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Wednesday, October 18, 2023

This Is the Week for Democrats to Live Up to Their Stated Principles

famously doesn’t talk to the press. She typically scuttles wordlessly
past the gaggle of reporters staked out near the elevators senators use to get
to the chamber when there are votes; it’s even difficult for reporters to get
on her media list. But if she ever consented to an interview with me, I know
what I’d ask: What is it exactly, senator, that makes you a Democrat?

That’s what I’ve been thinking
about as we approach this make-or-break week for the Democratic Party, because
it’s really hard to figure her out. The same can sometimes be said of Joe
, although he’s considerably less bewildering than Sinema; ditto
Kurt Schrader, Scott Peters, and Kathleen Rice, the House trio who recently
declared their servitude to Big Pharma, potentially wrecking what ought to be a
major piece of the party’s agenda. A few other House centrists spring to mind
as being occasionally maddening.

Democrats come in a lot of flavors,
not all of them delectable. But two broad principles should unite them. The
first is a commitment to social justice that is driven by an understanding of
American and world history that acknowledges that bigotry and discrimination
are real and systemic and recognizes that it’s necessary today to compensate
for that past and oppose existing discrimination. The second is a commitment to
government intervention in the economy, based on an interpretation of reality
that holds that the market, left to its own devices, does not achieve
“equilibrium” (a favorite neoliberal economists’ word) but rather creates all
manner of inequities and inefficiencies that only government is in a position
to correct.

Democrats will often disagree on
the solutions needed to address these problems. But they should at the very
least agree on these two points of analysis. If people don’t support social
justice and government intervention in the market, it’s hard to imagine why
they even bother being in the Democratic Party.

Let’s go back to Sinema. What makes
her a Democrat? I really have no idea at this point. She was once a Green. In
the Arizona state Senate, and as a candidate for Congress in a town-and-gown
district, she operated mostly on the progressive end of the spectrum.

Today? She sure seems to belong
lock, stock, and barrel to her big donors. As Daniel Strauss reported
here last week
, she’s raked in corporate campaign donations. According
to The New York Times’ reporting
, she appears to oppose an increase, any
increase, in the corporate tax rate. Even Manchin is in favor of raising it to
around 25 percent.

If you can’t go along with raising
the corporate tax rate by a few points to fund universal pre-K, then what are
you doing in the Democratic Party? If you favor corporations over low-income
toddlers, you belong in the Republican Party. And that melodramatic thumbs-down
Sinema gave to the minimum wage earlier this year was disgusting—an attempt to
mimic John McCain, most of whose political views I didn’t care for, but at
least he was an honorable human being and, when he issued his thumbs-down on
Obamacare repeal, he was taking the right position.

I have a little more sympathy for Manchin
than Sinema, given that he’s from a state Donald Trump won by 40 points and
that, being from that state myself, I know his background. He comes from a
prominent Democratic family. But that affiliation dates to the days when almost
everyone was a Democrat, because of FDR and the (relative) prosperity the New
Deal brought to West Virginia. Manchin’s family was a small-business family—they
had a prosperous carpet company—and that codes Republican. And as The
Intercept recently reported
, he’s invested in coal, so his opposition
to greening the economy is apparently not just about the perceived interests of
his state. Still, Manchin has always voted Democratic when his vote mattered,
so I always thought he more or less bought into the two basic principles I laid
out above.

But now it’s hardly clear that he
does. On the social justice front, he should not be playing these games with
voting rights. Yes, he helped write the compromise legislation. But unless he’s
willing to kill the filibuster for this issue, nothing he says on that score matters.

And on the Build Back Better
legislation, he seems to be proceeding
from conservative assumptions
. We’re looking at the prospect of the federal
government injecting trillions of dollars of investments into the economy. There
are two possible responses to this, grounded in different ideas about economic
theory. The conservative Friedmanesque view is that this much government money
will incentivize people not to work and will trigger inflation. The liberal Keynesian
view is that these ideas—pre-K, childcare, family leave, free community
college—are long overdue investments in working- and middle-class Americans, which will give the economy a positive jolt.

Everything Manchin has said
indicates that he’s working from the conservative assumptions. Remember, he
held up the Covid relief bill earlier this year at the eleventh hour because he
wanted to shorten the time frame for unemployment benefits. His main concern in
all this seems to be that the government is going to create a class of indolent

There might actually be some truth
to his position. As I
wrote earlier this month
, the pandemic has demonstrated that a lot of
Americans have apparently decided that they no longer want to work at unrewarding
jobs for low wages. That is a real dilemma. But there’s a Democratic solution
to it: Raise the minimum wage! If the unemployed of West Virginia can suddenly
earn $12 an hour at the dollar store instead of the current federal minimum of
$7.25, which is a poverty wage, they’ll flock to those jobs.

This could be the week that
Democrats began to turn 40 years of destructive economic assumptions on their
head. I hope that’s how it all goes down. Even if the number on the
reconciliation bill ends up being closer to $2 trillion than $3.5, well, it’s a
start—a great kick in the right direction. But if it fails because a few
Democrats opposed it from conservative assumptions, the Democratic Party will
have some serious housecleaning to do.

Michael Maren
Michael Maren
Former marine biologist who likes to spend as much time in the tropics as possible, due to a horrible time I once had in Alaska. Brrrr.

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