The media circus surrounding Democrats’ internal battle over infrastructure spending and the Build Back Better Act can make us focus too intently on the individual representatives involved and ignore the bigger picture. But the fact of the matter is the lives of many Americans, our ability to seriously address the climate crisis, and the upcoming outcome of the midterm elections all hang in the balance. On this segment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc is joined by a lively panel of guests—Max Sawicky, Karen Dolan, and Bill Fletcher Jr.—to discuss the drastic implications of the battle unfolding on Capitol Hill right now.
Max Sawicky is an economist, writer, and senior research fellow at the Center for Economic and Policy Research; he has worked at the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, the Economic Policy Institute, and the Government Accountability Office. Karen Dolan is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and currently directs the Criminalization of Race and Poverty project; her public scholarship and activism focus on anti-poverty issues, juvenile justice, criminal justice reform, and transgender rights with a focus on race, gender, and gender identity. Bill Fletcher Jr. has been an activist since his teen years and previously served as a senior staff person in the national AFL-CIO; he is the former president of TransAfrica Forum, a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, and the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, including ‘They’re Bankrupting Us!’ And 20 Other Myths about Unions and The Man Who Fell from the Sky.
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Marc Steiner: Welcome to the Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us. As we all know, there’s a battle raging on Capitol Hill. It could define the electoral future of this country. Progressives and what we call centrists are fighting over Biden’s $3.5 trillion infrastructure plan, and this thing called the Build Back Better legislation. Now, Biden’s appealed to progressives in this legislation, but progressives are now saying that the social spending to ensure the well-being of people must come first, before the vote on infrastructure. And what we call centrists are saying, it’s all too much money. And meanwhile the right wing, those obstructionists, are sitting in the wings salivating at the internal warfare and waiting to seize back electoral power. So, we continue our series of conversations about how to stop the racist right wing from taking over once again. And today, we look at what’s happening in Congress with our three guests: Max Sawicky, he’s a writer, an economist, he wrote an analysis of all this for In These Times; Karen Dolan is project director for Criminalization of Race and Poverty at the Institute for Policy Studies; and Bill Fletcher Jr. is a longtime union activist, writer, and organizer, whose latest work is The Man Who Fell From the Sky. Welcome all of you, good to have you with us
So, I think what we’re facing here now, between Congress in this battle over these two different bills and what they mean, most of America is very confused by it. Most of America doesn’t even know what the hell is going on, they just see dysfunction on Capitol Hill. And a lot of it is being portrayed as the dysfunction of the left trying to destroy the government, least when you see how the New York Times frames it, and other journals were phrasing it. So, let’s break this down very quickly, and I want to really focus in on what this battle means politically for the future of this country. And Max, I want to start with you, because the piece you just wrote, I thought, really succinctly broke down what we’re facing. So, let me let you start.
Max Sawicky: I wouldn’t characterize the situation, as far as the left is concerned, with dysfunction. I think the progressive wing on the hill has a pretty plausible strategy. Now, whether it works or not is another question, but they definitely seem to have the upper hand and the other side on the back foot. The big question mark in all this is this lady from Arizona who could bollocks up the entire works if she chose to. Manchin, I’ve always thought, who’s next door to me in West Virginia, has always been for rent. So, I think they could always end up making an arrangement with him. I don’t know what happens with Sinema, I don’t know what she’s for, what she’s about. She has four years to build up a nest egg before they throw her out. So, she’s going to be around for a while and be an irritant. I don’t know what happens, but I think the progressive side did the right thing by withholding their votes and sticking with the deal, which was really Biden’s deal.
The fact that Biden and them are blocked is significant historically. So, looking forward, all I can do right now is just hope for the best. I think we have a fighting chance.
Marc Steiner: Yeah. I think Sinema is also a question mark. I can digress into that question mark for a while, but I don’t want to at the moment. Maybe before we end the conversation, I will. But let’s maybe pick up on that point. I think that one of the raging arguments I had over the weekend was, I think the public perception that it is progressives that are destroying Biden’s chance of getting reelected and killing the Democrats’ choice. I mean, that is I think, Bill Fletcher and then Karen Dolan jump in on that, I think that is an overwhelming perception that the media is portraying. I think it could be setting up a potentially dangerous future. Bill?
