You don’t get re-elected for things voters don’t know about.
President Biden takes office with a ticking clock. The Democrats’ margin in the House and Senate couldn’t be thinner, and midterms typically raze the governing party. That gives Democrats two years to govern. Two years to prove that the American political system can work. Two years to show Trumpism was an experiment that need not be repeated.
This is the responsibility the Democratic majority must bear: If they fail or falter, they will open the door for Trumpism or something like it to return, and there is every reason to believe it will be far worse next time. To stop it, Democrats need to reimagine their role. They cannot merely defend the political system. They must rebuild it.
“This is a fight not just for the future of the Democratic Party or good policy,” Senator Bernie Sanders told me. “It is literally a fight to restore faith in small-d democratic government.”
Among the many tributaries flowing into Trumpism, one in particular has gone dangerously overlooked. In their book “Presidents, Populism and the Crisis of Democracy,” the political scientists William Howell and Terry Moe write that “populists don’t just feed on socioeconomic discontent. They feed on ineffective government — and their great appeal is that they claim to replace it with a government that is effective through their own autocratic power.”
Donald Trump was this kind of populist. Democrats mocked his “I alone can fix it” message for its braggadocio and feared its authoritarianism, but they did not take seriously the deep soil in which it was rooted: The American system of governance is leaving too many Americans to despair and misery, too many problems unsolved, too many people disillusioned. It is captured by corporations and paralyzed by archaic rules. It is failing, and too many Democrats treat its failures as regrettable inevitabilities rather than a true crisis.
But now Democrats have another chance. To avoid the mistakes of the past, three principles should guide their efforts. First, they need to help people fast and visibly. Second, they need to take politics seriously, recognizing that defeat in 2022 will result in catastrophe. The Trumpist Republican Party needs to be politically discredited through repeated losses; it cannot simply be allowed to ride back to primacy on the coattails of Democratic failure. And, finally, they need to do more than talk about the importance of democracy. They need to deepen American democracy.
The good news is that Democrats have learned many of these lessons, at least in theory. The $1.9 trillion rescue plan Biden proposed is packed with ideas that would make an undeniable difference in people’s lives, from $1,400 checks to paid leave to the construction of a national coronavirus testing infrastructure that will allow some semblance of normal life to resume.
And congressional Democrats have united behind sweeping legislation to expand American democracy. The “For The People Act,” which House Democrats passed in 2019 and Senate Democrats have said will be their first bill in the new session, would do more to protect and expand the right to vote than any legislation passed since the Great Society, and it would go a long way toward building a fairer and more transparent campaign financing system. In June, House Democrats passed a bill granting statehood to Washington, D.C., which would end one of the most appalling cases of systematic disenfranchisement in the country.
“It’s time for boldness, for there is so much to do,” Biden said in his Inaugural Address. “This is certain, I promise you: We will be judged, you and I, by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era.”
But none of these bills will pass a Senate in which the filibuster forces 60-vote supermajorities on routine legislation. And that clarifies the real question Democrats face. They have plenty of ideas that could improve people’s lives and strengthen democracy. But they have, repeatedly, proven themselves more committed to preserving the status quo of the political system than fulfilling their promises to voters. They have preferred the false peace of decorum to the true progress of democracy. If they choose that path again, they will lose their majority in 2022, and they will deserve it.
Just Help People
The last time Democrats won the White House, the Senate and the House was in 2008, and they didn’t squander the moment. They passed the stimulus and Obamacare and Dodd-Frank. They saved the auto industry and prevented a second Great Depression and, for good measure, drove the largest investment in clean energy infrastructure in American history.
But too little of their work was evident in 2010, when Democrats were running for re-election. The result was, as President Barack Obama put it, “a shellacking.” Democrats lost six Senate seats and 63 House seats. They also lost 20 state legislatures, giving Republicans control of the decennial redistricting process.
Democrats have less margin for error in 2021 than they did in 2009. Their congressional majorities are smaller — 50 seats in the Senate versus 60, and 222 seats in the House versus 257. Republican dominance of redistricting efforts, and a growing Senate and Electoral College bias toward red states, has tilted the electoral map against them. The nationalization of politics has shrunk ticket-splitting voters down to a marginal phenomenon, making it harder for red and purple state Democrats to separate themselves from the fortunes of the national party.
