American politics, like the American economy, has been subject to the law of inflation. The more uncompromising the behaviour of the Republican Party in Congress or the White House, the greater the temptation for Democrats to retaliate. There are two separate temptations and there are signs that the Democrat Party has started to resist both.
The first temptation is to retaliate immediately by meeting intransigent actions with the same. This has been the recent story of US politics. As Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky point out in their book How Democracies Die (2018), the last few sessions of Congress have been the most partisan in the history of the republic. American political procedure cannot work if bipartisan politics break down entirely. When the Republicans refuse to engage and Democrats respond by arguing that they would be fools to be the only party prepared to compromise, there is very little chance of getting anything done.
There have been some encouraging signs in recent weeks. The willingness of senior Democrats to be accommodating encouraged several Republican members to join the vote for the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which starts to address the connection of mental health to gun violence. The same spirit has allowed progress to be made with the Inflation Reduction Act, which will reduce the cost of prescription drugs and extend subsidies in the Affordable Care Act.
The Inflation Reduction Act is an example of political compromise so perfect it feels positively old-fashioned. It is what remains, after a lot of political negotiation, of President Joe Biden’s hugely ambitious “build back better” legislation. The bill that passed through Congress on 7 August does just enough to be worth having, and contains just enough to please the Democratic Party activists while not doing so much that it repels Americans who are allergic to expansive government.
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It expands Medicare benefits such as free vaccines and caps out-of-pocket drug costs. It saves recipients of the benefits of the Affordable Care Act an average of $800 a year and requires drug companies to rebate back price increases higher than inflation. It includes a $60bn investment in clean manufacturing jobs. And it closes a series of tax loopholes, setting a minimum corporation tax of 15 per cent and a 1 per cent levy on share buybacks.
Back in July the bill seemed set to fail when Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator for West Virginia, announced that he could not support it. But, after a secret negotiation with the Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, Manchin relented. On the other side of the party, Bernie Sanders deserves credit for being prepared to vote for a bill that, though a long way short of what he wanted, is still better than nothing. It is an impressive, and not exactly regular, dose of political realism from the left of the Democrats.
The necessary virtue of compromise is closely related to another vital aspect of a functioning American polity – what Ziblatt and Levitsky call “forbearance”. What they mean by this subtle term is the ability to let things go, the ability to accept the tacit codes and conventions by which a liberal democracy lives. In other words, the capacity not to challenge everything, either politically or legally. President Biden was prepared to compromise on the Inflation Reduction Act but he is also showing signs of the necessary forbearance.
Crucially, his reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule Roe vs Wade, which guaranteed abortion rights, was temperate. It would have been tempting to yield to the pressure from some Democrats to expand the Supreme Court to ensure the verdict could be reversed. The cost to the idea of the separation of powers and judicial authority would have been grave. This would have been an extension of presidential power far greater than what is expressed in the letter, let alone the spirit, of the constitution. The case for action, of course, is that the Republicans refuse to accept any limits so why should anyone else? They will not forbear to act, so why should we? This is how political inflation happens. It is a good thing, notwithstanding the lamentable Roe vs Wade decision itself, that Biden forbore to act.
The reliance on legal procedure is a trap for the Democrats because it allows them to believe that they can shift to the left, politically, while legal process gets rid of inconvenient Republicans. The temptation has been raised again by the FBI raid on Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Largo property in the search for classified documents. Maybe this time, think the Trump-obsessed Democrats, we can get him. Throughout the interminable Robert Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the Trump impeachment imbroglios, Democrats were certain that the then-president would be brought down. The focus on procedure was ultimately destructive because it allowed them to ignore the fact they were drifting decisively away from a winning political position.
This is the second temptation of political retaliation – to meet a hard-right Republican Party with a more left-wing Democratic one. In his refusal to declare climate change a national emergency and in his willingness to distance himself from the wilder demands to defund the police, President Biden is showing that he will resist this polarisation. This new spirit of moderation is reflected in the candidates the Democrats are selecting for the midterm elections in November.
In a piece for the website Persuasion, Seth Moskowitz pointed out that in districts the Democrats have a chance of winning “of the two dozen or so Democratic congressional primaries that have… presented a clear choice between a progressive and a moderate candidate… the moderate candidate has won about two-thirds of the time”. It’s not entirely clear whether this is an endorsement of the more moderate political position or a realistic assessment that such candidates are more likely to win. It is certainly true that voters blame Democrats for their economic plight. In these circumstances, there isn’t a lot of money for left-wing causes.
Even if the Democrats do manage to hold on to the Senate in the midterms in November, there is a lot to be done. Much of the party is lost in the morass of identity politics. Biden is unpopular and there is no sign of alternative leadership. The economy is going to go through a storm. There is no doubt that the winds are gathering but we can at least now clutch at a few straws.