MIT’s emeritus professor Noam Chomsky once described the Republican Party as “the most dangerous organization in human history.” Saturday’s issue of The New York Times confirms it, as one story offers a glimpse of how dismal this moment in time is for millions of Americans whose lives are now hanging by a slender thread, thanks to the deliberate action (or in this case inaction) of Senate Republicans.
For many of the 30 million Americans relying on unemployment benefits, it could already be too late to prevent lasting financial harm. Without the extra $600 a week, which ran out at the end of July, they will need to get by on regular state unemployment benefits, which often total a few hundred dollars a week or less. For many families, that will not be enough to prevent eviction, hunger or mounting debt that will make it harder to climb out of the hole.
This stunning dereliction of responsibility stems primarily from the gross mismanagement and reckless disregard of the Trump administration. But that mismanagement would not have taken place without the complicity of the Republican Party, specifically Republican senators, Republican governors, and Republican state legislators. As of this writing, there has been no agreement between the Democratically-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate on how to save—or even temporarily protect—ordinary Americans from the catastrophic economic spillover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Nor is there reason to believe that any aid, however temporary, will change the status quo significantly between now and election day.
Joseph O’Neill is a professor at Bard College. In an essay written for the New York Review of Books, O’Neill explains how the Democratic Party, and specifically Joe Biden, should govern the country—assuming the current polling hold, and the Democrat ascends to the presidency, along with a Democratic House and Senate, in January 2021.
It will be anything but “business as usual” because, as O’Neill grimly explains, the time we are about to live through simply will not tolerate “business as usual.”
Somewhat unexpectedly, ensuring the success of the Democratic Party has become the most important political project in the world. The United States remains the world’s largest economy and superpower, and its constructive international leadership is essential if the climate crisis and other world-historical dangers are to be overcome. This can happen only if Democrats dominate the national government for the best part of the next ten years or so. Republicans cannot be trusted with meaningful power precisely because they form one of the world-historical dangers that must be overcome.
The predominant and urgent theme of O’Neill’s essay is that once it assumes power, the Democratic Party must work tirelessly to drum the Republican Party out of existence, through an aggressive, highly partisan approach that’s unprecedented in modern history.
He notes, correctly, that, in the eyes of the public, what is driving the Democratic Party at present is a singular, if vehement, antipathy towards Donald Trump. Once Trump departs the field, O’Neill demands that Democrats ensure that Republicans never have an opportunity to govern again. Faced with the off-the-charts economic disaster that Republicans are leaving for American citizens, O’Neill views the party’s current approach towards simply cobbling together disparate coalitions and doing its best to “minimize intraparty differences” is tactically insufficient. With regard to Biden, In O’Neill’s view, ”If, as seems likely, he wins in November, his administration and its supporters will need a new, broadly acceptable partisan ideology in order to win a series of subsequent elections.” The question then becomes how that hyper-partisan approach can best be implemented.
To be clear, by “partisan,” O’Neill is not simply recommending being “anti” any individual Republican officeholders but rather wholly embracing a clear, straightforward Democratic agenda, with an enemy clearly and broadly defined as the Republican Party. The idea of “bipartisanship” must be relegated to the dustbin—forever. This is a Democratic world O’Neill foresees, one in which there is no longer any room for Republican ideology, policy, or philosophy of any sort.
To that end, as O’Neill states, “if Democrats want to win elections repeatedly, they must enact policies that are both effective and popular with Democrats.” This, he believes, is the only way the energy of the Democratic grassroots organizations that form the Party’s base of support will stay engaged, and continue to vigorously vote and re-vote the Democrats back into power.
O’Neill draws upon E.J. Dionne’s new book, Code Red, for the template on how to harness the same grassroots energy that, in 2018, drove the Republican Party from its chokehold on the House of Representatives. Both Dionne and O’Neill believe that, in the wake of this horrific pandemic, the American public will countenance broad, government-based solutions to the inequities that this virus has laid bare. With Democratic majorities, a President Joe Biden could conceivably achieve the same sort of legislative milestones that were established during the first few years of the Lyndon Johnson administration (the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Medicare and Medicaid are some of the most prominent ones). Above all, O’Neill believes that the American people now crave the “legality, competence, and decency” which have been non-existent over since Donald Trump was inaugurate in January 2017.
