How Democratic Leadership Misunderstands Modern Political Risk

Former Vice President Joe Biden was asked today about progressive proposals to rebalance the courts. His answer was instructive: “I’m not prepared to go on and try to pack the court, because we’ll live to rue that day”

Biden’s response is typical of Democratic establishment leadership on matters of big structural change, like ending the filibuster or changing the balance of the courts. It’s relevantly similar to the battle over impeachment. Biden, Pelosi, Schumer, and those of similar persuasion live in perpetual fear of the Reagan Revolution, the 1984 crushing of Walter Mondale, and the Gingrich-era politics of backlash. They assume the voters don’t really agree with them on fundamental philosophies, and that Democrats only get elected by avoiding poking the bear of the conservative silent majority—or, at least, the silent majority of those who actually turn out to vote in American elections. This belief persists no matter how much polling shows that voters increasingly reject conservative precepts.

More importantly, they hew to the late 20th century perspective that the wisest course lies in not making change too quickly, or giving any political party the power to make sweeping changes. This status-quo philosophy is part of why America hasn’t made any major changes to its economic or political structures since enacting Medicare in the 1960s. It is why most policy now gets made not by Congress but by the courts, and why presidential elections are less about policy than about unelected Supreme Court appointments. Political frustration is fueled in large part by the fact that voters have no real ability to implement policy. Voters swept Barack Obama and the Democrats into unitary control of government in 2008, and got for their trouble a too-small stimulus and a relatively minor adjustment to the healthcare system. Voters (aided by structural injustices that allow a minority to overrule a majority) swept Donald Trump and Republicans into unitary control of government in 2016, and for their trouble got a tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, and some cruel adjustments to asylum policy. And when neither party has total control of government, practically nothing happens at all.

Meanwhile, multiple massive crises are converging on the country that require big ideas and large structural policy fixes. Climate change is an immediate and existential threat to all of human civilization and most species on the planet, in which the consequences of inaction far outweigh the risk of giving too much power to conservative ideologues at some point in the future. Education, healthcare, and housing costs are spiraling completely out of control in unsustainable ways. Depending on your politics and monetary theory, the ever-larger deficit could be lumped in here as well. And that doesn’t even address less immediately cascading catastrophes like gun violence, underinvestment in our infrastructure, criminal justice, and much more.

When (typically older) establishment Democrats tell (typically younger) progressives that they can’t try to make big structural changes to make government operate more efficiently—by, say, breaking the logjam of the Senate filibuster—they are told to be patient because the risk of giving that much power to Republicans is too great. But in actuality, it isn’t. On climate change alone, it’s not hyperbole to suggest that if the next Democratic administration–assuming Trump is defeated in 2020—does not pass something akin to a Green New Deal within its time, the policy failure could hurtle humanity into a dark age. Healthcare, housing, and education crises don’t have the same apocalyptic consequences, but their unsustiainable trajectories demand no less immediate solutions. The Democratic administration that comes after Trump, whether it’s run by Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, or Kamala Harris, will realistically have to deal with these problems with fewer than 60 Democratic Senators and almost no hope of Republican crossover votes. Sure, if Republicans regain unitary control of government without the backstop of a filibuster, they could do some very bad things. But none of those things would be as bad as letting another 10 years of climate inaction and ballooning healthcare, education, and housing costs go unaddressed. It’s a matter of theories of power and fundamental risk assessment.

Meanwhile, there’s another wager about political risk that establishment Democrats misjudge: demographic change and the risk of authoritarian control.

Even disregarding the immediacy of policy crises that intrinsically reject the logic of a safe status quo, there’s also the fact that the country’s changing demographics, combined with policy sclerosis, will lead to inherent political instability unless the logjam is broken. Older, whiter, more socially conservative America feels under threat of losing their stamp on the country’s character, racial composition, and soul—and they’re right. They’re losing: not only is the country inevitably becoming less white, it is also becoming less religious, and the millennial generation is not only larger than the baby boomers, but it’s also the most progressive in the last century—and the oldest millennials are about to turn 40. Meanwhile, most of the wealthiest Americans have long depended on that older, whiter socially conservative base as political allies. Inevitably, both of these factions will resort to anti-democratic authoritarianism to maintain an increasingly illegitimate hold on the country. The Republican Party isn’t about to turn to some sort of softer version of itself to win non-white millennial votes; rather, it will double down on Trumpism to make those votes irrelevant.

Meanwhile, all the above-mentioned environmental and economic crises will combine to create serious instability when the next recession comes, as it inevitably will. Americans are hard-pressed right now even with all the traditional indicators roaring. What happens in the next downturn? Typically, people respond to downturns by voting for change, and they expect politicians to deliver on it. The greatest risk is, when that day comes, conservatives are the only ones promising credible systemic changes––albeit, of course, wrong and immoral ones.

There’s also a weird assumption in arguing that Democrats should not rebalance the courts or eliminate the filibuster because of potential unitary Republican rule at some future date when the demographics of the country should make Republican rule almost impossible. Remember that virulently anti-immigrant Republican Pete Wilson, who was the governor of California less than 20 years ago. Today, the Republican Party is a third party in California behind “no party preference.” The same generational and demographic changes that brought Democratic supermajorities to California are slowly and inevitably happening to the rest of the country as well. Even gerrymandering and the electoral college can’t keep protecting Republicans from the consequences. What Pete Wilson did in California—essentially locking it down for Democrats in the Golden State—Trump is likewise doing for the country at large.

To put it bluntly, if the country has unitary Republican rule when the oldest millennials are 50 years old and the white share of the population has declined on its current pace, then there are far bigger problems afoot than whether Republicans can enact policy with 51 Senators, or if there are 13 justices on the Supreme Court. And frankly, if that does happen, the country should have the right to see the policies it voted for enacted in a functioning democracy.

It’s a question of risk. And the centrist establishment is hedging its bets in the wrong direction, protecting a status quo that is far more dangerous than the structural changes it fears.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.