Getting a grip when nothing works

I was mentally drafting a post this morning about how nothing seems to work, then this afternoon the irrepressibly optimistic Amy Hanauer shared this Prospect article with a different perspective. Robert Kuttner makes enough good points, therein, that for now I feel like examining them instead.

In general, I consider “Get a Grip: There Will Be a Budget Resolution” a very sound response to two, related, current problems:

  1. I have refused to pay attention to regular updates from the budget standoff in Congress. I think the whole thing is not only a fiasco which was practically manufactured by Democratic leadership—as I wrote months ago, dumb schemes like the “two-track approach” always do the opposite of defusing brinkmanship—it’s also a perfect example of how I just can’t take all this shit literally. Kuttner writes a good explanation of why there’s no reason to make an exception here.
  2. Although I still go through the motions of sending messages to Congress and the White House, what do I even say? So many things are crisis-level all at once and I do not want to get swept up in “this is what’s heating up this week so direct your comments there.” Kuttner writes a shortlist which I think addresses the biggest big-picture issues with as few items as possible.

I’m not really convinced of various details, though, or of the conclusion that we have the enemies of democracy and justice on the ropes, so “Enough defeatism! We can do this.”

Regarding the first two items on the list, sure I expect that this year there will be a budget and America will not default on its debt, but I think complete certainty of that goes too far. I don’t believe we even had debt-ceiling standoffs until several years ago. Now it’s already been hypernormalized? This kind of ho-hum, routine brinkmanship has been a prelude to things like World War I…

Regarding items four and five, well, yes, it’s more important to defend democracy right now than to get every penny of spending which Biden has proposed—but, well let’s see. We’re in very bad shape if half of the powerful Senate wants democracy put out of business, and we have to scale back help for working people even after decades of runaway inequality because that’s the only way we can get marginal votes from corporate Democrats. (We’re in very bad shape.) It’s also very doubtful that rules can contain the assault on democracy, even though there’s zero excuse for not trying.

As for item six, well, Biden does seem to be distressingly hapless and I don’t think that’s just a media creation. I’m not sure who could really meet the impossible demands of this moment, but: Louis DeJoy is still dismantling the post office, Trump’s tax returns are still locked in a vault, Biden still hasn’t even nominated anyone for FCC chair(!!!!), Biden’s policy toward refugees is a schizophrenic mess at best, Biden enraged America’s oldest ally in order to connive with conman Boris Johnson…

The final items just might be more convincing if I hadn’t been hearing that “The electorate is unmistakably trending Democratic” this entire century. It’s not even horribly wrong as far as it goes—Republicans’ candidates haven’t gotten the most votes for president since 1988, with one exception that comes with a lot of caveats—and it’s also fair to say “That’s why Republicans want a dictatorship.”

The problem is that Republicans already have a system in which it doesn’t matter that the electorate wants Democrats in power. They already have the absurdly anti-democratic Senate and Electoral College. They already have an unaccountable rigged federal judiciary. They already have voter-proof gerrymandering.

What do we have in response to any of these?

I don’t see that we have anything which works, which returns to where I came in. The political system, the justice system, the information infrastructure, the traditional activist’s and organizer’s toolkits: none of them seem to work. Let’s say that there is a budget, which even includes some substantial portion of Biden’s agenda above and beyond the corporation-approved “bipartisan infrastructure framework,” and against all odds Democrats even manage beyond-eleventh-hour pro-democracy legislation too, and it isn’t even a complete shambles simply ignored by lawless Republicans the way redistricting reforms have been in Ohio and various other states. I don’t expect this but let’s imagine that it all happens.

What are we going to do about, for example, the Senate? Remember, 2018 was a resounding vote for Democrats, nationally, and Republicans increased their Senate majority; 2022 won’t be a resounding vote for Democrats but even if it is, the party of sabotage can regain full control of the Senate.

What are we going to do in 2024 when Republican state legislatures, judges, and probably at least one Republican-controlled chamber of Congress simply decide that the Republican presidential candidate won the Electoral College, no matter what voters say?

What are we going to do about the decades-long trend toward sabotage and dysfunction? (It has not always been thus, Mr. Kuttner.) What are we going to do about the fact that a major political party has gone bad and America’s institutions have proved incapable of confronting this? What are we going to do about the climate crisis? What are we going to do about a political system so sclerotic, at best, and substantially at cross-purposes with any popular interest that amid all these crises, the legislature is struggling after most of a year to squeeze out a budget and maybe, maybe, some bare-minimum admonishments that it’s against the rules to rig elections?

Defeatism may not be what we need, but neither is immovable insistence that “We can do this” within the existing system.

One Thought on “Getting a grip when nothing works

  1. Amy Hanauer on September 30, 2021 at 10:19 am said:

    Irrepressible optimism is part of how I have to function. I’m not saying you’re wrong about many of these things (some of them I don’t know much about, but I trust you). Look, it’s a big country with some terribly anti-democratic institutions (filibuster, senate, electoral college). And we have a pretty vicious form of capitalism in which moneyed interests hold discussing sway over our policies. We also have a lot of conservatives, a lot of people who don’t have the time or inclination to participate in the political process, and a lot of people who want good jobs, good wages and to tax the rich, but feel alienated by some aspects of progressive rhetoric. I’m probably less left than you or more easily consoled or more willing to ignore certain things, some of which is just about sanity preservation. But I think on the whole that Biden, Pelosi and Schumer have gotten behind a big expansion of child care, pre-k, free community college, money to kids, and climate funding. And they’ve proposed paying for it mostly by taxing the rich and corporations. That’s pretty remarkable. And we have one lunatic, and one guy who benefits from fossil fuels, both of whom hold a lot of sway. So all of that makes it hard. I’m persuaded we’ll get something good. I reach a different conclusion about Dem leadership manufacturing this crisis. I think Pelosi knows more about getting things through than I do and I think she has a pretty tiny needle to thread. You may end up right – my need to consider the positive possibility has often steered me wrong. But look, you do lots of great work. I think ultimately all you can do is get up and do the work you think is necessary, and go take a walk or see a friend or pet a puppy or whatever when it gets to be too much. The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough. (that’s column mccann). Hang in there.

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