The most striking thing about the collapse of Joe Biden’s legislative agenda is how unsurprising it is. It was always a distinct possibility that Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from a conservative state, would reject the President’s flagship Build Back Better bill: Congress has already approved more than $6 trillion in additional spending since the start of the pandemic, inflation is at a 40-year high and the spending package was unpopular in Manchin’s home state of West Virginia, not least because it threatened the energy industries on which many West Virginians’ livelihoods depend.
But even those who disapprove of BBB’s fate must surely see that this is America’s political system functioning as it is supposed to function. Biden’s legislation can’t even get the support of half of the Senate — and so it won’t become law. This is standard Washington fare. It is politics as it always has been.
However, to listen to Democrats in the days since Manchin delivered his fatal blow is to be left with a very different impression. According to their version of events, the senator’s decision is tantamount to a crisis for American democracy. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said that “our entire democracy is on the line”; to fix this, she wants to “crack down” on the “very privileged, very entitled and very protected” Senate. Chuck Schumer, notionally in charge of Senate Democrats, responded to Manchin’s decision with a promise that the upper chamber will vote on a bill that would overhaul US voting laws as soon as it is back from a Christmas recess.
Even before Manchin doomed Biden’s agenda, calls for changes to the rules governing America’s system of government — some small, others profound — had grown louder as the prospects of Build Back Better faded. Last week, Elizabeth Warren introduced a bill to pack the Supreme Court with additional justices. “The current court,” she argued, “threatens the democratic foundations of our nation.”
In Democratic-supporting parts of the media, the tone is no less alarmist. Jennifer Rubin, the West Wing’s favourite columnist, argued in the Washington Post that the failure of Build Back Better puts “democracy itself in a precarious position”. She emphasised: “the Democrats’ hopes for 2022 and the fate of our democracy depend on the President’s ability to reconstruct an agenda he can actually deliver.”
In one sense, she’s right. Their legislative disappointment is a chance for Democrats to face a banal, if frustrating, reality: that Biden was not elected with a mandate for transformative legislation, that the party has only the loosest grip on the legislative branch, and that America simply isn’t crying out for the progressive reforms that most of the party favours.
But facing unpleasant facts isn’t fun. Hence why Democrats appear to be slipping further into their own delusions, processing Manchin’s obstinance as a crisis that imperils not just their own electoral fortunes but the future of the republic. And hence why what should be a moderating moment looks likely to have a radicalising effect: their own legislative impotence persuading a party already comfortable with an apocalyptic register to dial up the doom and gloom to eleven.
Such a response can, of course, be understood on an emotional level: you’re more likely to complain about the quality of the refereeing when you’re losing. But it is also worth appreciating on a political level. The Democrats’ 2020 victory was built on the unpopularity of Donald Trump. Without that, it is far from clear they can put together a coalition of voters broad enough to hold on to both chambers of Congress and the White House. And so, with a legislative agenda foundering, it’s time to return to something they can all agree on: the wickedness of the other side.
None of this is to say there aren’t threats to American democracy from the Trumpist Right. The last President spent the months between the election and Biden’s inauguration doing everything he could to stay in power. Any sensible reforms to the rules governing Washington would safeguard against something similar happening again.
But that danger to America’s electoral system only makes the Democrats’ focus on the largely unrelated question of voting rights — and their overblown rhetoric of voter suppression and “Jim Crow 2.0” — more baffling, and less excusable. Instead of tailoring their pro-democracy agenda to the dangers that surround post-election certification, the party is ploughing ahead with a bill that would federalise voting rules in response to some mostly inane changes at a state level.
Elsewhere, Democrats want to overturn the rules that govern the Senate and, if Warren is anything to go by, take the extraordinary step of rebalancing the Supreme Court simply because progressives aren’t satisfied by its current composition. As the centre-left commentator Matthew Yglesias has observed, Democrats certainly aren’t acting as though they believe that the future of democracy is in peril. If they did, they’d surely shelve party-political concerns and build as broad a coalition as possible to combat the Trumpist threat.
The dark irony of the Democrats’ predicament is that they could end up being right for the wrong reasons. There’s a chance, after all, that the failure of Build Back Better really is bad news for American democracy — but only because it radicalises their own side.
A universe in which Biden and other Democratic lawmakers listen to Manchin’s complaints about the legislation, attempt to understand the concerns of the voters he represents (without whom the Senate would be in Republican hands), and steer themselves back towards the centre feels a long way away. Biden, for his part, has taken a tough line all along: according to the Washington Post, the White House rejected an offer from Manchin that included the vast majority of the bill’s provisions.
Now the West Virginian has walked away, they appear to be pursuing a vindictive, scorched-earth strategy. Faced with Manchin’s exasperation, Democrats cry foul, accusing him of being a corrupt coal boss and choosing to ignore the obvious fact that the legislation would have been very unpopular in his home state. Again, the clear, normal, predictable explanation is spurned in favour of a more alarmist narrative.
Biden himself is certainly capable of overblown rhetoric about the future of American democracy. But so far he has mostly resisted calls from Democrats to go nuclear and change the rules that govern Washington to favour his own party. That refusal grows harder by the day.
Many in his party are rightly concerned that their country is stuck in a downward spiral, but they cannot see their own part in the process. Increasingly, both sides view anything other than victory for themselves as illegitimate. A party that responds to its own perfectly normal legislative woes by doubling down on an all-out battle to rewrite the rules of the system in its favour is not serious about ending that descent into anarchy. And so, the more impotent the Democrats feel, the more dangerous they become.