Democracy on Edge

Democracy on the Edge

Bob Sheak, Nov 13, 2020

As of November 12, according to The New York Times, the official state ballot counts, when aggregated and still rising, Joe Biden has won the popular vote with 77,666,661 votes (50.8%) compared to Donald Trump’s 72,40,365 (47.4%) (https://nystimes.com/interactive/2020/11/03/us/elections/results-presidential.html).

Biden also has enough votes in the Electoral College to nail down the presidency, that is, if the “electors” in the various states follow the law and cast their votes for the presidential candidate who has won the popular vote. A candidate needs 270 votes to win in the Electoral College, and, as of Nov 12, Biden had 290 and Trump had 217.

The vote counts come from state attorneys general who compile the vote tallies from voting precincts. While they are official, and while most of the votes have been counted, there are still votes yet to be counted. For example, as of Nov 11, there were still 1.5 million votes to be counted in California. There are recounts going on in some states. The final state tallies are required under the Electoral Count Act to be complete by December 8, “which is the date by which states are meant to have counted votes, settled disputes, and determined the winner of their electoral college votes” (https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/04/politics/how-long-states-have-to-count-votes/index.html). According to Vote.org, “every state has an official process for certifying results”:

  • The process takes place in the days (and sometimes weeks) after Election Day to make sure every eligible vote is counted.
  • In some states this includes continuing to count absentee ballots; in most states it includes adding any verified provisional ballots to the vote totals; and in every state there is a process called a “canvass” where election officials examine the vote totals to make sure every ballot was counted and there are no clerical errors in the results. Only at the end of this process will we know the “certified results” of the election.
  • Some version of the canvass process happens in every county, in every state, in every election (not just in presidential elections). It is a routine part of making sure every vote is counted (https://vote.org/election-results).

The AP and other news media publish the counts as they become available. News sources also identify, based on the voting evidence available, where in the various states the uncounted votes are located. The news organizations then announce and publish their estimates of who is winning or losing, and decide when it is reasonable to project a likely winner in this or that state and in the electoral college. When a candidate has 270 electoral college votes, a winner is announced. As of November 12, most of the votes had been counted by the various state boards of elections and been made publicly available. There are some in-person, mailed-in ballots, provisional ballots, and overseas ballots still to be counted. And, to complicate matters, the Trump campaign is challenging the counts in five or so swing states, claiming various unsubstantiated irregular technical issues and the illegal discarding of some ballots. Nonetheless, the AP and many other news organizations, even Fox News, found that the vote counts were complete and accurate enough by November 7 to call the election for Joe Biden.

No evidence of voter fraud

In an article published in The New York Times on November 10, Nick Corasanti, Reid J. Epstein and Jim Rutenberg report that they, and others at the paper, had called “election officials in dozens of states representing both political parties [who] said that there was no evidence that fraud or other irregularities played a role in the outcome of the presidential race, amounting to a forceful rebuke of President Trump’s portrait of a fraudulent election” (https://nytimes.com/2020/11/11/us-politics-voting-fraud.html). Indeed, officials in every state were contacted: “The New York Times contacted the offices of the top election officials in every state on Monday and Tuesday to ask whether they suspected or had evidence of illegal voting. Officials in 45 states responded directly to The Times. For four of the remaining states, The Times spoke to other statewide officials or found public comments from secretaries of state; none reported any major voting issues.”

Nonetheless, Trump and Republicans keep up their efforts to de-legitimize the elections in swing states where Biden has been widely acknowledged to have beaten Trump. Corasanti and his colleagues note, though, “Mr. Biden’s margins in the blue wall states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are all in the tens of thousands. Even in Georgia, where Mr. Biden leads by more than 11,000 votes, it would be hard to uncover enough voting irregularities to change who won.”

