The American Rescue Plan shows us government can do big things after all.
There’s an underlying message around the passing of this flagship achievement of Biden’s Presidency, and it’s something progressives can and should build on.
The American Rescue Plan is passing into law. Sure, it needs to go back through the House for a second time to reach the President’s desk, but it’s passed all the hurdles it’ll need to really pass, and from here on in it’s a mere formality.
The House and the Senate in principle and practice have passed into law a $1.9trn stimulus package to rescue the US economy, a bill that’ll cut child poverty in the States in half, quarter broader US poverty, and throw a lifeline to lower and middle income Americans on behalf of the federal government. A benchmark for economic stimulus has been set, a benchmark more ambitious than anything most nations have attempted so far, with the exception of Trump’s initial $2.2trn splurge that siloed money to his cronies, while also throwing crumbs to working people.
How much has this thing been eroded in the hallowed halls of congress? Too much. The biggest betrayal was the abandonment of the $15 minimum wage being phased in over the next half decade, a measure so inadequate that by the time it would have been in place a more adequate and inflation keeping wage would have been $25 an hour.
Alas, these tiny crumbs were abandoned by the President and Vice President, who continue to espouse their support, but showed no willingness to back it (despite Harris’ previous campaigning on the issue) and a general feeling that “it won’t pass” from the get go. Make no mistake, that was and is a kick in the teeth to the American worker, who can see elitist liberals voting with Republicans to shaft them and then crying sexism (or even biphobia somehow) when criticised for their vote; something so truly bizarre and such an insult to those actually facing sexism and biphobia it verges on parody.
Equally, austerity peddlers on both sides of the isle have added more and more means testing to the stimulus cheques, the very same $1400 cheques that were a direct rebuke of the explicit campaign pledge of $2000 on top of the previous $600, shrouded in technocratic language and “you don’t understand the real world, bet grateful for what you get” condescension from Democrats, as always, talking down to their voters. The means testing has eroded solidarity for what should be a universalistic measure, and added a layer of bureaucracy when the focus should simply be getting the damn things OUT THE DOOR, with minimal means testing or strenuous criteria. This was ideological, not practical.
And if you think all that wasn’t enough the $400 unemployment supplements are now $300, because hey, we can afford billions upon trillions on the annual giveaways to the military industrial complex and pork barrel scraps for our reelections, but we can’t afford a small extension and expansion of unemployment benefits for the American people in the midst of a global pandemic, meaning the first tangible interaction for voters with the Biden administration will be eligibility for benefits and cheques being potentially less generous than what Trump gave them from his ivory tower. FDR would be so proud.
Joe Biden isn’t the next FDR; he’s an austerity peddling neocon with a fetish for incarcerating young black men, but he’s been moulded by the circumstances to go in a performatively more progressive direction, and his party will push him back rightwards as much as they can afford. That’s the difference. FDR knew what he wanted, he fought the conservative elements of his party, and to get things done he stuck to his convictions. Joe Biden isn’t FDR, because he holds no commitment to, or belief in, what he’s doing. There has been no conversion, he’s just following the political winds whichever way they blow, like the shameless career grifter he always has been.
However, none of this erases the fact this thing has passed, and it’s going to do real good for real people in real America. Beyond the corridors of power people will be lifted from poverty by a measure passed in Washington, and the potency of that can’t go unrecognised.
For decades, the right has dominated American politics with a simple, min numbingly effective proposition: “government bad”. The potency of this cannot be ignored, and neoliberalism goes hand in hand with it, showing working class voters how the system is rigged, how it just won’t work, keeping them apolitical, keeping them voting against their own interests due to a belief anything positive is too good to be true, and leading them into the arms of “smash the thing up” demagogues like Donald Trump.
Barack Obama promised a lot of voters the world, sapping their last faith in the system into his campaign, before breaking all his pledges and not even pretending to fight, breaking these people’s faith in politics for good and practically hurling them into the arms of Trump. Bernie Sanders revived a bit of this feeling, but it had been weakened too much for him to win the nomination. The vote for Biden this time around wasn’t a renewal of faith in liberal heroes, it was a “just make it stop” vote after Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
This “government bad” dogma has served the GOP well, and combined with antidemocratic institutions kept them in power far past their sell by date as a modern political force (if American was a semi-functioning 21st century liberal democracy there would be the centre-right Democratic Party, and a centre-left Progressive Party, with the GOP a fringe element). It has been peddled and won by the Republicans, but it has been reinforced and enabled by Democrats and their breaching of pledges, rejection of the New Deal politics, and embracing of the neoliberal system that keeps loosing them election.
This package’s passing into law will mark something far more wide-reaching than Obama’s stimulus efforts, and vastly more progressive than the Trump corporate welfare package. This plan is Step 1 to rescue and rebuild the American economy differently than before, and opening a new era of progressive politics (if Democrats get out of their own way). This package will show people that politics CAN work, voting CAN work, and crucially, government CAN work. That message terrifies Republicans to their very core, and that’s why they’ve thrown everything (along with their corporate Democrat allies) into blocking or watering down this Rescue Plan.
They may have succeeded in weakening this thing, but it signifies a rediscovering of the concept that maybe, after all, government can deliver for me and my family, in the minds of millions of disillusioned Americans. Whether that crack in the door of disillusionment widens or shuts closed again depends on a continuation of the momentum, no more “back to brunch” liberalism, and whether Biden goes the Obama way, or the progressive way, when rolling out his next legislative steps.