupid man, so I have to chalk this up to naivety. But it’s not as if Manchin is alone in believing this notion; a large chunk of the mainstream media also does. This is shown explicitly in the recent New York Times editorial team’s piece telling President Biden to stop signing so many executive orders and to work with congressional Republicans more. Why anyone would believe that these congressional Republicans should be trusted to deal in good-faith after the past four years — especially the past four months — is absolutely beyond me.
Think about it: only five Republican senators voted that a trial was constitutional for Trump, who was impeached for inciting a mob that literally almost killed them and their colleagues. And some people still think Democrats are going to pick off ten of them to work on a COVID relief plan and avoid a filibuster? Give me a break.
I think this desire for bipartisanship among centrist and conservative Democrats in Congress stems from one key aspect of congressional relationships: the worst interpreters of congressional dynamics are the members of Congress themselves. These people experience other members of Congress as individuals that one-on-one probably seem like perfectly reasonable, decent people… but then they go on to cast totally unreasonable, indecent votes later that same day. We have to remember this, that people like Manchin and Sinema experience congress extremely different from the rest of us, and it’s one of the reasons they’re so often fooled. They spend a lot of time with their Republican peers, and everybody is more reasonable to you when you are talking together than when they are voting (i.e., vice signaling to their leaders and base).
Think back on almost any major issue from the past couple of decades, but especially since the Obama presidency onward. At the start, there is almost always this sense that there can be a lot of compromise, but it’s almost always a false promise. The passage fo the Affordable Care Act is exemplary of these Lucy-and-the-football tactics that Republicans take. All throughout that bill’s trudge through Congress, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley (IA) was telling Obama and the Democrats that the individual mandate could get support from both parties. So Grassley got all kinds of concessions from the Democrats, but in the end all of that compromise helped the GOP and gave the Democrats literally nothing. Not a single Republican vote.
To be fair, I think that Democrats as a whole have actually come a long way towards realistically assessing the motives of the GOP. I believe that the Biden White House — despite his rhetoric about unity and bipartisanship — is far more weary of Lucy’s football than the Obama White House was (obviously, a lot of that is because they learned their lessons then). Overall, I think the Democratic caucus is far more clear-eyed (and far more progressive) than it’s ever been in the Senate, and I think the House is in a great place too (thanks largely to the solid left flank there).
Despite these huge strides, the real fear I have for the Democratic Party is that if the entire Senate (and thus all legislation) is held up because Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema refuse to eliminate the filibuster, then voters aren’t going to get that it’s the fault of those two and not the entire party. Voters are going to say “Screw the Democrats, they didn’t do anything again and they didn’t improve my life, so maybe I’ll just wait for the next Trump.”
Also to be fair, I have to acknowledge that Manchin and Sinema are taking a lot of heat for other Democrats who want to be quieter about their support for the filibuster. The senior senator from California, Diane Feinstein, comes to mind, and frankly that’s an embarrassment to the whole party. I doubt anyone other than maybe Chuck Schumer is aware of how many Democrat Senators there are who would vote against scrapping the filibuster, because it’s hard to tell who would fold under pressure from the base and leadership. That possibility that these filibuster apologists might fold though is why it matters so much that the Democratic Party is moving dramatically on this issue, because pressure gets people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise want to do. I mentioned earlier several Democratic Senators like Michael Bennet who have been persuaded over time to get rid of the filibuster. Bennet was a huge opponent of this for many, many years, but with sustained pressure he’s moved a lot in the right direction on this.
Incentives, Incentives, Incentives
Like I mentioned earlier, Democrats like Joe Manchin believe that having minority party input is not only important, but necessary. I don’t think so. I think that yes, the minority party should have their concerns heard, and those concerns should be given good-faith consideration. But that’s all — whether or not those concerns are addressed or dismissed is entirely up to the majority party, and that’s how it should be: the minority can be heard, but the majority sets the agenda. But, even if you believe that minority input is necessary, you need to see that the filibuster is actually a massive hindrance to that goal.
Why? It’s all about incentives.
The great myth of American governance is that bipartisanship is something that the minority wants and the majority must be incentivized to offer. This is the exact reverse of reality. In reality, bipartisanship helps the majority party far more than the minority, so in 2021 the Democrats will want bipartisanship, but the Republicans have essentially no incentive to accept that invitation. If Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer can pass a huge bill with tangible benefits for millions of Americans, and they can pass it with large bipartisan support, then every Democrat across the country can say “look, we’re great at governing, we tangibly helped you, we should be reelected.” And then chances are they do get reelected, and the minority controls even less power.
