Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Is Joe Biden Doomed?
If Republicans hold the Senate, Mitch McConnell will do everything he can to destroy Joe Biden. But the GOP is evolving too.
There is still the remote possibility Joe Biden will get his Democratic Senate. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the two Democrats competing in the January runoffs, are within striking distance of the Republican incumbents. Biden narrowly won Georgia in part on the strength of affluent turnout in the Atlanta suburbs and that may leave room to grow for Warnock and Ossoff with Black voters, since both men ran just slightly behind Biden. In a dream scenario for anyone on the left, both Democrats win in January and Biden secures the barest of Senate majorities with Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. A Democratic Senate, quite obviously, would make much of Biden’s domestic agenda, including a much-needed stimulus, possible.
But Democrats need both Senate seats for that majority and winning lower turnout elections in a traditionally Republican state will be incredibly challenging. At this point, it’s more likely Mitch McConnell is the majority leader on January 20th, when Biden is sworn in and Donald Trump, still fulminating, continues to mull a comeback in 2024. A McConnell Senate has no incentive to do anything—not pass another stimulus, expand healthcare access, or even confirm Biden’s cabinet picks. There will be no movement to approve liberal judges. The economy’s collapse can be readily blamed on Biden and McConnell is enough of a nihilist to sacrifice a nation reeling from COVID-19 and fiscal calamity for a stronger Republican majority in 2023. If history is any guide, Republicans can win back the House in two years and even add to their Senate majority. All the while, Trump will be savaging Republicans who attempt to negotiate with Biden.
The American political system was not designed for radical polarization or anything approximating 21st century life. No nation would seek to design a bicameral legislature and electoral college that does not reward popular majorities. In an ordinary proportional parliamentary system—the type used in most advanced nations across the world—the Democratic Party would be the governing party, with a clear majority to do as it wishes. Today, legislative accomplishments are only possible when one party controls government. The Affordable Care Act came into being in 2010, when Democrats held the House and the Senate. Since 2011—almost a full decade ago—Democrats have been denied real power. The 2020s may not be much better.
The GOP’s hatred of Democrats, fostered by Fox News and other right-wing outlets, precludes compromise. Why negotiate across the aisle on a bill when you’ll just be punished for it in two years? The parties are distinct ideological entities with coalitions that have little overlap. Even though they are losing nonwhite votes to the GOP, the Democratic Party is still the home of most Blacks and Latinos, as well as liberal whites. It is an increasingly upscale, highly-educated party, with its power base concentrated in cities and suburbs. Republicans dominate rural areas and have made distinct gains with high school graduates of all races, though they remain mostly a white Protestant party. The Democratic coalition almost guarantees a popular vote victory every four years. The Republican coalition, under our 18th century rules, is better distributed across America, and therefore a more reliable fit for the Senate and the electoral college.
One of the more controversial statements you could make at a Brooklyn dinner party (remember those?) is that the Republican coalition is better positioned for the future. For most of the 21st century, Democrats believed they were the party of destiny, of Barack Obama’s Hope and Change and an unassailable, multiracial coalition that could make states like Florida, Texas, and even Ohio permanent building blocks of a blue majority. This may still be possible. But Trump has now won all three states twice, and Republicans have strangleholds on their state legislatures. The Latino swing toward Trump in the Rio Grande Valley is a reminder that individuals aren’t mere data points and don’t inhabit the neat matrices sketched for them by liberal nonprofits and academia. Let’s not overstate the case—Republicans have a very long way to go before they are building any kind of multiracial coalition of their own. Despite the revanchism and idiocy of Trump, however, Republicans are well-positioned to do great damage to Democrats in the long-term if they can ignore their wealthiest and most venal donors.
