At first glance, the November election results look like a recipe for gridlock. With a new Democratic president facing a Republican-controlled Senate—or, perhaps, one only barely in Democratic hands—the prospect of Washington passing sweeping, FDR-style legislation is remote.
That doesn’t mean, however, that big things can’t happen. Indeed, if Joe Biden wants to fulfill the demands of voters—his own, but also the many who chose Trump—for systematic reform, he will have to be more creative and take bigger risks than he might otherwise be inclined to. That will mean challenging the power of oligarchic corporations, using executive authority recent administrations have not tapped, and crafting daring legislation that has a chance of shaking loose at least a few Republican votes in the Senate.
Meanwhile, liberals and progressives have an opportunity over the next four years to engage in some soul searching about why their hopes for a broader victory in 2020 came up short. Specifically, they need to develop a revamped policy agenda that stands a better chance of widening their circle of support—especially among less-educated working- and middle-class voters, both white and minority, whom they are losing. (Conservatives will certainly be doing the same.)
If you are a longtime reader of this magazine, you will not be shocked to learn that we have thoughts on how this can be done. In fact, this issue is devoted to stories that advance an alternative agenda for the president-elect, congressional Democrats, and persuadable Republicans—though, in truth, Biden doesn’t even need Congress to implement much of what we’re suggesting.
At the top of the list, Barry Lynn argues, are a suite of anti-monopoly statutes already on the books that Biden can deploy to reshape the American economy. These laws have gone largely unused by every president since Ronald Reagan, with disastrous results. Markets in everything from agriculture to health care to digital technology have been cornered by monopolies that jack up prices, drive down wages, and suppress innovation and entrepreneurship. Biden can start reversing the damage on day one. And with recent antitrust actions by Trump’s Justice Department and the FTC, he may have bipartisan support to do so.
He can also use federal power to enhance the freedom of local communities. As Daniel Block notes, Donald Trump’s most despicable attacks on American democracy in 2020 were directed, in part, at municipalities—like sending in federal security forces to disrupt Black Lives Matter protests in Portland and other cities, and urging GOP election officials in Detroit and elsewhere to overturn the will of the voters. And for the past decade, Republican-controlled state governments have conspired with large corporations to pass laws blocking cities and towns from raising their local minimum wage, banning fracking within their boundaries, and protecting the rights of their own LGBTQ citizens. Biden, on his own initiative, can give localities more power to run their own affairs. He can, for instance, buy back defunct coal power plants from rural electric co-ops, allow municipalities to choose to accept more refugees, and provide cities and towns—including in deep-red parts of the country—with a direct pipeline to federal infrastructure financing.
One of the greatest fears of liberals is that Senate Republicans will try to paralyze whatever policy agenda Biden chooses by refusing to confirm his executive branch nominees. But as Peter Shane points out, a little-noted clause in the U.S. Constitution vests the president with the authority to declare when Congress is in recess if the two houses can’t agree. He can then use his recess appointment power to fill the top ranks of his departments with individuals of his own choosing. It would be a major escalation of the war between the parties. But the mere threat of it might get Mitch McConnell’s attention. If the Senate leader doesn’t budge, Biden should feel free to pull the trigger.
By championing policies like anti-monopolism and local empowerment, the new president can craft something sorely missing in America: a persuasive national narrative. As the election results showed, voters are bitterly divided between two competing visions of our national origins, purpose, and possible future. “One is ethnic and exclusionary,” writes Colin Woodard, “the other is civic and, in principle, universal, though falling far short of that in practice.” If the latter vision cannot soon command a dominant share of the electorate—by, among other things, finally dealing people of color into the American Dream and avoiding unwinnable wars, the latter a goal supported by voters in both parties—Woodard predicts that there will not be a United States 25 years from now.
Biden’s task is daunting. No president in American history has entered office with so many ongoing catastrophes yet so little support in Congress. His best hope for success is to reimagine the role of the federal government in the lives of average Americans. For too long, Democrats have been torn between centrists afraid of defying large corporations and leftists who define boldness by how much Washington spends on social programs. Today, the former is folly, the latter infeasible. The agenda laid out in this issue of the Washington Monthly provides a way out of this dilemma. It is one that allows the Biden administration to address the country’s greatest challenges with an updated liberalism that has a shot at winning the support of a decisive majority of the American people.