Cognitive dissonance is one of the defining traits of American politics, but with this weekend’s blow against the Build Back Better bill, we’ve now reached an inflection point: Americans are being simultaneously asked to believe that Democrats are mounting a valiant last-ditch defense of democracy against insurrectionists and election deniers, and yet we’re also watching Democrats proudly surrender the midterm elections to those same fascists, knowingly creating Weimar-esque conditions for an authoritarian takeover.
Taken together, this is far more than hypocrisy: in JFK lingo, this is an admission that the ruling party wants the bear-any-burden brand of democracy defenders, but without the pay-any-price actions that might assure the survival and success of liberty.
In the last week, the contradictions have been too blatant to miss, even if corporate news outlets continue doing their best to ignore, omit, downplay, and distract from them.
On the one hand, we see congressional Democrats casting themselves as the heroes of a West Wing episode, rightly screaming about all the web of connections between the January 6 rioters, right-wing news outlets, and top Donald Trump administration officials, who appear to have been entertaining plans for an actual coup.
On the other hand, we see Democrats fully leaning into a likely 2022 disaster. They are going far beyond merely refusing to give Americans an affirmative reason to vote for them; in sabotaging their own purported agenda, they seem to be deliberately trying to lose to the very fascists they claim to oppose, going out of their way to insult and harm as many voters as possible before their likely collapse.
A Barrage Of Betrayals, Capitulations, and Insults
This weekend’s big news is the likely death of the Build Back Better bill, which includes most of the party’s climate, health care, housing, and other social spending promises. But this plot twist is only the latest chapter in a larger story. Consider what’s happened in the lead up:
- Upon assuming office, one of President Joe Biden’s first moves was to tell governors that his $15 minimum wage campaign promise was effectively a lie — and congressional Democrats then insulted everyone’s intelligence by blaming their own fireable parliamentary adviser, an appointed bureaucrat with no real power, for the betrayal.
- While flirting with cuts to housing programs, Democrats have mismanaged meager rental assistance programs and allowed the eviction moratorium to end — a one-two punch that is now creating a mass eviction process reminiscent of the meltdown that caused Democrats’ 2010 electoral massacre.
- Democrats spent months touting their plan for permanent tax breaks for wealthy mansion owners in affluent blue state locales, while limiting a proposed child tax credit extension to just one year, even as survey data suggest the tax credit is one of the only things that has made some Trump voters like Democrats a bit more.
- Just forty-eight hours after new polling data showed swing state voters are most concerned about rampant political corruption, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat from California) made national headlines brushing off the idea of anti-corruption legislation to stop her and other lawmakers from personally enriching themselves off inside information they receive as government officials. She rejected the concept even after a new report showed lawmakers and their staffers flagrantly violating existing ethics rules governing stock trades.
- Amid the Omicron surge, the Democratic White House scoffed at the idea of providing free COVID tests, has refused to use its executive authority to share vaccine recipes, and has completely discarded its promised public health insurance option, instead offering its insurance donors more subsidies in exchange for inadequate insurance that bankrupts people.
- Biden is now heading into the election year openly reneging on his student debt relief promise as he hemorrhages support from young people. Instead, he is pledging to restart loan repayment, even as new research shows that this debt is contributing to the housing crisis. Meanwhile, the eviction machine is firing on all cylinders.
All of this culminated in the modern expression of austerity, corruption, ineptitude, and let-them-eat-cakeism that coincided with the rise of fascism in Europe less than a century ago: In this iteration, a Maserati-driving coal magnate from one of the country’s poorest states stepped off his luxury yacht and told the country that he’s rescinding his promised support for any relief, just after he proudly backed a giant defense spending authorization bill, and after he previously demanded a giant bailout for his Wall Street donors. The declaration by the Wolf of West Virginia was a huge win for corporate lobbyists, Manchin’s billionaire donors, and his family’s fossil fuel business.
It was also a turn of events that seemed preordained by Democratic leaders who never once put Manchin on the spot, never once forced him to cast a single uncomfortable vote, never once tried to generate local pressure on him, and never once compelled him to explain his actions to his destitute constituents. Remember when a few protesters paddled up to Manchin’s yacht to beg him to support the Build Back Better bill? That represented more pressure than the entire national Democratic Party machine and its Washington advocacy groups were willing to aim at the West Virginia senator.
And let’s not forget that in letting Manchin off the hook, Democratic leaders got a big assist from the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), most of whose members dutifully followed White House orders and abandoned their promise to keep the relief bill tied to the infrastructure bill that Manchin helped write.
That high-profile CPC capitulation has been depicted as “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em” savviness — but it came as Biden has been telegraphing his real intent all along. He pushed to slash the original Build Back Better bill, and has spent the year loafing around the White House with a pile of executive actions that he could issue under existing law but that he has refused to bother with.
Liberals and pundits in the capital have obediently tried to shift the blame for the impending political disaster to anyone other than the “get things done” president who was long touted as a legislative mastermind and Giant of the Senate™. At the same time, there’s now a cottage industry of Washington media folk feigning confusion about why-oh-why Biden’s approval ratings have plummeted.
But the reason is obvious to any minimally functioning brain stem outside the Beltway: the pass-the-blame game isn’t working. As in the 2009-2010 period, Americans were promised specific economic benefits, the ruling party has made a show of refusing to deliver those things, and is now making an even bigger, bolder spectacle of betrayal. Naturally, voters don’t appreciate being given the middle finger, especially when they are engulfed in multiple crises.
Corporate media doesn’t like to acknowledge this simple story because it’s not exciting and doesn’t serve media owners’ interests, but every now and again there’s a begrudging admission like the one at the very bottom of a recent much-discussed New York Times article about the “socialism” label and declining Democratic support among Latinos. In the twelfth paragraph of the piece, the newspaper finally admitted that “the majority of those surveyed said they wished that Mr. Biden could have enacted more change than he has so far, which pollsters tied to ‘deep anxiety about the economy.’”