David E. Sanger, Matt Stevens and Nicole Pariroth report on a statement issued by the “Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council, which includes top officials from the cybersecurity agency, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and secretaries of state and state election directors from around the country. The group also includes representatives from the voting machine industry, which has often been accused of being slow to admit to technological shortcomings and resistant to creating paper backups (https://nytimes.com/2020/11/12/us/politics/election-officials-contradict-trump.html). They quote the following from the statement: “‘While we know there are many unfounded claims and opportunities for misinformation about the process of our elections, we can assure you we have the utmost confidence in the security and integrity of our elections, and you should, too,’ the officials added in their statement. ‘When you have questions, turn to elections officials as trusted voices as they administer elections.’”

Dismissive of such evidence, Trump and his Republican allies are going all out to subvert the election. Jesse Wegman gives the following examples in an article titled “The Republican Party is Attacking Democracy” ((https://nytimes.com/opinion/trump-election-concede.html).

“Attorney General Bill Barr, who has repeated the president’s lies that absentee ballots were a source of widespread voter fraud, authorized the Justice Department to look into ‘substantial allegations’ of voting irregularities. In response, the department official who oversees voter-fraud investigations stepped down.

“The rot pervades the administration. The Trump-appointed head of the General Services Administration, Emily W. Murphy, has yet to recognize Mr. Biden as the winner of the election and the president-elect, preventing him from accessing millions of dollars in funds, national-security tools and other essential resources to begin the long and complex task of presidential transition.

“On Monday, Mr. McConnell snidely remarked, ‘Let’s not have any lectures about how the president should immediately, cheerfully accept preliminary election results from the same characters who just spent four years refusing to accept the validity of the last election.’”

Wegman adds: “Of course any election irregularities should be brought to light, if they exist. But what Republicans have brought forth instead is a slurry of unverified allegations and flat-out bogus claims racing around social media, and filing lawsuits that would be sanctionable under normal circumstances. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said, ‘Philadelphia elections are as crooked as a snake,’ without offering any evidence. The new generation of Republican leaders preach and preen about how only ‘legal’ votes should be counted, as though they have discovered some long-lost secret rather than a mundane fact about all elections.” One problem is that the unfounded voter-fraud claims of Trump  reinforce the misguided beliefs of his base.

Biden and Harris greet the nation as victors

Achieving unity may be an illusion

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris gave speeches on the evening of November 7 acknowledging their seemingly incontrovertible victory. Above all else, Biden emphasized he wants to be the president of all Americans, not just those who voted for him, and stressed there is a need for unity in the country and for bipartisanship in the relations between the president and the US Congress. But when he gave examples of what his administration hoped to achieve, one is hard pressed to imagine Mitch-McConnell and Republican Senators or House members entering into serious, give-and-take, negotiations. The Republicans in the Senate and House have opposed most Democratic legislative initiatives over the last 12 years.

Steven Benen provides an impressive analysisof how Republicans did their best to obstruct most policy initiatives by the Obama administration or congressional Democrats during the eight years of Obama’s presidency in his book, The Imposters: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics (2020). Their central goal was to undermine Obama’s presidency and to keep the president and congressional Democrats from having any success, except when they gave the Republicans steep concessions. He documents his thesis in chapters on economic policy, health care, climate change and energy policy, foreign policy, immigration policy, the federal budget, gun control, civil rights, reproductive rights, and government shutdowns and debt-ceiling crises.

Benen reflects on Republican obstruction during the Obama years, but his point applies as well to the past 3+ years of during Trump’s reign. Overall, Republican obstructive maneuvers exemplify “a decade of GOP nihilism on economic policy making, which was guided by no discernible governing vision,” except to do what they could to prevent Obama and the congressional Democrats from advancing constructive legislation. He exemplifies his point on the economy as follows. “They executed a plan involving opposition to all forms of economic stimulus, fighting tooth and nail to take capital out of the economy through spending cuts; rejecting simulative social-insurance programs such as extended unemployment benefits; undermining economic confidence through a pointless debt ceiling crisis; deliberately trying to make unemployment worse; prioritizing austerity and deficit reduction over growth; and pleading with the Federal Reserve… to raise interest rates” (pp. 35-36). Though a few Republicans joined Democrats to pass some spending legislation to provide Covid-19 relief, most importantly “The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act” (“Cares” Act), Republicans have continued their opposition to Democratic legislative initiatives to this day.