On the other hand, the minority party has every incentive to reject bipartisanship; asking the Republicans right now to be bipartisan is truly asking them to work against their own political/electoral interests. They want to sabotage the majority party so that they can re-use the “look, Democrats don’t get anything done, and they’re annoying while they fail to get anything done too” campaign strategy. If the majority party wants the minority to work in a bipartisan way, then they have to offer massive concessions in order to incentivize them to do so, but at present the filibuster is a massive incentive for them not to do so.
Imagine the incentive list for politicians. Number one is “get reelected”, and number two is “stay in or reclaim the majority”. If the Democrats let Republicans kill their agenda with the filibuster, it opens the door to them getting the majority back by doing nothing but sabotaging the current majority. That’s Republicans’ incentive at present. But, if they can’t use the filibuster to kill bills, then maybe to get reelected they would actually have to do something constructive. They might have to show that they were actually getting tangibly beneficial things done, so they might participate in legislating so they can at least get earmarks, pork spending, high-priority items for their constituents, etc. Removing the filibuster at least incentivizes the minority party towards constructive participation, rather than sabotage and obstruction.
What if the Filibuster Stays? What Then?
Let’s assume that Manchin and Sinema don’t budge on the filibuster for a while (or ever); Democrats still control the White House, the House, and the Senate and they need to get a lot done fast in these next two years. Can they do that with the filibuster still in place? And even if they can, could it be enough to avoid a recurring midterm disaster in 2022?
Two words: Budget Reconciliation.
Budget Reconciliation is a weird process from the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, and it is essentially just a fast-track approval process to reconcile budgets between the House and the Senate in a filibuster-proof way. There are excellent primers on budget reconciliation here, here, here, and here.
Before long though, some Senator realized that you can pretty much put anything you want in a Budget Reconciliation and totally avoid a filibuster — why try to get 60 votes to beat one, if you can just go around it? (The trick is that the Federal budget is only passed once per year, so Budget Reconciliation is a once-per-year chance.)
Eventually the Senate thought this process was getting out of hand, so Senator and Klan member Robert Byrd (Manchin’s West Virginia predecessor) passed the Bryd Rule, which limited the items that could be included in Budget Reconciliation to only items regarding taxing and spending. (The Byrd Rule also barred Budget Reconciliation from increasing deficits outside of ten years and from touching social security.)
Senators can do quite a lot even within these confines regarding economics. Through Budget Reconciliation, Democrats could send out COVID stimulus checks, they could expand the child tax credit, they could do a lot of progressive things related to healthcare. Outside of their economic agenda, there’s not too much Democrats will be able to do. For example, one of my biggest personal priorities is democracy promotion and fortification, and Democrats have already passed H.R. 1 — The For the People Act of 2021 in the House and they have S.1 — The For The People Act of 2021 ready to go in the Senate. These are amazing, excellent bills that would strengthen American democracy greatly, so of course Republicans would filibuster it instantly. This bill also cannot go through Budget Reconciliation, so unfortunately this bill is DOA as long as the filibuster remains.
However, even with an intact filibuster there is still a path for these non-economic agenda items. Imagine that the Democrats really want to pass S.1, so they cram it into Budget Reconciliation. Because this bill isn’t about taxing and spending, a Republican senator would then do what is called raising a point of order. At this point, the Senate Parliamentarian would rule in favor of the point of order, saying that S.1 does not qualify to be a part of Budget Reconciliation, and it would be removed. However, a ruling from the Parliamentarian can be overruled with a simple majority vote, which the Democrats have. So the Parliamentarian can try to take S.1 out of the process, but then the Democrats can immediately vote to put it right back in, and there’s really nothing that the Republicans or the Parliamentarian can do about it.
So this is a path that is open to Democrats to implement huge swaths of their agenda through legislation, to use the Budget Reconciliation process and expand the boundaries of that process. In fact, this is the explicit plan of Senator Bernie Sanders (VT), the new chair of the Senate Budget Committee. In fact, Sanders used to support keeping the filibuster because he was so confident that his elaborate plan to use Budget Reconciliation and overrule Parliamentarian objections could be effective. Democrats want to increase the federal minimum wage to $15/hour? Throw it in reconciliation with a COVID relief bill and let the Republicans and Parliamentarian object, let them claim that it doesn’t fit in this process. All the Democrats need is for Vice President Harris to say that it does fit, and that’s that.
If you are thinking that all of that is ludicrous, a completely insane, stupid way for legislation to happen, then you are correct. You are absolutely, completely correct. That process is absolutely not the way that government should work, and it’s a travesty that misusing Budget Reconciliation is the way things are done. I don’t like this outcome at all, but the truth is that the Senate does twisted stuff like this all the time. Budget Reconciliation is meant to be a tool to pass budgetary adjustments, not monumental legislation, but both Republicans and Democrats do it all the time (Sanders is merely proposing that Democrats accelerate the trend if the filibuster remains).
