It’s hard to believe that it is barely over one month ago that Joe Biden finally was sworn in as President. During that time, Biden has barely put a foot wrong, rolling out a roster of excellent appointments at every level. 60 million doses of the various vaccines have already been delivered, with half of Americans over 65 having already received one shot. He has gone big on Covid relief and now has around three-quarters of the country actually supporting it, including 60% of Republicans. He has begun to roll back the worst of Trump’s executive orders and issued some important new ones. The most glaring exception to this strong beginning is the recent decision not to sanction MBS over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Most importantly, however, Biden has done an excellent job of actually isolating the congressional GOP from the country at large by focusing on policies that have broad public support rather than chasing bipartisanship for its own sake.
But despite that optimistic start, it’s become increasingly hard not to become pessimistic not only about the Democratic agenda but also the state of our democracy going forward. With the Senate parliamentarian advising against the inclusion of the $15 minimum wage despite it having a larger effect on the federal budget than many items in Trump’s tax cuts, it appears that the Covid relief bill will have to be passed with out it. While that may make the bill easier to pass, not having the $15 minimum wage increase included is still a real loss for Democrats, even if the Democrats’ new tack of combining significant tax incentives for small business to offer higher wages with a significant tax on large corporations who don’t pay a higher wage makes it into the final bill. That plan might pass muster with Manchin and Sinema, who both opposed the $15 wage, and the Senate parliamentarian.
Covid relief is undoubtedly critical, but it’s important to remember that the bill is really designed to simply repair the damage of the pandemic and the mismanagement of the Trump administration. It is yet again another example of Democrats having to use their political capital to clean up another GOP mess, just like Clinton after Reagan/Bush I and Obama after Bush II. Beyond the minimum wage, the only other items on the Democratic agenda that look likely to be included in the relief bill are an expansion of the ACA and a vastly expanded child tax credit, although that too may have to be modified to satisfy the parliamentarian. Those alone would be major accomplishments, potentially lifting millions out of poverty and providing access to healthcare for millions as well.
All of this highlights the problems with relying on reconciliation. Instead of easily explainable, straightforward legislation, the result becomes an enormous Rube Goldberg kluge that is subject to easy sabotage if Republicans gain control. But so far Democrats, held back by both Manchin and Sinema and an inexplicable adherence to fictional Senate tradition, seem unwilling to break out of the straightjacket of current Senate rules by firing the parliamentarian, modifying the Byrd rule, or killing or reforming the filibuster. That position becomes increasingly untenable when the Senate finally has to take up electoral and immigration reform and may even stand in the way of a comprehensive infrastructure package. At least now the parliamentarian’s decision on the minimum wage has already ratcheted up the pressure to abandon the filibuster before we have even gotten to those issues.
But even assuming Democrats finally do kill or reform the filibuster and are able to pass the majority of their agenda with a simple majority vote, the future of American democracy still looks bleak. It is almost two months since the Republicans’ attempted coup came within seconds and feet of being successful. Yet Republicans have gone into full denial mode about what actually happened. Ron Johnson is out there spouting the nonsense that the insurrection was just a “jovial” protest and that the violent attack on the Capitol was perpetrated by “agent provocateurs” and “fake Trump protesters”. The AP found that over 1,000 Republican state and local lawmakers across the country stated their support for the insurrection and their belief that the election results should be overturned. With a handful of exceptions, the entire Republican caucus is still spouting the Big Lie that the election was stolen from Trump. Graham, McCarthy, and even McConnell have already atoned for their apostasy in claiming Trump incited the insurrection either by going down to Mar-a-Lago and kissing Trump’s ring or by asserting their support for him in 2024.
For Republicans, maintaining the Big Lie is important not just to keep in Trump’s good graces but also as an excuse for perpetrating the greatest attack on voting rights since the Jim Crow era. Marc Elias, perhaps the greatest defender of voting rights this country currently has, shows just how broad this attack is, describing it as a “tidal wave of voter suppression”. Igor Derysh notes there are already over 250 pieces of legislation in 43 states that are currently targeting voting rights. As Elias says, “This is the reaction of a party that knows it can’t compete for a majority of the votes. So it is acclimating itself to minority rule through a number of tactics. Gerrymandering is one piece of it. But certainly, voter suppression is a big piece of it”.
