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Saturday, September 19, 2020


Well, it is not difficult to figure out what we need to do. The problem is getting enough people behind us to do it.


1. Win the presidency and take back the Senate.

2. Abolish the filibuster in the Senate.

3. Add two seats to the Supreme Court and while we are at it, add two more circuit courts of appeals and a raft of progressive appeals court judges. This just takes majorities in both houses of Congress and the signature of the president.

4. Grant statehood to the District of Columbia, adding two more reliably Democratic senators. This also just takes majorities in both houses and the signature of the president.

5. Then start passing a raft of progressive legislation to recapture so much of what we have lost in the last 30 or 40 years and to advance some measure of social justice and greater equality of wealth and income.


There, that wasn’t so hard, was it? The problem is not figuring out what we need to do. The problem is getting what is basically a conservative, even reactionary, country to do it.


I think we will win the presidency and I am increasingly hopeful that we will take back the Senate. I think it is almost certain that Biden will try to “work across the aisle with my friends in the Senate on the Republican side,” but unfortunately for him and fortunately for us, he is going to discover what Obama never quite got through his head, that the Republicans of today are not really interested in working across the aisle. I suspect that the desperate urgency of the virus and the consequent economic disaster will put such pressure on Biden to get something done immediately that perhaps he will be forced to agree on getting rid of the filibuster.


If the Republicans succeed in filling the Ginsberg seat with a reactionary, the pressure to expand the Supreme Court will be enormous. Whether that pressure will be sufficient, I do not know. By the way, a fact well known to constitutional historians but of which I was until recently blithely ignorant, the size of the Supreme Court has been changed several times in American history although not, I think, in the 20th century.


The real problem will be getting the Senate – and perhaps the House as well – to pass genuinely progressive income redistributing legislation. We know that Biden doesn’t want to do that – he said so to a group of Wall Street bankers and I take him at his word. The House Democratic Caucus has been moving to the left lately but it is nowhere near as far left as it would need to be to pass the sort of legislation I have in mind. The fault for that does not lie with the politicians whose names we know but with the scores of millions of people who elect them. So that is what the struggle will have to focus on in the years to come. 


Ásgeir said...

I would never claim that Biden is a progressive in the mould of e.g. Sanders and Warren, but I would argue that the full context of Biden's remark shows it to be not quite as bad.

This is what he said: "The truth of the matter is, you all, you all know, you all know in your gut what has to be done. We can disagree in the margins but the truth of the matter is it's all within our wheelhouse and nobody has to be punished. No one's standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change. Because when we have income inequality as large as we have in the United States today, it brews and ferments political discord and basic revolution."

And isn't he right? Even if the progressive's most wildest dreams came true, you name it, no genuinely rich person is going to feel it in their everyday life. That's just how rich they are. Biden is trying to get them on board, not reassuring them that he won't enact progressive legislation.

Of course, the remarks do entail that he's not interested in abolishing capitalism, but nobody ever believed that anyway.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate Wolff directing us to the many components that make up the bigger, longer-term fight.

As for SCOTUS, today's outlines 4 possible routes that Congressional Democrats can take in response to Republican efforts to fill RGB's seat:

1. Compromise
2. Parliamentary tricks
3. Court packing
4. Lawsuit

They describe each in detail.

Howie said...

How about this scenario Professor Wolff: the atrocious McConnell replaces RGB with an ultra fascist who rules for Trump in a contested Presidential election.
I'm sure the fascist McConnell has that in mind and the Sub Homeric Trump always wheeling and dealing will push that avenue when faced with a humiliating rebuke of the American public.
The Republicans will do anything, absolutely anything to keep power- they don't care if tens of thousands of people lose their lives or jobs.
The constitution is exactly what the Supreme Court says it is
They will stop at nothing. No outrage will be too outrageous to surprise me
Pardon the hyperbole but it fits the time and the menace of our hour

Eric said...

Well, it is not difficult to figure out what we need to do. The problem is getting enough people behind us to do it.

