Biden Chooses Prosperity Over Vengeance

The future of American democracy depends on the president’s ability to show that even when the Republican Party loses, Americans who vote Republican do not.

Joe Biden
Samuel Corum / Getty

Donald Trump was a punishment.

Conservatives saw him that way, and Trump saw himself that way, too. After his upset victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, some conservatives started to respond to any perceived liberal excess with a simple phrase: “This is why Trump won.” If that was a convenient deflection, a way to rationalize Trumpian malice as the left’s responsibility, it was also a concise expression of Trump’s appeal to them.

The Trump administration moved quickly, if not always efficiently, toward its paramount goal of punishing Democratic-leaning constituencies. Early in his administration, Trump banned travelers from several Muslim-majority countries, barred federal grants to so-called sanctuary cities, and sought to deport hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were in the U.S. on temporary protected status. Almost all of his accomplishments were punitive. He failed to secure passage of an infrastructure or health-care bill; his biggest legislative victory was a tax cut that, despite his purported populism, was more regressive than those signed by President George W. Bush. He began his campaign by promising to be “the greatest jobs president God ever created” and ended his term with the worst jobs record since Herbert Hoover’s.

Trump was not a successful president. But as a form of punishment, he was everything conservatives dreamed of, and they loved him for it.

Throughout his term in office, and even after his electoral defeat, Trump proclaimed to his admirers that he was all that stood between them and annihilation, cultivating a sense of existential dread among the conservative faithful. On January 6, the former president warned his supporters that “our country will be destroyed” if Joe Biden were allowed to take office, minutes before they went on to sack the Capitol building.

Whereas Trump entered office and immediately sought to use the power of the state to crush the rival party’s constituencies, Biden and the Democratic Party will be deploying that same power to ensure that Americans, regardless of partisan affiliation, will receive the necessary vaccines to contain the coronavirus pandemic, and have enough money to feed their families, stay in their homes, and keep their businesses afloat. The passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 symbolizes more than an ideological divergence on public policy; it reflects a radically different theory of governance. The Democrats are no saints, but they’ve come to believe that both the viability of their party and the sustainability of American democracy depend on their capacity to broaden their appeal to right-leaning voters. Trump wanted to punish his enemies; Biden must convince Trump supporters that he is not their enemy. Defeating Trump was but a battle; defeating Trumpism is the war.

“After more than a decade—we had the financial crisis, and then the COVID crisis—the levels of economic insecurity are just really high. And I am inclined to think that contributes to people’s responsiveness to cultural issues,” says Nolan McCarty, a political-science professor at Princeton and the author of Polarization. “I do think if we can create some level of economic security and predictability, people might turn away from politics a little bit and not sit around and wait for the next outrage to lash out over.”

McCarty cautions that it’s a big if. Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki has called the relief bill “the most progressive piece of legislation in history," and the progressive champion Senator Bernie Sanders has described the measure as “the most significant piece of legislation to benefit working people in the modern history of this country.” These are substantial overstatements. The measure is certainly progressive, and poor and working-class Americans stand to benefit significantly. Nevertheless, it is at this moment only a temporary extension of the welfare state. Democrats want the expansion of the child tax credit to become permanent, but that depends both on its popularity among Republican constituencies and on the willingness of those constituencies to demand that their legislators sustain it. The rest of the Democrats’ agenda, in particular proposals to bolster the labor movement and block a Republican wave of voter disenfranchisement, will face far stronger headwinds.

Trump exploited many of the failures of American governance to fuel his rise; only a successful federal response to the coronavirus recession can seal Trump’s fall. The slow and uneven recovery from the 2008 financial crisis left widespread economic suffering. Trump responded by heaping blame on religious and ethnic minorities as the cause of America’s decline. Partisan polarization, combined with the American system’s structural bias toward sparsely populated states, allowed him to win the presidency without winning a majority of the votes. Republicans can cling to power with a smaller group of voters, by stoking their fears; Democrats can improve their future prospects only by winning over some of those Republican voters.

Biden’s rescue bill uses the state as an instrument of broad prosperity rather than as one of vengeance—according to an analysis from the Urban Institute, the legislation could cut the poverty rate by more than a third. In the process, it stands to address the economic distresses that Trump exploited and the grievances he inflamed. And by making the bill’s benefits so broad, Democrats may also make them enduring, insulating them from future efforts to repeal them.

Trump and his “nationalists”—the religious integralists who pine for the social mores and hierarchies of the 1950s; the immigration restrictionists who want to engineer a whiter America; the self-styled populists who imagine splitting the Democrats’ base through trade and infrastructure—had four years to deliver prosperity to the struggling communities they pledged to represent. They failed miserably, because they cared more about hurting and humiliating their opponents than they did about keeping their promises. All they ultimately had to offer was the anguish of the Democratic constituencies they sought to punish, and tax cuts for the rich. The libs were not owned, and the swamp was not drained. Of the Republican ambitions at the dawn of the Trump era, what remains is a cult of personality devoted to a vain tax cheat who cannot conceive of human beings acting on anything but their basest, most selfish impulses.