BIll Fletcher: I think what the media is doing is basically trying to promote Rodney King-ism: Why can’t we all get along? And they are looking at the Democratic Party as if it’s a political party, and it’s not. I mean, I decided to start calling the Democrats the unRepublican Party, because that’s essentially what they are. The Republicans have consolidated into a hard right wing authoritarian party, and the Democrats are not. And that’s their level of unity. And because that’s their level of unity, there are vast differences within the Democratic Party.
So, what you end up having in the liberal media is a throwing up their hands, frustrated that the Democrats will not consolidate. Well, they’re not going to consolidate because they can’t consolidate. There’s struggle going on within the Democratic Party. That’s the reality. I think that there will be a compromise, and I think there’ll be a compromise because obviously neither side can annihilate the other, but I think that there’ll have to end up being a compromise.
But I think that what’s important for the public to understand, is that the Democrats and the Republicans are not Tweedledee and Tweedledum, that train has left the station. These are two very different political coalitions. What people have to expect is that within the Democratic Party, there’s going to be serious struggle.
Marc Steiner: Karen?
Karen Dolan: I have a slightly more sanguine position than Bill’s. I think there’s a surprising amount of unity, and I also think that the media is giving the progressives a lot more respect than they ever have before, and deservedly so. So, I started working with the congressional progressive caucus back in ’96 when Bernie Sanders was in the House and head of the Caucus. And I’ve seen the evolution over the last 25-plus years, and this is really the strongest they’ve ever been.
They are now much a more disciplined force. I think even in the course over the last week, listening to CNN, MSNBC, some NPR, and I’ve really seen a big shift. They started off in the position they always are, disregarding the progressives as some kind of fringe thing. Pramila Jayapal’s position, Ro Khanna, any member who came on, and especially Pramila Jayapal as head of the Caucus, put forth such a reasonable and rational position, certainly not hardline.
It turns out, I think to my surprise and many progressives’ surprise, that Joe Biden has the same line as the progressive caucus. I think that that has garnered media attention, and I’ve seen the shift to where they really do see the progressive caucus’s agenda as the same as Biden’s agenda, which it is at this point since we came down from Bernie’s $6.6 trillion package. I think that most of the Democrats are behind it, except really for two.
I agree with Max, who said that Manchin can be brought along because he’s for rent, and the wild card is Sinema. We don’t know what her game is, but she’s beholden to corporate interests, seemingly more so than some of the others at this point, but I have a more positive look at it. I think that it’s a good place for progressives, and they’re only there because of progressive movements of the last few decades that have brought us to this position.
Max Sawicky: The division, I think among Democrats is… I mean, the obstacle is more of a fringe than an opposing side. The point I tried to make in my article is that it’s not entirely ideological, because there’s a good ideological case that if you’re in a marginal democratic district, you need Biden to win this argument, you need his program to pass. The point I made in my article is that there’s a substantial grift element in the very few—in both houses among Democrats who were proving or obstructing progress on a deal.
Marc Steiner: So, I’d like to get your read, the three of you, your read on what this struggle will mean. Let me put it this way: So even though it has not been highlighted in the press, you put it in your article, and I think Karen just mentioned it, that the progressive caucus backed away from $6.7 trillion to $3.5 trillion. And we keep using the $3.5 trillion when we were literally talking about hundreds of billions of dollars a year, now $3.5 trillion in a year, which is what’s in people’s heads when they hear that number. Because it’s such a huge number for people to hear, for most people.
The question becomes, though, if this is at the moment how the public interprets the struggle going on in Washington, what does it mean for, A, the rise of the right in ’22 and ’24? Their power has not gone away, it still exists. And if something doesn’t get done and pushed through, then that could cause a lot of political blowback. I think we’re in a massive struggle here about the future of the country, and the polarization is very clear. So, how do you think that this process, which [we’re witnessing] now plays out, that political struggle over the next several years? Let me start. I’m going to do a round table. Bill, let me start with you, and just go around the room.
BIll Fletcher: Well, the polls seem to indicate that the public supports what Biden is advocating, what the progressives are. We’d be in a very different situation if it was like 30% or something. So, I feel like that is something that we have to keep hammering away. I’m not so much interested, with all due respect, in talking about what happens if the world collapses. I really am not. I want to think about scenarios.
