NEW YORK – On 5 January 2021, two Senate elections in Georgia handed Joe Biden a dream scenario in which to enact his vision for the future of the US. He had already won the White House, as well as a majority in the House of Representatives. With the Senate wins, Democrats had control of both chambers of Congress – and the opportunity to enact significant legislative changes.
But since then there have been no significant legislative changes, or vision. Biden’s landmark bills have floundered, withered, stalled or died, shot down by party infighting and the obstinate efforts of the Republicans, who have remained firmly in the driving seat of the national agenda despite their minority status. On 3 May a leaked draft ruling suggested that the conservative Supreme Court was preparing to overturn the country’s fundamental abortion access ruling, Roe vs Wade – the culmination of a decades-long Republican quest through savage state-level policies.
Presidency or not, it doesn’t feel like the blue side of the aisle is in control. Instead, Democrats have been forced into a reactionary scramble to undo the onslaught of Republican threats to liberal policies and civic norms – and mostly, they have failed.
The reasons for this are both simple and obscenely frustrating. As most conservatives will admit, if pushed, the US has been uniquely designed for minority rule: both the electoral college and the Senate are designed in order to shift the balance of power towards residents of smaller states. Meanwhile, the outsized power of judicial review means that the ideological leanings of federal courts is massively important for successful governance. For decades the GOP has understood and internalised this. The current Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, has dedicated his career to shifting the balance of the federal judiciary towards conservative judges, and on a local level Republicans have embarked on a ruthless campaign of dominance in as many state and local legislatures as possible.
This has meant that even in battleground states that occasionally elect Democrats to national office, deeply Republican state legislatures keep Democratic governors in a stranglehold. In Kentucky, for example, the legislature overrode the Democratic governor Andy Beshear’s veto of one of the country’s most restrictive abortion laws. That law has yet to go into effect thanks to a legal challenge, but with the 6-3 majority conservative Supreme Court that seems prepared to toss Roe, it’s unlikely that challenge will be successful.
At a national level, the Democratic majority – which theoretically could be passing sweeping legislation to codify abortion rights, forgive student debt, expand healthcare access, reform campaign financing, expand the Supreme Court and raise corporate taxes – can instead barely manage to pass a gutted version of Biden’s proposed infrastructure bill. Despite all of their power, the Democrats feel like an opposition party – and an ineffective one at that.
While the Republican Party rules its caucus with an iron fist on key votes, the Democrats have long been sabotaged by the chummy acceptance of rogue figures in their ranks. In the Senate, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema – both Democrats – have been instrumental in the downfall of the Biden agenda through their obstinate refusal to vote with the party. The Republican leadership, meanwhile, has turned on representatives who bucked the party line, such as Wyoming’s Liz Cheney and Utah’s Mitt Romney, who both voted to impeach Donald Trump. In response, Cheney, formerly the third-ranked Republican in the House, was stripped of her leadership positions, and Romney faced public derision from much of the party in addition to the ire of Trump. Manchin, meanwhile, has been relatively untouched, despite extensive reporting on ties between his family coal business and his political activities.
Manchin is not alone. In recent days, the Democratic leadership has rallied behind Representative Henry Cuellar, a long-serving Texas Democrat who is facing a young, progressive primary challenger named Jessica Cisneros. Cuellar is one of the Democratic caucus’s rare anti-abortion politicians, which puts him squarely at odds with his party on one of its most essential social issues. He’s also mired in various scandals, from a strange FBI investigation into alleged links with an Azerbaijani lobbying group to new evidence that he reportedly sought to discredit a former staffer he fired when she was 28 weeks pregnant.
Cisneros, on paper and to anyone with both a sense of political vision and the Democratic Party’s stated values in mind, is the better candidate. Yet Cuellar is the one the party wants – the latest example of a long-established trend in which the Democrats ostracise progressive prospects in favour of candidates whose ideology is increasingly at odds with the party’s platform.
Why? The cynical view is that the Democratic leadership is committed to moderate candidates because they don’t represent a threat to the entrenched system of capital that left-wing newcomers do. The more generous view is that the Democratic leadership is simply scared of losing, and is reluctant to take risks on new candidates for fear of eroding age-old norms of internal loyalty.
Democrats too often shift the blame for any defeats on to the public. They have argued that if Americans had turned out to vote in greater numbers or voted for different candidates, the GOP would not have gained the power over the country that it holds. “If the court does overturn Roe, it will fall on our nation’s elected officials at all levels of government to protect a woman’s right to choose,” said Biden’s statement after the draft opinion leaked, before adding: “and it will fall on voters to elect pro-choice officials this November [in the midterms].”
These critiques ignore the utter lack of stewardship the Democratic Party has offered the US electorate in recent years. They also ignore that, in the face of gerrymandering, voter suppression and all the structural forces aligned against them, Americans gave the Democrats sole control over the presidency and both houses of Congress. It’s true that the majorities were slim – but they were majorities. They were opportunities that a more skilful, bold, ambitious party would have parlayed into a firmer grasp on power: establishing statehood for likely-Democrat provinces such as Puerto Rico and Washington DC, or abolishing the filibuster blocking bills that need 60 Senate votes.
Instead, the Democrats have done nothing, spending the past 16 months scrambling to respond to the aggressive governance of a party that technically holds no majorities in American government. Meanwhile, the midterm elections are approaching, which will almost certainly mean the demolition of the Democrats’ slim majority in the Senate and endanger, if not topple, its lead in the House. Two years from now, the White House will be up for grabs again; the GOP is already coalescing around a familiar champion. The Democrats have spent their time in power acting like an opposition party. In a few short years, they may inhabit that role for good.