I have heard now from several of my readers — and on multiple occasions — that my writing is, shall we say, less than uplifting. The word “depressing” has come up.
For this, I don’t so much apologize as empathize. What I’ve been writing about depresses me as well. The times we live in have gotten far more interesting than I ever thought they would. There’s a lot to be scared of, but there’s a lot to write about too.
Because while I never really thought my country would reach the point where a fascist coup could be a realistic threat, I’ve had a certain morbid fascination with the idea, probably since high school. Now that it’s happening in plain sight, topics that are interesting but depressing are a target-rich environment for me.
Consider, for example, the poll numbers showing that people have grown “disappointed” with the Democrats. That Biden’s performance — and by extension, that of all Democrats — is somehow not living up to its initial promise. That they should be “doing more” to fight back against Republican subversion.
This reflects, of course, the dominant storylines in the mainstream media, which shamefully clings to its “Democrats in disarray” narrative. It also reflects a certain fear — also stoked by the media — that Democrats are sure to be defeated, perhaps as early as this year, by sinister forces. And indeed they might be.
But to say one is disappointed in Democrats’ performance — whether in the administration or in Congress — betrays a flawed understanding of our system. It presupposes that there are viable options that aren’t being used.
There are no such options. As we all should know from high school civics, Democrats’ hands are tied by the constitution.
We still, at least theoretically, live within that constitution. Not that it hasn’t been battered. Not that it hasn’t been perverted by right-wing ideologues, Trump-led lawlessness, and a profoundly illegitimate and increasingly antidemocratic Supreme Court.
But as long as our laws and institutions remain even tenuously guided by it— and they still do — we have no choice but to stand up for it. When the rule of law goes missing, everyone is in trouble. Even the troublemakers.
Under our constitution, there is no wiggle room on some very basic congressional procedures. Passing a bill in the Senate, for instance, requires a majority — fifty-one votes. Okay, it really requires sixty, thanks to the filibuster. But even the filibuster can be changed with fifty-one votes. As you may have heard.
When people point to the Democratic presidents who have made the most difference to everyday Americans, they usually refer to FDR and LBJ. Yet we tend to forget that while the achievements of those two were undeniably stellar — from Social Security to voting rights to civil rights to Medicare and beyond — they were also accomplished with supermajorities in both houses of Congress.
And even with that advantage, both of these presidents had an uphill slog to force those programs through Congress. Both had to invest huge political capital, and the backlash they created plagues us to this day.
So given that fifty-one vote threshold — and in the face of a complete Republican stonewall — there are only two shots Democrats have at any real accomplishment.
The first is Build Back Better — once a $6 trillion package, now marked down to $99.95 — which can be passed, even in the absence of any Republican concern for basic humanity, through the “reconciliation” procedure.
The second is the voting rights bill now approaching the Senate floor — also watered down but still strong — which requires, in the absence of any Republican concern for democracy, a carve-out of the filibuster rule.
These plans are both massively important. They’re both shovel-ready. And they’ve both passed the House.
They could pass the Senate tomorrow. They could be the law of the land by next week. All they need is fifty-one votes. Which they might never get.
So please, ladies and gentlemen, let’s put our disappointment where it truly belongs.
Because even with the astonishing array of problems now loosed upon our world, there’s one problem that towers above all others. One hard truth, around which all else revolves:
Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are sabotaging democracy.
They have both landed, quite by chance, in a unique place in history, a place well suited to their shared arrogance and grandiosity. They’ve chosen deliberately — and we can only assume maliciously — to destroy an agenda desperately needed by the entire country. An agenda three-quarters of Americans say they want.
At the same time, almost as a sideshow, they’re undermining the entire electoral system. They are both smart enough to know that they’re aiding and abetting a Republican coup, and they’ve both decided they’re fine with it. Surely there’s a lot of money involved. I hope their betrayal is worth it.
By the time I post this essay, these two quislings may have yet changed their minds. But for now we have to assume the worst, because they are apparently content to be linked forever with the fools determined to bring down the system.
So please, spare us the disappointment. With the conspicuous exception of Manchin and Sinema, every Democrat in Congress has for the most part performed admirably. They’ve done it in the face of open hostility from a Republican party that grows less coherent and more venomous by the day. And they’ve done it with the threat of violence seered into short-term memory.
And please spare us the disappointment in Joe Biden. He too has played an impossible hand with a fair amount of skill and hard-won wisdom. If there is some magic he can conjure to bring Manchin or Sinema to sanity, he has surely tried it by now. Of all the people whose hands are tied by the Constitution, Joe Biden is at the top of the list.
Which doesn’t stop him from getting pummeled at every turn. You can’t look at any press these days without seeing stories about his sagging popularity. As if, in these fraught times, that’s the only thing about him that’s newsworthy.
Just yesterday, the Post ran a story with the headline “The left dreamed of remaking America. Now, it stares into the abyss as Biden’s plans wither.” It’s a long article, and you have to read half of it before the words Manchin, Sinema, or Republican even appear.
Biden — and his whole administration — take all the blame, mostly for things they have nothing to do with. And he gets none of the credit for a record of accomplishment that is, in many ways, remarkable. You’d think Democrats, at least, would cut him some slack.
But Democrats will always be disappointed in Democrats — this is not new. Nor would it be all that concerning, if not for one hugely damning fact:
Disappointed Democrats don’t vote.
And therein lies perhaps the biggest threat we face, as a democracy and as a nation. Because in 2022, that democracy might not survive a low turnout of Democrats.
And if you think I’m depressing you now, just wait.