When politics are more important than the country

I realize I’m supposed to interpret this more charitably. But I don’t always do what I’m supposed to do and you know what? I’m still not buying it. Robert Baird’s article[1] leaves me still thinking that having passed the bipartisan infrastructure framework,[2] the so-called progressives in Congress got rolled, that the Build Back Better package, a “social infrastructure” bill, is doomed. I have long been skeptical about its prospects and now progressives have only Joe Biden’s promise as leverage,[3] a promise that binds neither Joe Manchin nor Kyrstin Sinema and which they seem determined to defy.[4]

The bipartisan infrastructure framework itself seems subject to the morality of polarization, in which what “we” do or say is good solely by virtue of the fact that “we” do or say it and what “they” do or say is evil solely by virtue of the fact “they” do or say it,[5] as Republicans denounce fellow Republicans who voted for it.[6] It’s hard to imagine a sterner rebuke of Biden’s conviction that he can work with Republicans.[7]

I am remembering a point in the history of the British Empire, when even as it was already overstretched, it continued to expand. That pretty much came to an end with World War I,[8] which also ended the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires.[9] The parallel I would draw here stems not so much from the causes of decline of those empires as from the apparent ability of a geopolitical order to continue to function even after the seeds of its own destruction have taken root. Even if I do not see how the U.S., with all its assets and liabilities, can be divided, I do not know how the U.S. remains a single country despite the profound epistemological and moral differences that divide us.[10]

I think of that point in history because physical infrastructure is essential to the political and economic paradigm as we know it; its neglect is apparent to me as I drive around Pittsburgh and that Republicans cannot agree to repair and sustain it—because loyalty to Donald Trump against Biden is more important[11]—signifies that the contest for political power over the country and loyalty to Trump have become more important than the country itself.

I think of that point also because the social, political, and economic divisions the Build Back Better package are meant to ameliorate can only be exacerbated by its failure. Here, ideology combines with that power struggle; these too are more important than the country itself.

The intensification of these divisions, the political polarization that has only intensified since—I would say—Jimmy Carter’s presidency but arguably with roots predating the Civil War, suggests that destabilizing feedback loops are in operation. I am not seeing stabilizing feedbacks that clearly meet the challenge. As I write this, I do not precisely see the operation of any of these feedbacks, but when we see destabilizing feedbacks outweighing stabilizing ones, a tipping point likely looms.

