Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
June 2, 2021
Today, more than 100 scholars who study democracy issued a letter warning that “our entire democracy is now at risk.” The letter explains that the new election laws in Republican-led states, passed with the justification that they will make elections safer, in fact are turning “several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections.”
If we permit the breakdown of democracy, it will be a very long time before we can reverse the damage. As a nation spirals downward, the political scientists, sociologists, and government scholars explain, “violence and corruption typically flourish, and talent and wealth flee to more stable countries, undermining national prosperity. It is not just our venerated institutions and norms that are at risk—it is our future national standing, strength, and ability to compete globally.”
The scholars called for federal action to protect equal access to voting and to guarantee free and fair elections. Voting rights should not depend on which party runs the state legislature, and votes must be cast and counted equally, regardless of where a citizen lives. They back the reforms in the For the People Act, which protects the right to vote, ends partisan gerrymandering, and curbs the flood of money into elections.
They urged Congress “to do whatever is necessary—including suspending the filibuster—in order to pass national voting and election administration standards that both guarantee the vote to all Americans equally, and prevent state legislatures from manipulating the rules in order to manufacture the result they want. Our democracy is fundamentally at stake.”
“History,” they wrote, “will judge what we do at this moment.”
But in Tulsa, Oklahoma, today, President Joe Biden noted that the events that transpired in the Greenwood district of that city 100 years ago today were written out of most histories. The Tulsa Massacre destroyed 35 blocks of the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood, wiping out 1100 homes and businesses and taking hundreds of Black lives, robbing Black families of generational wealth and the opportunities that come with it.
Biden pointed out that he was the first president to go to Tulsa to acknowledge what happened there on May 31 and June 1, 1921. But, he said, “We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened or doesn’t impact us today, because it does.” He drew a direct line from the terrorism at Greenwood to the terrorism in August 2017 at Charlottesville, Virginia, to the January 6 insurrection. Citing the intelligence community, he reminded listeners that “terrorism from white supremacy is the most lethal threat to the homeland today. Not Isis. Not al-Qaeda. White supremacists.”
Victims’ trauma endures, too, and it eventually demands a reckoning when “what many people hadn’t seen before, or simply refused to see, cannot be ignored any longer.” Today, Americans are recognizing “that for too long, we’ve allowed a narrowed, cramped view of the promise of this nation to fester, the view that America is a zero-sum game, where there’s only one winner. If you succeed, I fail. If you get ahead, I fall behind. If you get a job, I lose mine. And maybe worst of all, if I hold you down, I lift myself up. Instead of if you do well, we all do well.” Biden promised to invest in Black communities extensively to unlock creativity and innovation.
Then the president took on the elephant in the room: voting. On Saturday, Biden took a stand against the state voter suppression laws being passed in Republican-dominated legislatures that, as he said, attack “the sacred right to vote.” They are “part of an assault on democracy that we’ve seen far too often this year—and often disproportionately targeting Black and Brown Americans.” They are “wrong and un-American.”
Biden called on Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the voting protections the Supreme Court stripped out of the 1965 Voting Rights Act with the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. He called on “all Americans, of every party and persuasion, to stand up for our democracy and to protect the right to vote and the integrity of our elections.
In Tulsa today, Biden called the Republican efforts to restrict voting a “truly unprecedented assault on our democracy.” He urged voting rights groups to redouble their efforts to register and educate voters, and then he put pressure on Democratic senators Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), who continue to say they will not challenge the Republican use of the filibuster to stop passage of voting rights bills. Biden promised to fight “like heck with every tool in my disposal” to get the For the People and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act passed.
He has asked Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the effort. Today, she released a statement placing today’s fight for voting rights in the context of our history. “[M]any have worked—and many have died—to ensure that all Americans can cast a ballot and have their vote counted,” she said. “Today, that hard-won progress is under assault.” She promised to work with voting rights organizations, community organizations, the private sector, and Congress to strengthen voting rights.
“The work ahead of us is to make voting accessible to all American voters, and to make sure every vote is counted through a free, fair, and transparent process,” she said. “This is the work of democracy.”
Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
May 28, 2021
This afternoon, Republicans in the Senate killed the bill to establish a bipartisan independent commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection. The vote was 54 to 35, and yet the thirty-five “no” votes won because of the current shape of the Senate filibuster, which requires 60 votes to break, even if the minority doesn’t show up to vote.