Yet O’Neill also recognizes that for this to occur, so-called “moderate” Democrats must acknowledge that the energy of the Party is now centered among its most progressive members, and specifically that ”moderates must accept that their conservative assumptions have been overtaken by events.” O’Neill recognizes that Biden’s development of his platform already demonstrates its marked departure from that of either Barack Obama’s or Hillary Clinton’s, by embracing such progressive programs as the Green New Deal, and proposing a “Clean Energy Revolution” identical in many respects to that proposed by Bernie Sanders.
O’Neill also suggests that recent years in the minority may have conditioned “traditional” Democratic leaders such as Charles Schumer and even Nancy Pelosi to be reticent to recognize their job to enact policies that “Democrats like and Republicans don’t like.” The reflexive attitude that Republicans must somehow be mollified, in other words, must be discarded forever, according to O’Neill. Yes, it will come as a bit of a shock to voters, even Democratic ones, who have been conditioned to expect only incremental policy achievements on the “D” side, such as the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
The policies Biden will need to save this country from extinction will make the ACA look like a minor achievement, in the scheme of things.
How, then, to achieve the type of party unity necessary to carry this agenda forward, and to reduce the Republican Party to “electoral rubble” in the eyes of Americans? O’Neill acknowledges that, to a great extent, existing organizations within the Democratic Party establishment must be “co-opted.”
Specifically, it requires appropriate action by the three main stakeholders: the Democratic Party apparatus, in particular the DNC; Democratic elected officials; and, finally, the (potential) supporters of the party who are ordinary civilians. Of these stakeholders, the institutional ones have the most immediate agency—the power to generate partisan coherence by action. It’s pretty clear what they must do: gain the trust and loyalty of the younger, more progressive cohort; keep the trust of the more centrist party faithful; and make swing voters trust Democrats more than they trust Republicans.
The first step in achieving the unity of purpose is by developing a vocabulary all are comfortable with. O’Neill specifically cites Dionne’s recommendation, that the concept of dignity be the glue that binds that effort into a singular, unified purpose. Dignity as in “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect.” Beginning with assumption that all Democratic constituents deserve to be treated with dignity can go a long way towards unifying the party behind a set of discrete tactics and legislative measures.
Which tactics and measures does O’Neill recommend?
1) Appointing progressive figures respected by the left to positions of power within the Biden administration;
2) Taking concrete action to implement progressive policies without watering them down: Raise taxes on the wealthy, implement a Green New Deal, expand the Affordable Care Act—for starters;
3) Implementing wide-ranging police reforms, curtailing or abolishing ICE, implementing immigration reform, re-establishing the Voting Right Act and legislating against voter suppression;
4) Ending the filibuster if the GOP uses it to get in the way of a Democratic agenda, and expanding the Supreme Court to do away with the monstrous domination imposed by the Federalist Society cabal; and, finally,
5) Working “from Day One” towards retaining our Majority through 2022 and beyond, by making the DNC an arm of the Democratic grassroots.
Above all, Democrats must brand—and continue to brand—the Republican Party as a disaster that Americans cannot afford to ever let happen again. O’Neill suggests the prevailing theme should always be “The Republican Party can no longer be trusted with power. Repeat this at every opportunity, then verify this narrative by investigating and bringing to light all Republican misdeeds.”
In other words, treat them as they deserve to be treated after what they’ve done to the country.
Call the disastrous Republican economy that Biden will inherit “the disastrous Republican economy.” Call the Republican pandemic crisis “the Republican pandemic crisis.” Always be trumpeting the success of your initiatives, always be talking about the danger of letting Republicans back into power. On no account repeat the mistakes of 2008–2010, when Democrats apologized for the Affordable Care Act and took ownership of the Republican financial crisis. If Democrats comport themselves like the natural party of government, they will be perceived as such and win more elections.
O’Neill isn’t blind to the overall changes in mindset that needs to occur to bring all of this about. Until Trump is cast into the Lake of Electoral Oblivion (along with the GOP Senate), being “the Party That Is Not Donald Trump” may well suffice for Democrats. But from the point of victory forward, there can be nothing but raw, unbridled, Democratic partisanship, if we want to truly capture this historical, once-in-a-lifetime moment.
The ring is there for the taking. The Democrats just need to go ahead and grab it.
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