Don't Get Your Hopes Up About The Senate

It's January! Why have I still not written a post-election post? Because I'm still waiting for the election to end: there's no new state-of-play to talk about until we know how the Senate goes, which Georgia is deciding right now. All election takes since November have been premature.

I used to do a lot of political blogging. I barely did any during the trump admin. Because it coincided with the birth of my child, the death of my free time, and my general retreat from having an online identity, I didn't do much blogging at all the last four years.

But also, blogging about the trump admin felt kind of pointless. Because it was a constant overwhelming din of "this is awful!", it was awful in crude, obvious ways. Anybody who would be reading my blog already agreed with me about how awful it was. There was nothing I could say about it that other people weren't already saying better than me. And every time I would start writing about one trump scandal, he'd create two more scandals within the same week, rendering the post obsolete before I could hit publish. The constant churn of atrocious details, combined with the absolutely static and unchanging state of the overall storyline ("latest criminal assault on democracy caught on tape, approval rating still unchanged") made it feel exhausting and pointless to try to chronicle.

But now we may at last be entering a new era! A new era in which everything is still incredibly stupid, but at least it's stupid in new and interesting ways. And I'm starting to have more free time now that my daughter is a little person and not a toddler anymore. So as I get back into writing, I'll be trying to figuring out what this as-yet-unnamed post-trump era of politics is. And what, if any, strategies we may have for making positive change within it.

I wrote 40 postcards to Georgia for the runoff, my wife wrote 40 more. I hope Ossoff and Warnock win an amazing upset! But I don't wanna get my hopes up. Even though the polls are D+ a couple points, and there's been great early turnout for Ds. Remember that (despite Abrams' amazing work) Georgia's whole voting system has always been designed to disenfranchise black people, that the polls are always off because trumpists don't answer pollsters, and that Georgia runoffs in particular have always had results significantly more R than the general election. I'd love to be wrong.

But, like, I'm assuming the new era we're entering is one where the Senate is still in R hands. Which means: we are not starting Year 1 of the Biden administration. We're starting year 7 of the Mitch McConnell administration. Everybody's talking about Biden's cabinet appointments, and I'm here like, "you think McConnell is just going to let Biden appoint a cabinet ?" You're more optimistic than me.

Get ready for the Biden admin to not be able to appoint a judge to fill a vacancy, much less to pass any laws. No matter how low your expectations are, better lower them further. Since the Mitch McConnell no-vote strategy on Merrick Garland worked so well in 2016, they'll do it again. Assume any Supreme Court or even lower court opening that happens in the Biden adminsitration will still be open in 2024.

Let me be clear about the Mitch McConnell hate. Yes, I think he's just as evil as Trump, just as responsible for the ongoing death of American democracy, but unlike Trump he's actually competent, strategic, and knows exactly what he's doing. However, we should be clear this is not something special about Mitch McConnell personally; he's just good at his job. His job is increasing the power of the Republican party, and he has correctly determined that there is no reward for governing well. There is no incentive for the Senate to ever do something as dumb as pass a law, or indeed to do anything other than confirm right-wing judges. There is certainly no incentive, and every disincentive, to cooperate with a president of the other party. If Republican Senate Majority Leader was somebody besides Mitch McConnell, that person would be doing exactly the same things, if they were any good at their job. The problem is with the system and systemic incentives, not with any particular old white dude.

With the Senate, the playbook will be exactly the same as it was 2014-2016: all Rs need to do is deadlock the government, prevent Ds from doing anything to address the pandemic or the economy, then run in 2022 and 2024 on "the pandemic is still going! The economy is still terrible! Ds have failed, vote for us!"

It will work. We will not get meaningful coronavirus relief, we will not get meaningful support for economic recovery. And just forget about doing anything to fix our healthcare system, our reliance on fossil fuels, our vulnerability to foreign election interference, our racist police... Everything will still suck. And Joe Biden, who will not have been allowed to govern, will be the scapegoat.

The reason this strategy works is a result of the disproportionality and chokepoints built into our federal system, which together create a rigged game, where even when the Ds win overwhelmingly more votes, they do not get the ability to govern. Between the filibuster, the electoral college, gerrymandering, the over-representation of low-population states, not to mention systematic voter disenfranchisement, etc. etc. etc... a majority, even a large majority, of voters in favor of a more liberal policy simply does not translate into a government that can implement that policy. Meanwhile, the fact that the Rs can keep controlling the country with a minority of votes means they have no incentive to respect democracy or the will of the voters, and no incentive to deliver results acceptable to the majority. (I could go on about this, but I'll save it for a future post.)

I envied people dancing in the streets after Biden won in November, but I just couldn't feel their enthusiasm. What are you celebrating? I wondered. OK, we avoided the very worst possible outcome, but just barely, and just temporarily. Republicans still got nearly everything they wanted:

  • They have control of the supreme court locked in for a generation
  • They control most of the state legislatures, which will allow them to gerrymander even harder when we redistrict from the 2020 census
  • They actually gained seats in the house, showing that disgust with trump does not translate to a wider rejection of the Republican party that constantly enabled him
  • They (most likely) kept the Senate
  • Trump's minority of voters actually grew in absolute terms from 2016 to 2020. His defeat was wide but extremely narrow (i.e. less than 1% in most of the key Electoral College states). Meaning: nothing he did meaningfully turned people away from him. Not bungling the coronavirus response leading to the death of over 300,000 Americans, not intentionally lying about it, not teargassing protestors, not ripping families apart and putting children in concentration camps, not the corruption, not the incompetence, not the criminality, not blackmailing Ukraine into helping him rig an election; nothing. Millions of people lived through that and then said "Yes, more of this please".
  • The republican alternate-news ecosystem's bubble is stronger than ever; its control over their voters' epistemology is so complete, the wedge between the base's beliefs and reality is so deep, that most republicans don't even believe that trump lost. I could go on about this point, but I'll take it to a separate post.

Here's the worst part of all: the next Trump will be competent. The current Trump has shown that 74 million Americans are desperately hungry for authoritarianism; they are eager to destroy the constitution to give absolute power to a con-man as long as he promises to destroy their enemies (i.e. the rest of us); and that the institutions preventing a sitting president from conducting an authoritarian coup d'etat are unbelievably weak and shaky. It was pretty much only Trump's laziness, vanity, and incompetence that saved us from collapsing into a dictatorship.

None of these weaknesses in our system are getting fixed. The playbook is established. The next wanna-be dictator only has to follow the path Trump laid out, and only has to be a little more disciplined about it, and he will succeed.

Far from being a rejection of fascism, the 2020 election has, at best, given us a couple of extra years to plan our escape from this country before its final collapse into fascism.

Our only hope might be that Trump has the power to split the Republican Party if he wants, because the base worships him as a god; if he decides to take his voters and leave (as petty revenge against other Republicans for not helping his coup d'etat attempt) then the Republican party will go the way of the Whigs. That's the only silver lining I can see.

Last modified Jan. 6, 2021, 12:42 a.m..

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