Republican obstruction will continue

For example, Biden will rely on scientists to guide his policy on the pandemic. He said: “On Monday, I will name a group of leading scientists and experts as transition advisers to help take the Biden-Harris Covid plan and convert it into an action blueprint that will start on January the 20th, 2021.”  But, for months, Republicans have been content to follow Trump as he marginalized and criticized leading scientists and experts, appointed inexperienced loyalists to the coronavirus task force, continuously disregarded safety measures in his meetings and rallies, and left it up to the individual states to cope with the logistics. Biden has proposed a $2 trillion clean-energy plan that Republicans are surely going to oppose. And Biden’s health care plan to build on Obamacare is hardly something Republicans will accept. While Biden wants a decent America where “everybody in this country has a fair shot,” the Republicans stand for an economy dominated by mega corporations, tax cuts, deregulation, anti-unionism, opposition to a minimum wage, and a stripping of the social safety net – a Social Darwinist jungle.

At the same time, Biden’s apparent presidential victory, and even more so if he has a Democratic-controlled Senate, may have helped the country to avoid the worst consequences that would have followed from Trump’s reelection, at least for the next few years. If Trump had been reelected, the country would have become even less democratic than it is, climate change would have run amok, economic stagnation and inequality would have continued, racism and a right-wing social agenda would have been stoked, voter suppression would have grown, and a Trump administration would have expanded and deepened its relations with authoritarian leaders abroad.

What a Biden administration can do, even without the Senate

Biden and the Democrats will face enormous opposition from Trump forces, the Republican Party, his enormous “base.” He will need a Democratically-controlled Senate to make any headway on his legislative program; otherwise, gridlock and Republican obstruction will prevail. Without a Democratic Senate, all is not lost. He will be able take significant initiative through executive orders. However, Biden will probably not be able to deliver on his big promises on climate, “green” jobs, infrastructure, health care, racial justice, the repeal of the big Republican tax cuts, and so much more.

There is, nonetheless, room for action. Matt ViserSeung Min Kim and Annie Linskey write: “President-elect Joe Biden is planning to quickly sign a series of executive orders after being sworn into office on Jan. 20, immediately forecasting that the country’s politics have shifted and that his presidency will be guided by radically different priorities” (https://washingtonpost.com/politics/biden-first-executive-orders-measures/2020/11/07/9fb9c1d0-210b-11eb-b532-05c751cd5ds2_story.html).

According to the journalists, “[h]is top advisers have spent months quietly working on how best to implement his agenda, with hundreds of transition officials preparing to get to work inside various federal agencies. They have assembled a book filled with his campaign commitments to help guide their early decisions.” There are an impressive array of potential initiatives. “He will rejoin the Paris climate…reverse President Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization…. repeal the ban on almost all travel from some Muslim-majority countries…reinstate the program allowing ‘dreamers,’ who were brought to the United States illegally as children, to remain in the country.” As already noted, he will set up a coronavirus task force to plan a coordinated government response to the pandemic and quickly “wants to quickly appoint a supply commander to oversee production and distribution of testing — and, when ready, vaccines — as well as materials such as masks and gowns.” Even “without congressional cooperation, Biden has said that he plans to immediately reverse Trump’s rollback of 100 public health and environmental rules that the Obama administration had in place.” Biden has also pledged to “institute new ethics guidelines at the White House, and he has pledged to sign an executive order the first day in office saying that no member of his administration could influence any Justice Department investigations.”

If the Senate is controlled by Republicans, Max Moran argues “we don’t  have to live in Mitch McConnell’s world” (https://prospect.org/politics/we-dont-have-to-live-in-mitch-mcconnells-world). Here’s what he writes.

“Biden has at least two paths to building a Cabinet without running through the Senate. First, he can aggressively use the Vacancies Act, which allows presidents to temporarily fill the leadership of an executive agency while waiting for a permanent nominee’s confirmation. Biden can either direct someone sitting in a different Senate-confirmed job to fill the duties of a Cabinet secretary, or pick a senior staffer at the agency and temporarily make them the boss.