Marc Steiner: Okay.
BIll Fletcher: So, I think that when we’re approaching the midterm elections, one of the things that the Democrats need to hammer away at, regardless of the outcome of the discussion around the budget, is about the authoritarian threat. And about, is this the party that people want in office? Do they want the party of January 6 in office? And that needs to be hammered away. And that needs to be linked with a positive vision about what it is that we’re fighting for.
One of the things that I’ve appreciated in the last several days, is the number of columns about how the mainstream media has been downplaying the authoritarian threat, downplaying what Trump was trying to do in essentially trying to overthrow the government. I think that the Democrats really have to re-raise this as one of their two major talking points. I think that’s going to be critical. So, I’m not looking at the midterm elections the way many of the liberals do of, well, of course the Democrats will lose, because what I think we have to understand about this moment is that much like 2002, all bets are off. It’s a different world, and any number of things could happen. That’s what I think we have to be focusing upon.
Marc Steiner: Karen, you started this up, challenging my pessimism. Why don’t you pick up on that?
Karen Dolan: Sure. [Marc laughs] I’m going to keep right along with my optimism. I agree largely with Bill, and these are very popular programs that are in the Build Back Better bill. To the extent, you’re right that the public is confused about the BIF and the BBB and the debt ceiling. They’re really not paying attention to that. What’s going to matter is what’s in their pocket books. I do think at the end of the day, the Democrats will pass both bills: The worse bipartisan infrastructure bill, and then the better, Build Back Better bill. It won’t be all that we want it to be, but it will be a heck of a lot better than anything we’ve seen in a really long time.
And that is going to positively affect people’s pocketbooks and well-being, and it goes a long way toward addressing some racial inequities in the country. It doesn’t go nearly far enough for climate change, of course, but there’s a lot there for antipoverty and for children. Really, really helpful, and I think it will get passed.
I think the bigger challenge to the question of, is the future going to be authoritarian, or will the Republicans get back into power, is voting rights. I think that Manchin and Sinema are going to be obstructionist on that, and that’s even more of a problem for us because I do think this spending bill will get passed. And you’re right, this is a nearly zero-cost bill. It’s very disingenuous to even say the $3.5 trillion is a $3.5 trillion. It isn’t, because it’s paid for in very popular ways, by taxing the rich and corporations who have escaped pain. They pay on average 8%, and you and I, we pay 14%, so the ways to pay for this bill are also very, very popular with the public.
So, that’s great, but what’s creeping around the edges, or not just creeping, it’s in our face, is the destruction of the vote. That’s another place where Manchin though, he has his name on this voting rights bill, so that gives us an opportunity to break down that obstruction. I’d love to hear what Max and Bill have to say about that, but I do think we’ll get the Democratic package for anti-poverty package passed, and it will be good on some level. Not enough, but good on some level, and we can make it better and build on it if we can get voter obstruction dealt with.
Marc Steiner: And Max, she called out your name, so please jump in. I was just thinking about one of the lines in your article for In These Times, where you said that this calls for public outrage and organizing to confront what’s happening.
Max Sawicky: Well, yeah, I mean, one thing that went through my head as I was listening in the last minute or two, was we’re getting a preview of all this in Virginia, where I happen to live, in the state elections, where you have a Republican running for governor who has Trump’s endorsement, but is trying to pretend that he’s independent of Trump. You have a grassroots Republican faction here, which has been mobbing school board meetings with a pretty straight-up racist, homophobic and transphobic line, not to say anti-intellectual. And on the Democratic side, you have a fairly moderate to grifty Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, who I dearly hope wins.
Voting rights is not so much of a question here as might prove to be actual more underhanded types of voter suppression, but the same issues are floating around. The Republican side is basically trying to bank on race and dark, Trumpy impulses in the electorate. They have a hard core, which has been mobilized and probably will turn out. It’s up to Democrats to try to zero in, as Bill said, on the positive side, which they’ve been fairly tepid on. I would say the things that they ought to push more than they have, is reproductive rights, which are in peril all over the country, and the need to hold up the states so that we can support voting rights and anti-racism in other parts of the country. The meat and potatoes stuff I think is less salient here.
