Hope And Despair
It seems incredible, but just two months ago Democrats were in the depths of despair, looking at a potential electoral wipeout come November. The disastrous decision to separate the infrastructure bill (BIF) from Build Back Better (BBB) late last fall had allowed Manchin to sabotage BBB entirely. That failure was followed by the failure to protect voting rights earlier this year. The post-COVID recovery was fueling record inflation, exacerbated by a broken supply chain and monopoly price-gouging. Democratic leaders were priming up for another kitchen-table election, trying to focus on the incredible post-COVID job creation, while ignoring inflation and the fact that their biggest legislative accomplishment was a glorified transportation bill. Even the Democratic base wasn’t buying it. Biden’s approval numbers had hit historic lows, with the biggest collapse coming from young voters between 18 and 34.
Today, Democrats have hope. It began, ironically enough, with the radical Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade in its entirety. It immediately put abortion rights and, by the Court’s own logic, other privacy rights as a top concern of voters, alongside inflation and other economic concerns. In just the two months since that decision, women have shifted toward Democrats by a remarkable 7% and men, especially fathers (presumably of young daughters), by 2%, according to a couple of recent polls. In the red-state bastion of Kansas, voters emphatically rejected a constitutional amendment that would have allowed further restrictions on abortion in that state. Before that vote, voter registrations surged in the state, with around 70% of new registrants being women. Similar registration surges were seen in other states where the right to an abortion appeared under threat or was essentially repealed.
More importantly, it energized the Democratic base and gave that party a nationwide appeal it could run on – help us keep the House and get two new Senators to break the filibuster, and we will codify Roe into law. That was clearly illustrated in the recent special election in New York where Pat Ryan won with a message focused on abortion rights. That new Democratic energy is being fueled by the extremism of the current Republican party which is proving every horror predicted by liberals resulting from the repeal of Roe to be true. Women who have miscarried are being investigated and/or forced to reach a state of near death before doctors will remove the dead fetus. Children are being forced to give birth to dead babies. Doctors in states where abortion is legal are being investigated for aiding citizens of other states where it is not. Abortion laws that were on the books before women even had the right to vote are being revived.
On the same day that the Supreme Court repealed Roe, the Senate passed the first gun control legislation in decades, which became law shortly thereafter. The legislation itself was pretty tepid, basically enhancing background checks for gun buyers under 21 years of age and restricting gun sales to those convicted of abusing their unmarried partners. But it only passed because Republicans were desperate to look like they were responding to the epidemic of mass shootings and the thought among Republicans was passing this minimal bipartisan legislation would help take the issue off the table for the November elections.
In reality, that gun control legislation was just the first in a wave of historic legislative victories Democrats would rack up in the next two months. A week after Roe was ruled unconstitutional and the gun control measure passes the Senate, Mitch McConnell made an unusual threat. He declared that Republicans would not support the CHIPS Act if Democrats went ahead with a scaled back version of Build Back Better, the climate and tax legislation to be passed through reconciliation, presumably without Republican votes. The CHIPS Act had bipartisan support and would provide billions in research and development to help the US compete globally, especially with China, as well as subsidizing domestic semiconductor manufacturing.
Less than three weeks after McConnell’s threat, Joe Manchin announced that he was pulling the plug on more negotiations on the scaled back Build Back Better legislation. That left the Democratic legislative agenda in tatters, with a glorified and gussied-up transportation bill as the only significant piece of non-pandemic related legislation the Democratic-controlled government could pass in two years and little to run on in November. With McConnell seemingly assured that the climate and tax legislation was dead, the Senate passed the CHIPS Act four days later with 17 Republican votes. Just three days later, Manchin and Schumer announced agreement on the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). The IRA is the most ambitious climate change legislation in history; it raises nearly half a trillion in new revenue over the next decade; it reduces the cost of prescription drugs and increases subsidies for health care; and it passed without a single Republican vote and was signed into law by Biden.
History will have to tell us what really happened in those weeks between McConnell’s threat and the passage of the IRA. Did the criticisms of Manchin going down in history as the man who let the world burn, an accusation even made by some of his colleagues, finally get to him? Or, (more likely), was he closer to a deal than he let on and this was his final negotiating tactic? Or was this Manchin being Manchin, preening for the cameras and the public, but always coming through in some way for Democrats at the last minute when needed, as Harry Reid always claimed.
Whatever the case, it at least appeared that the Democrats had hoodwinked McConnell and GOP Senators brilliantly. Republicans reacted with fury after Manchin announced his agreement, blocking what had been a bipartisan agreement to provide health care for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. That brought them even more derision, and, in a rare admission of failure and misjudgment, they were forced to backtrack a couple of days later and passed the legislation overwhelmingly.
