America Hurtles Forward — and Backward

The Country is caught between two competing and opposite revolutions. Which one will win?

America Hurtles Forward — and Backward

By David K. Shipler

According to Sir Isaac Newton’s third law, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction — a principle of physics, of course, but also true in politics and policy, at least currently in the United States. The country is moving in two directions simultaneously, as if two revolutions in thinking and practice are taking place, one progressing into a new era mobilizing government for economic and social reform, the other pushing hard into an old indifference to social injustice marked by blatant racial and class discrimination.

Although the two revolutions frame their respective arguments around the size and role of government, they are driven by more fundamental clashes of concept. At root is the question of how inclusive a democracy should be, what problems it can solve, how the common good should be defined, and how near or distant the horizon of vision should be drawn.

Joe Biden, the 78-year-old Washington insider, did not raise radical expectations when he took office just over two months ago. He was forecast as a caretaker president who would decompress the political atmosphere with boring normalcy. Instead, he has quickly emerged as the unlikely catalyst of the most imaginative Democratic movement in at least a generation, perhaps since the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His aspirations are broad and intensely sophisticated, forming an agenda that would apply expansive ideals in mobilizing the nation’s expertise and financial power against the most vexing problems of race, class, health, education, climate, environment, energy, communication, low-paid work, elderly care, aging transportation networks, and just about every other failure in the American landscape.

The opposite revolution would leave all the failures in place, unresolved, and would add to them. It is more than a counter-revolution, led by Republicans who have become more than the Party of No. They go beyond saying no to every advance — no eased voting, no true help for malnourished children, no cleaner air or water, no safer workplaces, no better health care, no sufficient funding for schools, no mandatory wages high enough to support families. The new Republicans — for they are new in the history of the Republican Party — do not merely stand still and block. They are moving at speed back in time.

Take access to the ballot box, now caught up in the two competing revolutions. Last November, more Americans voted in absolute numbers than ever before: 159,633,396, a 66.7 percent turnout, the highest in 120 years. That was prompted not only by the high stakes of the election, but also by the broadened opportunity that had been put in place over decades and enhanced because of the risks of going personally to the polls during the pandemic. Easier registration, early voting, mail-in ballots, and drop boxes encouraged citizens to participate.

American history is pockmarked with voting denials — aimed at women, at Blacks, at felons, at the poor. Breaking down those obstacles has been part of a revolution that modern Democrats are continuing, as illustrated in their voting rights bill passed by the House and stuck in the divided Senate.

The more Americans who vote, the less chance Republicans have of winning elections. That is the party’s obvious calculation in introducing dozens of bills in state legislatures aimed at making voting harder. Many strip power from local election officials who stood as bulwarks against Trump’s effort to overturn his loss. Some, such as those recently passed in Georgia, are so obviously designed to suppress the turnout of Blacks that Biden has called them a return to the Jim Crow era, when legal segregation included poll taxes, absurd intelligence tests, and outright intimidation to prevent African-Americans from exercising their most basic right.

The Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court opened the door to this reverse revolution in 2013 by effectively throwing out Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required pre-clearance by the Justice Department of any changes is voting procedures by states and localities listed as having a history of discrimination. If the new laws survive the conservative Court’s scrutiny, democracy would be severely wounded.

The Republican revolution is pedaling backwards in many other areas. When it comes to fighting poverty, the party retreats under the flag of victim-blaming, implying that the poor (most of whom are white, by the way) are immoral and irresponsible and don’t want to work. This stereotype underpins the patronizing and punitive approach of government programs, and Democrats haven’t been immune to its pernicious effects. Witness President Bill Clinton’s signature on the 1996 welfare bill that required recipients to seek, train for, or obtain jobs, even when they weren’t available or paid little.

But the moral fantasy resonates more now with Republicans than Democrats. It’s why Republicans cheered when Donald Trump imposed onerous obstacles to getting benefits such as SNAP, the food card that keeps hungry Americans just barely afloat. It’s why congressional Republicans opposed Biden’s additional $300 in weekly unemployment benefits, arguing without evidence that recipients wouldn’t look for jobs — jobs that might pay decently if Republicans hadn’t also refused to raise the federal minimum wage, which has been $7.25 an hour since 2009. The old Soviet joke comes to mind: We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.

That American Rescue Act, which barely passed over unanimous Republican opposition, contains the seeds of a revolution it itself: a $3,000 to $3,600 per year payment per child, even if you don’t earn enough to pay taxes. The benefit begins to phase out at income levels of $112,500 for the head of a household and $150,000 on joint tax returns. It lasts only one year, but if extended will mark a new role for government in providing a guaranteed income minus the red tape that accompanies SNAP, housing subsidies, and other programs.

Indeed, affordable housing would be the single largest item — $213 billion — in Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which would engage government in the broadest repair and reform effort in generations. It would put federal dollars into promoting electric vehicles; fixing decaying roads, bridges, airports, and ports; improving public transit; expanding high-speed broadband; workforce development; and on and on.

This is an unusually sensible time to borrow money for such projects, with interest rates on government bonds ridiculously low. If you need a new roof and have to get a loan, you know that this is the moment. Why wait until rates go up, as they inevitably will? Yet Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell says without reading the legislation that every Republican will vote no. One suspects that he and his colleagues don’t want Biden to chalk up any achievements that will please American voters.

To be fair, there is a conservative principle buried in the swamp of political rhetoric. Conservative Republicans say they want to shrink government, make it less intrusive — unless governmental power extends into a woman’s body by opposing her right to an abortion. Conservative Republicans say they worry about the federal debt — except when they don’t worry about it, by slashing taxes for the wealthy and the corporations as they did gleefully under Trump, raising the debt by $7.8 trillion during his four years. Conservative Republicans say they care about the future of children and grandchildren — except when they don’t, by tolerating child malnutrition and poorly funded schools.

And of course Republicans say they care deeply about democracy — except when they don’t, by coddling the anti-democratic extreme right and trying mightily to impede voting by American citizens who they think will vote against them.

It’s anybody’s guess which revolution will win. The United States is at a tipping point in its democratic norms, its compassion for the less fortunate, its crumbling infrastructure, its millions of untrained workers, its confrontation with embedded racism and misogyny. It is a fateful hour.

David K. Shipler is a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 7 books and a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.