If you had told me a year ago that Biden was going to pass somewhere between $2 [trillion] and $3.5 trillion human needs type stuff, plus another half a trillion infrastructure, I would say, hey, that’s pretty good. So, I think, on the spending in Congress, assuming we get something, I think we’re going to be much better off than we might’ve thought a year ago.
Marc Steiner: So, I want to come back in the time we have left together here, to focus a bit on what this means for the future struggle in America and where this takes us. I mean, you all approach it from very different ways. I mean, from one of the most serious economists we have, to political activists working with the progressive caucus and more, to your work in unions, Bill Fletcher. I mean, maybe it’s too many years in the movement, but I have this abiding fear of the power of the right in this country and their organization and their money and their arms.
BIll Fletcher: You should have that fear.
Marc Steiner: Okay, good.
BIll Fletcher: Only a fool wouldn’t be fearful of what we’re up against, but I think the question is more, what do we do about it? One of the reasons I think of the Democrats as the unRepublican Party, is that I think central to the strategy of the Democratic establishment is to move slowly so as not to lose the so-called middle. And so, while the four of us would be advocating for a more aggressive stance in moving forward, I think that this relates to what Max is talking about in terms of Virginia, that there’s this fear of positioning the Democrats too far to the left. I think that the only way that changes is through the internal pressure that we have to put in the Democratic Party.
But in terms of the larger threat of the right, I think that we’re going to have to look at that on multiple levels. It’s like when the right shows up at these school board meetings, as you were describing, progressives need to be there and we need to be engaged in the battle of ideas around so-called critical race theory, pointing out that this has nothing to do with critical race theory, [it] has to do with the truth. So, we’ve got to engage in those fights and not pull back.
This issue around a woman’s right to choose. I mean, it always has been a national issue. Now, we could face the elimination of Roe V. Wade. So, I think that we have to have the approach of fighting the counter-offensive and not continuing to retreat, and not continuing to be cautious. We have to be audacious.
Marc Steiner: Please jump in, Karen.
Karen Dolan: Well, again, I mean, I do think that it’s right that the extreme right wing is also sort of fringe, but it is also true that they’re being very effective at the local level, especially at school boards, as Bill said, and with the Texas law that will be emulated in other states, banning abortion and a very right-wing Supreme court. So, that’s a really vulnerable position we’re in. Again, to me, it does come back to voting rights, countering voter suppression, and being more aggressive in terms of democracy in this country. Because as much as we may have problems with, as people have said, the grift of the Democratic Party, it matters who is president when it comes to appointing Supreme Court justices, as we see now with this court.
So, I think that for me, the other big area of fighting for us is to counteract the voter suppression tactics that are growing around the country. And that’s our best chance, I think, at being able to fight back against this incursion of this right-wing authoritarianism from both the local and state levels.
Marc Steiner: Max, I’m curious, when you take in your analysis of what’s going on in Congress, how do you take that analysis into what has to happen next?
Max Sawicky: Well, what people, I think, have missed a little bit is, the infrastructure bill is the power that we have over the other side. As Biden said the other day, it might not pass this week, but they still want it, they want it badly, and it’s a useful club to hold over them and to get what we want, or the rest of what we want.
So, I think our side is well-positioned, subject to the big mystery about what happens with Senator Sinema. So, I would agree that we keep pushing on the positive elements within that somewhere between $2 [trillion] and $3.5 trillion, which will help a lot of people. And things are going in the right direction, as far as that goes, in terms of everything that can be done. The mobilization in terms of getting people to prepare to turn out, not only here in Virginia, but in midterms, has to continue because we have to be 10 times better at that, given the regular and unofficial constraints to voting. So, that’s the tasks I see laid out for us, looking forward.
BIll Fletcher: Marc, if I can just jump back.
Marc Steiner: Please, go ahead.
BIll Fletcher: So, in terms of the thing with the right, which I mean, you and I both obsess on it, and I’m unapologetic in that. I think that there are several things that really need to be done. We need to be pressing the government to prosecute the hell out of the right.
Max Sawicky: Absolutely.
