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Hi there, here’s what you need to know for the week of June 25, 2021, in 9.5 minutes.

THIS WEEK INSIDE THE BIG TENT:


① Democracy reformers must contend with an underrated difficulty: that many key Dems think they can save democracy by passing bipartisan infrastructure legislation. 

② This predicament is the product of years of chasing polls and thus favoring what's popular or expedient over what's right and neeeded

③ Even with democracy protection on life support, Dems could help their own cause by engaging in and winning the culture wars

④ But waging all out political war is incompatible with passing bipartisan infrastructure legislation; we should thus hope the bipartisan infrastructure bill fails, and Dems then act on their own

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ALL OR NOTHING...OR SOMETHING

The big breaking news as I sat down to write Thursday was that a group of Senate Democrats, Senate Republicans, and President Biden had agreed on the framework of an infrastructure plan. Alongside this bipartisan effort, though, House and Senate leaders announced an important condition: The House won’t pass a narrow, bipartisan infrastructure bill unless the Senate also passes a larger (likely partisan) bill, through the budget-reconciliation process, to fill out Biden’s remaining commitments under his jobs and families plans.

The universe of possible endgames for Biden’s economic agenda thus looks something like this:

The way I’d describe the prevailing view among Democratic leaders is that they really want 1.; they’re worried about 2. and the bad position it’d put House Dems in; and are pretending outcomes 3. and 4. don’t really exist. The way I see things personally, though, is that 1. would be fine and may well happen; 2. is also a very real possibility; we shouldn’t sleep on 4.; but the outcome we should really hope for is 3.—that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema faceplant in the most predictable way, and everyone stops pretending bipartisanship is achievable and necessary.

Now I’m going to explain why I feel that way by taking a rather lengthy detour through seemingly unrelated news. 

① FOR THE PEOPLE WHACKED

The big story earlier in the week was that all 50 Senate Democrats aligned in support of democracy reform—specifically, of Joe Manchin’s modifications to the For the People Act—but Senate Republicans abused the filibuster rules to block the Senate from even debating the legislation. Rather than change those rules, Democrats accepted defeat, at least for now, while nebulously promising the fight for voting rights isn’t over. 

On the eve of that showdown, Kyrsten Sinema wrote this “poorly argued, fairly delusional” op-ed in defense of the filibuster, which in essence made the case that it’s good Democratic majorities can’t keep their campaign promises to voters. Her commitment, taken to its most absurd implication, would allow Republicans to filibuster America into a debt-limit induced financial crisis (for which Democrats would be blamed) or deny blue states emergency disaster relief when earthquakes or fires or hurricanes ravage them. Perhaps any scenario that dire would make her change her mind, but the state of voting rights and democratic inequality in America is a dire crisis and she remains intent for now on letting it fester.

Because Democrats can’t protect democracy without abolishing or reforming the filibuster, the fight over democracy protection is playing out as a dramatic test of whether members like Sinema will respond to moral suasion. I don’t know how that effort will end, but the odds are stacked. We need to persuade every single Senate Democrat that direct intervention to protect democracy is necessary, but several of them seem to think they can save democracy by passing infrastructure legislation on a bipartisan basis. 

 

② POPULARITY DISPARITY

To put a more generous gloss on it, I think their full theory goes something like this: Passing a bipartisan infrastructure bill will demonstrate that our system can still deliver for people, and voters will then reward Democrats for a record of economic growth and bipartisan accomplishment.

In this view, a confrontation over the filibuster is unnecessary; leveling the political playing field might be nice, but isn’t worth the rancor it would create. We saw this same basic worldview prevail in the Democratic presidential primary, which pitted progressives, who knew Republicans would rerun their 2009-2010 gameplan, against Biden and the pro-filibuster moderates, who followed polls showing voters like the sound of “finding common ground” and “working together” more than “fighting.” We see some of it reflected in the “popularist” view that “elected officials and party-aligned groups should emphasize a small number of high-polling ideas.”

The year 2022 may turn out to be the highest-possible-stakes test of this theory, and I fear it’s terribly wrongheaded. 

It was obvious way before the primary that the filibuster would be a huge impediment to the Democratic agenda, but the party decided it would be more politically expedient not to organize around that view, and now—just as foretold—it stands in the way of fair maps, DC statehood, and every other democracy-protection idea in the party platform. Democrats are thus scrambling madly to find ways to reform the filibuster before it’s too late, but alas it appears to be too late already. 

They will thus content themselves with ‘emphasizing a small number of high-polling accomplishments’ and hoping for the best next November, and it strikes me as a recipe for disaster. 

Biden has staged his presidency around signing one of the most popular bills in history, a world-class vaccine rollout, and an economy running hot enough to spook a bunch of pointy-headed economics nerds, and the effect has been a slow, secular decline in his approval rating, and a growing number of people who’ve decided they don’t like him.

I don’t think this is principally an artifact of Democrats becoming disaffected as the pace of change slows. Biden's approval is down perhaps two points from its max, but his disapproval is up substantially. To me it suggests a bunch of swingy voters have become convinced that Biden and Dems are scheming to cancel them so they can impose their true agenda of critical race theory on America. 