The Senate has an awful habit of failing to solve problems directly, but instead they come up with unbelievably complex ways of getting around roadblocks. It’s for this reason that the term “gridlock” is truly an excellent metaphor. Think about traffic gridlock: when the highway gets gridlocked, everybody doesn’t just stop. Instead, they a lot of them start taking this weird side-street shortcuts that are extremely inefficient, take longer than the highway, and use up a lot of gas. That’s how the Senate legislates now: the filibuster has gridlocked the intentioned highway so bad that everyone is coming up with bizarre side-street ways to legislate because that’s better than doing nothing at all stuck on a gridlocked highway.
So once the Democrats are able to get to the actual business of policy construction — whether because the roadblock of the filibuster has been removed or because they’ve found a detour route through Budget Reconciliation — they need to make sure that the bills they pass are simple and fast. They have to make sure the the positive impacts of their legislation are both obvious and felt before the 2022 midterms, because that’s the only way to avoid a total disaster in 2022.
For an example of what Democrats absolutely cannot do, I am once again returning to the Obama administration. When Obama and the congressional Democrats passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, they wanted to include direct stimulus payments to individuals. Instead — due to compromise with Republicans — they did a bunch of behind-the-scenes things like adjusting tax withholding tables and payroll tax credits. Now, these things still helped people but they were practically invisible. Obama should have sent out checks and direct deposits, just like Trump did with COVID relief. It wouldn’t have cost anymore but it would have bought them an incredible amount of goodwill and political capital.
Another example of a lesson learned from the Obama years is that Democrats need to make the positive impacts of their work felt immediately. Not a year from now, not five years from now, certainly not ten years from now. For example, in regard to healthcare there is a lot that Democrats can do very quickly, which is exactly what they didn’t do with Obamacare. Now, the basic political theory behind Obamacare was sound, that it would eventually become popular. But it took forever to become popular because the bill took years to start benefiting people after it was passed (thanks again to certain compromises with Republicans). Democrats need to do things that are quickly felt and that people can easily trace back to the Federal Government.
I think the fact that people need to be able to trace these tangible improvements in their lives back to the government is incredibly important and doesn’t receive nearly enough attention from Democrats. For decades, in an effort to get bipartisan consensus Democrats have opted for a lot of different public-private hybrid implementation strategies, wherein the government is doing something through private entities, so that it looks like the benefits are actually coming from the latter. For example, the Federal Government is spending a lot of money to get people health insurance but they’re doing it in this complicated way through the private sector insurance systems.
Democrats, stop that. Democrats have to stop governing in a way meant to get Republican support if Republicans are literally refusing their support no matter what. All that results in is Democratic bills being worse and more complex which results in people not liking the government. Democrats are hamstringing their own bills and in return they’re not even getting the cover of bipartisanship. Returning again to Obamacare, Obama and the Democrats compromised an absurd amount with Republicans like Chuck Grassley and they made all sorts of concessions to him. But in the end, Grassley didn’t vote for the bill and he campaigned on calling the individual mandate unconstitutional. So then Obama was left with Chuck Grassley’s healthcare program and Chuck Grassley’s criticisms. It’s a mistake that Biden, Schumer, Pelosi, and Manchin cannot afford to make. Be simple. Be fast. Be big.
Once they’re governing, Democrats have a tendency to forget to advertise that the benefits they are delivering are coming from the government and from their party. I remember seeing construction and infrastructure projects in 2010 with these little “Recovery Act” stickers on them, barely noticeable. Instead of those stickers, there should have been a big poster of Barack Obama next to every completed road, bridge, etc. There should have been billboards saying “Brought to you by the Democratic Party”. That’s all going too far probably, but the idea is important. Democrats need to put more effort into connecting the dots for people, because people don’t see government positively impacting their lives often enough.
Rebuilding that positive connection between government and citizens is so important: not only will it lead to tangible benefits for people, but (as the theme of this whole article goes) it will help prevent the next Trump; that connection could be a powerful bulwark against the next authoritarian who wants to take over.
I am positive that Joe Biden can remake this connection, in large part because we are in a very different period than 2009 and 2010. The Biden Administration has the opportunity to directly make positive government operation a part of almost everyone’s lives and to simultaneously massively improve peoples’ lives through the COVID vaccine rollout. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that this type of opportunity hasn’t existed for any president since FDR. Biden could have FEMA and National Guard operations everywhere, from neglected blue collar rust belt towns to the Bronx to the Texas-Mexico border. These operations could be running 24/7 vaccination sites, and as a result you can hug your grandparents again, you can go on that vacation you saved for for years, you can stop having to stay away form your immune-compromised friends. Biden has come into office with this ability to use federal power to actually make peoples’ lives better, and it’s something he can do without much congressional help (or interference). Taking advantage of this opportunity is tremendously important and would go a long way towards rebuilding the connection between the people and the government.
