“It’s kind of striking, you know, over the past couple weeks that there wasn’t more vocal criticism of that part of the package,” McCarty, the Princeton professor, told me, referring to the expansion of the child tax credit. But he cautioned that Republicans could easily revive traditional conservative attacks on social spending. “I think it depends a lot on how much traction those arguments get, because those really do reinforce the traditional polarization on redistribution … I don’t think because they were muted in the current climate, that they won’t come back in an election year to try to make those work-based arguments.”
Delivering lasting prosperity and protecting America’s multiracial democracy will take more than one bill. The recession caused by the coronavirus pandemic was borne almost in its entirety by low-wage workers. According to an Economic Policy Institute analysis, “more than 80% of the 9.6 million net jobs lost in 2020 were jobs held by wage earners in the bottom 25% of the wage distribution.”
The Senate parliamentarian ruled out including raising the minimum wage to $15 in the aid bill, and wage growth could be slow without it. The PRO Act, which would strengthen organized labor and thereby counter the unchecked power of the business lobby, might be the biggest step that Congress could take to reorient both parties toward the needs of the working classes. Republicans across the country have engaged in an unprecedented effort to pass voting restrictions that they hope will disenfranchise Democratic constituencies—Black voters in particular—a campaign that can be rolled back only with federal legislation shoring up the Voting Rights Act. As long as Republicans can exploit structural advantages to win power with a minority of the vote, culture war will take precedence over governance. It’s no coincidence that conservative media outlets have spent far more energy attacking the Democrats’ voting-rights measures than their recovery bill.
But few, if any, of these issues can be addressed with the Senate filibuster still in place, and for the moment, several Democrats, including Biden himself, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, still oppose abolishing it. In the meantime, Republican state legislators in Arizona are hard at work attempting to disenfranchise Sinema’s constituents because, as one state representative told CNN, “Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes as well.”
The American Rescue Plan Act is an important economic measure; it is also a down payment on a future in which the stakes for American democracy are less existential. But it is only a down payment—one that will be forfeit if Democrats allow the rest of their agenda to be held hostage in the Senate. More than just legislation, it is a leap of faith that Americans of all political backgrounds will reward a party that seeks to make their lives better, rather than one that simply manufactures new targets for scorn. In that, the measure expresses a greater confidence in the decency of the Republican base than Trump or his acolytes ever displayed.