Senate, Manchin & Build Back Better: System Worked

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) talks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., November 1, 2021. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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BBB Failure Is How American Government Is Supposed to Work

The Left loves “the masses” — at least, in theory. As a matter of historical fact, leftist regimes around the world spent most of the 20th century putting “the masses” into camps or intentionally starving them to death or, from time to time, eating them (“The incidents reported from Guangxi were apparently the most extensive episodes of cannibalism in the world in the last century or more”) to make a political point, and they have not done a hell of a lot better in the 21st century.

(“Te Occidere Possunt Sed Te Edere Non Possunt Nefas Est.” Nobody told the Red Guards.)

But there are no “masses.”

Not in the United States, anyway. The American people are not an undifferentiated blob of interchangeable individuals or interchangeable communities. Time, mass media, and mobility have ensured that the states are not as different today as they were when the Constitution was drafted, but life in rural West Virginia really is quite different from life on the Upper West Side or life in Echo Park or life in Bountiful, Utah. I am not sure that there are “masses” in Mexico, India, or China, either, however much politicians of a certain demagogic sort may like to appeal to the masses and their grievances.

There is genuine diversity in American life, and the splendid array of American communities and their particular interests matter, irrespective of whether 50 percent plus 1 of the total American voting population says otherwise. Everybody understands this when it is his own interest on the line, and everybody pretends not to understand this when it is some rivalrous interest in question. “Black Lives Matter” is a meaningful statement because black Americans have particular interests, particular experiences, and particular histories all their own; whatever the misdeeds of the organization calling itself Black Lives Matter, the sentiment itself is no more exclusionary than the idea that we should maintain such organizations as the League of Women Voters, the Texas Asian Republican Club, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, or Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.

Our law recognizes these particularities in many different ways, some prudent and some less so. We have civil-rights laws that were intended mainly to help African Americans secure their basic rights and interests in practical ways that probably would have been impossible without federal intervention; we maintain a contingency plan for conscripting men into military service but not women; farmers receive tax exemptions not available to other businesses; churches receive exemptions from certain employment laws; we offer many different kinds of benefits and subsidies to small businesses that are denied to large ones. We have both urban-development and rural-development programs in government because these communities do not have identical interests or identical needs.

Protection for this diversity is written into our Constitution, and it informs the fundamental shape and organization of the federal government. No majority, no matter how large, gets to tell you what to teach in your church or what to publish in your newspaper. No majority gets to use the law to single you out because you are black or an immigrant. Our system is by no means perfect: Well-intentioned civil-rights practices are why we now have men competing in women’s college sports, for example, and equally well-intentioned accommodations such as bilingual-education mandates have blunted valuable spurs to immigrant assimilation. (Diversity is not the only value.) Passing civil-rights laws has not as a practical matter solved the problems those laws were meant to address. God knows we have problems. But the American approach has proved extraordinarily resilient, strong and flexible at the same time.

The United States and Switzerland — the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s second-oldest democracy, respectively — have very different governments and very different political cultures, but they have one important thing in common: federalism. Switzerland’s “double majority” system requires that big social changes move forward only when there is substantial consensus, as indicated by winning the votes of a majority of the people as a whole and a majority of the votes in a majority of the cantons. The U.S. Electoral College works on the same principle: To be elected president, a candidate needs to win not simply a majority of the entire voting population but a majority of the votes in a certain number of states, weighted by population. This means not only that a handful of big states cannot simply sweep aside the votes of the smaller states but also that a candidate who does not appeal to a sufficient diversity of constituencies in the various states will not win in some circumstances even when he secures a majority of the total vote. American federalism and Swiss federalism even produce many of the same complaints, e.g., that the system amplifies the power of people in less densely populated rural areas, who tend to be conservative, at the expense of people in the big cities, who tend to be more progressive.

(Similar procedures and institutions exist on a more limited scale in a few other countries, such as Germany and Australia.)

Which brings us to Joe Manchin and the grievously misnamed Build Back Better bill.

As my friend Charles C. W. Cooke points out, Senator Bernie Sanders’s constant whining that “one senator” or two should not be able to put a halt to the president’s legislative agenda is pure illiteracy, beginning with the fact that it is not one senator blocking Build Back Better — it is 51 senators, at least. Cooke writes:

In a 50/50 Senate, the “problem” that “one senator is able to hold up what the president wants!” can only be “fixed” by (a) passing bills with a minority of senators, (b) allowing only majority party to vote, (c) forcing senators to vote with their party — all of which are crazy.