“You know all of those Trump officials with the word “acting” in their job titles? They got those acting jobs thanks to the Vacancies Act. In other words, Republicans have cheered aggressive use of this law for four years, even when they controlled the chamber needed for full confirmation of these appointees. They are in no position to complain about Biden using it, and when they inevitably complain anyway, they should immediately be discounted as the hypocrites they are.

Democratic commissioners of independent agencies are Senate-confirmed for multiyear terms, meaning they stand ready to fill the duties of the Cabinet as soon as Biden is sworn in. For example, Federal Trade Commissioner and Sen. Elizabeth Warren ally Rohit Chopra would make an incredible secretary of commerce regardless, but under these conditions, he’d be one of the best qualified designees available for the job.

“Who better to steer the ship of government through turbulent times than the dedicated civil servants who survived the Trump era? One of Biden’s first priorities as president must be a thorough review of the executive branch corruption and self-dealing that occurred under Trump. These civil servants know best what happened in their respective agencies, making them ideal under any circumstances to take the reins of the department.

“Biden’s second option for circumventing McConnell is to make appointments in recess. Here, according to legal expert Sy Damle, Biden would need the Speaker of the House to set up a disagreement with McConnell over adjourning, which President Biden can then settle using the Presidential Adjournment Clause in the Constitution. While Congress stands in recess, the president can make temporary appointments which last until the end of the next congressional session.”

 There remains a disconcerting reality

“Trumpism has not been repudiated, not even close”

This quote is from Historian and author Robert Freeman (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/11/05/its-far-over). He points out that there many unresolved major issues that will challenge the Biden administration. The Senate may remain in Republican hands. The electoral results did not give Biden an overwhelming mandate. There are divisions within the Democratic Party, pitting moderates against progressives. Without tax increases on corporations and the rich, the Democrats may be fiscally hamstrung. The economy is in bad shape, with tens of millions of unemployed and millions of financially weakened businesses. The Supreme Court is dominated by conservative justices. There are 72+ million voters in Trump’s base and they want a strong leader, if not Trump someone else, to protect and advance their right-wing values and interests.

As the complex of political forces are aligned, a Biden administration may not be able to find ways to deliver on its promises. On this score, Freeman writes that Biden is in danger of being “viciously blamed for every policy failure and the setback of every initiative sincerely intended to repair and heal the country. This will redound, inescapably, to the detriment of the Democratic party and any hopes for a progressive policy agenda for many, many years, likely for decades.” There is one other distressing point, namely, that the majority of states will have Republican-controlled legislatures and again control the congressional redistricting maps in those states, instituting surgically-precise gerrymandering coupled with heightened voter suppression efforts.”

Whither Trump?

Trump got over 72+ million people to vote for him. This “base” of support, which grew by 9 million over 2016, may give Trump the opportunity to maintain his dominance in the Republican Party and to build an organization to influence the 2022 midterm elections and the next presidential election in 2024. Here’s one example of how Trump is already plotting to retain power, according to an article by Michael D. Shear and Adam Liptak (https://nytimes.com/live/2020/11/10/us/joe-biden-trump).

“President Trump is directing money raised through his campaign’s breathless requests to ‘defend the election’ into a new political action committee before his recount fund, a move that allows him greater flexibility to fund his future political endeavors.

“The new group, called Save America, is a federal fund-raising vehicle known as a leadership PAC that has donation limits of $5,000 per donor per year.

“It will be used to underwrite Mr. Trump’s post-presidential activities, tapping into the vast reservoir of small donors that made him a dominant fund-raiser, for a time, in 2020. But it is likely to have far greater significance for a man who is refusing not only to concede the election but remains reluctant to surrender the spotlight. In that sense, his PAC could become a fan-subsidized machine to perpetuate his agenda and plot his next moves.

