Nobody is acting like they believe the future of democracy is at stake
Maybe because they don’t believe it
Here’s a thought experiment for you.
Imagine it’s January 10, 2021, and Joe Manchin shows up at a meeting of the assembled movers and shakers of progressive politics: the biggest super PAC donors, the heads of the main progressive foundations, the biggest labor unions, various advocacy groups. And of course, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Joe Biden are there.
Manchin says to them that he’s really worried about the state of American democracy and the threat posed by Trump, and it’s time to get really serious.
He wants to end the filibuster. Then with the filibuster ended, he wants statehood for D.C., Puerto Rico, and other territories. He wants a federal ban on partisan gerrymandering. He wants term limits for Supreme Court justices and a phased expansion of the court to 13 justices. He wants revisions to the Electoral Count Act. And he wants a strong Voting Rights Act. But he’s also afraid that making so many structural changes on the basis of such a thin majority is going to break American democracy rather than save it. So in exchange, he wants Biden to really prioritize uniting the country. He’s happy to vote for a big emergency Covid-19 relief bill if Biden looks him in the eye and tells him it’s important.
But beyond that, he wants to see Biden put two or three “Never Trump” Republicans in his cabinet. And he wants a commitment from the White House to not push any big contentious partisan legislation after the stimulus bill. No background checks, no codifying of Roe, no climate package, nothing. He’s not saying none of these things can happen, but he wants to demonstrate to the American people that eliminating the filibuster was really about rescuing democracy and not about pushing a huge substantive progressive agenda. We’ll see what we can get done on a bipartisan basis in 2021-22, and we’ll see what happens after the midterms. But our mandate right now is to end the pandemic, heal the country, and save democracy. That’s how we build back better.
Progressives would have hated this
It’s completely hypothetical so of course, there’s no way to prove anything. But I feel pretty confident that the assembled progressive leaders of America would have hated this idea.
I remember when John Kasich was given a prominent speaking role at the 2020 DNC and progressives hated it. This was, in fact, always their big fear about Joe Biden going back to the pre-Covid phase of the primary: that Biden was excessively focused on the threat of Trump and the desire for a return to normalcy. Progressives wanted to beat Trump, of course. But more than that, they wanted to leverage Trump’s clownishness and unpopularity into a landslide that would let them enact a transformative policy agenda. The fear was that Biden really did just want to beat Trump and prove that “America is better than this.”
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, which in some ways would have made a normalcy-oriented Biden administration even more sensible.
From the standpoint of February 2020, there was something fundamentally odd about the “unite the country” concept — a new president can’t just do nothing. But by February 2021 there was plenty to be done in terms of addressing the short-term public health and economic situation. It’s not like the White House staff would have gotten bored without a transformative policy agenda.
And in my make-believe scenario, they actually are passing significant legislation. It’s just that it’s legislation designed to alter the underlying structure of American democracy rather than legislation designed to deliver on the longstanding policy demands of “the groups.” You’d be telling “the groups” that if they can win races in 2022, then they can go for it. But the reality is incumbent parties usually lose in the midterms, so it’s probably going to be deferred forever. Maybe we can do something on infrastructure or science funding on a bipartisan basis, but stuff like paid leave, child care, Medicare expansion, etc. is going to be put on ice.
The value of a hypothetical
Of course, Manchin didn’t make this offer, so what does it matter?
But I think acknowledging that progressives and mainstream Democrats would have hated this idea is important and telling. After all, it’s not like it’s a totally absurd idea. In Israel, the governing coalition includes Islamists, a hard-right party, and all of the left and center Israeli parties, because that’s what it took to beat Netanyahu. Because the coalition is so sprawling, their substantive policy agenda is very modest. Over in the Czech Republic, populist leader Andrej Babis was defeated by an all-party opposition coalition back in October:
For the past decade, populists like Mr. Babis have often seemed politically invincible, rising to power across Central and Eastern Europe as part of a global trend of strongman leaders disdainful of democratic norms. But on Saturday, the seemingly unbeatable Mr. Babis was defeated because opposition parties put ideological differences aside and joined together to drive out a leader they fear has eroded the country’s democracy.
To make it work, the diverse opposition had to set aside most normal political issues:
Marie Jilkova, a successful anti-Babis candidate in South Moravia from one of the two coalitions of parties that came together to oppose the prime minister, said that banding together to confront Mr. Babis and his party machine “was, for us, the only way to survive — there was no alternative.”
Her own party, the Christian Democrats, differs on issues like abortion and gay marriage from the more centrist parties in her coalition, so, she said, “we agreed that we would not talk about these things during the campaign.”
Viktor Orbán’s opponents in Hungary are hoping to pull off something similar.
Democrats aren’t. And critically, nobody is really urging them to. It’s not as if Elizabeth Warren won the 2020 nomination — Biden was the standard-bearer for moderation and electability, and he rejected this approach.
My interpretation of all this isn’t that Democrats are making some huge blunder. It’s more that they themselves don’t fully believe their rhetoric on democracy. When I see someone like David Roberts saying that once the GOP gets control they will cement power in a way that makes them immune to electoral backlash, I wonder why he isn’t tearing his hair out screaming for Joe Biden to act like an American Naftali Bennett.
