Stopping the next wave
Looking at the state of the political map, there are plenty of reasons for Democrats to feel down. Failing to take the Senate would badly hobble a Biden administration’s legislative agenda. A 6-3 Supreme Court is likely to be hostile to executive action and regulation. Both Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are trailing slightly in Georgia polls for the January runoffs. The pandemic is surging and the economy is slowing -- and without the ability to legislate, the capacity of the government to respond to economic damage will be in the hands of Mitch McConnell, who has repeatedly shown a willingness to scorch the earth and every norm on it if it means a relative increase in his own power and the power of the right. Republicans are salivating at the prospect of a gerrymandered 2022 midterm wipeout. Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy has already promised the GOP will take the House. That leaves two years of investigations into Biden between then and the 2024 election.
Republicans have shown a complete disregard for democracy in the wake of the November 3 elections -- or, at minimum, are fine with dispensing with it for partisan gain. The next time Republicans consolidate power, the onslaught on voting will be fierce in a lunge to lockdown minority rule. It’s all happening amid a backdrop of ecological and climate collapse, fueling a rise of ethnonationalism and reactionary politics around the globe, which itself is further fueled by mass migrations precipitated by, and precipitating, the crisis. The world is falling apart, and the right’s authoritarianism is an attractive response to a frightened and divided public.
The good news is that we’re not there yet, the Democrats have agency and power if they choose to use it, and the country still believes in the cultural norms of democracy, which are far more important than laws on paper. The public has decided that Trump has lost the election, so he has to go. Democrats need to harness that belief and push forward.
One person who seems to get that is Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, but without Georgia, he’ll merely be Senate minority leader, limited in what he can do. Yet even though the stakes of the contest couldn’t possibly be higher, paradoxically, small moves one way or another can be decisive. Both parties can expect at least around 47 percent of the vote each cycle in this sharply divided country, meaning control goes to the party that can win those few extra points, through a combination of mobilizing its base, organizing new voters, and persuading people to switch. And so small wins by Biden on behalf of the public, if they move just a few percent, can have huge ramifications.
And the good news is there are a few things Biden can do unilaterally that would both engender good will and grow the economy and drive up wages. The most important is making sure he has a Fed chair who will not choke off the economy in the name of fighting a phantom inflation, and instead putting the body to work on behalf of creating jobs and growing the economy. After that, Schumer is urging Biden to forgive the first $50,000 of everyone’s student debt, which he can do by executive order. The average debt load is around $30,000, meaning millions of people would see their debt wiped out. The average monthly payment is around $400, which means that people making that payment would now have an extra $400 every month to spend. That’s a serious economic stimulus, and it’s one that voters would reward Democrats for -- both as the economy and wages rise as a result, and in direct appreciation for the bold action.
Biden can also direct the Department of Labor to block companies from screwing workers out of overtime, which they do by misclassifying them as managers. Companies like Dollar General are the worst offenders. The people in those stores stocking shelves and working the register are often called managers by the company, which allows them to pay no overtime on top of their low salary. By ending that practice, millions of people could see increases in their paychecks.
Matthew Cunningham-Cook has a new story about how Georgia Sen. David Perdue got rich exploiting just that loophole, and how beating him in the January runoff could drive everybody’s wages up.
Schumer has also suggested descheduling marijuana, which means that as far as the federal government is concerned, it would no longer be illegal. That would trigger another economic jolt, as pot shops in states where it’s legal would finally have legal access to the banking system, accountants, creating good paying jobs up and down the industry. At the federal level and in states controlled by Democrats, drug-related records could be expunged, voting rights restored.
None of this might be enough under normal circumstances to fend off the typical wave that strikes an incoming administration during its first midterm. But Democrats might have a Covid-19 ace up their sleeve: If a vaccine does begin to be deployed to frontline workers in December and gradually to the rest of the population throughout 2021, the economy could begin fully opening up in 2022. The one piece of legislation Republicans have consistently shown themselves unable to resist passing is a tax cut, which gives Democrats a chance to win some extra stimulus -- money for clean energy projects, for instance -- and further juice the economy in exchange for dumping a few more piles of cash onto the stacks of the already very rich. And the Senate map in 2022 is actually pretty good for Democrats.
In other words, Democrats could have a real tailwind in 2022, but they need to get their damn plane in the air to catch it. The ways to do that are numerous, and I’ll be talking about it next week on our podcast, Deconstructed. In the meantime, our friends at The American Prospect have a good rundown they call the Day One Agenda.
When all the votes are counted, Joe Biden may wind up winning the White House by as many as five or six million votes. But everywhere else, the performance of Democrats was abysmal. Republicans will control at least 50 Senate seats (pending a pair of runoffs in Georgia) and have made gains in the House of Representatives. And as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez found out quickly, Democratic leaders have already found the culprit: It was the left, they argue, that scared voters with talk of socialism.
There are a few ways to take a deep look at that argument. One is to look at each race, look at what each specific candidate ran on, look at what attacks they faced, and how they fared. We’ll do a little of that, but it’s more important to zoom way out if you want to see what’s going on. Too much election analysis suffers from a focus on tactics and the most immediate news cycle, so that analysts miss the big sweeping realignments underway until it’s way too late. For this week’s Deconstructed podcast, we talk to Pennsylvania organizer Jonathan Smucker and Chuck Rocha, the head of Solidarity Strategies, to get a sense of that.
We arrived at this populist moment thanks to 30 or 40 years of wage stagnation, a period in which the assets of the American middle class were essentially stripped and sold overseas, with the rewards flowing to the very top. This was a bipartisan project, and both voters and nonvoters have punished political leaders either by disengaging from the political process or backing people who challenged the status quo.
In this cycle, one party fully tapped into the fear, anger, and resentment of the public. The other argued for a return to normalcy — which we could achieve by rejecting Trump. The result was a Trump loss up top and Republican wins down below.
Democrats ran on basically two themes. One, Trump is bad and must go. Two, we’ll protect your health care by keeping down drug prices and protecting people with preexisting conditions. Now, voters were indeed fed up with Trump. They did indeed prefer lower drug prices to higher drug prices. And they agreed that people shouldn’t be condemned to die for having a preexisting medical condition. So far, so good. But those issues resonated most with strong Democrats and people who leaned Democratic. The problem was that they offered nothing to really inspire an independent voter, or a soft Republican, or somebody who hadn’t voted before. (Mike Siegel explained this in an interview on Deconstructed last week.)
What’s interesting is that Republican strategists I spoke to this week mostly agreed with Siegel, even if they might think that he’s a raging commie. The problem was that Democrats didn’t have anything convincing to offer people when it came to the issue so many cared about most: jobs and the economy.
When you think about the Republican message on the economy, whether you agree with it or not, you know what it is: Cut taxes, get rid of regulations, get the government out of the way, and the economy will grow. That’s their message, and so when the economy is growing under a Republican, voters are quick to give Republicans credit for it, even if that laissez-faire approach really just makes the economy unstable while producing frequent crashes and mass inequality. That’s all beside the point; their message is clear.
What’s the Democratic message on the economy? The first thing that comes to mind is that Democrats believe the economy is unfair: The rich get richer and everybody else falls behind. That happens to be true, and under Trump, the rich have gotten quite a bit richer. But wages have also gone up. Retirement accounts have gone up. And so Trump won handily among voters whose top concern was the economy, and that was the top issue for many voters.