As I am sure Charlie and I will have a chance to discuss on our Mad Dogs & Englishmen podcast, what Senator Sanders is up to here is not really constitutional analysis — it is base demagoguery. (And a bit of “mood affiliation,” which I will get to in a minute.) But Senator Sanders does have a point, albeit a point he does not quite understand: The Senate is, in an important way, not only undemocratic but antidemocratic. That is how it is meant to be — and we would be better off, both as a country and as a people trying to practice an intelligent form of liberal democracy, if the Senate were even more undemocratic and antidemocratic than it is.

Build Back Better would be a bad piece of legislation in the best of times. But these are not the best of times: We are a country that is facing a genuine inflation crisis — not of Argentine or Zimbabwean proportions, at least not yet, but a crisis nonetheless — and a country that is dancing on the precipice of a sovereign-debt crisis, as well. This isn’t Chicken Little stuff, and I don’t want you to think that the country is going to look like The Walking Dead the day after tomorrow. But here are the facts: Inflation is at a 40-year high, and interest payments on the debt already take up 15 percent of all federal tax revenues. Interest rates are very low by historic standards, and the main way you work to control inflation is by raising them. And, ultimately, interest rates are not under government control — they are under the control of investors in the debt market, who decide what rates they will lend at and what rates they won’t. Interest rates could easily be three to four times what they are today in a few years, meaning that interest payments could consume somewhere between half and two-thirds of all federal tax revenue, necessitating a radical and immediate restructuring of the federal government and its finances — that is the risk we are faced with.

A gigantic spending binge such as Build Back Better would tend to make both inflation and the debt situation worse. It would raise inflation by flooding the economy with more money (mostly put indirectly into the pockets of well-connected political constituencies), and it would worsen the debt because much of that money would be borrowed. The rosy projection is that BBB would add hundreds of billions of dollars to the debt, and the more realistic projections have it in the trillions.

Senator Manchin has been inundated with claims, many of them suspect, that BBB is overwhelmingly popular with the American people. It may be. But even if it were, it would still be a terrible piece of legislation — and, sometimes, political leaders are called upon to lead rather than act as their voters’ factota. And however BBB stands with the public in general, it is not especially popular with the people of West Virginia, and it is to them — not “the masses” — that Senator Manchin is ultimately accountable.

One way of thinking about the apparent failure of BBB is that it could not pass the double-majority test. The proposal had substantial general support but also inspired many pockets of urgent and persistent opposition from communities who were not willing to have this imposed on them by a group of senators who are, as Charlie notes, a minority, even if they are a majority of the majority party. There simply is not the wide and deep consensus that should be present when advancing wide-ranging legislation of this kind. The president, of course, has very little role in the crafting of legislation and no vote in Congress — but he does have the ability, and at times the obligation, to work toward building the consensus necessary for major reforms and important pieces of legislation. President Biden can criticize Fox News and talk radio and implacable Republicans, and he wouldn’t be wrong about any of that, but he would be admitting that he simply isn’t an effective enough leader to show himself more than the equal of Tucker Carlson or Madison Cawthorn. I am all for a smaller presidency, but a smaller president should have smaller ambitions — he should make some effort to accommodate the reality of his situation.

President Biden and other Democrats are always looking wistfully for the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt. But what Democrats really need is someone more along the lines of Lyndon Johnson, who was gross and venal but who had a real gift for plumbing the outer limits of what was politically possible and then getting Congress to meet him there. (That he sometimes did this in the service of unwise legislation does not in any way diminish the gift.) And President Johnson did bigger things than BBB. Much bigger.

If your whole political agenda goes off the rails because you cannot bring around one mulish senator from your own party, then perhaps you need to rethink your political agenda. You might even think about how you might win the support of six or seven senators from the other party. Don’t tell me they can’t be had — Ted Cruz came around to champion the cause of a guy who called his wife ugly and suggested that his father had been involved in assassinating President Kennedy. Lindsey Graham is . . . Lindsey Graham. These aren’t exactly Doric columns of unmovable moral commitment we’re talking about here.

