Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
What's Possible Anymore?
The era of big hope recedes
If Barack Obama will always be remembered as the hope and change president, the gauzy history-maker pointing the inevitable way forward to the multiracial and safely liberal future, there will never be a single policy proposal that lingers in the popular memory of that period. Obama ran on ending the Iraq War, introducing some kind of universal healthcare, and striking down partisanship, yet none of it meant that much in the wake of his enormous charisma and the rage at Republicans for the sudden meltdown of the economy. It would take until 2016 and again in 2020 for politicians to speak in the language of deep structural change. Free college tuition. Free healthcare for everyone. Universal basic income. A 15-member Supreme Court. Decriminalizing border crossings and abolishing ICE. A massive buyback program for all assault weapons in America. Various Green New Deals and enormous wealth taxes. The Donald Trump vision was darker and far more vague, though it didn’t lack for sweep. Build a big border wall, chase the immigrants out, and dramatically revitalize American manufacturing. Make America great again. Point out failures that other Republicans won’t, like the Iraq War.
This period, began in the summer of 2015, appears to be ending. What comes next is not known, because guessing the future is always a folly. The height may have been the early days of Covid, when a bipartisan Congress and a Republican president agreed to spend $2.2. trillion in economic stimulus to save the nation from a second great depression. Many Americans received $1,200 tax-free from the government, with families allowed far more, since children qualified for payments. Businesses large and small were bailed out, as was Wall Street. There was not nearly enough oversight of this massive spending, far more than any Obama authorized, but it was necessary in the moment to avert further catastrophe. It is simplistic to blame today’s rampant inflation on the spending of that period and Joe Biden’s subsequent American Rescue Plan—inflation is a global phenomenon, now tied to supply shocks and fuel shortages caused by reduced capacity and the war in Ukraine—but it can be argued some of that funding should have been geared toward creating permanent safety net programs, like a child tax credit to fight poverty.
Inflation may have closed the window on future spending and reduced the political appetite for big ideas. Horizons have further been reduced by the realization that Democrats will not be able to keep both chambers of Congress this fall. The 50-50 Senate majority is more likely to be preserved at this point due to poor candidates Republicans are fielding, but the House is all but guaranteed to flip to GOP control. A divided Congress, just as it did in the Obama years, will end serious policymaking. Covid was a singular crisis that could provoke action. Nothing similar is lurking. While 2016, for liberals, will always be remembered as the most cataclysmic election cycle, history may show 2020 was just as dispiriting. Despite the largest turnout in modern American history, Democrats lost ground in the House and in state legislatures across the country. Biden only narrowly defeated Trump. The Senate flipped because Democrats pulled off two long-shot victories in Georgia two months after the presidential election, with the candidates promising stimulus checks to voters that are not going to be approved again anytime soon. The last hope is a second reconciliation bill before Democrats lose control of Congress. This will be up, quite literally, to Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The last Democrat in a deeply Republican state, Manchin has all the leverage. He will define how far the horizon goes, if at all.
Is the American scene really that dismal? Maybe, and maybe not. The repeal of Roe v. Wade represents, for Republicans, the danger of achieving a long-sought and alienating policy goal; social conservatives are ecstatic, but the Mitch McConnell wing would rather, privately, not have it happen at all. Better to dangle the end of Roe as a carrot over the electorate in perpetuity while not firing up Democrats too much, since such an attack on abortion rights was always theoretical. Theory is now reality. Democratic voters are livid, and probably will vote in high enough numbers to blunt the worst effects of a Republican midterm wave. If Trump runs again and wins the nomination—once he’s in the race, he’s the heavy favorite to top the ticket—an anti-Trump vote could spike high enough to help Democrats toward another congressional majority. It would be wise for Democrats to start thinking up policy aims now and how, exactly, they’d motivate voters in the future. What is the Democratic equivalent of repealing Roe v. Wade? Republicans followed the long arc of their history. The Democratic agenda was never so focused.
The real future will be in local campaigns. A reactionary Supreme Court, a Senate stacked against populous liberal states, and an unfriendly Electoral College will limit what the Democratic Party, and therefore the broader left, can do. But there’s no reason Democrats can’t win back the state legislatures they’ve lost, even with the radical gerrymandering imposed on them. Republicans spent decades investing in the sort of state legislative contests that were always too dull for the Democratic interest groups chasing bigger game. Meanwhile, the GOP locked down control of key states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In states where abortion is completely banned, the move will be to do an end-run around the legislature whenever possible and put the measure directly to voters. Conservative states have voted for minimum wage hikes when given the chance; legalizing abortion could win majority support too, since most Americans did not want to see Roe v. Wade fall. They don’t back the most disturbing positions of the right-wing fringe, like abortion bans without exceptions for rape, incest, or health threats faced by the mother.
Restoration of abortion rights is still something of a defensive fight compared to what Democrats were proposing three or four years ago, when spats could break out over how to exactly pay for single-payer healthcare. It would be good, of course, to return to that kind of ambition while also recognizing the reality of federal politics in America. To do anything, you need majorities, preferably large ones. Fifty Democratic senators was enough for an infrastructure funding bill, but not nearly the number needed for combating climate change or radically reimagining the social safety net. No future is possible if Manchin gets to call the shots, yet the leverage would be greater over him if there were a few more senators like Jon Tester of Montana or Mark Kelly of Arizona in the mix; moderates from swing or Republican states who nevertheless don’t want to thwart the Democratic agenda for reasons unclear to anyone but themselves. Manchin’s excuse, at least, is better than Kyrsten Sinema’s. Come 2025, West Virginia will very likely have two Republican senators. The same can’t be said of Arizona. If Democrats want to dream big through Congress, they will need a strategy for taking Senate seats in forbidding states like Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, and Iowa. They will need to tolerate candidates who break with party orthodoxy and seem less appetizing to the cultural liberals of the Northeast and West Coast. They will need to figure out to win. The darkest future of the American republic isn’t authoritarianism; it's the foreclosing of what’s possible. It’s a polarized stalemate, followed by greater anger and resignation. It’s a corroded culture that has, tragically, exhausted itself.