Of course, had these capitulations, betrayals, and insults risked the 2022 midterms in service of some larger moral-but-politically-divisive cause like combating the climate crisis, perhaps you could make a case that it was all worth it.
But, in fact, quite the opposite has happened: while flattering credulous liberals with “believe science” rhetoric, Biden has used his executive authority to ignore climate science, boost tar sands pipelines, and vastly expand fossil fuel drilling, in some cases at an even faster clip than his Republican predecessor.
While Biden fans have spent months pretending the president somehow has no power to fight his own party members like Manchin, Biden’s White House has also been proving the opposite as it helps the fossil fuel industry stomp on Michigan’s Democratic governor and make the climate cataclysm even worse.
A Broken Formula
In October, we wrote that if Democrats were really serious about passing the Build Back Better bill, they would hold a vote and force Manchin to show whether he has the guts to publicly vote down so much aid to his own West Virginia constituents. Some House progressives are only now echoing that demand. Better late than never, but it might be too late.
If the legislation is dead, Democrats will now stumble into 2022 banking on two last arguments: they’ll protect abortion and voting rights. But in this tragicomedy of errors, they can’t seem to even stand by those most bedrock promises.
As the Supreme Court tries to transform America into Gilead, the party has been raising money off promising that “we will always fight tooth and nail to protect access to safe, legal abortion.” And yet Democratic congressional leaders have bottled up long-promised legislation to codify Roe v. Wade in federal law, and the Biden White House doesn’t seem interested in a fight against corporate lobbyists to seriously reform the GOP’s radicalized Supreme Court. At the state level, it’s just as bad: Democratic legislative leaders in Virginia reportedly won’t even return from vacation to protect reproductive rights ahead of that state’s Republican takeover.
Likewise on voting rights, as Republicans spent months telegraphing their intent to gerrymander the next decade of congressional elections, Democrats bottled up their anti-gerrymandering legislation until after the key Census deadline that now allows such GOP manipulation to happen. Democrats have now performatively turned back to the voting rights bill, knowing that Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema (Democrat from Arizona) have never faced the necessary public pressure campaign that might get them to stop propping up the filibuster blockade.
Tellingly, the Democratic Senate didn’t make time to even debate the voting rights legislation that Democrats suddenly purport to care about, but somehow the same Senate found time to secure a plum job for disgraced former mayor Rahm Emanuel.
It is profoundly illuminating that Democrats are betting on a half-hearted, likely doomed-to-fail voting rights initiative as their 2022 savior. It evinces a deeply cynical belief that voters will keep being fooled by their Lucy-and-the-football act of pretending to be for things while setting those things up to never actually happen. And even if you think the belated initiative somehow represents a serious attempt to legislate, it nonetheless illustrates party leaders’ warped worldview, their sense of entitlement, and their assumption of inevitability.
For decades, the basic formula in Democratic politics involved three steps: 1) you get elected on promises, 2) you deliver on said promises, and 3) you then make it as easy as possible for people to vote for you in the next election.
But since Barack Obama won in 2008, modern-era Democrats seem intent on skipping the second step and maybe even the third, as if governing and delivering aren’t important to electoral success — and as if serving the donor class is the only thing that matters. Back then, it was enriching Wall Street donors while millions were foreclosed on, today it is demanding an infrastructure bill that oil lobbyists want while killing social programs that everyone else needs. The details change, but the story remains the same.
The presumption seems to be that come election time, voters owe the Democrats their support, rather than Democrats owing voters the promised policies that improve people’s lives. Democrats also seem to believe that democratic institutions unto themselves — in absence of policy follow-through — will automatically generate positive political outcomes for their party. The idea is that people will vote harder, because they have to, given the alternative.
The national elections of 2010, 2014, and 2016 — as well as Virginia’s 2021 election — prove the opposite. They show that when a ruling party so obviously sides with its corporate sponsors, voters are perfectly willing to stay home or use those democratic institutions to throw that party out of office — even if that means electing an even worse set of villains.
In this era, those villains aren’t just the anti-tax zealots or libertarians of old — they are Republican extremists willing to exacerbate a deadly pandemic, threaten violence, and destroy the last shreds of democracy in order to seize power.
In what should be an archetypal good-versus-evil Hollywood story, Democratic leaders have changed up the script — they’ve made clear they are unwilling to do what’s necessary to ward off this menace. Indeed, some of them have explicitly ridiculed the idea of any kind of FDR-esque response to the very real, very explicit rise of fascism.
Intent on owning the Left and serving their donors, Democrats are waving the white flag of surrender. Though in truth, even that metaphor isn’t apt. Now more than ever, it seems as if Democrats are willing participants in a theatrical production whose conclusion is already scripted. Forced to choose between their sponsors’ demands and fulfilling the campaign promises necessary to win the midterms, these Democrats have chosen the former — with most of them knowing they’ll be richly rewarded with post-government payouts as the rest of the country burns.
This is a parable that has been told countless times in history — the story of an effete ruling party trying to satiate the greedy rich and also somehow placate the desperately destitute, and then that contradiction being ridiculed, shamed, and exploited by right-wing opportunists.
It is a gut-wrenching tale that never ends well, but it is a tale worth telling — if only to know what went so horribly wrong, so that perhaps this fate can be avoided when the Democratic gerontocracy is long gone.
Maybe then all the obvious cautionary lessons from the Weimar era to the present won’t fall on such deaf ears. Thanks to what’s happening right now, it will be a long and difficult path to that future — but if we want any kind of future at all, that future must start now.