“In the days since the election, Mr. Trump’s campaign has blitzed supporters with text messages and emails almost hourly, spreading unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud and asking supporters to give to the ‘official election defense fund.’”

Columnist Michelle Goldberg reports on various views on whether Trump will retain his political influence after losing the election (https://nytimes.com/2020/11/13/opinion/trump-prosecution-lawsuits.html).

On the one hand, she writes, “some political observers and Republican professionals assume he’ll remain a political kingmaker, and will be a favorite for the party’s nomination in 2024.” And, some of Trump’s allies “imagined other Republicans making a pilgrimage to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida seeking his blessing.” Goldberg cites a statement by Senator Marco Rubio who told The Daily Beast’s Sam Brodey, “If he runs in 2024, he’ll certainly be the front-runner, and then he’ll probably be the nominee.” And there is no doubt that he “has a cultlike hold on his millions of worshipers.”

On the other hand, after leaving office Trump will no longer have the august aura and platform of the presidency. And: “Once Trump is no longer president, he is likely to be consumed by lawsuits and criminal investigations. Hundreds of millions of dollars in debt will come due. Lobbyists and foreign dignitaries won’t have much of a reason to patronize Mar-a-Lago or his Washington hotel. Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch could complete the transition from Trump’s enabler to his enemy. And, after four years of cartoonish self-abasement, Republicans with presidential aspirations will have an incentive to help take him down.” In addition, once he is no longer president, he will no longer have the protection of the Bill Barr and the Department of Justice.

Goldberg suggests that, on balance, Trump will not be able to maintain his political power, even if he should want to. “Trump is in for years of scandals and humiliations. We will doubtlessly find out more about official misdeeds he tried to keep secret as president. Republicans who hope to succeed him will have reason to start painting him as a loser instead of a savior. He’ll have to devote much of his energy to trying to stay out of prison.”

Trumps’s populous base remains

The base comprises up to 72+ million supporters, or about 47% of the voting population in November 2020. Hacker and Pierson emphasize that “America’s version of right-wing populism began to surface well before Trump – in fact, well before the financial crisis.” The appeals for the populous base are in many cases “racially tinged, involve strong identities and strong emotions… that draw a sharp line between ‘us’ and “them” ((Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, p. 22) and are ‘best suited to single-issue groups, cultural institutions such as churches, and certain kinds of media” (p. 23). This base of right-wing support existed before Trump and grew during his presidency.

The power of the president and the Republican party has depended on this electoral base of support as well as support from many of the rich and powerful. (For more on this point, see attached my post “Plutocracy v. Democracy,” August 23, 2020 on WordPress).

On the base, support has been garnered over time from a variety of right-wing groups, including, those who want unlimited gun ownership, evangelical groups that favor the end of reproductive rights for women and an end to the separation of religion and the state, groups that want a virtual end to most or all categories of immigration, groups that want to preserve white supremacy and reject as myth the racist and discriminatory history that is so central to the dark side of American history. Trump has a friendly relationship with far-right, sometimes armed, groups support the reopening of the economy, who demonstrate for white supremacists’ values or a reactionary concept of “freedom.” But beyond the particular interests, Trump is also viewed by these supporters as having had the ability to transform the government in a way that will make “America Great Again,” put an end to the intrusion of government bureaucrats in their lives, and protect their communities from a secular culture.

Fundamentalist evangelicals see support from Trump and Republicans for their opposition to women’s reproductive rights and to LBGTQ interests and want “conservative” judges on the Supreme Court and federal judiciary that favor “the traditional family” and public support for white Christian institutions. For a well-documented account of this faction of the “base,” see Katherine Stewart’s in-depth book, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism.

The National Rifle Association likes the Trump and the Republican opposition to any meaningful gun regulation. The anti-immigration policies of Trump and his administration are strongly supported. Cutting across such issues is the desire of the right-wing populous base to maintain their “superior” white status at a time when demographic changes threaten their majority position in society. Hacker and Pierson say that “the racism-focused narrative takes various forms.