While Republicans were in disarray, Democrats got more good news on the most pressing issue on voters’ minds. Inflation for the month of July was zero; gas prices had fallen for nearly 60 straight days and the average price across the nation was now under $4 per gallon; the Producer Price Index fell for the first time since early in the pandemic; supply chain stress reached an 18-month low as the economy returns to a more normal mix of goods and services; and employment still remains surprisingly strong.
When all the dust has settled, Biden and the Democrats may have just produced the most consequential two-year period of governing since LBJ. Those accomplishments include the pandemic-related American Recovery Act which kept millions employed during the pandemic; the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which invested in transportation, broadband, and green energy solutions; the aforementioned CHIPS Act; and the aforementioned Inflation Reduction Act. That’s abut $3.5 trillion in new investments in America without any new taxes on those making under $400,000 in keeping with Biden’s campaign promise. And Biden just added student debt relief which was an important issue for younger voters. Add to all that Biden’s foreign policy successes including rebuilding the NATO alliance and adding two new members, Sweden and Finland; ending the forever war in Afghanistan; standing up to Putin with robust support for Ukraine; and perhaps, by November, a restart of the Iran nuclear deal. It is a record of accomplishment that any President and any party should be proud of. Chief of Staff Ron Klain was not being overly hyperbolic when he said, “[T]he president has delivered the largest economic recovery plan since Roosevelt, the largest infrastructure plan since Eisenhower, the most judges confirmed since Kennedy, the second largest health care bill since Johnson, and the largest climate change bill in history. … The first time we’ve done gun control since President Clinton was here, the first time ever an African-American woman has been put on the U.S. Supreme Court… I think it’s a record to take to the American people”.
Biden’s poll numbers have recovered sharply. But even when they were abysmal, at least part of that was driven by dissatisfaction from parts of the Democratic base, especially younger voters, and worries about his age. But those disaffected Democrats also realize the existential threat that the Republican party poses for our country and our democracy. In fact, the threat to democracy is now the most important issue facing Americans according to a recent poll. Democratic candidates in general have routinely polled far better than the President himself. Democrats have now taken the lead in the generic Congressional ballot by 4%, close to being a large enough margin to have hopes about holding the House and gaining seats in the Senate. Democratic Senate candidates in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Wisconsin look to have significant leads and are competitive in Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. As we head into Labor Day and the traditional start of the campaign season, Democrats have what seemed unthinkable just weeks ago. They have a real message; they are motivated; they have momentum; and they have hope.
While things may look hopeful for Democrats in the short term, it is hard not to look at the country as a whole and feel real despair. We unfortunately live in a two-party system and one of these parties, the Republican party, has completely gone off the rails. Even worse, the anti-democratic structures of American democracy, specifically the small-state bias, the US Senate, and the Electoral College, currently give Republicans far more power than their numbers indicate or deserve.
The Republican party has become openly autocratic, fascistic, and increasingly disdainful of democracy itself. Its cult leader is himself on ongoing criminal enterprise who led an unsuccessful coup to stay in power and any attempt to bring him to justice is portrayed as the persecution of the dear leader. Those within the party who tried to hold him to account have been summarily purged. The party is choosing candidates who openly deny the 2020 election and promise to ensure their candidates will win any upcoming ones. Democracy itself is being rejected simply because democracy means people who are not “real” Americans, primarily Black, brown, gay, and trans people, are actually given a voice. Instead, the Republican base insists we are a “republic” where only they get to choose their representatives in government. They are planning to replace the civil service with political cronies, essentially returning us to the endemic corruption of the patronage system.
In many states, democracy at the state legislature level has already been eliminated, replaced by a gerrymandered system that guarantees Republican control regardless of the popular vote. Those GOP-controlled legislatures are slowly stripping away the powers of elected officials, both statewide and local, who actually are chosen by the majority of the people. Now those legislatures are trying to determine the Electoral College votes for their state, totally ignoring the democratic will of their own people. In states where the Republican party does have full control, they are requiring forced births, investigating miscarriages, accusing parents of trans kids of child abuse and librarians of “grooming”, banning books, gagging teachers from teaching certain subjects, undermining public education, preventing doctors from providing certain treatments while requiring them to perform the medically impossible, checking the genitalia of child athletes, forcing financial firms to invest in fossil fuels, and threatening companies that offer certain kinds of healthcare to their employees.
The party revels in its lawlessness. Already, certain GOP-controlled counties are refusing to certify elections. GOP-controlled state governments simply refuse to follow court orders, resulting in maps that have been ruled illegal gerrymanders still being used for November’s elections. Party officials casually ignore Congressional subpoenas and fight like hell to avoid judicial ones. They openly cavort with avowed fascists and anti-Semites and provide a steady stream of hate speech and incitements to violence. Those incitements are increasing and coming from the highest levels of the party.
