Saving A Failing State

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Every day, America increasingly looks more and more like a failing state. Over 20 million Americans have been infected by the virus. Nearly 350,000 have died and it is estimated that the true death toll will soon approach 500,000. Like the testing and tracing programs before it, the rollout of the country’s vaccination program is looking like a disaster. State and local governments, which actually provide most government services, are seeing their budgets collapsing due to the pandemic and the refusal of the Republican party to provide federal help. One in six Americans is facing food insecurity. Over 8 million Americans have fallen into poverty in just the last six months. Even as most of the country continues to struggle, the rich get richer, with 56 new billionaires emerging. Over the last year, the approximately 2200 billionaires around the world saw their riches grow by nearly $2 trillion dollars, or almost 20%,.

In addition, the extremist Republican party has basically abandoned democracy, with two-thirds of its House caucus, nearly one-quarter of its Senate caucus, and now the sitting Vice President actively supporting a seditious attempt to overthrow Biden’s democratic election. The President is asking the Georgia Secretary of State to simply “find” enough votes to make him the winner. Former defense officials are now warning about the use of the military in resolving election disputes. If Biden’s Electoral College victory had come down to just one or two states with total Republican control, it seems clear that Republicans would be willing and eager to overturn that democratic result.

The GOP now resembles autocratic parties like Fidesz in Hungary, AKP in Turkey, and BJP in India. Both the President and some of his supporters in Congress are encouraging violence as part of the coup effort. Far right groups have plotted to kidnap and execute a Democratic governor and the Republican governor of New Hampshire was forced to cancel his outdoor inauguration after armed men surrounded his house protesting his mask mandate.

Besides being unable to control the virus, the country is apparently now unable to defend itself against attacks from external forces. The Russians were not only able to hack the 2016 elections, but their current cyber-attack on US computer systems probably represents the largest national security failure since Pearl Harbor. In addition, at least 30%-40% of the country now live inside a propaganda bubble, impervious to reality and exacerbated by the failure of local news outlets whose business model is ill-suited toward the internet age where monopolies like Google and Facebook suck up the vast majority of advertising dollars. At the same time, the reality-based media is unable to cope with one party in a two party system continually acting in bad faith and refusing to adhere to democratic principles. Finally, of course, the racial divide that has bedeviled this country since inception shows no sign of actually being healed and may actually be worse today than one or two decades ago. The pandemic has only highlighted the rampant inequality in income and health services.

On a broader level, the structures of our democracy are fundamentally broken, primarily due to the overrepresentation of land mass, gerrymandering, and outright voter suppression. In the six presidential elections this century, the Democratic candidate won the popular vote in five of them. Yet Republicans will have held the White House for half of those 24 years. The last time Republicans in the Senate represented a majority of Americans was in 1998 and yet they have controlled that body for 14 of the last 22 years. If Ossoff and Warnock both win in Georgia, Senate Democrats would represent 40 million more Americans in a 50–50 Senate; if they both lose, Democrats would still represent 20 million more Americans. And the filibuster potentially allows representatives of just 11% of Americans to kill legislation, assuming it ever makes it to the floor for a vote. In the House, Democrats won the popular vote in 2020 by a hefty 2.5% but will have a less than 10 seat majority. In 2016, Republicans won the popular vote by just 1.1% and received a 47 seat majority. In 2012, it was Democrats who won the popular vote by just 1.1% but ended up in the minority by nearly 20 seats. A recent study showed that gerrymandering gave the GOP a 19 seat advantage in House elections.

It’s often worse at the state level. In Michigan, Democrats have won the popular vote for the State House in every election since 2012 but never even came close to gaining a majority of the seats in that body. The closest the Republicans came to actually winning the most votes was in 2016, where they won 50% of the vote but still managed to maintain control by holding 57% of the seats. In 2018, Democrats won over 51% of the vote in the State Senate, but only won 42% of the seats. In Wisconsin in 2018, Democrats won 190,000 votes more overall, or about 54% of the total, for the State Assembly, yet only won 36% of the seats. Similar situations occurred in the North Carolina and Pennsylvania legislatures in 2018. Because of these kinds of gerrymandering, Democrats were unable to flip any statehouses in the last election, ensuring that Republicans will be able to control 2020 state and federal redistricting and keep their almost permanent minority rule going for another decade.

