The events of the past year have been overwhelming. The United States has witnessed an attempted coup in which violent seditionists stormed the U.S. Capitol and briefly prevented Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. More troublingly, it has seen the Republican Party transform itself into a rigorous voter-suppression machine bent on ending the high turnouts and muddying the honest counts that elected Joe Biden to the presidency and gave Democrats control of Congress.
Biden and the Democrats have had some success in responding to the immediate health care and economic crises spawned by the coronavirus pandemic. But they have not delivered on promises to dramatically reduce health care costs, make college affordable, or create high-paying “green” jobs while saving the planet from the climate crisis.
With a year to go before the midterm elections, that Republican machine is running at full speed. Its democracy-be-damned purpose is to lock in permanent power for a minority party. No amount of complaining by Democrats, nor any number of exposés by responsible media outlets and other concerned investigators, will change the trajectory of a Grand Old Party that is determined to regain power—at any cost.
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If Congressional Democrats do not throw a wrench in the machine—by enacting the democracy agenda outlined in the For the People Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—there is a very real chance that they will lose power in the midterms. But the party’s response to a rigged system that could soon be even more egregiously rigged must involve more than federal legislation, lawsuits, and the battle over the bureaucracy of voting and elections. Democrats must give Americans something to vote for in 2022.
“People across America delivered Democrats the House, the Senate, and the White House—a clear mandate for transformative change,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington, has said. “Now, we must use this historic governing opportunity to go big, bold, and fast in order to deliver for them.”
Jayapal is right. Progressives find themselves at a critical juncture where policy and politics intersect. Only by pressuring Democrats to deliver for the people who gave the party power in 2020 can the President and the Congress inspire the turnout—especially among historically disenfranchised groups—that will be needed to overcome voter-suppression schemes and retain Democratic majorities in 2023 and beyond.
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In effect, argues Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, the challenge is to show that elections matter, not just for the purpose of ushering out bad actors like Donald Trump but for the purpose of making a real difference in the lives of the great mass of Americans.
Sanders, in an interview, cites the need to “restore faith on the part of the American people that we see their pain and we respond to that pain, that we have the courage to take on powerful special interests. If we do not do that, more and more people are going to drift toward conspiracy theories, authoritarianism, and even violence.” We spoke as Sanders prepared to make a campaign-style swing to stir up excitement about the $3.5 trillion budget plan he has developed with the Biden Administration and Senate Democrats. “So I think that this is a pivotal moment in American history,” he told me.
A pivotal moment, indeed. And a perilous one.
After more than six months of excuse-making, it is now frustratingly clear that Senate Democratic leaders are reluctant to overturn the filibuster rule that has prevented them from thwarting gerrymandering and voter-suppression schemes. Progressives must push harder than ever this fall for a shift in course by Biden, a veteran of the Senate who has resisted reform, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York. So far, Schumer has failed to bring the hammer down on members of his caucus who refuse to recognize the urgent threat to democracy posed by everything from gerrymandering to the corrupting influence of corporate money. It’s time.
Democrats should also recognize another urgency.
Democrats have to pass transformational legislation. They must show that government can be redemptive.
The filibuster has not just blocked action on voting rights measures; it has also prevented Democrats from keeping 2020 campaign promises to make major progress on reforming policing, expanding the rights of labor unions, codifying protections for the right to choose, and a host of other initiatives that Americans were counting on a new President and an allied Congress to implement.
Biden and the Democrats have had some success in responding to the immediate health care and economic crises spawned by the coronavirus pandemic. But they have not delivered on promises to dramatically reduce health care costs, make college affordable, or create high-paying “green” jobs while saving the planet from the climate crisis. They can make progress on these issues with their ambitious $3.5 trillion budget plan. But that will only happen if they successfully navigate the complex reconciliation process that allows for Democrats to pass major legislation if they can keep their fifty-member Senate caucus fully united.
