Democrats are tired. I get that; I’m tired too. Lefties made fun of the woman—yes, blond and white—carrying a sign at the 2017 Women’s March that read “If Hillary was president we’d be at brunch.” How bourgeois can you get! Imagine wanting to have pancakes and mimosas out with your friends instead of demonstrating, going to meetings, door-knocking, leafleting, fundraising, and all the fun things so many of us spent so much time doing in the Trump years. In fact, women like that sign-holder geared up for action and became the much-mocked “Resistance,” which did so much to deliver the House, the Senate, and the White House to Democrats. For some, activism became a way of life. But it’s not surprising that a lot of people would like to step back now. Oscar Wilde is credited with quipping that the trouble with socialism is it takes too many evenings. As Michael Walzer pointed out, that’s true of participatory democracy, too.
After four years of obsessing nonstop about the latest outrage of Donald Trump, his administration, and his horrible family-not-counting-Barron, I’m relieved not to have them living in my head anymore. I also find myself wanting rather desperately to give Biden and the Democrats the benefit of every doubt. Do I just want to go to brunch? Biden’s infrastructure bill is a good thing, and Build Back Better, his $3.5 trillion climate change and social spending bill, is groundbreaking. Paid family leave, funding for child care and universal pre-K, and extending the expanded child tax credits would transform life for women and families. But the pressure is on to slash the size of the bill; Senator Joe Manchin wants lots more cuts, and Senator Kyrsten Sinema won’t even say what she would need in order to support the bill. Given how high our hopes were, it’s easy to feel discouraged or exhausted.
If Manchin and Sinema are doing their best to undermine Build Back Better, blame the founding fathers. It’s their fault that two senators representing less than 3 percent of the population are the most powerful people in the country. If life were a political thriller, the president would call them into his office and blackmail them with secret files on their sex lives, discreetly placed on his desk by his creepy henchman. If I were president, I would definitely try that.
But I digress. My point is, Biden and “the Democrats” are being blamed for the behavior of just two senators. So, as is often the case in this fallen world, it’s half a loaf or no bread—a scaled-down bill or none at all. And also because it’s a fallen world, Biden’s popularity is underwater. After all, he’s been in the White House for a whole nine months and he hasn’t made good on every single one of his campaign promises—so it must be because he’s weak, indecisive, clueless, old, and conservative. A lot of people seem to think the president is like a king, who can make things happen by waving his magic scepter, when the Constitution intentionally made that impossible. Divided government and all that. Drat those founding fathers.
It doesn’t help that the media never misses a chance to portray the Democrats as being in disarray. But it would be a terrible mistake to withdraw from the fray. Right now, worrying news is coming out of Virginia. This recently-turned-blue Southern state could revert to Republican hands on November 2, when all state offices go up for grabs. Cynics who claim that the Dems have done nothing for the people are wrong: On a wide range of issues, they’ve delivered, from expanding Medicaid, making it easier to vote, and restoring voting rights for more than 200,000 felons to increased funding for child care and repealing Republican-instituted restrictions on abortion. In her recent report for The Nation, Joan Walsh cites both complacency and weariness for the absence of volunteer and voter enthusiasm. Covid doesn’t help.
But turnout will be crucial, especially among Black and women voters. Polling maven Sean McElwee tells me Virginia will stay blue, but last week I was so anxious I signed up with Vote Forward to write letters to registered Virginia Democrats who don’t always vote. Some of my political friends call this make-work for people too lazy to phone-bank or door-knock, but Vote Forward says its studies show its letters raised turnout by an average of 0.8 percent in 2020 campaigns and more in some specific contests. In a close election, that could make the difference.
Could Texas’s abortion ban bring a surge of women voters to the polls? (And why not a surge of men as well?) Six other states—Florida, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arkansas, Indiana, and Mississippi —have expressed interest in passing a similar ban, and in December the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in a Mississippi case that could overturn Roe v. Wade and let each state go its own way. Stephen Holmes, a noted New York University law professor, tells me overturning Roe would be a good thing. After all, most Americans want abortion to be legal. “Republicans have benefited enormously from favoring the overturning of Roe but not being able to do something so overwhelmingly unpopular,” he wrote to me in an e-mail. “If it happens before the 2022 midterms, the backlash could save the Democratic majority in the House. Then Congress could make Roe the law of the land. A politically accountable Republican Congress would be much less likely to reverse that than an unaccountable Court.”
It’s great to hear from someone optimistic for a change, but it sounds a bit too clever to me. Even if the fall of Roe were to get a few more Democratic senators elected, would they be true-blue pro-choicers or “bipartisan” compromisers? As we see with Build Back Better, a few discordant senators can wield a lot of power. Also, what happens to those new abortion protections when the Republicans take power again? Roe may not be perfect, but it’s the umbrella beneath which reproductive rights has the best chance to survive and expand.
In other words, the stakes are as high as ever.
So, voters and volunteers of every race, ethnicity, income level, age, sex, and gender, don’t go all wobbly on us now. Enjoy your brunch, and then get back to work.