There’s a lot you can say about the apparent death of Joe Biden’s legislative agenda, largely at the hands of West Virginia senator Joe Manchin. One thing that should be abundantly clear is that it starkly disproves both Biden’s and the corporate Democratic Party’s entire political worldview.
Biden’s campaign was predicated on the dubious idea that you could forge a political coalition, or at least a temporary alliance, between the superrich and the vast majority of working people. The first time he publicly hinted he would run for president — tellingly, at a Las Vegas hedge fund conference run by one-time Donald Trump comms director Anthony Scaramucci — he outlined this basic vision, pleading with the collection of Wall Street mavens in front of him to see it was in their interest to pay just a tiny little more in taxes to be invested in the country and its economy, for the sake of everyone’s future prosperity. This is how Business Insider recounted his speech:
“Raise your hand if you think twelve years of education is enough in this economy,” he said to the crowd.
So we need $9 billion, Biden said. To Wall Street, that’s nothing. Wall Street knows that for America, it’s nothing. But that $9 billion would pay for free community college for people who want it, Biden said. That, in turn, would add two-tenths of a percent to gross domestic product.
“Wake up,” he demanded.
That same year, Biden convened a panel called “Win-Win: How the Long View Works for Business and the Middle Class,” where, alongside a collection of corporate executives and finance bigwigs, he urged big business to reinvest profits in job-creating activities instead of shareholder payouts, explaining that “you can’t have a healthy country without a strong middle class.” A couple years later, he infamously told a crowd of ultrawealthy donors, as he begged for their money, that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he was president — that he would simply tinker around the margins, just enough to keep a lid on the populist anger that was erupting around the country.
This was Biden’s fundamental pitch as president: that he would act as a liaison between the relative few at the very top and the vast majority at the bottom, figuring out a sweet spot where the first group sacrificed enough, and the second one gained enough, that the country would keep pottering uneasily on as it had done until Donald Trump’s shock win.
So, Biden ran the standard modern Democratic campaign, making a laundry list of ambitious promises, while taking record-high truckloads of cash from the corporate interests whose profits relied on them never being enacted. He promised a public health insurance option while taking money from the for-profit health sector. He pledged to tax the rich while going hat in hand to billionaires. He threatened to break up big tech while using Silicon Valley for both funding and staffing.
Even if we allow that Biden earnestly believed what he was saying, we already had enough real-world evidence to know how silly this idea was. For one, this had already been tried a decade ago, when Barack Obama fueled his vaguely populist campaign with record amounts of Wall Street cash, then designed an economic recovery overwhelmingly weighted toward financial interests over ordinary people. There was also the 2014 peer-reviewed study that concluded, after comparing the policy preferences of average Americans, wealthy ones, and powerful special interest groups to nearly two-thousand policies enacted in the twenty years after 1981, that the United States was an oligarchy where laws pass largely on the back of how much elite and wealthy backing they get.
A Study in Oligarchy
But if you weren’t convinced by all this, then congratulations, because the Biden presidency just gave you a front-row seat to watch this process play out yet again. What did we just witness over the course of this year? The parts of Biden’s agenda that were backed by corporate America — namely, the $1.9 trillion stimulus package and the half-a-trillion-dollar infrastructure bill — sailed to his desk with relative ease. The parts they opposed, namely the now-shelved Build Back Better bill, with its modest tax hikes and new government powers that would cut into corporate profits, failed. Meanwhile, at the same time as Biden’s social spending was slashed over inflation concerns, the military-industrial complex just got a gargantuan new spending bill care of huge congressional majorities.
In fact, if you can take yourself out of the horrifying reality from which we’re having to watch this play out, it’s been a fascinating case study of how this oligarch-dominated process works in practice.
Biden’s decision to package a smorgasbord of social safety net expansions and tax hikes together with massive infrastructure spending posed a dilemma for corporate America, who were desperate for the second but preferred not to have the first. So, what happened was that, first, a collection of corporate-backed Democrats and Republicans played on Biden’s bizarre obsession with bipartisanship and persuaded him to pry apart the bits that big money interests wanted from those bits they wanted to kill.
Next, the social spending package was stalled and hacked to death over a period of months by two of the Democrats’ most prolific corporate fundraisers, Kyrsten Sinema and, particularly, Joe Manchin. The Senate duo, who are bankrolled by fossil fuels, Big Pharma, and lobbyists, and were fundraising from and literally conferring and strategizing with the business interests opposed to Biden’s agenda, used the leverage granted to them by Democrats’ barely existent Senate majority to systematically demand more and more of the profit-denting measures be dropped from the bill, from a higher corporate tax rate and Medicare drug price negotiation to a clean electricity standard and climate spending. All the while, an avalanche of corporate lobbying barreled into the halls of Congress to keep members in line.
Meanwhile, after briefly pretending they’d boycott donations to Republicans after the January 6 fiasco, corporate donors went right back to pouring money into the GOP’s coffers, the flood of oligarch money helping propel the party’s stunning gains in November’s elections. Spooked by the victories, Biden and the Democrats quickly pushed through the corporate-backed infrastructure bill in response, giving up the only leverage they had over holdouts like Manchin, whose intransigence soon forced Biden to give up on the rest of his agenda entirely — just as the big money interests had wanted from the start.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a clearer play-by-play of how concentrated wealth operates inside a nominally democratic structure to stall reform while winning benefits for themselves, playing on the greed and ambition of individual members, and exploiting whatever openings emerge to get their way. None of this was illegal, and most of it was entirely out in the open. This sequence of events wasn’t inevitable, either. It’s just that one side — the big money side — had far more resources, manpower, and pressure to get their way, and perhaps most importantly, a credulous and sympathetic ear among the country’s top leadership, who preferred accommodation to opposition.
The US oligarchy didn’t do this because they’re cackling supervillains who enjoy making people suffer. They did it because they’re operating by the (narrow, short-term) logic of profit-seeking — which as any dyed-in-the-wool capitalist will tell you is the way this economic system is supposed to work. It would be nice if Americans didn’t have to live in poverty to afford lifesaving medicine, but then Big Pharma would make less money. It would be swell if we could prevent climate catastrophe in the medium to long term. But then the fossil fuel industry would go bankrupt. It would be nice to tax the rich to fund basic social services for anyone else, but then that leaves the rich, again, with a smaller pile of cash at the end of the day.
The interests of the oligarchy are fundamentally, directly in opposition to the interests of middle- and lower-income Americans, because the miseries plaguing the second group are how the first one makes its money. This isn’t some half-baked talking point. We all just watched it happen.