But I mostly think this is just stuff that people say on Twitter to vent. We see in the Czech Republic and Hungary and Israel what people are willing to do when they truly think democracy is at risk. American Democrats want to pass their bills and enact their agenda. And they’ve done less and less in recent years to try to seem ideologically reassuring.
Democratic platforms have gotten more left-wing
Here’s the first paragraph of the 2008 Democratic platform on crime:
As Democrats, we are committed to being smart on crime. That means being tough on violent crime, funding strategic, and effective community policing, and holding offenders accountable, and it means getting tough on the root causes of crime by investing in successful crime prevention, including proven initiatives that get youth and nonviolent offenders back on track. We will support communities as they work to save their residents from the violence that plagues our streets. We will reverse the policy of cutting resources for the brave men and women who protect our communities every day. At a time when our nation’s officers are being asked both to provide traditional law enforcement services and to help protect the homeland, taking police off of the street is neither tough nor smart; we reject this disastrous approach. We support and will restore funding to our courageous police officers and will ensure that they are equipped with the best technology, equipment, and innovative strategies to prevent and fight crimes.
And here’s the first paragraph of the 2020 platform:
Our criminal justice system is failing to keep communities safe—and failing to deliver justice. America is the land of the free, and yet more of our people are behind bars, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. Instead of making evidence-based investments in education, jobs, health care, and housing that are proven to keep communities safe and prevent crime from occurring in the first place, our system has criminalized poverty, overpoliced and underserved Black and Latino communities, and cut public services. Instead of offering the incarcerated the opportunity to turn their lives around, our prisons are overcrowded and continue to rely on inhumane methods of punishment. Instead of treating those who have served their time as full citizens upon their return to society, too many of our laws continue to punish the formerly incarcerated, erecting barriers to housing, employment, and voting rights for millions of Americans.
On immigration, the 2008 platform called for comprehensive immigration reform but framed it, in part, as an effort to clamp down on illegal immigration:
We cannot continue to allow people to enter the United States undetected, undocumented, and unchecked. The American people are a welcoming and generous people, but those who enter our country’s borders illegally, and those who employ them, disrespect the rule of the law. We need to secure our borders, and support additional personnel, infrastructure, and technology on the border and at our ports of entry. We need additional Customs and Border Protection agents equipped with better technology and real-time intelligence. We need to dismantle human smuggling organizations, combating the crime associated with this trade. We also need to do more to promote economic development in migrant-sending nations, to reduce incentives to come to the United States illegally. And we need to crack down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants.
In 2020, they say:
Democrats believe that our fight to end systemic and structural racism in our country extends to our immigration system, including the policies at our borders and ports of entry, detention centers, and within immigration law enforcement agencies and their policies and operations
In 2008, Democrats came out swinging in favor of “a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay” but also tried to throw pro-lifers a bone by calling for measures to “reduce the need for abortions.” By 2020, the reducing abortions language is gone and the commitment to repeal the Hyde Amendment is made explicit.
Do party platforms matter? Not really. But they are an interesting window into where party leaders’ heads are. And in 2008, Democrats were acting like a party that was scared of losing. They wanted the people who had voted for George W. Bush but now felt disillusioned to feel comfortable giving Democrats a try. That didn’t mean abandoning progressive ideas, but it did mean limiting them (recall that the 2008 Democrats said marriage is between a man and a woman and were incredibly fired-up about deficit reduction). And it absolutely meant going out of their way to find conservative-friendly framings of issues and trying to position themselves as moderate.
By 2020, Democrats aren’t like that anymore. Not because the party was taken over by wild-eyed radicals (Biden, Pelosi, and Schumer were all influential leaders in 2008), but because the party establishment itself went in a more progressive direction.
Risks, calculated and otherwise
Now to be clear, if you’d asked me in February 2020 whether I thought Democrats should sideline their policy agenda and try to form a cross-party opposition coalition with never Trumpers, I’d have said no way.
Once the pandemic intervenes, I think this idea gets less crazy. But fundamentally, given the outcome of the Georgia special elections for Senate, I think it was reasonable for Democrats to take a big shot at Build Back Better. The politics of trying to pass an ambitious policy agenda are an overwhelming downside. But it’s good to do things! Passing the Affordable Care Act cost Democrats in the 2010 midterms. But it was a good law that improved people’s lives, and once it was in place, it was hard to get rid of. Making historic investments in clean energy and an expanded welfare state are worth taking a risk for. So I’m in.
Some of these other risks seem way more dubious to me. What was the point of getting Biden to come out for Hyde Amendment repeal and a deportation moratorium when those things fairly obviously weren’t going to happen? To me, a lot of this stuff reeks of self-indulgence rather than political courage.
But most of all, I think it would behoove everyone to own up to the choices they’ve made — and to own them. A very broad swathe of Democrats, from Bernie Sanders on the left to Joe Manchin on the right and very much including Joe Biden in the middle, chose to prioritize the items on their policy agenda over the alleged transcendent threat of Trumpism.