BIll Fletcher: And particularly anyone that was connected with January 6, and not letting that pressure up. I think that the discussions in the media, which we need to engage, in mainstream media, not just social media, around the danger of the right and of what Trump was planning on doing, the revelation of that memo from a couple of weeks ago; We need to be keeping that in the public eye. I think that there needs to be, within our movement, there needs to be more attention towards a combination of self-defense and identifying provocateurs, that the revelation that we’ve had of these white supremacists, these fascist provocateurs that were entering into Black Lives Matter demonstrations, shooting at the police, or doing other things in order to provoke a problem. We need to raise the sophistication of our movement around this, but we also have to be paying attention to self-defense, because I would contend that …
There’s a story I remember reading from Lukacs in his book about Lenin. He talked about after the Kapp Putsch in Germany, the German Communists came to meet with Lenin and they had this very detailed analysis of what happened. They said, and the next time the German right tries to do this, we’ll be ready. And Lenin says, what makes you think that the next time that the German right acts, that they will do the same thing that they did in the Kapp Putsch?
That’s what we’ve got to keep in mind, that it’s not about preparing for another January 6. That may or may not happen. We need to be prepared for right-wing terrorism, death squads, we need to be preparing for disruption within legislative bodies, the way that the Nazis did in the Reichstag before they came into power. We need to think about how do we respond to this issue of militias. We’ve got to get out of the safety zone that we’re in, and understand the broad parameters within which we’re dealing with the right. And we also have to understand the different segments of the right and what their particular objectives are, because they’re not monolithic. They’re not all fascists, for example. They’re very complex. And when we fall into just putting them in that one box, it undermines our ability to think strategically.
So, we’ve got to be processing this. And the other piece of this is recognition of the importance of broad united fronts. For many of us on the left, that’s really antithetical to how we think, because we want to be the guardians of the pure, rather than thinking that it’s really important to win, and part of winning is to defeat the right. So, what kind of united fronts do we build, and how quickly do we write off our opponents as sellouts versus where there’s disagreements? I’m talking about our opponents within this broad front, we have to be far more sophisticated than we’ve been. That’s asking a lot for the US left, because it’s much more comfortable to be in a phone booth with one other person.
Max Sawicky: [Marc laughs] No, I agree totally. I mean, there’s a poignant bit about… This is somewhat relevant, decades and decades ago, some Puerto Rican Independistas occupied the Capitol. They got huge heavy sentences and they didn’t do anything nearly approximating what happened here, January 6. I just thought that was amazing in and of itself, although not surprising. But I agree totally about emphasizing the danger from the Trumpist underground, which is becoming the Republican Party’s military wing.
BIll Fletcher: Well, the Republicans have become a party for dictatorship. I think that we need to say that. I think that Biden needs to say that. Every so often I watch Joy Reid on MSNBC, which is a whole other discussion, but one of the things that she says that I really agree with is that the media normalizes the Republicans. And I think that this is correct. She is absolutely right, that there’s this normalization of the Republicans, as opposed to identifying that this is not even Richard Nixon’s political party. This is a different ball of wax, and we’ve got to actually deal with that reality. And that reality is pretty scary, and much of the mainstream media is not prepared to acknowledge this transformation of the party and what it means on a practical level.
Marc Steiner: So Karen, let me bring you back [into the] discussion here with that. I mean, I’m curious what you think in all the work you’ve done over these several decades. Working with the progressive caucus and seen that, as I’ve been saying recently, that one of the most important left formations in the country happens to be inside the Democratic Party at this point, one of them. So, tell me what you think. I mean, in terms of what is happening now in Congress with the passage of these two bills and what they might mean, what that means for not just Pramila Jayapal, but the progressive caucus in general, and that part of the movement, and how that fits into this response.
Karen Dolan: Well, I think one thing that’s important to note is that Pramila Jayapal comes out of social movements. So, we can see her strength and we can see the strength of the congressional progressive caucus as a result, and an outgrowth of decades of social movements, of left social movements in this country. So, I find it very gratifying to see that they have come together as a meaningful voting block, and have been able to influence positively, in my estimation, the current negotiations on Capitol Hill.
The media is going to try to portray everything very antagonistically and click-baity and that sort of thing. But in reality, negotiations are what our elected representatives are supposed to be doing. You’re not going to find that on the Republican side, and in the end, I think we will get something relatively good, much better than we would have thought, as Max said, a year ago or so.