In 2009, Democrats might reasonably have believed they had a few election cycles in which to govern, to tweak their bills and programs, to see the fruits of their governance. In 2021, no such illusion is possible.
Tom Perriello is the executive director of U.S. programs at the Open Society Foundations. But in 2009, he was a newly elected Democrat from Virginia’s Fifth district, where he’d narrowly beaten a Republican. Two years later, Republicans took back his seat. They still hold it. Democrats cannot allow a wipeout in 2022 like they suffered in 2010, and looking back, Perriello told me what he thought Democrats could’ve done to save his seat.
“There’s a belief among a certain set of Democrats that taking an idea and cutting it in half makes it a better idea when it just makes it a worse idea,” he says. As we talk, he ticks off the examples: The stimulus bill was whittled down and down, ending far beneath what economists thought necessary to rescue the economy. The House’s more populist health reform bill — which included a public option, heftier subsidies and was primarily financed by taxing the rich — was cast aside in favor of the Senate’s stingier, more complex proposal. The House passed “cramdown” legislation, which would have allowed bankruptcy judges to alter the terms of mortgages so banks took losses and homeowners would have been more likely to keep their homes, but the bill failed in the Senate, and the impression took hold — correctly — that Congress was bailing out the banks, but not desperate homeowners.
The Obama administration believed that if you got the policy right, the politics would follow. That led, occasionally, to policies that almost entirely abandoned politics, so deep ran the faith in clever design. The Making Work Pay tax credit, which was a centerpiece of the Recovery Act, was constructed to be invisible — the Obama administration, working off new research in behavioral economics, believed Americans would be more likely to spend a windfall that they didn’t know they got. “When all was said and done, only around 10 percent of people who received benefits knew they had received something from the government,” says Suzanne Mettler, a political scientist at Cornell. You don’t get re-elected for things voters don’t know you did.
Nor do you get re-elected for legislation voters cannot yet feel. The Affordable Care Act didn’t begin delivering health insurance on a mass scale until four years after the bill’s passage. That reflected a doomed effort to win Republican support by prioritizing private insurance and a budgetary gimmick meant to keep the total price tag under a trillion dollars over 10 years. Obamacare eventually became a political winner for Democrats, but it took the better part of a decade. A simpler, faster, more generous bill would have been better politics and better policy.
“Democrats are famous for 87-point programs which sometimes do some good but nobody understands what they are,” Senator Sanders said. “What we need to do now is, in very bold and clear ways, make people understand government is directly improving their lives.”
That’s particularly important in a time of fractured media, polarized parties and widespread disinformation. Democrats cannot rely on widely trusted media figures or civic leaders to validate their programs. Policy has to speak for itself and it has to speak clearly.
“The wisdom from much of the political science research is that partisanship trumps everything,” says Amy Lerman, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of “Good Enough for Government Work.” “But one of the insights from the policy feedback literature in particular is that when people experience policy, they don’t necessarily experience it as partisans. They experience it as a parent sending their child to school or a patient visiting a doctor, not as a Democrat or Republican. And because people are often thinking in nonpolitical terms during their day-to-day lives, they are much more open to having their views changed when they see the actual, tangible benefits of a policy in their lives. It’s a way of breaking through partisanship.”
Make the Senate Great Again
President Biden’s agenda will live or die in the Senate. Odds are it will die, killed by the filibuster.
The modern Senate has become something the Founders never intended: a body where only a supermajority can govern. From 1941 to 1970, the Senate only took 36 votes to break filibusters. In 2009 and 2010 alone, they took 91. Here’s the simple truth facing the Democratic agenda: In a Senate without a filibuster, they have some chance of passing some rough facsimile of the agenda they’ve promised. In a Senate with a filibuster, they do not.
“I’ve said to the president-elect, ‘reach out across the aisle. Try to work with the Republicans. But don’t let them stymie your program,’” Representative Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, told me. “You can’t allow the search for bipartisanship to ruin the mandate the American people gave you.’”
