Out of the ashes of Jan. 6, a new president and new majorities in Congress have three historic charges — defeat the pandemic, build back our economy, and repair the damage done to our democratic way of life. Americans saw — in the terrorist attack against our country and in the most bipartisan impeachment in our nation’s history — just how fragile our democracy is.
The best chance for our democracy lies not with the vain hope that Republican leaders will grow spines, but with Democrats’ ability to show Americans that they do not have to settle.
We save democracy for today, and for the next century, by making government work; by showing people in the most meaningful way that their votes matter, and that their votes count. And right now, that means a wartime-level mobilization to get Americans vaccinated and get our country through this pandemic. The best chance for our democracy lies not with the vain hope that Republican leaders will grow spines, but with Democrats’ ability to show Americans that they do not have to settle for a government that’s set up to fail.
We learn from history. The far-right elite grows its movement best in the fertile soil of economic inequality. Phony populist leaders eagerly exploit people’s anxieties; once in office, they use that power for corporate tax cuts, to amass more wealth for themselves. Then, when government fails everyone else — when the middle class shrinks, when wages stagnate, when corporate profits soar — people lose faith in democracy itself.
New York Sen. Robert Wagner, an immigrant from Germany, understood nine decades ago that the best way to defeat authoritarianism was to make government work. Perhaps the most adept legislator in the last century, Wagner knew that a government centered around the dignity of work was the best hedge against human suffering and social unrest. And he was right. Out of that ethos came Social Security and collective bargaining — and a stronger democracy and a more just society.
The corporatist elite, never on board with the New Deal, have worked hard to rewrite this history. They tag unemployment insurance and labor unions and Medicare and workplace protections and minimum wage — the bedrocks of our midcentury middle class — as “socialist.” And they fan hysteria that any update to that safety net — or any expansion to the Black and brown Americans and women who were left out of the original New Deal — will turn us into Venezuela.
The corporatist elite, never on board with the New Deal, have worked hard to rewrite this history.
It’s a lie. Wagner and President Franklin D. Roosevelt and their contemporaries understood that extremism flourishes in societies with yawning and growing inequality. The New Deal wasn’t a gateway to authoritarianism; it was a bulwark against it.
Rescuing our economy today and rebuilding the New Deal for the economy of tomorrow, will help us preserve a democracy once again under siege.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Anne Appelbaum lives in Poland, and has had a front-row seat to the withering of Polish democracy. In a conversation with New York Times columnist Ezra Klein about authoritarianism, he asked her what lessons we can draw from European countries that have struggled with and overcome threats to democracy. Her response? “Very often the best way to fight this kind of culture war populism is … do real stuff,” she said. “Fix the roads. Work on health care. Focus on real things that people can see.”
President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders in Congress understand that.
We are under no illusions this will be easy. Our majorities are slim. A fresh round of gerrymandering looms. Yet, we know Americans will judge Biden and the Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate by what we do, the effectiveness and the speed at which we defeat the virus and bring back our economy.
At the White House in early February — his second week on the job — Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris sat with a group of new Democratic committee chairs. Ringing the Oval Office were busts of the president’s political heroes — none known for aiming low: Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Cesar Chavez, Robert Kennedy and Rosa Parks. “Go big,” on our rescue and recovery plans, Biden told us, “The people need us to succeed.”
Earlier in the day, the new Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told us that, if we fall short, “if we don’t do enough,” there will be a “scarring” of our economy for a generation.
During our meeting, Biden pointed to the Franklin Roosevelt portrait keeping watch above, and talked about how government can improve people’s lives. The CARES Act, passed overwhelmingly in both houses of Congress in March, proved to the nation that government can make people’s lives better. That law kept more than 12 million people out of poverty and gave millions of others a financial cushion to help their families weather this storm. But because of then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s failure — for months on end, he talked of “no sense of urgency” — to enact another relief act for the American people, by late summer, thousands of people every day were falling into poverty.
We must aim higher. That means a massive mobilization to get every American vaccinated. It means putting money directly in families’ pockets to pay their bills and jump-start our economy. It means support for Main Street businesses, not Wall Street. And it means building a better economy for the future, where all Americans’ hard work pays off.
Last year, during a hearing of the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee, a Republican senator was hounding the witness, AFL-CIO and Howard University economist Bill Spriggs, about the deficit. Spriggs responded that FDR and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower did not win World War II by worrying about whether or not we could afford it. We were in a global crisis and we marshaled all our vast resources and talent to rise to meet it. We grew the economy from the middle class out. Then we paid down the debt with rising wages.
If we’ve learned anything from this crisis, it should be that we can do the same again. We can treat the fight against this virus as the war that it is — and then we can rebuild with a growing middle class, that all workers have the opportunity to join.
And while we’re at it, we might just save democracy again.