In fact, it is the combination of gerrymandering and voter suppression that has kept Republicans in control of many state legislatures, even when they only win the minority of votes. Control of the legislature then allows the GOP to further suppress voting rights and target their gerrymanders even more precisely, which then translates into power in Congress and further solidifies their control of the state legislature. A recent study estimates that gerrymandering provides Republicans with 19 extra seats in the House of Representatives. As David Lurie writes, “The GOP’s self-perpetuating control of the majority of state legislatures has long been key to implementing the party’s strategy of undermining democracy”.
The fact that every House Republican voted against the Covid relief bill and every Senate Republican is expected to do the same shows that the GOP believes that voter suppression and gerrymandering will be enough for them to recapture at least one house in Congress in 2022. Worse, as Greg Sargent points out, Republicans aren’t even pretending to put forth any policy argument for opposing the bill. It’s just opposition for opposition’s sake, with the belief that they will suffer no backlash from their own constituents. S ays Sargent, “Republicans still know that…they still have a good chance at recapturing the House at a minimum, helped along by a combination of voter suppression and other counter-majoritarian tactics and built-in advantages. Obviously, Republicans can genuinely oppose this package on principle. But what’s striking is that many Republicans aren’t even trying to make a strong, intellectually grounded argument. It’s as if they know they don’t have to — and know they can recapture power without doing so”. For the GOP, there is no longer any pretense of policy, only projection of power.
Republicans are so secure in their belief that their supporters won’t desert them that they don’t even bother to hide their arrogance and disdain for their own constituents. Voting against a bill which 60% of Republicans support is proof enough of that. But some are even more brazen. Ted Cruz not only abandoned his state when it was without power, water, and food in order to jet off to Cancun but then abandoned it a second time during the recovery in order to mouth off at CPAC in Orlando. Over a dozen other Republican Representatives didn’t even bother to show up for the Covid relief vote, instead also opting to speak at CPAC while also abusing the pandemic privilege of proxy voting.
But, as Sargent suggests, Republicans are probably secure in the knowledge that gerrymandering and voter suppression will be enough to regain power no matter what they do. In that effort, they are confident they will have the support of the federal courts and the acquiescence of the media. Last Monday, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case involving the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision to extend the deadline for accepting mail-in ballots in the 2020 election because of the pandemic and the delays created in the US Postal Service. The Pennsylvania Court relied on its interpretation of the state’s constitution which guarantees “[e]lections shall be free and equal”. Since the case is now moot with Trump’s election loss, it was no surprise that the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case. What was surprising was that three of the Justices, Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch, wrote dissenting opinions in support of hearing the case in order to, as David Lurie describes it, “lay down a marker against state courts or governors that might have the temerity to interpret their own laws to aid voters in exercising the franchise in the future”. Thomas, in particular, repeated verbatim the Trump conspiracy theory that “the risk of fraud is vastly more prevalent, for mail-in ballots”, despite all evidence to the contrary.
The theory that Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch are subscribing to relies on the infamous Bush v Gore case where Justice Rhenquist opined that federal courts may overrule state courts’ interpretation of their own election laws if they deviated from the specific direction of the state legislature in how elections are to be conducted. Justice Kavanaugh has also subscribed to this theory in some prior cases, meaning that right now there are at least four justices who would probably allow federal courts to overrule state courts’ decisions about state election law. It is a direct attack on the concept of federalism that Republicans and even those members of the Court supposedly worship. Republican controlled state legislatures now see this theory, combined with the prior history of the Roberts Court’s own assault voting rights, as giving a green light to the “tidal wave of voter suppression” that Elias described above.
In addition, Trump-appointed federal judges will also do the Republicans a favor by sabotaging the Democratic agenda. Already, a Trump-appointed federal judge in the horrific Fifth Circuit has blocked Biden’s attempt to pause deportations for 100 days in order to engage in a thorough review of the “policies and practices concerning immigration enforcement”. As Ian Millhiser writes, the “opinion is a fiasco of legal reasoning. It claims power over a case that the judicial branch has no power to hear in the first place. And it does so in contravention of numerous Supreme Court decisions — one of which states that ‘the Executive has discretion to abandon the endeavor’ at ‘each stage’ of the deportation process”.