These are politicians, and the game is politics. If you can’t politics your way into getting something done in this Senate, that’s on you, Democrats — not the Constitution.

Words about Words

Ten years ago, the economist and polymath Tyler Cowen described the “fallacy of mood affiliation.” Mood affiliation distorts our reasoning by subordinating facts and logic to moods, sometimes vague, that impose a kind of psychological meta-narrative on our understanding of events. An example from Cowen: “People who see a lot of net environmental progress (air and water are cleaner, for instance) and thus dismiss or downgrade well-grounded accounts of particular environmental problems. There’s simply an urgent feeling that any ‘pessimistic’ view needs to be countered.” Another, more familiar example: “People who see raising or lowering the relative status of Republicans (or some other group) as the main purpose of analysis, and thus who judge the dispassionate analysis of others, or for that matter the partisan analysis of others, by this standard. There’s simply an urgent feeling that any positive or optimistic or deserving view of the Republicans needs to be countered.” Etc. “In the blogosphere,” Cowen writes, “the fallacy of mood affiliation is common.”

What has changed since Cowen first wrote this is that writers for major publications and, increasingly, political figures now simply lead with the mood. I think this is an example of the prose style, and the cognitive style, of social media infiltrating print journalism, political rhetoric, and the rest of discursive life.

An example: Charles M. Blow writes in the New York Times: “I’m Furious at the Unvaccinated.” That’s the headline. In the column, Blow recounts his failed effort to nag a friend of his into getting vaccinated. “I am disappointed, and I am angry, not just with my friend but with all the people who are choosing not to get vaccinated.”

What I take from this is that Charles Blow and the people who write his headlines believe that Charles Blow is a very big deal, indeed, such that his internal emotional situation is the stuff of New York Times headlines. “Journalist Is Angry and Disappointed.” Well. I suppose there are insurance agents and farmers and elderly men in rocking chairs who are angry and disappointed about all sorts of things. But nobody would think that makes for headlines.

Is there really no more to the horrible Omicron news than how Charles Blow feels about it? I think there is. But journalists increasingly act like they are running for office, asking their constituents to resonate with their moods and prejudices. It is a ritual of hating together. Hence the headline.

In other language news . . .

A headline from the Wall Street Journal reads: “We’re Cursing More. Blame the #%$ Pandemic.”

That “#%$” is what is known as a “grawlix,” a nonsense word coined in the 1960s by Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker. It is amusing and, I suppose, useful, though most publications, including the one in which that grawlix appears, don’t use it, preferring instead to simply delete parts of offending words. It is of some interest what words editors choose to censor: The Wall Street Journal uses “f***” but writes in full a few other words that National Review would not print.

A particular word that many people will not even say aloud, even when they are talking about the word itself, its history and its usage, is described by one dictionary as “probably the most offensive word in English.” But it is not at all an unusual word to hear.

Dave Chappelle tells a story about being asked by a television executive not to use a common slur for homosexuals. Chappelle responded that he used [“most offensive word in English”] all the time, so why couldn’t he use that other slur? “You’re not gay!” came the answer.

Chappelle’s reply: “I’m not a [‘probably the most offensive word in English’], either.”

If there were a grawlix for that most offensive word in English, people probably wouldn’t write the grawlix. I don’t care for the juvenile business of grown men and women saying “the n-word” to talk around what they are saying, but it does speak well of us that the word has become, at least in some contexts, unspeakable.

Rampant Prescriptivism

To insure something is to enter into a financial arrangement in which you pay premiums in exchange for a future payment in case of the loss of or damage to the thing insured. If you are making sure that something is going to happen, you ensure it. Different words, different meanings. 

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Beast News

We have to give Pancake the Destroyer things to destroy, or she will destroy other things not of my choosing. Yes, I am paying the danegeld to a dachshund — don’t tell me it doesn’t work, Rudy.

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In Closing 

Christians are right to insist on the Christian character of Christmas — it is not just about gifts and festivity. But it is also a holiday about kindness, generosity, and looking after one another. Have you ever noticed how many Christmas songs are about loneliness? Sometimes, life gives you “Silent Night.” Sometimes, life gives you “If We Make It through December.” Most of us have known both at different times. “He hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.” Go and do likewise.

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