This is a lesson the Obama administration learned the hard way. Tellingly, both Obama and Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader at the beginning of the Obama administration, have come to support the elimination of the filibuster. “It’s not a question of if the filibuster will be gone, but when it’ll be gone,” Reid told me by phone. “You cannot have a democratic body where it takes 60 percent of the vote to get anything done.”
When I asked Biden, during the campaign, about filibuster reform, he was reluctant, but not definitively opposed. “I think it’s going to depend on how obstreperous they” — meaning Republicans — “become, and if they become that way,” he replied. “I have not supported the elimination of the filibuster because it has been used as often to protect rights I care about as the other way around. But you’re going to have to take a look at it.”
Senate Democrats could eliminate the filibuster if every single one of them wanted to, but even a single defection would doom them. Senator Joe Manchin has promised to be that defection. Mere days after the election, he went on Fox News and said, “I commit to you tonight, and I commit to all of your viewers and everyone else that’s watching. I want to allay those fears, I want to rest those fears for you right now because when they talk about whether it be packing the courts, or ending the filibuster, I will not vote to do that.”
Red state Democrats like Manchin have long held to a political strategy in which public opposition to their party’s initiatives proves their independence and moderation. And there was a time when that strategy could work. But the nationalized, polarized structure of modern American politics has ended it.
Ticket-splitting has been on a sharp decline for decades, and it has arguably reached a nearly terminal point. According to calculations by the Democratic data analyst David Shor, the correlation between the statewide vote for Senate Democrats and the statewide vote for the Democratic presidential candidate was 71 percent in 2008. High, which is why Obama’s sagging approval ratings hurt Democrats so badly in 2010, but there was still some room to maneuver. But by 2016, it was 93.2 percent. And in 2020, it was 94.5 percent. With few exceptions — and Senator Manchin, admittedly, has been one — Democrats live or die together. They certainly win or lose the majority together.
To give Manchin his due, a more high-minded fear — shared by others in his caucus — is that we have just come through a long, ugly period of partisan norm-breaking. Surely the answer to Trump’s relentless assaults on decorum, to Mitch McConnell’s rewriting of Senate rules, is a return to the comity they cast off, to the traditions they’ve violated, to the bipartisanship they abandoned. A version of this may appeal to Biden, too: Trump stretched the boundaries of executive authority, so perhaps he should retreat, offering more deference to Congress and resisting opportunities to go it alone, even when stymied by Republicans. But if this is what he means by “unity,” it will just empower the merchants of division.
In their book, Howell and Moe write that this is a common, but dangerously counterproductive, response to populist challengers. Defenders of the political system, eager to show that normalcy has returned, often embrace the very defects and dysfunctions that gave rise to the populist leader in the first place. The nightmare scenario is that Trump is defeated, driven from office, and that augurs in an era when even less appears to get done, as President Biden submits to congressional paralysis while embracing a calmer communications strategy. If Democrats permit that to happen, they will pave the road for the next Trump-like politician, one who will be yet more disciplined and dangerous than Trump.
Democrats for Democracy
“Democracy is precious,” Biden said at his inauguration. “Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
It’s a stirring sentiment, but wrong. Democracy barely survived. If America actually abided by normal democratic principles, Trump would have lost in 2016, after receiving almost three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. The American people did not want this presidency, but they got it anyway, and the result was carnage. In 2020, Trump lost by about seven million votes, but if about 40,000 votes had switched in key states, he would have won anyway. The Senate is split 50-50, but the 50 Democrats represent more than 41 million more Americans than the 50 Republicans. This is not a good system.
Democracy is designed as a feedback loop. Voters choose leaders. Leaders govern. Voters judge the results, and either return the leaders to power, or give their opponents a chance. That feedback loop is broken in American politics. It is broken because of gerrymandering, because of the Senate, because of the filibuster, because of the Electoral College, because we have declared money to be speech and allowed those with wealth to speak much more loudly than those without.
It is also broken because we directly disenfranchise millions of Americans. In the nation’s capital, 700,000 residents have no vote in the House or Senate at all. The same is true in Puerto Rico, which, with 3.2 million residents, is larger than 20 existing states. For decades, Democrats promised to offer statehood to residents of both territories, but have never followed through. It is no accident that these are parts of the country largely populated by Black and Hispanic voters. If Democrats believe anything they have said over the past year about combating structural racism and building a multiethnic democracy, then it is obvious where they must start.
