Wednesday, September 9, 2020

After a Biden Victory: What Could Go Right, What Could Go Wrong

Even if Biden wins and even if the Democrats take back the Senate and even if they're willing to mess with the filibuster, governing this crisis-ridden country will still be a tremendous challenge.But meeting that challenge could produce an amazing amount of progressive change. Or it could all fizzle out pretty quickly.

George Packer's new Atlantic article is the best place to start on confronting these possibilities in a realistic way. If there ever was a time to invoke Antonio Gramsci's "pessimism of intellect, optimism of the will", this is it. Packer's piece does this beautifully and I strong recommend reading it in its entirety.

What could go right:

"The brutal statistics that count the jobless, hungry, evicted, sick, and dead have forced a rethinking of our political and social arrangements. The numbers are a daily provocation for change—radical change. “I think we are at a hinge moment in history; it’s one of those moments that arises every 50 years or so,” Senator Michael Bennet, of Colorado, told me. “We have the opportunity to set the stage for decades of progressive work that can improve the lives of tens of millions of Americans.” The crises of 2020 could become the catalytic agent of a national transformation....

The scale of Biden’s agenda is breathtaking. At its center is a huge jobs program. A Biden administration would invest $2 trillion in infrastructure and clean energy. He proposes creating 3 million jobs in early education, child care, and elderly care—sectors usually regarded as “soft” and neglected by presidential candidates—while raising their pay and status. “This economic crisis has hit women the hardest,” Sullivan said. “These care jobs are primarily jobs filled by women—and disproportionately women of color and immigrant women—but they don’t pay a fair wage, and the opportunities to advance aren’t there. This is a big, ambitious, bold proposal—not an afterthought, but at the core.” Another $700 billion would go to stimulating demand and innovation in domestic manufacturing for a range of essential industries such as medical supplies, microelectronics, and artificial intelligence. Some $30 billion would go to minority-owned businesses as part of a larger effort to reduce the racial wealth gap.

Biden is proposing industrial policy—massive, targeted investment to restructure production for national goals—something that no president has openly embraced since the 1940s. His agenda would also give workers more power, with paid family and medical leave, paid sick days, a public option for health care, and an easier path to organizing and joining unions. It would more than double the federal minimum wage, to $15 an hour—a bitter point of dispute between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in 2016, now uncontroversial among Democrats. Free trade is hard to find on the agenda. For all Biden’s history as a centrist, his economic program would put an end to decades of Democratic incrementalism....

Bennet, a center-left Democrat from a purple state, envisions “a more progressive agenda than any modern president has pursued, and it would also be wildly popular with the American people.” He believes that Congress should “build political momentum” by passing key legislation early on, with each breakthrough making the next one more, not less, thinkable: enact paid family and medical leave, double the federal minimum wage, reverse the Trump tax cuts for the rich and corporations while giving the middle class a tax cut, hold police accountable, increase teacher pay, fund universal preschool, move to universal health care through a public option. At the start of the previous congressional session, the House introduced H.R. 1, a bill that would have strengthened democracy by, among other things, enacting same-day voter registration and tightening ethics rules for members of Congress. H.R. 1 died in the Senate before it could be vetoed by Trump. Both Bennet and Tanden said they hope that the next Congress will immediately take it up again, which would signal a commitment to political reform. Tanden argued that H.R. 1, with its voting-rights provisions, would begin to loosen Republicans’ undemocratic hold on power—which is based on a strategy of making it ever harder for citizens, especially poor, Black, and Latino Americans, to vote—before the party had time to reorganize for a counterattack.

“Everything on that list—any Democrat running for the House of Representatives could support it,” Bennet said. “Therefore it’s something that could probably ultimately get passed. Moderate Democratic senators could support it. It would make a massive difference in the lives of working Americans and poor Americans. What I’m talking about is an agenda that’s more ambitious than any time since Lyndon Johnson was president.”

What could go wrong:

"Americans are more broadly liberal on economic issues than on social and cultural ones. On the latter, Biden has stayed to the right of his party’s activists: reform and demilitarize police, but don’t defund them; remove Confederate statues from public places, but leave presidential monuments; regulate fracking, but don’t ban it; rule reparations neither in nor out. For now, opposition to Trump has blurred the party’s fracture lines. Democrats are united behind proposals that would go further in reducing inequality and remaking the social contract than any administration in modern memory has even attempted....

The new progressivism is in the streets, in classrooms, on social media—everywhere but the places with the power to solve problems. It has drawn a sharp, clear line from historical crimes to contemporary inequalities. It has dramatically changed the way Americans think, talk, and act, but not the conditions in which they live. It has no central theme or agenda, no charismatic leader to give it direction and coherence. It reflects the fracturing distrust that defines our culture: Something is deeply wrong; our society is unjust; our institutions are corrupt...