So, I’m very hopeful about the progressive caucus, and I don’t want us to divorce them from the social movements because they only are there and only have their power and their positions because of us, and because of decades of that power. I mean, I suppose the same can be said for the extreme side of the Republican Party, although it’s mostly corporate interests that are really driving the reelection, but because the base has become so much more extreme and motivated through social media and these dark social media channels, it is a different animal that we’re facing.
So, I’m hopeful about the progressives. I hope also, again, that we’ll be able to get some kind of voting rights legislation so that the Democrats can stay in power and we can keep pushing the Democratic Party to be more of an expression of social movements in this country for its equity.
Marc Steiner: I think you’re right about Jayapal, [she] has really shown her chops, so to speak, as an organizer in Congress. It’s been pretty amazing to watch what she’s done, and how she’s given some folks backbone when they didn’t know they had it. It’s been interesting to watch.
I think we also would be remiss before we close if we didn’t also point out, alluding to what you were just saying, Karen, is that if you watch Sinema and many of the folks who are fighting this inside the House of Representatives, they are all heavily funded by corporate interests, by folks who do not want to have a wealth tax, by pharmaceuticals and more. I think that’s really an important thing for people to see and understand, and not be glossed over because I think it’s key to their opposition. More than ideology, it’s their pocketbooks, the political pocket books that are being lined. Closing thoughts from everybody? So we’ll go around the room here before we take off, you start us off Bill, go ahead. Then we’ll just go around the room very quickly.
BIll Fletcher: Yeah, well, going back to what I was saying in the very beginning, I’m not discouraged in the least by the struggle that’s going on right now, because I think it was inevitable and will continue to be, and we should expect that. And we should expect the struggle within the Democratic Party to heighten actually, as things go forward. So, I think that this is the right struggle. The only thing that I want to just double underline is that going into the midterms, it’s not simply putting on a happy face of identifying that which we’re advocating. We’ve got to put the face of the demon on the Republican Party. They’ve got to be understood to be the party of dictatorship, the party of January 6, so that the question for the voter… And we can’t let voters run away from this. The question for the voter is, do you want the party of January 6 in office? That is the question, regardless of what people think about the Democratic Party, do you want the party of January 6 in office?
Marc Steiner: Max?
Max Sawicky: No, I agree. Tying Trump around the necks of every Republican is the first thing to say. They’re trying to do that in Virginia with the governor and he’s trying to run away from it. Things are a little bit uncertain right now, but again, how this plays out, I think will be revealing as to how the Democrats will be able to fare in the midterms. If they are willing to press harder on the Trumpy underground that’s supporting the Republicans, I think that will work well, as far as that goes, but as Bill and others, and Karen have said, there’s a positive side, the bacon we’re going to bring home as well. So, we’re in a dangerous situation, but we have a good fighting chance. So, I think it’s worth being optimistic looking forward.
Marc Steiner: Karen?
Karen Dolan: Yeah, I agree and I think that it’s right, that we need to have better messaging. Our messaging is nowhere near as cut and dry, and as effective as the right wing. It’s through social movements that are led by impacted people, when you have the stories of people’s lives, that resonate with the average voter and resonate with the vast majority of us. When we really know it’s a question between, are our kids going to be healthy and have a good education and a decent chance at a decent life, versus padding the already greedy bottom line of corporations and the Jeff Bezoses of the world? That’s pretty easy selling points for the American public, they’re clearly on one side of that, and it’s not the Jeff Bezos side.
So, we’ve got to be clearer about that, and we have to have more impacted people’s stories front and center, and that’s all in social movements. I think that it’s going to be a tough slog because they message better than we do, the forces of evil. But I think that we are getting better and social movements are becoming more and more powerful as evidenced, I think, this past week on Capitol Hill.
Marc Steiner: This has been a great discussion, I knew this crew would be great. Karen Dolan, Max Sawicky, Bill Fletcher Jr., I want to thank you all three so much for joining us here on The Marc Steiner Show on the Real News, and we’ll get back to you all and see how this all unfolds, and la luta continua, it’s not over yet. Thank you all for being here.