“It would be a devastating civil rights failure if we didn’t achieve statehood now,” Stasha Rhodes, the campaign director of 51 for 51, which advocates D.C. statehood, told me. “It would also be a sign that Democrats are not interested in restoring and strengthening American democracy. We can no longer say Republicans are anti-democracy when we now have a chance to restore and create the democracy we say is important, and then we don’t do it.”
After Representative John Lewis died, Obama used his eulogy to address those in Congress who called Lewis a hero but allowed the rights to which he had devoted his life to wither. “You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for. And by the way, naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, that is a fine tribute.” And, he continued, “if all this takes is eliminating the filibuster — another Jim Crow relic — in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.”
Democracy is worth fighting for, not least because it’s the fight that will decide all the others. “One of the things a Trump administration has shown is that democracy is inextricably linked to the things that matter to Americans,” Ms. Rhodes said. “The rules are not separate from the issues. If you want effective Covid response, if you want robust gun violence prevention, if you want a strong economy, then you need a true American democracy.”
The Vaccine Opportunity
Great presidencies — and new political eras — are born of crises. Thus far, America has bobbled its vaccination rollout. But the fault doesn’t lie only with Trump. In blue states where Democrats command both power and resources, like California and New York, overly restrictive eligibility criteria slowed the rollout, and huge numbers of shots were locked in freezers. It’s an embarrassment.
A successful mass immunization campaign will save lives, supercharge the economy and allow us to hug our families and see our friends again. Few presidents, outside the worst of wartime, have entered office with as much opportunity to better people’s lives immediately through competent governance.
Biden’s team understands that. Their $20 billion plan to use the full might of the federal government to accelerate vaccinations hits all the right notes. But it’s attached to their $1.9 trillion rescue plan, which needs 10 Republican votes it doesn’t have in order to pass over a filibuster (Senator Mitt Romney already dismissed it as “not well-timed”). Letting the resources required to vaccinate the country — and to set up mass testing and to prevent an economic crisis — become entangled in Republican obstruction for weeks or months would be a terrible mistake.
Here, too, Democrats will quickly face a choice: To leave their promises to the American people to the mercies of Mitch McConnell, or to change the Senate so they can change the course of the country.
Some, at least, say they’ve learned their lesson. “I’m going to do everything I can to bring people together,” says Senator Ron Wyden, who will chair the powerful Senate Finance Committee, “but I’m not just going to stand around and do nothing while Mitch McConnell ties everyone up in knots.” They will all need to be united on this point for it to matter.
In her book “Good Enough for Government Work,” Ms. Lerman argues that the U.S. government is caught in a reputation crisis where its poor performance is assumed, the public is attuned to its flaws and misses its virtues, and fed up citizens stop using public services, which further harms the quality of those services. The Trump years add another dimension to the analysis: Frustration with a government that doesn’t solve problems leads people to vote for demagogic outsiders who create further crises. But this is not an inevitability. Her titular phrase, she notes, “originated during World War II to describe the exacting standards and high quality required by government.” It was only in the 1960s and ’70s that it became a slur.
It is no accident that World War II led to the idea that government work was a standard to strive for, not an outcome to fear. Crises remind us of what government is for in the first place. President Biden has an extraordinary opportunity to change the relationship between the people and their government. If he succeeds, he will not only deprive authoritarian populists like Trump of energy, he will give Democrats a chance to win over voters who’ve lost faith in them and he will give voice to millions more that the American political system has silenced. “The best thing we can do right now to reduce levels of anger and frustration on both sides of the aisle is to give people the things they need to live better lives,” says Ms. Lerman.
In other words, what Democrats need to do is simple: Just help people, and do it fast.
Roge Karma provided additional reporting.
Ezra Klein joined N.Y. Times Opinion in 2021. Previously, he was the founder, editor in chief and then editor-at-large of Vox; the host of the podcast, “The Ezra Klein Show”; and the author of Why We’re Polarized. Before that, he was a columnist and editor at The Washington Post, where he founded and led the Wonkblog vertical.
This article was published on January 21 in the New York Times.