The Republican base has responded to the call of their leaders with threats, harassment, and real violence. We saw it in Charlottesville, in the plan to kidnap and kill Governor Whitmer, in the armed invasion of state capitols, and culminating in the 1/6 coup. School boards, election officials, judges, doctors, teachers, health officials, and other health workers have all been harassed and threatened by right-wing activists encouraged by Republican leaders. Innocent Asian, Black, Jewish, and LBGTQ Americans have all been targeted with violence and even murdered by those incited by Republican rhetoric. In the wake of the legal search at Mar-a-Lago, the latest targets of death threats and violence are FBI agents, IRS agents, and a magistrate judge. The Republican party, from top to bottom is no longer bound by democracy and the rule of law and only show support for those two principles when it produces the result they desire. They only want power and their increasingly default behavior is to resort to violence to get it. Those threats of violence are now pervasive in virtually every social and political activity, almost resembling a low-level insurgency, and made even more dangerous because of the expansion of permissive open and concealed carry laws.
Of course, the reason for those permissive open and concealed carry laws is that one of the three institutions that could provide a check on Republican fascism instead created the conditions for its emergence. The Supreme Court’s affirmation of an individual’s right to bear arms is a position first espoused in 1959, not 1789 – so much for their dedication to “originalism”. More importantly, the Court laid the groundwork for Republican fascism with its rulings on campaign finance that allowed unlimited dark money to influence elections, with its gutting of the Voting Rights Amendment that allowed for discriminatory voting restrictions, with its decisions to let partisan gerrymandering stand, with shadow docket rulings that illegal racial gerrymanders still be used under selective readings of their supposed closeness to elections, and with its gutting of Brown v Board of Education by reasoning that de facto segregation does not require remediation because it is not necessarily intentional.
The result is a Court and a court system that has been severely corrupted and far out of step with the American people as the abortion decision has clearly illustrated. A majority of five Supreme Court justices have been appointed by a president who has lost the popular vote. Three of the five are the only justices in the nation’s history to be appointed by a president who lost the popular vote and were confirmed by Senate votes that represented a minority of the country. Republicans can file cases in certain districts in Texas where they know which judge will get the case and provide the outcome they need.
The nation’s business leaders are another group that could rein in GOP excess. But many of them have actually signed on to the Republican fascist project, while others live in this fantasy bubble where any attempt to make them pay their fair share is absurdly treated as socialism and/or communism. Most of the rest are simply too afraid that any political backlash would cost them part of their undeservedly enormous compensation packages.
Meanwhile, the other institution capable of at least highlighting the GOP’s descent into fascism is in disarray. More than six years after the emergence of Trump, the media, despite limited progress, still seems unable to effectively grapple with the descent of the Republican party into fascism. The New York Times is still running right-wing propaganda in the opinion section filled with lies such as the Trump Russian collusion was a hoax; deceptions such as the idea that not holding Trump accountable for his crimes will heal the country when it is obvious that that would only further embolden him; and ending with the now typical Republican threat of future retaliation if Trump is actually brought to justice. CNN is actively courting Republicans to tell it how to portray the party more favorably. Others float the idea that DeSantis would be a more “normal” or “moderate” candidate despite ample evidence that he is even more authoritarian than Trump. Some, especially in the Beltway media, apparently believe that all these Ivy League educated Trump wannabes – like DeSantis, Cruz, Hawley, Cotton, etc. – are just posturing to win election, as though that means they will stand up to their fascist mob base if they become president when, in fact, it shows just the opposite. Still others bizarrely obsess over free speech skirmishes on college campuses that have been going on for decades while seemingly oblivious to the GOP’s real book-banning and teacher muzzling. Few actually grapple with just how thoroughly anti-democratic the entire Republican enterprise has become. Even as it struggles to deal with that reality, the media business is collapsing, especially at the state and local level, driven by those same corporate interests that have no interest in democracy. The result is that one of the most important watchdogs of the often brazen and rampant corruption in one-party states is missing in action.
It is a hopeful sign that threats to democracy are now the number one issue for American voters. But I’m not sure it’s sunk in just yet how entrenched the anti-democratic forces have already become. So far, at least, there appears to be no currently viable path to unwind the structural advantages these anti-democratic forces hold and the institutions that might do so are seemingly getting weaker by the day. Four years of Trumpism showed that our democracy is already hanging by a thread, and it is hard to imagine it surviving another four years of total Republican control. Voting harder is not the answer but it’s all we have right now. So, yes, there is reason to be hopeful going into this fall’s elections. But with a significant minority committed to autocratic power, it is hard not to despair about the long-term prospects for the country.