For their part, having killed the bipartisan, independent commission, Republicans are now complaining that the Democrats might set up a committee on their own. Maine Senator Susan Collins told Politico, “The most likely outcome, sadly, is probably the Democratic leaders will appoint a select committee. We’ll have a partisan investigation. It won’t have credibility with people like me, but the press will cover it because that’s what’s going on.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could indeed set up such a House committee, although she has been clear that she preferred the bipartisan approach. Such a select committee could issue subpoenas and hold hearings to investigate the people involved in the attack. Republicans, who likely fear some of their own would be implicated, are already claiming such a committee would be partisan. President Biden could also set up a commission, which he could then staff in a bipartisan fashion, but without congressional support it could not issue subpoenas.
On Thursday, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) continued to hope Republicans would vote for the commission, saying, “…the Democrats have basically given everything they’ve asked for, any impediment that would have been there, and there’s no reason not to now unless you just don’t want to hear the truth.” Today, after the vote, he said, “I never thought I’d see it up close and personal that politics could trump our country. I’m going to fight to save this country.”
Indeed, by refusing to investigate what is arguably the most dangerous attack on our democracy in our history, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has brought out into the open just how radical the Republican Party has become.
As if in illustration of the party’s increasingly antidemocratic radicalism, in Georgia last night, Representatives Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) continued to stoke the same Big Lie that drove the insurrectionists, claiming (falsely) that former president Trump won the 2020 election. The two representatives are on a tour of rallies, possibly to distract from the scandals in which they’re embroiled. Last night, Gaetz, who is under federal investigation for sex trafficking, told attendees that the nation’s founders wrote the Second Amendment to enable citizens to rise up against the government. “It’s not about hunting, it’s not about recreation, it’s not about sports,” he said. “The Second Amendment is about maintaining, within the citizenry, the ability to maintain an armed rebellion against the government if that becomes necessary.”
As the audience cheered, Gaetz continued: “I hope it never does, but it sure is important to recognize the founding principles of this nation and to make sure that they are fully understood.”
For his part, President Biden appears to be trying to undercut the increasingly radical Republicans by trying to improve conditions across the country, especially for those hurting economically as the nation’s factories automate and as their jobs move overseas.
When he took office, his first order of business was to get the coronavirus under control, demonstrating that the federal government could, indeed, do good for the people. That has been a roaring success, with about 62% of American adults currently having received at least one vaccine. Biden is now aiming to have 70% of American adults vaccinated by July 4. New cases are plunging as the vaccines take effect, and the country is reopening rapidly.
Biden also turned quickly to repairing the economy, with the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which expanded unemployment benefits and the child tax credit. That credit will start to show up in people’s bank accounts in mid-July and is expected to cut child poverty in half.
So far, Biden’s approach to turning the mood of the country seems to be working: while his predecessor is polling at 39% approval and 57% disapproval, Biden is currently enjoying a 63% job approval rating.
We’ll see how these two themes play out. Today, Biden released a proposed $6.01 trillion budget, tying together three plans he’s already proposed—the $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, and $1.5 trillion in discretionary spending—and adding more to invest in education, health, science, and infrastructure. The proposal increases defense spending by 1.7% and nondefense spending by 16%. Overall, it increases federal spending to levels like those of WWII. By 2031, it would peg spending at $8.2 trillion. Deficits would run higher than $1.3 trillion for the next ten years but then would begin to decrease.
The president proposes to pay for the additional spending by increasing revenue by $4.17 trillion through taxes on individuals who have an annual income of more than $1 million and by revising the top capital gains rate to 39.6%, plus a 3.8% Medicare surtax, bringing the rate to 43.4%. (The current rate is 20% plus the Medicare surtax, making it 23.8%). The White House figures the capital gains tax reform should raise about $322 billion over the next decade.
The budget shows Biden aiming to rebuild the middle class and make America globally competitive again. Acting director of Office of Management and Budget Shalanda Young said that the administration had earlier called for such investment because, “The country had been weakened by decades of underinvestment in these areas.” The 2022 budget would, she said, “grow the economy, create jobs, and do so responsibly by requiring the wealthiest Americans and big corporations to pay their fair share.”
Doubling down on the 2017 Trump tax cuts, which funneled money upward even as corporate tax revenues fell 31%, Republicans have vowed to oppose all tax increases and want no part of Biden’s proposed spending.
Today, McConnell responded to the budget proposal with words that were somewhat unfortunate coming, as they did, on the same day the Republicans refused to create a bipartisan commission to investigate an attack on our government. “If Washington Democrats can move beyond the socialist daydreams and the go-it-alone partisanship,” he said, “we could get a lot of important work done for our country.”