  1. [1]Robert P. Baird, “Inside the Democrats’ Battle to Build Back Better,” New Yorker, November 8, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/the-political-scene/inside-the-democrats-battle-to-build-back-better
  2. [2]Tony Romm, Marianna Sotomayor, and Mike DeBonis, “Congress approves $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, sending measure to Biden for enactment,” Washington Post, November 6, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2021/11/05/house-infrastructure-reconciliation-vote/
  3. [3]Robert P. Baird, “Inside the Democrats’ Battle to Build Back Better,” New Yorker, November 8, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/the-political-scene/inside-the-democrats-battle-to-build-back-better
  4. [4]Igor Bobic and Arthur Delaney, “Progressive Democrats Stare Down Moderates In Battle Over Biden Agenda,” Huffington Post, September 30, 2021, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/nancy-pelosi-infrastructure-vote_n_6155b857e4b0487c855b9a42; Heather Caygle, Sarah Ferris, and Jennifer Scholtes, “Dem leaders try for unity — and only get more tough questions,” Politico, September 23, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/09/23/democrats-plan-social-spending-513901; Jonathan Chait, “Joe Manchin Has Put Biden’s Presidency in Mortal Danger,” New York, September 2, 2021, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/09/joe-manchin-pause-biden-presidency-failed-danger-congress-democrats.html; Jonathan Chait, “Kyrsten Sinema Threatens to Kill Her Own Infrastructure Bill,” New York, September 20, 2021, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/09/kyrsten-sinema-threatens-infrastructure-bill-biden-build-back-better.html; Jonathan Chait, “Democrats Have Two Long-Shot Plans to Deal With Kyrsten Sinema,” New York, October 21, 2021, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/10/biden-kyrsten-sinema-build-back-better-taxes-congress-will-it-pass.html; Mike DeBonis, “Joe Manchin gets all the attention. But Kyrsten Sinema could be an even bigger obstacle for Democrats’ spending plans,” Washington Post, September 15, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/sinema-reconciliation-manchin/2021/09/15/8c583f96-162d-11ec-9589-31ac3173c2e5_story.html; David Dayen, “Manchin’s Cherry-Picking of Budget Estimates,” American Prospect, November 5, 2021, https://prospect.org/infrastructure/building-back-america/manchins-cherry-picking-of-budget-estimates/; Democracy Now! “‘We Need to Deliver’: Anger Grows at Sens. Manchin, Sinema over Obstruction of Democratic Priorities,” September 21, 2021, https://www.democracynow.org/2021/9/21/35_trillion_spending_bill_ro_khanna; Maureen Dowd, “Sinema Stars in Her Own Film,” New York Times, October 2, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/02/opinion/kyrsten-sinema-congress.html; Oriana Gonzalez, “Sanders insists Dems’ spending package remain at $3.5 trillion,” Axios, September 8, 2021, https://www.axios.com/sanders-manchin-spending-package-35-trillion-536a9c7f-6dd1-450a-8d65-c6dd986cc86e.html; Glenn Kessler, “Why Biden says his plan is ‘fiscally responsible,’ while Manchin decries ‘gimmicks,’” Washington Post, November 2, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/11/02/why-biden-says-his-plan-is-fiscally-responsible-while-manchin-decries-gimmicks/; Olivier Knox, “It’s Bernie vs Manchin as spending breakthrough remains elusive,” Washington Post, October 7, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/10/07/its-bernie-vs-manchin-spending-breakthrough-remains-elusive/; Marianne Levine and Burgess Everett, “Democrats grit their teeth after Manchin lists demands,” Politico, September 30, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/09/30/democrats-grit-teeth-manchin-demands-514836; Eric Levitz, “Why Are There So Many Democrats to Joe Biden’s Right?” New York, September 23, 2021, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/09/why-are-there-so-many-democrats-to-joe-bidens-right.html; Jonathan Martin and Jonathan Weisman, “Biden Throws In With Left, Leaving His Agenda in Doubt,” New York Times, October 2, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/02/us/politics/biden-progressives-moderates-agenda.html; Hans Nichols, “Manchin backs as little as $1 trillion of Biden’s $3.5 trillion plan,” Axios, September 8, 2021, https://www.axios.com/scoop-manchin-backs-as-little-as-1-trillion-of-bidens-35-trillion-plan-91d079e0-84a7-4f8f-94d4-212827a61339.html; Kristina Peterson and Lindsay Wise, “Democrats’ $3.5 Trillion Budget Framework Exposes Party Tensions,” Wall Street Journal, August 11, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/democrats-3-5-trillion-budget-framework-exposes-party-tensions-11628704569; Tony Romm, “Sens. Manchin and Sanders square off as Democrats clash over $3.5 trillion economic package,” Washington Post, September 12, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2021/09/12/manchin-sanders-reconciliation/; Greg