Anyone who takes the time to peruse the archives here for late and early 2009 will find that I was much too optimistic about the future then. The Democrats had 60 votes in the Senate and a substantial majority in the House, and that looked like enough for Barack Obama to reverse the direction that the country had been going in, just as Franklin Roosevelt had done 76 years earlier. I turned out to be wrong. While the New Deal passed at least a dozen pieces of major legislation in its first two years--many of them providing immediate relief to desperate Americans--Obama managed to pass only two, the stimulus program and the Affordable Care Act. His economic advisers--Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and William Bernanke--concentrated on putting the new, finance-dominated economy back together as soon as possible, instead of using the crisis to change our economic power structure. None of these policies brought immediate relief to large numbers of Americans, and by the middle of 2010, the Republicans seemed certain to regain control of the House--as indeed they did, for the next eight years. In 2016 they regained control of the Senate. Now the Democrats control both chambers by very narrow margins.
Biden will, it seems, manage to provide more of the immediate relief that the nation once again desperately needs. Even before the new stimulus passes, the economy is moving in the right direction and unemployment is now under 7%--much lower than its peak about a year into the Obama administration. With vaccinations growing in number, the pandemic seems likely to recede by the end of the year. But what more will he be able to accomplish after the stimulus passes through reconciliation, without a dramatic increase in the minimum wage? And what are the chances that the Republicans will not manage to pick up the five seats that they need to control the House after 2022?
In the last few weeks I have listened to two interviews (readily accessible on youtube), and read one, with the Democratic political analyst David Shor. He is the man who lost his job last summer with one Democratic political data firm because he retweeted an article arguing that violent protests over the death of George Floyd would cost the Democrats votes. Fortunately he has found another one. His extraordinarily even emotional keel, his dedication to data, and his non-confrontational style represent the best of his Millennial generation. He sees things that most of us have not seen, and they do not bode particularly well for Biden and the Democrats. I shall summarize some of his most important points.
Shor believes that the biggest dividing line in American politics today is not race, but education. College graduates have been trending Democratic for years, and Trump accelerated that trend. He lost substantial numbers of college-educated white voters--most, obviously, in the suburbs--last November. He already had a large majority of non-college whites behind him, and he gained votes slightly among non-college black voters, and more significantly among Hispanics. In a chilling moment in one of his recorded interviews, Shor discussed the evolution of Florida in the last twenty years. In 2000 it was evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. In the intervening years it has become larger, much more diverse thanks to more Hispanic immigration--and pretty solidly Republican. Like their Cuban counterparts, immigrants from Venezuela and Colombia, it seems, vote in large part out of hostility towards socialism. Checking, I find that Donald Trump in Texas did 1% better against Joe Biden in 2020 than Ted Cruz did against Beto O'Rourke in 2019. That shift also seems to have reflected a better performance among Hispanics.
Democrats do better, Shor argues, when they stick to bread and butter issues (like the stimulus and minimum wage) that appeal to uneducated voters. Unfortunately, their party activists are generally highly educated, and prone to focus on social issues and even to use language which does not resonate with the uneducated voters who have become swing voters. Shor reports that the political ads that appealed the most to himself and his co-workers, such as a notorious one (that I cannot find on youtube) that showed a little girl crying in response to some of Donald Trump's most vicious remarks, did the worst among potential voters. He might have added that because Democratic candidates surround themselves with activists (their campaign workers) and with wealthy donors (also highly educated and liberal), they easily let those groups' language burst out in public or semi-public gatherings. Barack Obama talked about white voters clinging to guns and religion, and Hillary Clinton referred to Trump's "basket of deplorables." Biden, I think, in one of his rare public statements to date, did something similar when he referred to "Neanderthal thinking" behind the premature lifting of mask mandates. He might better have simply criticized the policy, rather than labelling everyone who supports it as less than fully human. Biden also seems to be going along with liberal activism on another hot-button issue, immigration. The Washington Post reports today that large numbers of Mexicans and Central Americans are on their way to the border, and the Biden administration is apparently preapring to let them in. Already it has allowed unaccompanied minors to cross the border and go into detention facilities for the first time in a year, and revoked the Trump regulation that such people must stay in Mexico while their asylum claims are heard. The Democrats may well emerge as the party of open borders.
An important recent article at fivethirtyeight.com described three options for Democrats, each favored by a certain faction of the party. The first wants immediately to do away with the filibuster not only to pass the minimum wage, but to admit the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico to the union and expand the size of the Supreme Court in an attempt to create Democratic majorities in those two branches of government. A second group also favors getting rid of the filibuster, but only to pass bills such as the new minimum wage and a new voting rights act that will perhaps outlaw gerrymandering and mandate mail-in voting in Congressional elections. The third group, to which the President seems at this point to belong, favors doing only what can be done with the help of Senator Manchin, if not with any bipartisan support. The second group's ideas make the most sense to me. They are designed to undo at least some of the advantage Republicans now enjoy through ruthless gerrymandering and which they are now trying to increase with numerous measures designed to reduce total votes. If the filibuster is eliminated, however, the Democrats will have to deal with a lot of intraparty fights over more radical legislation.
The Republican Party now essentially opposes democracy because it rejects what effective democracy brought about in the middle third of the twentieth century: high taxes, effective economic regulation, and civil rights bills, especially the Voting Rights Act. Three decades of packing the courts have left the Republicans in an excellent position to block major economic legislation. Biden may still have a chance to reverse the trends of the last 40 years. He can improve his chances by taking positions on social issues and using language which the vast majority of voters can understand and approve.