A Good Chance, & The Last Chance
I’ve talked a lot about the Democratic Party, but another reason I think this all is important is that American politics is not going function well without a more sensible and real center-right party than the Republican Party currently is. The Republican Party needs to be pushed into at least some level of reform, but that absolutely will not happen if the Democrats give them even a single inch they have not earned. Creating complex, slow-moving, invisible programs that do not allow people to feel the government improving their lives is giving the GOP whole miles.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton (a Democrat) said that “the era of big government is over”. I think what we’re seeing now though in the wake of the past four years is that the era of “the era of big government is over” is over. We are living in a time when people are really seeing that it’s scary when the government cannot help you when you need it to. Joe Biden has become president at a time when he can make clear that the Federal Government is here to help you when you need it and that it can be effective and that it can improve your life. This is a huge opportunity.
It might also be the last opportunity though. I hate to end on a pessimistic note, but Republicans swept state legislatures across the country in 2020, and now they will control a horrifying amount of redistricting. The House map for Democrats is going to get far more difficult and the Republican advantage in the Electoral College and the Senate map is not going away either. All of this is converging to a point where I truly believe that if Democrats don’t use these next two years (hopefully the next four years), then they will quickly find themselves the minority party that represents a majority in a political system that gives an undue advantage to a majority party that represents a minority for many, many years to come.
Everything about the Democratic Party has to be viewed in light of this one simple fact: they are behind the 8 ball in American politics, they are operating with a massive electoral handicap.
This is clearly evident in the Senate, an anti-democratic institution that because of the 17th Amendment awards representation to land rather than people, where representation is applied by arbitray state lines rather than population. Keep in mind that there is a higher proportion of red states than red voters. The median state is approximately 6–7% more Republican than than than the median voter, meaning that the median Democrat Senate candidate is starting off 6–7% behind their Republican opponent. That is an insane handicap that requires Democrats to win over tremendous amounts of independent support while at the same time keeping their base corralled. Right now, there is a 50/50 split in the Senate, but the 50 Democrats represent 41 million more people — 41 million more! — than the 50 Republicans do. In the House, the discrepancy between population and representation isn’t that big, but it’s still significant. Then there’s the Electoral College, which would have elected Trump with a shift of only 40,000 votes in two or three states, even though Joe Biden won more than 7 million more votes.
In a way that is truly unprecedented, the Democratic Party is extremely disadvantaged because of the way that American politics weights geography. The sad fact is that a party that represents 56–57% of the population is only in control of 50% of the representative power. This creates the problem of these hinge senators (the Manchins, the Sinemas, etc.) because if Democrats had power in relation to their votes and representees, Manchin or Sinema would not be the last Democrat votes everything depended on. There would be seven or eight other Democrats in the Senate who could be that needed 51st vote.
This is why democracy reform is so important to me. If Democrats allow the current trends to continue, they will have to win by such unrealistic margins that they’re going to be semi-permenatly the minority party. If they allow the current trend to continue, the Republican Party (which is still Trump’s party) will control the entire Federal Government without ever even trying to compete for a majority of the public because they can win with an ethnonationalist appeal to a minority of the public. That’s an incredibly dangerous future to look at.
Thankfully, it’s not inevitable. If Democrats get rid oft the filibuster (or take a detour through Budget Reconciliation) and they pass things like S.1, they grant statehood to D.C., they offer statehood to Puerto Rico (which they both deserve because it is the right thing to do, not because it’s a power grab), then they have gone a long way towards creating a more level electoral playing field. This seems like an obvious thing to say, but democracy is good for the party with “democracy” in its name. More importantly, democracy is a good system and a moral system. Ensuring that Americans live in one is a worthwhile and principled political goal.
Of course, even all these democracy reform ideas wouldn’t fix all these problems though. Even if Democrats made D.C. and Puerto Rico states, the Senate map would still have a significant pro-Republican bias; the playing field still wouldn’t be level, but it would be better.
This is the endgame, what I pray that the Manchins and the Sinemas of the world understand: they are consigning themselves, their party, and the majority of the population to the governing minority in the near and distant future. They are consigning the voters who have put their faith in them to make their lives better to not having that trust returned or rewarded. For far too long, politicians have operated putting the aesthetics and performance of democracy above the actual work and conflict necessary to sustain and enrich democracy, but valuing the decorum of democracy to actual democracy itself is not a moral or smart thing to do. I doubt that is how Manchin or Sinema view what they are doing, but that’s just how it is. They are needlessly consigning the voters who trusted them to political powerlessness and to a system that is not going to represent them. There’s no reason for this and there is no defense of it.