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Biting the bullet on structural change

October 29, 2021

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Nora Sullivan Horner

This week isn’t going well for the Biden administration.

The President’s approval rating is in freefall. West Virginia Senator and Democrat Joe Manchin won’t budge on his $1.75 trillion cap for infrastructure spending, and (unlikely) rumors are floating that he’s prepared to switch parties if the budget deal goes south. To top it off, Alyssa Milano was arrested for demanding Democrats “use their mandate to protect voting rights” on the White House lawn.

As Biden’s biggest cheerleader on campus, I’ve been hearing a lot of “told you sos”. Most of my peers believe the administration’s boldest campaign promises are unachievable without structural change, which Biden refuses to use the bully pulpit to advocate for.

This criticism makes a lot of sense; if we really want structural change, why wouldn’t we advocate for it?

Paradoxically, the best argument against prioritizing structural change is structural. Reconciliation can only cover budget-related issues, which means voting rights legislation or Supreme Court reform will face an impenetrable Republican filibuster in the Senate. Picture Ted Cruz and Rand Paul gleefully trading off passages of “Atlas Shrugged” as an already-watered down bill withers and dies on the floor.

This argument admittedly won’t rally progressives behind Biden’s agenda. Political leaders worthy of praise aren’t pragmatists. They will sacrifice their legislative cachet, and even their own electoral prospects, for a bold and consistent policy vision. Bernie Sanders, a perennial failure at the ballot-box with few legislative credentials, is still the de facto leader of the American left. Grassroots activists don’t care if political institutions flay elected officials alive, as long as those officials stand against these institutions.

Crucially, this approach ignores/neglects the Democratic voters who matter most. The poor families that spend an average of 30% of their income on childcare. One in four mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth. Students in low-income neighborhoods whose high schools are practically Superfund sites.

Biden’s Build Back Better Plan is anything but sexy. There’s no provision to ban Voter I.D. laws or establish the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Memorial Seat on the Supreme Court.

However, it does include provisions to expand childcare tax credits and provide $200 billion for universal preschool for all three- and four-year-olds. It will create a national comprehensive paid family and medical leave program. $100 billion dollars are allocated to upgrade and build new public schools. Poor Americans who elected Democrats in 2020 cannot afford for their representatives to sacrifice these benefits for a powerful, but fruitless gesture.

This argument is still imperfect. Last week, Professor Henry Laurence stumped me with a great and obvious question: does the reconciliation bill matter if our democracy is collapsing in on itself?

I had no good answer. The survival of our democracy is a race between incremental progress and the disintegration of the status quo. If we can’t plug the holes, pessimism will create a gap between the political elite and the public so vast that nothing but revolution can bridge it. The far-right is already there—and January 6 is a testament to this reality.

A federal voting rights bill might be the only way to ensure elections in conservative states remain representative, given the Republican policy response to Trump’s ‘Big Lie’. Court reform is probably the only way to ensure such a bill isn’t struck down. And even these initiatives are frivolous in the long run without a sweeping climate plan.

But these big dreams simply aren’t options in the current political environment. We don’t have enough seats. For now, we need to suck it up and pass reconciliation in its available form. Then, we need to elect more Democrats.

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