“Some emphasize contemporary forces: the incessant race-baiting of Donald Trump; white backlash against the nation’s first black president; the anxiety generated by the ongoing shift toward a ‘majority-minority’ nation. Others emphasize the deeper historical roots of white identity. Yet all these accounts suggest that race is the cleavage that defines American politics.” They also emphasize, too, that this cleavage reflects “deep psychological attachments that are easily triggered and highly resistant to change. In this respect, they present a ‘bottom-up’ perspective, emphasizing the underlying resistance of key parts of the white electorate to the shifts in status and power that demographic change entails” (p. 9).

There are a host of organizations that represent the various segments of the right-wing populous base and they are major players in educating, mobilizing, and engaging voters in the base to support the Republican Party. On this point, Hacker and Pierson write: “As the GOP embraced plutocratic priorities, it pioneered a set of electoral appeals that were increasingly strident, alarmist, and anti-government extremism, the party outsourced voter mobilization to a set of aggressive and narrow groups: the National Rifle Association, the organized Christian right, the burgeoning industry of right-wing media.”

According to Hacker and Pierson, Trump is “a consequence and recent enabler of the GOP’s long, steady march to the right” (Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, p. 7). The policies of the Republican Party have been unabashedly plutocratic since the election in 1980 of Ronald Reagan. That is, their principal political commitments are to consolidate and advance the interests of the mega-corporations and the business community generally and the rich, especially the super-rich. Most of the rich are connected to the corporations as executive officers or as consultants, or they have investments in corporations of one kind or another. In addition to making tax cuts the centerpiece of their agenda, they have retained their power by loosening regulations and pursuing full-blown deregulation in the economy, by supporting expenditures that benefit the military arms makers, by subsidizing industries and corporations the support the party, by filling policy-making positions in the administration with wealthy corporate backers and executives, by ignoring anti-trust laws, and by reducing funding for programs that benefit or potentially benefit a growing majority of Americans (p. 3). But they need the “base” to do all this.

Historians and constitutional scholars worry

Journalist and political scientist Thomas B. Edsall writes a regular column for The New York Times. In his column on November 11, he reports on the responses of experts to the election and the Trump/Republican refusal to accept the Biden/Harris widely acclaimed victory (https://nytimes.com/2020/11/11/opinion/trump-concession-transition.html). The overall tenor of the responses is that the current electoral situation is highly unusual, though not unprecedented, in US history. They are particularly concerned about Trump’s unwillingness to concede defeat, how he is using the resources of his office to slow down the vote-counting process, undermine the transition preparedness of Biden and his team, and threatening to destroy democratic institutions. Consider the following examples.

Edsall quotes James T. Kloppenberg, a professor of American history at Harvard as follows: “Trump’s refusal to acknowledge defeat is unprecedented. Yet it is consistent with everything he’s done throughout his life, so it should not surprise us. While political scientists often focus on institutions and political practices, democracy, where it exists, rests on deeper cultural predispositions that are harder to see. Unless a culture has internalized the norms of deliberation, pluralism, and above all reciprocity, there is no reason to concede to your worst enemy when he wins an election, nor is there any reason to acknowledge the legitimacy of opponents.”

Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton, said: “It would be not simply a major departure but a deeply dangerous one were Trump to deny the legitimacy of Biden’s election. It would be a brutal renunciation of American democracy. It would create not simply a fissure but a chasm in the nation’s politics and government, telling his tens of millions of supporters as well as his congressional backers to reject Biden’s presidency. It would be an act of disloyalty unsurpassed in American history except by the southern secession in 1860-61, the ultimate example of Americans refusing to respect the outcome of a presidential election. Trump would be trying to establish a center of power distinct from and antagonistic to the legitimately elected national government — not formally a separate government like the Confederacy but a virtual one, operating not just out in the country but inside the government, above all in Congress.”

Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia, expressed how the present situation is so dangerous. “Legally speaking Biden is not officially the victor until mid-December when the electors cast their votes and the states certify them. If Trump plans to fight until then, however, it will certainly poison the political atmosphere for quite a while.” And while “there have not been very many defeated incumbent presidents. John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush. I don’t believe any of them challenged the legitimacy of the result.”