Is that likely? Not particularly. Since Ronald Reagan’s rise, the Republican Party has wholly embraced economic positions that punish the working class and poor. They have treated free enterprise as a religion on par with Christianity. Democrats, under Bill Clinton, were not much better, cementing Reagan’s neoliberal swerve. Taxes were cut for the rich, Wall Street went mostly unregulated, the traditional welfare system was obliterated, free-trade agreements sent manufacturing jobs overseas, and private sector unions dramatically declined. The loss of unions and other social institutions have played a large role in the shift of states like Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin toward the GOP. Liberal Republicans at midcentury embraced unions, but the party grew to understand they were, with few exceptions, mobilizing forces for Democratic votes, even among an otherwise culturally conservative white working class. Most of the major Republican governors of the 2010s, like Ohio’s John Kasich and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, made the crippling of labor unions their central focus. This trend was mirrored in the United Kingdom, where Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party successors, along with triangulating liberals, broke the labor movement and ripped working class voters away from the Labour Party.
For the last 40 years, the Republican Party’s economic agenda has been two-faced austerity: slash spending on all social safety net programs while bloating the military budget. On the local level, most Republicans are fully beholden to the Koch brothers and other billionaire donors, along with the American Legislative Exchange Council, supporting a radical reduction of government spending on education, welfare, and various social services, as well as tax cuts and lax regulations for enormously wealthy corporations. In the wake of the 2008 economic crash, Republicans aggressively opposed Barack Obama’s stimulus bill, though the less than $1 trillion the government ended up spending wasn’t nearly enough to end the recession.
Fighting spending and slashing benefits, however, is not particularly popular. The most hardened Fox or Newsmax viewer still wants a Social Security check and Medicare coverage. The genius of the New Deal—and why the Right reviled it so—was how relatively universal it was, distributing cash and healthcare benefits to such a large swath of society. Traditional right-wing Republicans understood that once such a transformational benefit was created, even their own voters would want to keep it. The great advantage Democrats have held over Republicans is their economic agenda, when it’s well-tailored messaged properly. No one can run and win on gutting healthcare, crushing public schools, or lowering the minimum wage. Explained honestly to any median voter, austerity is repulsive.
But Republicans have seized on culture. Absent social institutions that helped keep otherwise conservative voters in the Democratic coalition—an anti-choice union member was still going to vote for the party that supported abortions because this was also the party that fought to raise his wage—and a political climate that allowed local Democrats to shrug off nationalized attacks, Democrats are struggling to compete beyond cities and nearby suburbs. Republicans can court religious voters, a growing number of whom are Spanish-speaking, on their unrelenting opposition to abortion access, which has remained controversial, unlike same-sex marriage. Gun control is now deeply partisan, reaching its lowest level of popularity since 2016, and Republicans can win as the party of the gun. Celebration of law enforcement and nationalism are now wedge issues too. Immigration is one more. While Democrats organized Latinos in Arizona to secure the state for Biden, they were increasingly on the losing end of these cultural battles in Florida and Texas. It’s easy enough to say Cubans and Venezuelans in Miami were going to be receptive to Republicans braying about socialism. The Latinos who bordered Mexico and supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 cannot be explained away in the same manner.
What does this all mean? As the pollster David Shor has said, the median voter in a presidential election is about 50 and watches a lot of cable television. Americans, symbolically and culturally, trend rightward from where liberals in the Democratic Party would like them to be. This does not mean they all hate gay people or want to defund Planned Parenthood. This also does not mean they all want to shrink the size of their local government or even the federal government, that they don’t want free healthcare or guaranteed employment. What it implies, rather, is that an overt appeal to patriotism, which can be alienating to the academic left, is actually quite meaningful to them. It means some of these voters do organize their lives around religion since the church, in many small towns in particular, is one of the only functioning social institutions left. The Republican Party, if it abandons its disastrous economic agenda and triangulates as a coherent populist party, has a chance to exploit the peculiarity of America’s political system and bury the Democrats for a very long time. (Remember, in a parliamentary system, none of this would matter.)
