Over the first two nights of its national convention, the Democratic Party has broadcast three core messages:
• Trump-averse conservatives can trust Joe Biden to reach across the aisle and find bipartisan solutions to America’s problems.
• To fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States will need to “build back better” by enacting a massive green-jobs program, guaranteeing all Americans affordable health care, expanding collective-bargaining rights, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and giving a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, among other things.
• Under Donald Trump’s leadership, the Republican Party has become an ally of oligarchy and white supremacy, and a threat to democracy itself.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the internecine tensions within Joe Biden’s “big tent” (which covers the ideological gamut between Bill Kristol and the Revolutionary Communist Party). And yet, as indicated above, the most glaring contradiction on display at the Democratic National Convention does not lie between the party’s competing factions but through the Biden campaign’s own central claims.
The Democratic nominee has said that the COVID crisis is a challenge that “may not dwarf but eclipse what FDR faced” — and has therefore exposed the necessity of sweeping, New Deal–esque reforms. At the convention, this theme has been echoed by essential workers, union representatives, and various Democratic officials, including Bernie Sanders and Chuck Schumer.
Yet Biden also trotted out a series of Never Trump Republicans to assure right-leaning swing voters that the Democratic nominee will not “turn sharp left,” but rather “cross the aisle” to find common cause with the GOP — which, by the way, is now a menace to democracy itself.
For electioneering purposes, this incoherence might not be a problem. In the land of the two-party system, the chameleon is king: Major-party candidates almost always pose as different things to different constituencies. Even Donald Trump, for all his obsessive fan service to the GOP base, managed in 2016 to look like a faithful servant of theocracy to right-wing Evangelicals and a socially moderate libertine to secular whites in the postindustrial North. In a polarized political culture, swing voters are by definition an odd lot. And although few of them resemble the socially moderate, fiscally oligarchic CEOs who long personified “moderation” in the mainstream media, some cross-pressured voters do harbor a distaste for partisan conflict and a longing for a more unifying national politics (if only to render family get-togethers less tense). Other swing voters, meanwhile, espouse an anti-system politics and desire for economic change. Almost no voters of any stripe will actually watch an entire evening of DNC infomercials. But if Biden can use the DNC to generate headlines about how bipartisan and moderate he is — along with other headlines about how he wants to rebuild the economy for workers’ benefit — it’s conceivable that voters’ eyes will be drawn to whichever message they’re looking for. Consistency is the hobgoblin of the extremely online.
So the Democratic nominee might not need to resolve his campaign’s contradictions before Election Day. But if all goes well, he will have to do so this coming January.
The only way to logically reconcile the DNC’s core themes is to posit that a landslide Biden victory would break the GOP’s “fever.” Which is to say, faced with a sharp enough electoral rebuke, Republicans will transform themselves into a normal, center-right party that recognizes a Democratic president’s right to govern, and agrees to support his agenda in exchange for influencing it at the margins. Biden famously touted this fantasy in 2012, and he reiterated it again last year, telling reporters, “With Donald Trump out of the White House … you will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.” In recent interviews with Biden staffers, Vox’s Dylan Matthews found that the Democratic nominee’s aversion to filibuster abolition — and faith in Mitch McConnell’s capacities for compromise — still haven’t died.
Alas, the idea that Republicans will have an “epiphany” postelection is even more ludicrous today than it was in 2019. In recent weeks, both a prominent QAnon supporter and an alt-right conspiracy theorist who chained herself to the door of Twitter’s headquarters to protest her ban from the platform (while wearing a yellow star and likening herself to a Holocaust victim) won Republican congressional primaries. Meanwhile, the GOP’s grip on white rural America is now so strong, mishandling a pandemic in a manner that yields mass unemployment and 172,000 deaths hasn’t been enough to bring Donald Trump’s approval rating far below 42 percent. By contrast, in September 2008 — when, by most metrics, economic and public-health conditions in the U.S. were much better than they are today — George W. Bush’s approval rating sat in the low 30s. Which is to say, the floor on the GOP’s support has gotten much higher over the past 12 years, even as the party has grown evermore grotesquely incapable of responsible governance.