Concluding thoughts

It can be argued that we have done it before, that is the New Deal, therefore we can do it again. There is no doubt that there are plenty of people on the left who are engaged in movements for change on a wide range of issues. And there are promising and committed people running for congressional seats, many of them women. The question is whether progressives, activists of all stripes, the Democratic Party, democratically-oriented citizens can mobilize and rally enough citizens to vote again for Democrats in 2022 and 2024 and enough to win control of the US Congress as well as the White House. It’s a great challenge and not under the most propitious conditions.

Importantly, getting voters to register and vote and winning the next elections will depend on whether the Biden administration can deliver on its legislative promises and make significant progress toward containing and reversing the pandemic. Executive orders alone will be insufficient to improve the immediate material situations of many Americans.

Biden’s administration will be much better prepared to deal with the pandemic than Trump ever was. However, given what the Trump administration wrought and the current surge of covid-19, the crisis may persist and the economy may not recover for some time, putting a strain on the administration’s time and resources and giving Republicans and their right-wing allies opportunities for legislative obstruction and for the “base” to feel vindicated in its concerns.

The course of Covid-19 will affect how the Biden administration fares

Appearing on “Good Morning America,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the United States, urged Americans on Thursday to ‘double down’ on basic precautions as coronavirus cases soared across the country and more Covid-19 patients were hospitalized than ever before” (https://nytimes.com/live/2020/11/12/covid-19-coronavirus-updates). Fauci did not think the country needed “a lockdown,” but that it would require much more diligence on the part of Americans with respect to wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing, avoiding indoor gatherings, and contact tracing. He was optimistic about the progress that Pfizer was making in its experimental coronavirus vaccine and said that “officials hope that ‘ordinary citizens should be able’ to get a vaccine in the spring.” However, no coronavirus vaccine has yet been authorized by the U.S. government. Meanwhile, the pandemic is out of control. There is growing concern that the nation’s hospitals and personnel are being stretched beyond capacity.

To provide the government relief that the country needs to assist hospitals, schools, local health departments, the unemployed, those who are unable to pay the rent, along with support for businesses. Without control of the Senate, the Biden administration may have difficulty getting the support of Republicans for a credible relief package.

Nicholas A. Christaki, sociologists and physician at Yale University, interviewed by Judy Woodruff on the PBS News Hour on November 12, offers an even less sanguine view. Christaki is the author of a new book, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live (https://pbs.org/newshour/show/even-with-a-vaccine-covid-19-will-last-for-years-expert-says). Here are excerpts from the interview.

“Judy Woodruff: When we — we have just learned in the last few days that the vaccine may be available in coming weeks or by the end of the year, early next year. But we’re also hearing this warning from Dr. Fauci and others that it may be with us for a while. What do you think the real timeline is in terms of when life returns to a semblance of normal?

“Nicholas Christakis: I think, even if the vaccine or several vaccines are invented in the next few months, which is likely, we still have challenges. Even with a vaccine, COVID-19 will last for years, manufacturing, distributing and persuading the public to accept the vaccine. And those challenges will take about a year. And, meanwhile, the virus is still spreading, and it will continue to spread until we reach a threshold of about 40 to 50 percent of Americans who are infected. Right now, we’re only at about 10 percent. That threshold is known as the herd immunity threshold. So, that will take us into 2022. So, from my perspective, the first period during which we’re confronting the biological and epidemiological impact of the virus, and we’re living in a changed world, wearing masks, physical distancing, school closures, and so on, will last until sometime in 2022. And then we’re going to begin a second period, when we are recovering from the psychological, social and economic shock of the virus. And this has been seen for thousands of years with other epidemics. And that will take a couple of years for us to rebuild our economy and recover. And so, sometime in 2024, I think, life will slowly begin to return to normal, with some persistent changes.”