Another remarkable Fifth Circuit decision from a Trump appointee has blocked the CDC’s eviction moratorium, using even more tortured legal reasoning than the one on deportations. In this case, the judge somehow determined that a landlord evicting a tenant was not an economic activity and therefore could not be regulated by the federal government. Millhiser again, “The opinion is a mélange of libertarian tropes, long-discarded constitutional theory, and statements that are entirely at odds with binding Supreme Court decisions. The thrust of [the] opinion is that the Constitution’s commerce clause, which provides that Congress may ‘regulate commerce…among the several states,’ is not broad enough to permit federal regulation of evictions”. Millhiser goes on to add that these two cases “are both previews of what President Joe Biden is likely to experience for the rest of his presidency: Trump judges who, in their zeal to limit the federal government’s power, arguably take leave of their obligation to follow the law”.
Similarly, Republicans know the media will still allow them a platform to spread the Big Lie that provides that rationale for their voter suppression tactics. Last Sunday, every major Sunday news show had on a Republican election denier and virtually none of them were challenged on the lies they spread. In fact, Jon Karl on ABC’s “This Week” not only let Steve Scalise still spout the Big Lie but also let him give credence to the theory of state legislative supremacy over election law that the minority of four Supreme Court justices are also espousing. When Scalise was asked whether Biden legitimately won the election, he answered, “Look, Joe Biden is the president. There were a few states that did not follow their state laws…The Constitution says state legislatures set the rules for elections. That didn’t happen in a few states”. Karl’s refusal to rebut this statement is illustrative of the pattern in the media of simply refusing to defend democracy because it would require a statement of truth rather than maintaining the “objectivity” of “both sides”. In addition, the GOP has its own vast and effective propaganda outlets and certainly needs no help from mainstream media in spreading Republican conspiracies and lies. Finally, the GOP can rely on Mark Zuckerberg, who will apparently overrule Facebook’s own internal policies and guidelines to ensure the right wing voices of hate, lies, and conspiracy will be amplified.
Beyond the assistance of the courts and the press, the Republican party is furthering its connections with violent extremists intent on overthrowing democratic government. One of those aforementioned Republican Representatives who skipped the Covid vote to speak at CPAC, Paul Gosar, also addressed an openly white supremacist, neo-Nazi group the night before. Gosar explained his decision thusly, “We thought about it, and we thought: There is a group of young people that are becoming part of the election process, and becoming a bigger force. So why not take that energy and listen to what they’ve got to say?” According to the news site Left Coast Right Watch, white supremacists are increasingly taking control of College Republican organizations. In addition, NPR reports that 14% of those already charged in the storming of the Capitol had a military or law enforcement background. As JJ Macnab writes, “Violent right-wing extremism is a big umbrella that is *significantly* larger today than it was four years ago. Under that big umbrella, there are several subgroups: White Supremacists; Anti-Gov Extremists; Single Issue Extremists; QAnon believers; Unaffiliated pro-Trump supporters”. Many of these groups are now being openly courted by the Republican party.
Like many others, I was convinced that a successful Biden presidency that includes serious election reform was the key to stopping the Republicans returning to power. Yet, increasingly, that assumption may not be correct. Despite having 60% support from Republicans for the Covid relief bill, even more Republicans, 71%, also believe that the election was stolen and that Biden is an illegitimate President. Almost half of all white men without college degrees believe that as well. They may support Democratic policies but they will still probably vote for Republicans in 2022 and 2024. In many ways they agree with Biden that elections are about the “soul of America” and they clearly know which side they are on, and it’s not the Democrats.
Around the world and especially here at home, democracy is on the run. The Republican party has now become the equivalent of a far right authoritarian European party like Fidesz in Hungary. As Zach Beauchamp notes, “there is a consensus among comparative politics scholars that the Republican Party is one of the most anti-democratic political parties in the developed world”. With the structural advantages the party currently enjoys, along with the structural flaws in the federal courts and the mainstream media, the GOP can still retain enormous power with only a clear minority of the electorate. And now the party is building an armed paramilitary wing which Trump deployed against both the US Capitol and state capitols during the last election. Democrats could and should do all the right things, especially reforming the filibuster and passing as much of their agenda with the majority they have in the next two to four years. But even that may not be enough to prevent the loss of our democracy to the authoritarian party that the Republican party has become.
Originally published at https://thesoundings.com on February 28, 2021.