This week, lawmakers will begin to construct the details of the $3.5 trillion infrastructure package they declared their intention to pass. On August 11, the Senate approved a budget resolution telling committees to hammer out the details of a bill that will deal with the “soft” infrastructure not covered in the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that dealt with roads, bridges, broadband, and other “hard” infrastructure needs. The larger bill will focus on child care, education, elder care, health care, and climate change.
If this measure passes, it will expand the ways in which the government addresses the needs of ordinary Americans. It updates the measures put in place during the New Deal of the 1930s, when Democrats under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt shored up nuclear families—usually white nuclear families—by providing unemployment insurance, disability coverage, aid to children, and old age insurance.
After World War II, people of both parties accepted this new system, believing that it was the job of a modern government to level the economic playing field between ordinary men and those at the top of the economic ladder. Republican presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon expanded government action into civil rights and protection of the environment; Democrats Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter expanded education initiatives, health care, anti-poverty programs, civil rights, and workers’ rights.
But opponents insisted that such government action was “socialism.” In America, this word comes not from international socialism, in which the government owns the means of production, but rather from the earlier history of Reconstruction, when white opponents of Black voting insisted that the money to pay for programs like schools, which helped ordinary and poorer people, must come from those with wealth, and thus redistributed wealth. They demanded an end to the taxes that supported public programs.
They elected Ronald Reagan president in 1980 to reject the post–World War II “liberal consensus” that used the government to level the economic playing field, focusing instead on cutting taxes to return power to individuals to make their own decisions about how to run their own economic lives. Over the past forty years, that ideology has cut the national safety net and moved economic power dramatically upward.
True to that ideology, opponents of the $3.5 trillion infrastructure package are already calling it, as Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) said, a “freight train to socialism." But more than 60% of Americans want to invest our money in our people, as lawmakers of both parties did from 1933 to 1981.
Grover Norquist, a former spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who rose to power by pushing the opposite idea, that economic development depended on consistent and complete tax cuts, told Michael Scherer of the Washington Post, “We are really on this precipice, this knife’s edge, and each party goes, ‘If I just push a little bit harder I can control politics for the next 20 years.’” The conservative activist added, “And it’s true.”
But what Norquist didn’t spell out was that Democrats are trying to win control by protecting the ability of Americans to have a say in their government, while Republicans are trying to make their ideology the law of the land by skewing the mechanics of our democracy to permit a minority to rule over the majority.
Scherer laid out what this skewing looks like. Since 1988—the year George H. W. Bush was elected—Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of nine presidential elections. And yet, Republicans have taken the White House through the Electoral College and have appointed 6 of the 9 justices now on the Supreme Court.
The concentration of Republicans in rural states with smaller populations means that the Senate is also skewed toward the Republican Party. Public policy scholars Michael Ettlinger and Jordan Hensley crunched the numbers to show that today’s 50 Democratic senators represent 26% more people than Republican senators: 202 million compared to 160 million. They go on to say: “A Black American is 16% less represented in the Senate than an American on average; [a] Latinx American 32% less.”
Ettlinger and Hensley note that, as the Senate has become less representative, Republican senators have relied on arcane rules to let a minority stop popular legislation. “In the current Senate,” they report, “41 Republican senators representing as few as 75 million people can block most legislation from even coming to a vote—thwarting the will of a group of Democratic and Republican senators representing as many as 270 million Americans."
In the House of Representatives, gerrymandering allows Republicans to hold more seats than their share of the popular vote. In 1996 and 2012, Republicans lost the national vote tally but controlled Congress nonetheless.
The skew in state legislatures is also large. Scherer points out that the Michigan legislature, for example, has a Republican majority although Democrats have won a majority of the popular vote there for a decade. In North Carolina in 2018, Democrats won 51% of the popular vote but got only 45% of the seats.
After the 2020 election, Republican-dominated legislatures in states where Democrats likely make up the majority—Georgia, Texas, and Florida, for example—have worked aggressively to restrict voting rights. More than a dozen states have enacted more than 30 new laws to suppress votes. Tonight, Texas governor Greg Abbott announced that tomorrow he will sign another major voter suppression measure in his state.
Noting “how far the [Republican] party has fallen on fundamental matters of democracy,” the Washington Post editorial board today called on Democrats to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore and expand the Department of Justice’s protection of the right to vote, gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013 and 2021.
The board continued: “They should merge it with other provisions designed to promote fairness at the ballot box, such as universal voter registration, protections for absentee voters, standards to guard against rampant gerrymandering and restrictions on partisan interference with vote counting. They should dare Republicans to vote down a package that unambiguously enhances democracy, with no extraneous measures. If Republicans continue to unify against it, they should consider ways to reform the filibuster rule blocking urgent democracy reform.”
At stake is whether our government will work for ordinary Americans who make up the majority of our population—including in 2021 women and minorities as well as white men—or whether it will serve an entrenched minority.