Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have defied a Republican-biased electoral system, coordinated attempts to sabotage the casting and the counting of Democratic votes, and a violent opposition to the transition of power, to take their place at the White House. In the meanwhile, Donald Trump and his supporters have done their best to leave behind a country in ruins: encouraging the spread of Covid-19 and deadly viral conspiracy theories, blocking economic relief to the most needy, allowing Russian hackers to breach key networks, inciting contempt for our democracy. Biden thus inherits a country ravaged by the pandemic, gaping economic inequality and the grievous loss of a shared experience of basic empirical reality. This is a country in which millions of people still believe that Donald Trump is the Messiah. And many of them are armed, and ready to kill or die in his name. On January 6, Trump’s followers violently stormed and ransacked the Capitol building during the counting of Biden’s electoral votes from the States, killing a police officer and threatening the lives of elected representatives. They were supported by a critical mass of Republican legislators intent on challenging the undeniably legitimate election of Joe Biden. Though some of Trump’s zealots will face criminal and other penalties for their role in this insurrection, the larger mass of them remains heavily armed and threatens ongoing violence against state and federal governments in their pursuit of a white Christian nationalist revolution.
Trump’s great achievement as a white nationalist president has been to lead the United States – a constitutional system of representative government based on pluralism, equality and the rule of law – into the abyss. It is from this terrible vantage point that we have to consider Biden’s proper priorities in leading us out of it, into something resembling a working democracy. After their clamorous success in the Georgia Senate elections, the Democratic party controls a majority of votes in the House and Senate. It will control of all of the legislative committees, and have a real chance to make some long-desired changes. The most urgent priority is, of course, to control the pandemic that Trump endeavored to make as agonizing as possible (with the essentially genocidal awareness that Black Americans would suffer disproportionately). Biden has already announced a plan to improve access to health care, Covid testing and the vaccine, and to send economic support to desperate citizens who can no longer afford basic food, medicine and shelter.
Looking beyond this ongoing emergency, the Democratic majority has a precious opportunity to pursue the bold reforms necessary to build a participatory democracy, an equitable society and an environmentally sustainable economy. Biden and other Democratic leaders will also have to rebuild the nation’s civic sensibility, gutted by 4 years of Trump and his supporters’ unrelenting offenses to the Constitution, the rule-of-law, and to the unwritten norms of public morality. These are priorities that cannot be realized in 100 days. But they certainly ought to be trumpeted from the outset as Democratic goals for the next two years. However bold, they are also absolutely necessary for the survival of American democracy.
As a top priority, Democrats must pursue sweeping reforms to build a vigorous, participatory democracy in which all citizens, including urban-dwelling and minority citizens, are properly represented in state and federal governments. There are many facets to rebuilding a democratic infrastructure, and the accomplishment of any one of them would be a great triumph for the Democratic party. Basic political plumbing projects need to address the systematic underrepresentation of urban and minority citizens in the House of Representatives, owing to state political control over the definition of electoral districts. Republican-controlled state legislatures draw the district lines so as to maximize the number of “safe” Republican districts, in which Democratic voters are a stable minority. This limits Democrats’ effective representation in government. And it has the additional perverse effect of shifting the moment of real political competition to the primary contest between one Republican and another, in which the more exciting extremist candidates enjoy an advantage. (In case you were wondering how it is possible that more than half of the Republicans just elected to the House of Representatives also believe that those elections were rigged by the Democrats, and that Trump is still their legitimate president, consider that they were elected from such safe districts).
Basic political plumbing projects also need to ensure that all citizens have a reasonable opportunity to cast their ballot. The House has already approved comprehensive legislation, the “For the People Act”, to ensure easy, automatic voter registration, guarantee the right of minorities to vote, require states to determine congressional electoral districts in a non-partisan way, institute nationwide early voting, reform campaign financing to check the political power of wealthy donors and corporations, and establish stronger ethical rules against conflicts-of-interest in government. Each of these progressive reforms would challenge the Republican strategies for disenfranchising Democratic voters. And the achievement of all of them would be the holy grail in Democrats’ quest to maximize citizens’ participation in political processes.
Other vital priorities will have to address the voraginous economic inequality produced by decades of neo-liberal policies, including workers’ protections and tax reform. A robust new industrial policy will aim to create working- and middle- class wealth, while detoxifying and decarbonizing standard modes of production and transportation. To detoxify public discourse, a Democratic Congress is likely to pursue the regulation and breakup of monopolistic social media corporations. The President and Congress must also act to restore integrity and accountability in government, so that no future president can successfully claim, as did Trump, “the right to do whatever I want.” They also ought to do what they can to disarm the population, or at least moderate the easy access to semi-automatic weapons. In these areas, and many others, Democrats can expect resistance from the federal courts, in which a majority of economically-libertarian, socially-conservative judges interpret the constitution to protect unregulated markets, traditional patriarchal religious values and a categorical individual right to bear arms. Democrats will have to be prepared to attempt to reshape the courts, including the Supreme Court, by increasing the number of justices on it or providing for their retirement at a certain age.
President Biden takes office in the shadow of Trump’s impeachment, amidst calls on many sides to focus healingly on the future and avoid a painful, and further-polarizing, reckoning with the “American carnage” always at the core of Trump’s politics. However, any hopes for healing can only succeed if pegged to a serious pursuit of accountability. Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution. They have an undeniable responsibility to convict Trump for inciting a violent insurrection, and attempting to interfere with Georgia’s electoral votes. Practically, this will bar him from holding any future office in the United States, and cut off the generous benefits normally afforded to ex-Presidents. And morally, it will clarify something so obvious, and yet so fragile, which is that the United States is a country of laws, and not even the President is above them. But accountability cannot stop at Trump himself. Senators and Representatives also have a responsibility to sanction any of their members who have abetted the mob’s violence against their colleagues. The criminal process against the hundreds of participants and accomplices will take place at the state and federal levels; insurgents will lose funding, social media access, professional licenses and jobs. But the Biden administration must also pursue a vigorous, multi-faceted policy of accountability for the systematic transgressions of the entire Trump era. This will be indispensable in order to rebuild trust in government, to deter aspiring future autocrats and to generate a complete historical record, a shared narrative and a real public reckoning.
It will take more than 100 days to derail us from the second civil war towards which we seem to be heading. But what is at stake in the next 100 days, and the next 2 years, is the survival of American democracy itself. It is only by taking responsibility for the diffused opportunism that led us to this, by reimagining our common citizenship and by refortifying our institutions that a Biden administration will be more than a pause in an inexorable slide into the abyss of white supremacist authoritarianism.