Still, the 2020 election showed that Trump had grown and diversified his coalition during his four years in office, and that presents a challenge for Biden. Trumpism relied on the presumption of zero-sum conflict—between red and blue Americans; between the U.S. and its international rivals; between white, Christian Americans and everyone else. To lose, Trump told his admirers, was to court apocalypse. A Biden victory would destroy everything they held dear, ruining their homes, their livelihoods, their churches.

The future of the Democratic Party depends on Biden’s ability to show that this catastrophism was false; that even when the Republican Party loses, Americans who vote Republican do not; that defeat is not destruction; that their compatriots do not and would not seek such an outcome.

The Democrats’ recovery bill is ambitious in scale. Included in its provisions are not just the well-known $1,400 direct checks, but a substantial expansion of the child tax credit, which will come close to cutting child poverty in half—with particularly dramatic effects for Black and Latino families. The bill shores up struggling multiemployer pension plans for union workers from Tennessee to Alaska. Its extended unemployment provisions, although not as generous as they should have been, will sustain millions of workers laid off through no fault of their own. The legislation contains billions in state aid that will ensure not only that massive public-sector layoffs do not drag down the post-pandemic recovery, but that the services it provides—services that working-class Americans rely on—are not curtailed.

“State and local austerity in the aftermath of the Great Recession was just devastating to the economy; it delayed the recovery by more than four years,” says Heidi Schierholz, an economist with the labor-aligned Economic Policy Institute. “[Avoiding] that will just be super important for setting up the recovery.”

Economists also believe that the bill—more than twice the size of the Obama-era stimulus designed to pull America out of the Great Recession—is large enough to deliver a robust recovery, rather than the halting one that followed the 2008 crisis.

“In 2009, people close to the Obama administration understood that they were going to spend less than the level that was needed to get out of the financial crisis,” says Mike Konczal of the liberal Roosevelt Institute, and the author of Freedom From the Market. “Here, we’re thinking at the right level. And it’s a pretty remarkable shift that shows that there’s a change in priorities and people’s sense of what the risks are.”

The lessons of the Great Recession were learned the hard way. Eager to win bipartisan support and hemmed in by the moderates in the Democratic caucus, the Obama administration trimmed its own recovery plan below what was needed. Republicans were almost unanimous in opposition, and then–Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell calculated that Republicans would benefit from a slow recovery. He was right: Not only did Republicans take back the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, but the slow recovery left an opening for Trump to eke out an Electoral College victory by appealing to Americans’ worst instincts.

“Nobody thinks that there’s anything to be gained from bipartisanship politically anymore. There are a few people who still think that it’s really important in itself,” Adam Jentleson, once the deputy chief of staff to the former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid and the author of Kill Switch, told me. “But even those people have a hard time arguing that it’s more important than actually delivering results.”

Biden’s bill passed with no Republican support at all, a major divergence from the Obama era, when winning at least some support was seen as essential. “We made a big mistake in 2009 and ’10,” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told CNN last week. “We cut back on the stimulus dramatically, and we stayed in recession for five years.” Senate Democrats passed Biden’s relief bill using a process called reconciliation, which allows certain bills to pass with a bare majority of the vote, rather than the 60 votes required to defeat an inevitable Republican filibuster. But reconciliation cannot be used for just anything—meaning that the rest of Biden’s agenda could face insurmountable resistance as long as the filibuster rule remains in place.

Nevertheless, the recovery bill is popular, particularly among working-class Trump voters. According to Pew, 70 percent of Americans support the bill, including 63 percent of “lower-income Republicans and Republican leaners.” Yet every Republican in both the House and Senate voted against the bill. Republicans were willing to pass large, expensive economic-relief bills when Bush and Trump were president, but with a Democrat back in the White House, the GOP returned to a proven strategy of obstructing relief measures in the hopes of benefiting politically from the misery that inaction would cause.

This time, the approach failed, and with little to show for its effort, the GOP turned to its bread and butter—urging the repeal of the tax on inherited wealth and waging culture war over children’s literature. But that may be more a temporary tactical choice than a meaningful ideological shift, and perceptions of the relief bill among the Republican rank and file will likely rest on how conservative elites and elected officials choose to talk about it.

“We’ve gotten to this place where partisanship is such a motivating factor, people are engaged in so much motivated reasoning based on their partisanship, that it’s possible that when reality gets better for them, they don’t actually change their assessment of reality,” Lilliana Mason, a University of Maryland politics professor and the author of Uncivil Agreement, told me. For example, in October 2020, nearly 60 percent of Republicans believed the economy was “good” or “excellent”; that number is now down to 25 percent.

The popularity of the bill may have dissuaded Republicans from launching attacks for now—Fox News has been “oddly muted” on the relief measure, preferring to toss its audience red meat about Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss. But that is unlikely to last forever. Some Republicans have already sought to take credit for measures in the relief bill after voting against it, but that happened in 2009 as well—and it didn’t stop the GOP from attacking the Obama stimulus as a useless boondoggle.

“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.