[There has been} a decade of social mobilizations with no tangible achievements. Each new phase builds more pressure for radical change. If, in November, Trump is consigned to a late life of social-media whining and legal jeopardy, the pressure won’t subside. Under a Biden administration, the streets are likely to keep roiling, maybe more tumultuously than ever, as raised hopes lead to greater demands and disappointments. Most younger Americans have seen no viable kind of politics other than protest. Kazin, a veteran of the ’60s who watched the New Left doom itself with its own illusions, said, “I fear the left will expect too much or be too damning too quickly with a Biden administration. That can always happen.” As the party moves in a progressive direction, Biden will have a harder time ignoring pressure from his left than Obama did. But unlike Sanders or Hillary Clinton, he isn’t a polarizing figure, and the very vagueness of his views might allow political crosswinds to blow around him without bringing down the edifice of reform.

The philosopher Richard Rorty, in his book Achieving Our Country, distinguished between two kinds of American left: reformist and cultural. The first pursues justice through existing democratic institutions; the second seeks it in a revolution of consciousness. The reformist left wants to make police more accountable; the cultural left wants to confront America with its racist essence. When Rorty wrote his book, in the ’90s, the cultural left was confined to university departments. Today its ideas reflect the prevailing worldview of well-educated, middle-class progressives, especially those under 40. Its vocabulary—white fragility, intersectionality, decolonize, BIPOC—confounds the uninitiated and antagonizes the skeptical. The cultural left dominates media, the arts, and philanthropy as well as academia; it influences elementary-school classrooms and corporate boardrooms; and it’s beginning to reach into national politics. Its radical critique of American institutions has thrived during an era when reform has stalled and the current ruling party embraces an inflammatory white identity politics. At the same time, the distinction between Rorty’s two lefts has eroded—a figure like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez combines aspects of both.

Under Democratic governance, the left would have to move from critique to coalition-building. It would be pulled between its own impulses toward institutional reform and cultural transformation. President Biden would immediately face an overwhelming crisis in employment and health; if the left pushes him hard on divisive cultural issues such as decriminalizing illegal border crossings, eliminating standardized testing, and defunding the police, it will weaken his hand for a political and economic transformation on the scale of the New Deal. The identity politics that more and more defines the left has a built-in political flaw. It divides into groups rather than uniting across groups; it offers a cogent attack on the injustices and lies of the past and present, rather than an inspiring vision of an America that will be.

After decades of futility, the left has a new habit of overestimating its own strength (as evinced by the shock at Sanders’s defeat in the spring) and an old habit of driving away potential supporters by presenting popular ideas in alienating terms. “On the left there’s long been a cult of focusing on the most marginal rhetoric and demands instead of building a working-class program that’s broadly popular,” Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of the socialist magazine Jacobin, told me. His strategy differs from Mitchell’s in putting the emphasis much more heavily on class. “Politics at some point has to be about telling people they’re welcome. White males are a third of the electorate. We can’t let anti-racism just be a vague and indescribable thing. It has to be connected to material redress.” He means policies, such as universal health care and child care and the Green New Deal, that would benefit all working people, but especially the most disadvantaged. The new woke capitalism leaves him skeptical. “We’re not going to accept at face value corporate statements in favor of diversity and anti-racism, because they’ll use this emphasis as a cudgel against workers of all races if we let them. Being part of a working-class movement means defending the labor rights of racists and bigots. But we have to find a way to engage with them and increase the level of class consciousness.”

Biden’s agenda is a working-class program without a working-class coalition. Non-college-educated whites remain Trump’s base. Many progressives regard them with horror and contempt, as a sea of irredeemable racists. Despite how desperate life has become this year for working-class Americans of every background, it’s hard to imagine a transracial coalition. That would require a perception of common interests, a level of trust, and a shared belief in the American idea that don’t now exist. But it’s also hard to imagine an era of enduring reform without something like such a coalition. It will come about only if Americans start to see their government working on their behalf, making their lives less burdensome, giving them a voice, freeing them to master their own fate."

This neatly defines the scale of the challenge and the kind of new politics needed to meet it. I can see the broad American left playing a key role in galvanizing this new radical, but practical, politics. But I can also see them completely screwing this up with self-righteous identity politics and maximalist demands. I'm honestly not sure which is more likely.

The country is at a low point. But we may be on the cusp of an era of radical reform that repairs our broken democracy.

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