There is no question that Republicans will continue to obstruct the Democratic majority whenever possible; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, announced in May that “100 percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration.”
With the help of so-called centrist Democrats in the Senate and the House, McConnell has had some success in keeping that promise, and progressives are justifiably frustrated. But complaining about obstruction won’t get the Democrats very far in 2022 or 2024.
“With Joe Biden as President and Democrats controlling the House and Senate for the first time since 2010, we will be judged on what we deliver for the American people in their time of need. The people want action, not excuses,” Sanders has said. “And let me be very clear: I have zero doubt that unless we significantly improve the lives of the American people this year, Democrats will get wiped out in the 2022 midterm elections.”
That’s a daunting prospect.
Yet, it can be averted with a strategy that begins by pushing for democratic reforms at the federal, state, and local levels and in the courts, but refuses to end there. Progressives must demand tangible “wins” for economic and social and racial justice, as well as a realistic response to the climate crisis. They should do so for the good of the tens of millions of Americans who need federal action. They must also do so for the good of a Democratic Party that cannot afford to go into the 2022 election cycle without some notches on its belt.
Unless Democrats can point to major accomplishments, and hold out the promise of more to come if they are given greater majorities, they will face a frustration factor that could doom their chances of having any majorities at all.
There are grassroots progressive groups that recognize what is at stake, often more clearly than does the leadership of the Democratic Party.
The Sunrise Movement and the Green New Deal Network stand out in this regard. They have taken the lead in pressuring Biden and Congressional Democrats to embrace what activist Mattias Lehman refers to as “the Rooseveltian vision.” This is a contemporary variation on Roosevelt’s “path of bold leadership, of mobilizing the resources of the federal government to feed, protect, house, and employ everyone in America.” This became Roosevelt’s template for the party in the first of his four terms as the nation’s thirty-second President.
“Democrats have no more excuses,” Lehman wrote in “Letter to the Movement,” published earlier this year. “In this moment, we will hear calls for unity and healing. But know this—there is no unity without delivering real action on the crises that impact all Americans. And there is no healing without accountability for the harms that have been done, not just in the last four years, but over the last 400.”
The Sunrise Movement and other groups have called out the administration and the Congress for the compromises they’ve made. But old-school Democratic Party insiders and their amen corner on cable television didn’t like it when Sunrise activists, joined by New York Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman, rallied outside the White House in June to demand that Biden’s infrastructure plan prioritize the fight against climate change.
Many of the strategists and the managerial Democrats who listen to them would prefer to run another anti-Trump campaign. But Bernie Sanders sees this as an insufficient response to a tenuous moment.
“It is so important that we re-establish a connection between government and ordinary American citizens, that we are in fact going to address their needs,” he told me. “It’s the right thing to do from a policy point of view, but for those of us who believe in democracy and not authoritarianism, it’s absolutely imperative that we do it.”
What Sanders and savvy progressives like him understand is that the 2022 midterm elections will, in all likelihood, be a referendum on Joe Biden and the Democrats who, since January 20, 2021, have had full—if fragile—control of the federal government. For Democrats to retain that control and govern in a meaningful way in the second half of Biden’s first term, they will have to fight a two-front battle—against “the midterm curse” that usually delivers setbacks for the party in charge, and against the most ambitious voter- suppression campaign in modern history.
That will not be easy.
While disgraced former President Trump is peddling the “Big Lie” that he won the 2020 election, most Republican strategists know that isn’t the case. Biden won the popular vote by more than seven million ballots and by flipping five states—Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia—that had voted for Trump in 2016. He prevailed in the Electoral College with a comfortable 306 to 232 edge.
But the flips were by narrow margins. As Domenico Montanaro, a senior political editor and correspondent for NPR, reminds us, “just 44,000 votes in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin separated Biden and Trump from a tie in the Electoral College.” Such a tie would have triggered a Constitutionally defined vote by Congressional delegations where Republicans would have had the advantage. Trump, in all likelihood, would have retained the presidency.