Despite exceeding expectations down-ballot in the 2020 election that had the largest turnout as a share of voting age population in over a century, largely as a result of mail-in voting, the lesson the Republicans have apparently taken is that they need to suppress the vote even further. Meanwhile, the courts not only refuse to defend our democracy but actively encourage efforts to restrict access to the ballot.

Assuming that the Republican coup does not succeed, it is into this morass that Joe Biden will become President on January 20th. His election in 2020 saved American democracy. But a failed Biden presidency would only mean that our democracy received a short four year reprieve. If the off-year elections are anything near typical in 2022, the chances are strong that Republicans will take back the House. And even if both Democrats win in Georgia on Tuesday, there will not be enough votes, even with those Republican Senators Biden believes will work with him, in order to overcome a filibuster. A Democratically controlled Senate, however, would give Biden the chance to ram through some significant legislation via reconciliation.

Biden must govern as though democracy itself hangs in the balance. He can not risk failure by trying to “heal the soul of the nation” by wasting valuable time and political capital in an effort to build bipartisan solutions with a Republican party that is determined to see him fail. As Elizabeth Warren declared in a recent interview, “Democrats need to deliver. No matter what. We have to use every tool, and we need to use it early, boldly, confidently, and unapologetically”.

Biden will already be at a disadvantage now that it is apparent that he will have to spend the first few months of his term, usually a President’s most productive and powerful period, in an all out effort to vaccinate enough Americans to finally reach herd immunity and provide the necessary economic relief to individuals and states. And, while everyone yearns to return to the days when we didn’t have to hear about something the President has done on a daily or sometimes hourly basis, that is exactly the wrong tack for Biden to take. As Dave Roberts writes, “All that matters is what gets done, put on paper and into law. The rest is vapor…He should launch so many simultaneous reforms that there’s no time for right-wing media to make up lies about all of them or for the Supreme Court to hear them all. He should ignore bad-faith attacks and stay relentlessly on message about what’s gotten done and what’s getting done next. He should, at every juncture, get caught trying to make government work better for ordinary people…The best thing Biden can do, morally and politically, is act, as much and as fast as possible, and then talk about it, and do more of it, and talk about it more. (And he should be clear about exactly who stands in the way of bigger, better changes, and why his name is Mitch McConnell.)”

As Trump as illustrated, as President, Biden has enormous power to do things on his own, without Congress. Through executive orders, rules changes, and declarations of national emergencies, Biden can make significant progress on climate change, health care, reining in the excesses of Wall Street, anti-trust actions, agricultural policies, labor rights including increasing the minimum wage for federal contracts, immigration, marijuana, student loan debt, and much more. Yes, actual legislation would be far more effective but that is simply not going to happen with the current Republican opposition and Biden can not waste time chasing it. It’s possible that Biden can use the threat of broader executive action in order to force legislation that is more narrow, but that again seems like a reach. In addition, Biden has been excellent at ignoring Republican attacks both during and after the campaign. He needs to keep that approach going during his presidency. The GOP will howl that these executive actions are dictatorial and undemocratic. He should keep on ignoring them.

Every day, Biden must act on three principles. First is to make people’s lives better. Second is to somehow find ways to put more money in people’s pockets. And third is to restore the rule of law and Americans’ faith in it by exposing the rampant corruption inside all levels of government over the last four years, half of which we probably don’t yet know of, and holding those responsible to account. He must be a salesman like Trump, crowing about actions he is constantly taking to make Americans’ life better. Ironically, in the current political environment, if Biden is to defeat the autocratic faux populism of Trump and the Republicans, he will need to govern as a more competent, law-abiding, and benevolent version of Trump.

Originally published at https://thesoundings.com on January 4, 2021.

Thoughtful discussions on politics and economics with some sidelights in photography and astronomy.

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