In other words, Republican culture-war nonsense has filled the vacuum that popularism creates and it’s already done a fair amount of damage. It’s bullshit, but it’s potent bullshit, and to the extent that politics is at least in part about wattage, the midterms are going to be about that stuff, as much as about Biden’s policy record. Even if we’re in for a big and sustained economic boom, I don’t think we can safely assume the culture war won’t swamp material reality, particularly as Republicans gerrymander Dems out of several seats and shave down their remaining margins with new voter suppression laws.

③ COUNTER CULTURE

It’s worth noting here that the election doesn’t have to play out as a contest between noisy GOP culture warriors and dignified Democratic technocrats—even if Dems do nothing about the filibuster.

On Thursday, Nancy Pelosi (finally!) announced that she’d empanel a select committee on the January 6 insurrection. If this evolves into a real-deal investigation rather than a box-checking exercise, it’ll crowd out at least some of the culture-war bullshit now flooding the information ecosystem.

But really, short of robust democracy protection, I think we’ll need more than one investigation to compete with the barrage of nonsense already pouring out of the right. A big implicit assumption of popularism is that culture-war posturing is per se bad for Democrats; that raising the salience of cultural issues actually can overwhelm kitchen-table appeals—but only when Republicans do it.

I think this is incredibly undertheorized. Republicans are the Trump party; they’ve spent the last five years torching their credibility in the broadest cultural realms of decency, honesty, patriotism, and democracy, and attaching themselves to Donald Trump, a cultural figure unto himself who is intensely despised by more than half the country. 

It would take some creative thinking, but I sincerely believe Democrats could wage culture war on this terrain and it’d be incredibly effective come election time. They could, for instance, make a federal and state-level push to criminalize the production, distribution, and fraudulent use of forged CDC vaccine cards; they could make a big push to codify Roe v Wade.

If they were to advance a bill designed to strip the DOJ of jurisdiction in the E. Jean Carroll defamation case, it would put Republicans in the position of voting that the government should defend Trump for defaming his rape victim. Democrats in Washington could wage culture war over the scandalous ballot seizures in Arizona and (soon) elsewhere that even state Republicans have recoiled from. Like Republicans, who spend all of their time experimenting with cultural wedge issues, they could just strike and strike and strike until they hit gold. But they have to strike. 

Perhaps Trump raised the salience of a subset of cultural issues that favor the right, but the culture space is vast and when Dems cede it all in a retreat to low-salience kitchen-table issues, they lose many great, unrecognized opportunities, and most of their agenda-setting power. In the prescient words of Jennifer Lopez at Biden’s inauguration, “Let’s get loud.”

④ ROADS-AND-BRIDGES TO NOWHERE

What does all this have to do with the boring mechanics of double tracking the infrastructure negotiations? Why do I hope the bipartisan negotiations fail, and that Dems respond by acting alone, confidently, on a single, giant bill?

Once upon a time there might have been a logic to Congress debating a roads-and-bridges bill, then an energy-and-environment bill, then a social-spending bill, and letting different constellations of members and interest groups support whatever they liked. But we haven’t lived in a world like that for decades now, if we ever did.

Dems may be able to will that world into existence for a brief moment now, with this weird infrastructure-negotiation two-step, but I have serious doubts about whether the dividends would outweigh the political and substantive costs. Dems are ultimately angling to shave some hundreds of billions of dollars off their ambitions as the cost of “proving that democracy works,” but even if that’s what the public were to take away from it, Dems would be selling them a lie.

Worse than selling the public an ersatz display of functioning democracy, though, it would lead to an election where Dems campaigned on proving the parties can work together while Republicans unleashed apocalyptic culture war. And between the power of the message and the structural advantages they enjoy in the House and Senate races, it’s a fight they would win.

Dems could upend this dynamic with culture-war salvos of their own if they were so inclined, but that approach to politics isn’t really compatible with the defensive notion that governing in coalition with Republicans is the best way to win. Democrats will not confront Republicans at their weakest points if their theory of politics is rooted in conciliation above all else. At some point they have to accept that the Republican Party in its current form has to be crushed, and then they have to crush it. They can’t do that by giving Republicans partial credit for a half-measure infrastructure bill. The main upshot, if they do, will be to paper over the cardinal truth that democracy is on the line because the GOP is bent on destroying it.

I hope every Democrat on the Hill (but particularly you know who) reads this piece by Zachariah Sippy on the urgent need to ban partisan gerrymandering

This is a good profile of Joe Manchin by Evan Osnos, and this passage in particular will make your heart stop.

In their radicalization against democracy, Republicans have re-embraced the Reconstruction-through-Civil Rights Era view that voting rights trample states rights; the Constitution fortunately disagrees, but it’s a position that could bring the whole union down.

Rudy Giuliani’s election lies have cost him his law license. Good! But the right has an endless supply of charlatans happy to use the courts as incubators of propaganda on their way to lucrative right-wing sinecures, then accept sanctions much later as the cost of doing business. We either change that incentive system (with huge fines for this kind of legal misconduct, perhaps?) or this is the new normal.

If you have the time, this is worth it.

Hahaha

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