There are a few Republicans who are beginning to understand this. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has declared the future of the Republican Party should be “based on a multiethnic, multiracial, working-class coalition” and should not only cater to big businesses that “only care about how their shares are performing, even if it’s based on moving production overseas for cheaper labor.” This is rhetoric that could have been ripped out of any leftist’s stump speech. Another young Republican, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, has supported the idea of government subsidizing businesses to keep people employed during the pandemic. Hawley has emerged as the leading critic of tech monopolies in the GOP, allying himself with the anti-trust wing of the Democratic Party. Even the Republican Senate’s willingness to support a trillion-dollar stimulus for the freefalling economy back in March was a violation of old orthodoxy, a party once obsessed with deficits suddenly willing to rubberstamp federal spending larger than any Obama could stomach. Much of this can be attributed to Trump, who unwittingly disregarded unpopular GOP sacred cows on his way to claiming the Republican nomination in 2016. Rubio, who Trump humiliated in Florida, saw this up close: Trump retained the fervent support of rank-and-file Republicans while disavowing the Iraq War and NAFTA and promising to safeguard Social Security.
Trump, of course, double-downed on culture: a demonization of immigrants, more rank jingoism, and a promise to the evangelical right that he would always do their bidding. Rubio and Hawley are hoping to scoop up some of that Trump darkness and marry it with an economic agenda that could, theoretically, be much more left than any seen in the GOP since the death of the Rockefeller Republicans. Given the distribution of voters, the composition of the Senate, and how the electoral college lends power to a select few swing states where working class voters hold sway, Republicans have the potential to evolve into their own version of a majoritarian party. One of the more under-represented voters in American politics is someone who is fiscally liberal and socially or culturally moderate, or even conservative. Prestige media overstates the inverse: the fiscally conservative, socially liberal never-Trumper who inevitably occupies an op-ed post at a major newspaper. These kinds of people tend to live in cities and hold positions of influence. They are your lawyers, stock brokers, and real estate developers. They do not form any kind of voting coalition unless they all migrate to the Democratic Party, which may happen soon. If the Republican Party, in the coming years, manages to capture a larger share of the working class vote and scramble Democrats with a left economic agenda—imagine Trump somehow still supporting single-payer healthcare—it can push Democrats to the brink, as Conservatives have done to Labour in the United Kingdom. Thankfully, for Democrats at least, there is nothing equivalent to Brexit to rapidly cleave a vast majority of working class voters from the party.
For now, I am doubtful Republicans will get there soon. Under Biden, the deficit hawks will reassert themselves, pretending to care again about the national deficit to try to kill an expansive rescue package for the economy. With Trump out of office, there will be enough Republicans who will be too beholden to a billionaire donor class to attempt a wholescale economic realignment of the party. If Biden wants to do anti-trust, Hawley can be pressured into backing away, because the only golden rule of 21st century politics is that polarization always wins. Without control of the Senate, this is Biden’s bleak reality. He can sign executive orders, rearrange some money, and hope for the best. Unlike Hawley and Rubio, McConnell has no interest in distancing himself from his party’s insidious austerity core. All he wants is power. And if the tradeoff is the erosion of the American economy—people always blame the president—he will take it. For Biden and Democrats, life in the Senate minority will mean attempting to pick off Republican moderates and building some kind of mass pressure on McConnell to act. Could it work? Politics can always surprise.
Meanwhile, all kinds of Democrats and leftists will have much to think about these next four years. The centrist Democratic agenda could not save most centrists in swing districts. Leftists, like moderates, haven’t solved the riddle of the rural working class, where socialism, in the early 20th century, once captivated the imaginations of poor farmers. How should a Democrat campaign in an area where the median voter has an opinion on guns or abortion or immigration that is revolting to the party’s college-educated base? How should the leaders of the party talk about their politics? What issues must be emphasized? What issues should be downplayed or repackaged? There is no easy or obvious way forward. There are hard truths that must be confronted. Wealthy suburbanites powered Biden’s victory, not just working class Blacks and Latinos. The Black share of the electorate flatlined or declined. The highest turnout election in modern American history did not produce the resounding win for Democrats, up and down the ballot, that had been forecasted. Why? Anyone who cares about the future of the country should get to work answering that question.