Climate change: a threat and an opportunity

The economic, environmental, and human ravages of climate change will have increasing and costly effects on communities across the country, but, as of now, it has not been electorally significant. Indeed, it is problem of global dimensions and, must at some point, have a coordinated global response. Here, the focus is on the US.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Leonhardt anticipates that the Biden administration will have a huge challenge with respect to this growing problem. It will demand more attention and more resources than ever, at a time when the Republican Party denies the existence of a climate crisis or says we can’t afford to deal with it and wants to keep the energy system tied mostly to fossil fuels, the principal sources of global warming (https://nytimes.com/2020/11/13/opinion/joe-biden-climate-change.html).

Leonhardt reminds us that “Climate change is a fantastically complex phenomenon. It does not proceed at a steady pace, and scientists are often unsure precisely what its effects are and which weather patterns are random. But the sum total of the evidence is clear — and terrifying. The earth is continuing to warm, breaking new records as it does, and the destructive effects of climate change are picking up speed. Future damage will almost certainly be worse, maybe much worse.”  While the problem is immense and multifaceted, it also opens up opportunities to address the energy and environmental aspects of the problem while creating millions of jobs in the process. This is precisely what Biden’s $2 trillion on clean energy will do over the next four years, putting people back to work and involving a sum that’s almost 20 times larger than the clean-energy spending in Mr. Obama’s 2009 economic-recovery package. This could turn out to be Biden’s signature issue.

One of the major provisions in Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign platform focuses on climate change and is illucidated in a policy statement titled “The Biden Plan to Build a Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future” (https://joebiden.com/clean-energy).The emphasis is on how millions of jobs can be created around programs that are connected to building a more resilient, sustainable economy. He wants to create millions of good jobs around programs that resolve or begin to resolve the climate crisis by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and doing it in a way that pays particular attention to addressing the needs of African Americans, workers, and other groups that have suffered from historic and systemic discrimination. The Biden plan puts it this way. “At this moment of profound crisis, we have the opportunity to build a more resilient, sustainable economy – one that will put the United States on an irreversible path to achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050. Joe Biden will seize that opportunity and, in the process, create millions of good-paying jobs that provide workers with the choice to join a union and bargain collectively with their employers.”

Marianne Lavelle writes on Biden’s record and documents how he is pushed for action to address climate change throughout his career, going back as far as 1986 (https://insideclimatenews.org/news/31082020/candidate-profile-joe-biden-climate-change-election-2020). For example, she notes that Biden was an early proponent for climate change. “In 1986, after testimony by NASA scientist James Hansen on the greenhouse effect, Biden introduced his Global Climate Protection Act,” which was “a bill [that] sought to compel President Ronald Reagan to set up a task force to study the issue, and the Delaware Senator urged Reagan to include climate in the summit talks then underway with then-Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev.”

Sophie Austin points out, the Biden plan aims at eradicating carbon pollution from the power sector by 2035 (https://www.politifact.com/article/2020/aug/03/joe-biden-climate-change-plan-explained). The plan calls for spending of $2 trillion over four years. According to Deborah D’Souza, some of Biden’s general tax plan will be used to pay for his climate change plan ((https://www.investopedia.com/comparing-the-economic-plans-of-trump-and-biden-4844340).

But there is a major obstacle, namely, the Republican Party and the reactionary political base. If Biden has congressional support, he will be able to accomplish great things and perhaps lay the groundwork for Democratic electoral victories in 2022 and 2024. If he does not, then, the chances that the Democrats and their allies will hold onto power will be greatly diminished. And waiting in the wings are radical right-wing Republicans and a huge reactionary political base waiting to take the rungs of power back, which would push democracy over the edge as the ecosystem burned, the pandemic reached no heights, among other petrifying developments.

Tom Engelhardt may have it right, unfortunately, when he writes: “Trumpism has split America in two in a way that hasn’t been imaginable since the Civil War. The president and the Senate are likely to be in gridlock, the judicial system a partisan affair of the first order, the national security state a money-gobbling shadow empire, the citizenry armed to the teeth, racism rising, and life everywhere in an increasing state of chaos” (https://thenation.com/article/politics/trump-election-america).

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