With a pair of runoff election wins in Georgia, Democrats gained a 50-50 tie in the U.S. Senate that Vice President Kamala Harris could tip in their favor—so long as corporate-tied “centrists” such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema stick with the team. But that was well short of the sweeping gain that had been predicted just days before the November 2020 election.
In the House, Republicans picked up fourteen seats, putting the party within striking distance of grabbing control away from the Democrats in 2022. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, the California Congressmember once dismissed by even his own conservative allies as a joke, now sits in a position where, with a few Democratic defections, he can delay or even prevent action on legislation. Even if McCarthy fails, as he has on many issues, McConnell needs just one wavering Senate Democrat to block voting rights protections, an expansion of worker rights, reform of policing, defenses of reproductive rights, and Biden’s nominees to tip the balance of the federal judiciary toward justice.
Republicans have embraced the premise that, with minority support, they can prevail in 2022 and 2024. That is why they have introduced roughly 400 voter-suppression bills in legislatures across the country. That is why they have seized so ambitiously on every opportunity to gerrymander Congressional and legislative lines based on the delayed release of 2020 U.S. Census results. That is why they have united in opposition to reforms that would protect voting rights and promote fair elections. And that is why they are demonizing Biden, even as he clings to the false hope of bipartisanship and carries through Trump’s agenda on withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As far as the GOP is concerned, the midterm election campaign has begun, and they are determined to win. If they prevail, and if they then use enhanced positions in the states to forge election rules that favor the party in 2024, they could achieve permanent minority rule—controlling the presidency and both chambers of Congress, even if most voters favor Democrats.
Republicans sense the opportunity, and have seized the moment. A sense of urgency defines their every action.
While Biden and most of his fellow Democrats focus on governing, the Republicans are focused on thwarting Biden’s ability to govern, as they did with Bill Clinton after the midterm elections of 1994 and Barack Obama after the midterm elections of 2010. And Biden is far more vulnerable than his predecessors as a candidate for a second term, which he may not even seek; Republicans look at him as they did Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, and see opportunity writ large.
On balance, midterm elections favor whichever party is opposite the sitting President. The last time that a Democratic president achieved significant gains for his party in midterm Congressional elections was in 1934, when Roosevelt capitalized on the popularity of the New Deal to flip nine Republican seats in the Senate and nine more in the House. With wins by left-leaning Progressives in Wisconsin and Farmer-Laborites in Minnesota, FDR came out in a dramatically improved position.
Biden and his allies have not hesitated to compare his presidency with that of Roosevelt. But the Democrats have not governed as FDR did in his first months in office. They have gotten tripped up by the rules that they should have changed. They have hesitated rather than take decisive action—as when Schumer allowed a recommendation from the Senate parliamentarian to become an excuse for not including a minimum wage hike in the American Rescue Act. They have gotten lost in the maze of bipartisanship, which gave Republicans bragging rights while producing an insufficient infrastructure plan.
The fall of 2021 will decide what happens in the fall of 2022. There is no question that progressives must continue to pressure Democrats in the Senate to ditch the filibuster and pass voting rights protections. They must also support the activism of groups such as Black Voters Matter, Voto Latino, and Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight Action—with its focus on “advocacy, legislation, and litigation”—to boost turnout even in states where Republican legislatures have made that task difficult.
But there also must be that push for “the Rooseveltian vision” that excites potential voters.
“People need to know that important things got done,” progressive radio host Michelangelo Signorile told me. “They’re energized by that.”
Democrats have to pass transformational legislation. They must show that government can be redemptive. To do this they must recognize, as did FDR and the New Deal Democrats, that excuses don’t get people to the polls. Results do.
If they hope to retain the mandate they received, Biden and the Democrats must stand up not just to Donald Trump but to the broken politics of excuse-making and compromise that produced him.