President Biden recently announced that his administration has struck a deal with senators on the long-touted infrastructure bill that he had promised voters during his 2020 presidential campaign. He seemed particularly pleased by the fact that senators from both of the major parties had agreed to the deal. He said that the development reminded him “of the days we used to get an awful lot done up in the United States Congress.” He added: “We actually worked with one another. We had bipartisan deals. Bipartisan deals means compromise.”
This smug self-congratulation about bipartisanship speaks volumes about the trajectory that public policy formation in Washington has been taking for decades. For establishment Democrat Washington insiders like Biden, calling something ‘bipartisan’ seems to be the greatest complement one can pay a proposal. It’s not hard to see why: in a prevailing culture that constantly tells us how divided the country is, it provides a facile way of presenting oneself as a great statesman who’s able to bridge the bitter divides and put the interests of the nation above petty partisan squabbles. The master of this pose was, of course, Biden’s former senior running mate, Barack Obama, who waxed lyrical about his willingness to compromise with Republicans.
The reality, however, is that bipartisanship is not only a tool for lazy posturing, but also stands as possibly the biggest impediment to enacting a radical agenda that breaks with the neoliberal status quo. After all, if the majority of people vote for one party and then that party compromises with the other that had only minority support, then you are thwarting the will of the majority and, in turn, undermining democracy. Keep in mind that this happens in an atmosphere that is already steeply tilted against majority rule and towards minority obstructionism of even modestly left-of-center policies. The Senate already gives disproportionate representation to small, white, and right-leaning states and, on top of that, has adopted an arcane set of rules surrounding the filibuster that requires a 60–40 supermajority for anything to pass.
Moreover, the influence of money in politics has meant that congress members of both parties are so dependent on campaign contributions to get elected that they now serve corporate interests more than they do the interests of their voters. In fact, Democratic Party presidential candidates have out-fundraised their Republican rivals in some recent presidential contests. Barack Obama even received more from Wall Street than his Republican rivals in both 2008 (John McCain) and 2012 (Mitt Romney).
In large part for this reason, public opinion is often way to the left of both major parties. Polling data consistently show majority support for a federal $15 minimum wage, ending the US’s ‘endless wars,’ and tougher regulations on Wall Street. The issue of healthcare is perhaps the most salient example of how this plays out. Overwhelming evidence shows that the vast majority of the US public supports some form of public universal health system, including a majority of Republican voters according to some polls.
Yet rather than pushing for a single-payer/Medicare-for-all-type system while he was president, Obama instead implemented a plan that was largely based on a proposal that congressional Republicans offered as their alternative to Hillary Clinton’s plan in the 1990s. Doing so not only failed to implement a policy supported by a majority of the US public, but also handed the Republicans a propaganda victory. With the Democrats now supporting their compromise, Republicans then presented this watered-down version to their base as some kind of communist conspiracy. With the Democrats having moved the goalposts for them, they were then able to go back to their former hardline position. That is, supporting the status quo of private insurance company price gouging that leads to hundreds of thousands of personal bankruptcies per year, tens of thousands of preventable deaths annually, and leaves even more millions without access to care than the Obama’s proposal does.
In a cruel irony, given that no Republican supported the bill, it ended up not even counting as bipartisan. On other occasions Obama needlessly compromised with Republicans in order to maintain the bipartisan pose. Examples include: the stimulus bill, which ultimately lacked the sufficient Keynesian investment to rescue the economy; enacting a watered-down Dodd-Frank Act, which largely failed to implement wide-ranging financial reform; and continuing Bush’s bank bailout, which essentially rewarded Wall Street banks for their greed and recklessness that had led to the 2008 crash in the first place.
History is now repeating itself with Biden’s infrastructure proposal. As part of an effort to keep Bernie Sanders’ supporters mobilized and within the Democratic Party fold, Biden promised a $2.2 trillion ‘American Jobs Plan’ that would invest heavily in both public works programs and ‘human infrastructure’. But the bipartisan deal announced on June 24 has been cut down to just $1.2 trillion, roughly half of which will go exclusively to physical infrastructure. Crucially, the plan leaves out all of the major environmental provisions that were originally promised such as investment in green jobs and a plan to combat global warming. Given that the climate crisis threatens not just the environment but the continued viability of organized human life on planet earth, this can only be described as an abject failure.
Speaking to reporters in Washington alongside some of the senators who had pledged support for the deal, Biden said: “I clearly didn’t get all I wanted. They gave more than, I think, maybe they were inclined to give in the first place.” Spoken like a true pragmatist and realist, to be sure. But one must ask why he is being so conciliatory given that the Democrats control the White House and both chambers of congress. The only plausible answer is that Biden is cynically presenting himself as hamstrung by political reality in order to appease his corporate donors while simultaneously placating the Sanders-supporting base of his party.
Keep in mind that in 2020 Biden became the first presidential candidate to receive over $1 billion in campaign contributions. The vast majority of this came from billionaires and the corporate sector. As early as June 2020, he had already received donations from over 90 billionaires and/or their spouses and from at least 20 powerful corporations, including the notorious vulture capitalist firm Bain Capital. Needless to say, these interests didn’t give this money out of the goodness of their hearts; they expect something in return. And now that Biden has been elected, they will surely be counting on a return on their investment, which means no laws or policies that threaten their economic dominance or shift power away from corporate and billionaire elites toward workers and the middle class.
Bipartisanship provides the perfect smokescreen for continuing this duplicitous quid pro quo. By presenting compromise with a far-right minority party as the only viable way of ‘getting things done,’ Biden can thwart both majority rule and his own party’s base by watering down all his pledges into a center-right program of neoliberalism-lite. For radicals, there is only one conclusion that can be drawn from this sorry situation — that the Democratic Party is not a vehicle for, but rather an active impediment to, radical reform.