Sargent, “Biden’s frustration with Manchin and Sinema captures a dark truth,” Washington Post, October 5, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/10/05/biden-manchin-sinema-frustration-reconciliation/; Greg Sargent, “Bernie Sanders erupts at Joe Manchin, and a deeper dispute is revealed,” Washington Post, October 7, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/10/07/sanders-manchin-reconciliation-democrats/; Greg Sargent, “Joe Manchin’s ugly new demands expose the absurdity of arbitrary centrism,” Washington Post, October 18, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/10/18/manchin-climate-reconciliation-child-allowance/; David Siders, “‘Her calculation is off’: Sinema dares the left to take her out,” Politico, October 5, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/10/05/sinema-arizona-democrats-congress-515108; Marianna Sotomayor, “Waiting for ‘Manchema’: House liberals grow exasperated with two Democratic senators as Biden agenda struggles,” Washington Post, September 30, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/manchin-sinema-reconciliation-liberals/2021/09/30/3aa2b376-2130-11ec-8200-5e3fd4c49f5e_story.html; Marianna Sotomayor, “For Democrats and the Biden agenda, it’s becoming a matter of trust,” Washington Post, October 3, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/reconciliation-biden-trust/2021/10/03/ca9fb670-2385-11ec-8fd4-57a5d9bf4b47_story.html; Daniel Strauss, “Can Pramila Jayapal Stare Down Manchin and Sinema?” New Republic, September 29, 2021, https://newrepublic.com/article/163811/pramila-jayapal-infrastructure-manchin-sinema; Paul Waldman, “Kyrsten Sinema needs to show us what she believes in,” Washington Post, September 20, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/09/20/kyrsten-sinema-needs-show-us-what-she-believes/
  5. [5]David Benfell, “The morality of polarization,” Not Housebroken, December 23, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2018/09/21/the-morality-of-polarization/
  6. [6]Marianna Sotomayor, Paul Kane, and Josh Dawsey, “Tensions rise among Republicans over infrastructure bill and whether any agreement with Biden should be tolerated,” Washington Post, November 9, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/republicans-infrastructure-biden/2021/11/09/cc0c4c9e-4167-11ec-9ea7-3eb2406a2e24_story.html
  7. [7]Perry Bacon, Jr., “Does Biden Really Think Republicans Will Work With Him? And Could He Be Right?” FiveThirtyEight, January 19, 2021, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/does-biden-really-think-republicans-will-work-with-him-and-could-he-be-right/; Eric Bradner and Gregory Krieg, “Joe Biden predicts a post-Trump ‘epiphany’ for Republicans,” CNN, May 14, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/14/politics/joe-biden-republicans-trump-epiphany/index.html; Moira Donegan, “What does Biden have in common with Trump? Delusional nostalgia,” Guardian, June 21, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/21/joe-biden-trump-sexism-delusional-nostalgia; Matt Ford, “Someone Please Tell Joe Biden That Bipartisanship Is Dead,” New Republic, June 12, 2019, https://newrepublic.com/article/154183/someone-please-tell-joe-biden-bipartisanship-dead; Martin Pengelly, “‘Short and not especially sweet’: Lindsey Graham called Biden over Trump support,” Guardian, August 16, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/aug/16/lindsey-graham-joe-biden-hunter-call-trump-support; William Rivers Pitt, “Mitch McConnell Says Bipartisanship Is ‘Over.’ Believe Him,” Truthout, July 7, 2021, https://truthout.org/articles/mitch-mcconnell-says-bipartisanship-is-over-believe-him/; Matt Viser, “Biden once asserted Republicans would have an ‘epiphany.’ Now he admits he doesn’t understand them,” Washington Post, May 6, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/biden-once-asserted-republicans-would-have-an-epiphany-now-he-admits-he-doesnt-understand-them/2021/05/06/a8204a84-ae77-11eb-acd3-24b44a57093a_story.html; Paul Waldman, “Joe Biden still hasn’t learned the lessons of the Obama presidency,” Washington Post, December 6, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/12/06/joe-biden-still-hasnt-learned-lessons-obama-presidency/
  8. [8]Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994).
  9. [9]David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace (New York: Owl, 1989).
  10. [10]David Benfell, “Pure poison,” Not Housebroken, September 15, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/12/17/pure-poison/
  11. [11]Marianna Sotomayor, Paul Kane, and Josh Dawsey, “Tensions rise among Republicans over infrastructure bill and whether any agreement with Biden should be tolerated,” Washington Post, November 9, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/republicans-infrastructure-biden/2021/11/09/cc0c4c9e-4167-11ec-9ea7-3eb2406a2e24_story.html

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