Further, in Biden’s best-case-scenario, Republicans will be in far better shape next year than they were in 2009, when Democrats claimed a supermajority in the Senate. If the GOP did not feel compelled to moderate in the wake of Obama’s landslide, why would they do so next year, when Democrats will at best have a two- or three-vote majority in the upper chamber? After all, the GOP now knows that its white rural coalition gives it an overwhelming advantage in the Senate and Electoral College. According to election forecasters, if Republicans lose the popular vote by three points in 2024, they will probably win control of both the White House and the Senate. The GOP is moving further to the lunatic right each day. And, despite being more reactionary and dysfunctional than it was a decade ago, it has less incentive to moderate than it did in the Obama years. In the wake of an election that the Republican standard-bearer has already deemed fraudulent, there is every reason to expect the GOP to be more intransigent in its dealings with Biden than it was with Obama.
All this means that the goal of “building back better” will require Biden to embrace ruthless partisanship. If Democrats eke out a narrow majority in the U.S. Senate, they will need to abolish the filibuster and force through the Biden agenda over the caterwauling of the conservative media. There is simply no way to repair everything that COVID has broken (much less all that was broken before the virus got here) in a single reconciliation bill. Democrats will either govern in a norm-defyingly partisan fashion, or they will preside over the fiscal collapse of America’s major cities, surging homelessness, mass unemployment, and skyrocketing inequality. Unlike some on the left, I have little faith in a “just world theory” of American politics. A world in which Donald Trump can still claim the allegiance of 42 percent of voters — after publicly declaring his desire to limit COVID testing to keep America’s official case count artificially low (thereby making his prioritization of personal political interest over the lives of his constituents unambiguous) — is a world where politicians do not get what they deserve. Passing reforms that are remotely commensurate with the scale of the COVID-19 crisis would not guarantee Biden’s reelection, or the survival of Democrats’ congressional majorities. But such reforms would leave the American people less vulnerable to the depredations of the next Republican regime. Democrats could have used unified control in 2009 to immunize 11 million undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation and ensure that all Americans enjoyed the benefit of paid medical leave, affordable health insurance, and unemployment benefits on par with those of Western Europe. Had Democrats done so, the Trump era would have produced significantly less fear and suffering than it has.
An unabashedly partisan approach to governance isn’t just necessary for restoring some semblance of shared prosperity to the U.S.; it is also necessary for restoring a modicum of integrity and accountability to our politics. At the Democratic convention, partisanship is often used as a synonym for dishonest, unaccountable governance. But while privileging partisan loyalty above principle is obviously bad, governing on a partisan basis is not. In our political system, for one party to secure control of all three branches of government generally requires winning a mandate from voters across multiple elections. For Joe Biden’s Democratic Party, it will require winning multiple elections with supermajority support. If Democrats win such popular backing and still cannot implement their agenda due to Republican filibusters, then democracy becomes devoid of substance.
At the DNC, speaker after speaker has told Americans a long list of things that Joe Biden will do if elected — even as wonky pundits have explained that actually, in our system of government, he’ll be able to do one or two of those things at most. This arrangement is a recipe for voter apathy and cynicism. When parties win strong electoral mandates, they should be able to do the things they said they would. Empowering partisan minorities to obstruct all major legislation — and thus, to render all campaign promises of reform patently fraudulent — does not stabilize our political system so much as it hollows that system out. In an age of deepening climate crisis, meanwhile, a legislative system heavily biased in favor of stasis will only lead to the further aggrandizement of executive authority.
In his speech at the DNC, former Republican governor John Kasich said that now was a time “to take off partisan hats and put the nation first for ourselves and our children,” because when America “pulls together, we can dream big dreams.” This is sound advice to Trump-averse Republicans who value democracy more than the conservative ideological project. But if congressional Democrats wish to put their nation first next year, they will need to keep their “partisan hats” firmly in place.