Why Isn’t Democracy Working?

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I woke up this morning to more headlines announcing disagreement among Democrats regarding President Biden’s $3.5 trillion spending bill. Ah, if only Democrats could get their act together, the country could move forward. But is that the real story?

Once upon a time, the United States had a two-party system with a range of opinion within both parties. The Democrats were more liberal, but contained some moderates and conservatives, at least on some issues. The Republicans were more conservative, but contained some moderates and liberals on some issues. Neither party could stray too far from the center without risking popular support, and both had to reach across the aisle from time to time to get things done. In order to pass liberal bills like the Voting Rights Act, Democrats needed moderate Republicans to offset the opposition of Southern Democrats.

Today, bipartisan cooperation is conspicuously missing. About the only one of President Biden’s proposals that both parties can support is improvements in physical infrastructure. Republicans have an explanation for the larger legislative impasse: that Biden has a radical socialist, fiscally irresponsible agenda that the American people do not want and his own party cannot agree on. I want to play down the last part of that narrative, since it is nothing new. The Democratic Party has been a loose coalition of various interest groups for a long time. “Democrats disagree” is about as newsworthy as “Republicans don’t like taxes.” What is more unusual and troubling is Republican lockstep opposition to just about everything Democrats want to do.

How radical?

Most of the president’s domestic agenda is in the same spirit as the Affordable Care Act, which has become more popular as Americans have come to understand what it really does. Biden’s main objective is to help working families afford services they need in order to be productive. Making child care more affordable so that parents can take jobs without child-care costs devouring their paychecks. Making college more affordable so that students can prepare for today’s jobs without starting their careers deeply in debt. Providing paid family leaves for new parents and other family caregivers. Extending the child tax credit so that people can afford to raise children at all. Letting Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies so that people can afford their medications. These are the kinds of things that many other countries are already doing, and they poll well with a majority of the American people.

Biden’s plan calls for spending $3.5 trillion over ten years, and he proposes to pay for it by rolling back some of the Trump tax cuts of 2017, mainly the parts affecting corporations and the wealthiest 2% of taxpayers. The top personal income tax bracket would go back up from 37% to 39.6%, where it was before 2017 and where it is scheduled to return in 2025 anyway if Congress takes no action. (And remember that the actual rate that rich taxpayers pay is far lower than that because of tax deductions and loopholes, and because the top rate only applies to income that exceeds a high threshold.) The corporate tax, which was lowered from 35% to 21% in 2017, would go up to 28%.

Some economists argue that certain forms of spending help make people more productive and employable, and therefore can reduce unemployment without increasing inflation, even if the spending is not paid for with tax increases. (See The Deficit Myth.) But even economists who do not make that argument often expect more economic stimulus from spending on useful services than on tax cuts for the wealthy. Either way, the important point is that the Biden plan is neither especially radical nor fiscally irresponsible.

The real problem

Then why is it so hard to get it done? The most obvious answer cites two Democratic senators who just don’t accept the rationale for the proposals But while I don’t share the conservative views of Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema, I don’t really expect unanimous consent from the Democrats in Congress. The real problem is unified opposition from a Republican Party that has been purging moderate voices from its side of the aisle for years. Moderate Republican politicians are now an endangered species, thanks to campaigns by rich donors with anti-government views and vested interests in the status quo, like the Koch brothers (see Kochland), propaganda from right-wing media like Fox News, and most recently the Trump movement. Every elected Republican is now expected to support all tax cuts, oppose initiatives like Obamacare, block action on climate change, and propagate the Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election.

The Senate filibuster allows a 41-vote minority to stop senators from debating and voting on any bill. Filibustering used to mean extending debate, but now it means avoiding debate altogether in what once was known as the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” The filibuster is not in the Constitution, but is only a Senate rule that a majority can change at any time. When they were in charge, Republicans abolished it for approving Supreme Court nominations, so that Democrats would be unable to block President Trump’s nominees. (That’s how we got the most conservative court in almost a century.) Today, a new voting rights bill—needed because conservative justices threw out the old one—seems unlikely to overcome a Republican filibuster. Another way around the filibuster is the “reconciliation” process, but that applies only to certain budget bills, and it requires the Democrats to be as united in their support as the Republicans are in their opposition. That’s not bipartisanship.

Republican Senators even used the filibuster to block a vote on raising the debt ceiling, which has to be done to finance the deficit increased by the Republicans themselves during the Trump administration. (They relented, temporarily, but are threatening to block it again in December.) Why oppose something that almost everyone agrees has to be done? The aim is to force the Democrats to raise the debt ceiling all by themselves, through reconciliation, so that Republicans can dishonestly attribute the change to Democratic spending plans. (If you ever have the opportunity to go out to dinner with Mitch McConnell, don’t do it. He will probably order an expensive meal, stick you with the bill, and then if you pay it tell everybody what a wasteful spender you are!)

The greatest danger here is that Republicans will make good on their threat to block the debt ceiling increase. That would be an act of financial terrorism, since a democratic government cannot function without the confidence of its citizens. People will not buy and hold government bonds at reasonable rates without the “full faith and credit” of the U.S. Treasury, which has never defaulted on an obligation. Republicans seem more interested in making the Biden administration fail than making government work. Mike Pence has even said that the purpose of the Congressional investigation into the January 6 assault on the Capitol is to distract attention from Biden’s “failed agenda.” He did not mention that Senate Republicans are refusing to allow that agenda even to be debated.

While blocking Senate debate on voting rights, Republicans are working at the state level to keep Republicans overrepresented in state legislatures and Congressional delegations. They are accomplishing this through redistricting, gerrymandering, and restrictive voting laws that disproportionately impact Democratic voters. Worse still, they are trying to make it easier for state legislators and administrators to overturn election results if Democrats win. And of course, they continue to rally around Donald Trump despite strong evidence that he encouraged foreign interference with the 2020 election and tried have its results thrown out. I cannot think of a greater threat to our democracy in my lifetime.

One more form of obstruction deserves dishonorable mention. Opposition to vaccination and masking is strongly associated with Republican Party affiliation, Trump support and watching Fox News. It has prolonged the pandemic, delayed the economic recovery, and cost thousands of lives.

Restoring bipartisanship

Few Americans want a system in which one party has unrivaled power. That is too susceptible to corruption. But those of us who believe in the two-party system have to do more than encourage both parties to reach across the aisle and compromise. We must first demand that each party play by the rules of democracy, like engaging in honest debate, encouraging every citizen to vote, and respecting the outcomes of fair elections. Supporters of a democratic society have an obligation to stand up and vote down a party that is willing to lie and cheat in order to win. We must be willing to send a strong message that an increasingly authoritarian party must either change its ways or suffer massive defeat at the polls. Only then can two or more major parties thrive and hopefully cooperate to move the country forward. I only hope that it is not already too late.

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