You're right about the second part of that statement. The first? Not so sure.

Let's be wildly optimistic and assume Democrats manage to win back both Houses of Congress as well as the presidency, eliminate the filibuster, and expand the courts. (Political scientist David Faris discusses a number of such maneuvers in his recent book It's Time to Fight Dirty.) So they might fill Ginsburg's seat with another "liberal" and (gasp!) add 4 additional neoliberal justices of their choosing, resulting in an 8-5 Democratic-appointed advantage on the Court.

What makes us think (a) Democrats will still have control of both Houses after the 2022 midterms, and (b)—the real kicker—that the Republicans won't use the same tactics, but taken to the nth-degree, to advance conservative priorities as soon as they get back into power? How does a Supreme Court of 21 justices sound, where the conservatives hold a 13-8 majority, with the 7 newly installed conservatives (plus the Thomas replacement) all 35-year-old Opus Dei and Evangelical Nazis from the Federalist Society dominating over 8 60-to-80-year-old Kagans and Garlands?

Won't Republicans in state legislatures be helping to take up some of the slack for conservative causes while Republicans cool their heels in the minority at the federal level?

And where are these Democrats who would be passing the progressive legislation you speak of going to come from?
Did we not just watch the leadership of the Democratic Party ready to embrace Mike Bloomberg if that's what it took to sideline Bernie Sanders? Didn't John Kasich get more speaking time at the DNC convention than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

I know you want to be optimistic, but I cannot share your optimism that small changes around the edges (like adding a few more seats to courts whose fundamental job is to protect capitalists' property interests) will be enough to save the planet.

No, to make an omelet you have to break some eggs. If our 19th-century forebears had taken the incrementalist approach ("to advance some measure of social justice and greater equality of wealth and income"), we'd still have had de jure slavery well into the 20th.

Eric said...

That should have been: "... with the 8 newly installed conservatives (plus the Thomas replacement)".

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Eric, I confess I don't know what you mean by breaking some eggs. That is a metaphor that suggests I am in the kitchen, in control of how many eggs get broken. Of course the nightmare scenario you sketch out as possible. But what alternative do we have? If breaking a few eggs means picking up guns and going to war, I will just remind you that our opponents have many more guns than we do and are more inclined to want to use them. Optimistic? You must be joking. I am not optimistic at all, I'm just not willing to throw in the towel and hide in my safe retirement home and tell the world to go to hell so long as it doesn't interfere with my life.

Boris Dagaev said...

Absolutely nothing. People who pick Biden as their candidate deserve Trump as their president.

R McD said...

An addendum to what I sent on the previous:

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Wonderful. I didn't pick Biden as my candidate. What am I supposed to do? Do I deserve Trump as my president? Could we just try to live in the real world?

Boris Dagaev said...

> Do I deserve Trump as my president?

Because your answer to the "real world" (wtftm) is "more pie-in-the-sky speculation!", yes, you do.

Anonymous said...

The only sentence I'd question in your post is "The problem is getting what is basically a conservative, even reactionary, country to do it." Time and again, Democrats win solid majorities, nationally and locally; time and again, this results in Republican electoral victories, because of the anti-democratic nature of the electoral college, of the senate, and of gerrymandered congressional districts. I'm not arguing that the country is really leftist or even liberal. I'm arguing that what is "conservative, even reactionary" are the institutions that were crafted hundreds of years ago by men who were wary of democracy and intent on preventing rule by "the mob." The tradition of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living.

I know I'm not saying you don't already know.

Jerry Fresia said...

Good "to do" list.

I would add two more:

6. Grant statehood to Puerto Rico

7. Dump Pelosi. It just isn't in her to fight for
progressive change. Given that we are dreaming, I would like to
see someone like Ro Khanna as Speaker. And why stop there?

8. Bernie as Senate majority leader

To be honest, the more I think about this wish list, the more I
get depressed. Can anyone actually remember a time when the Democrats
really fought for something, played dirty pool, and won?

Oh...wait....I do recall (in history books). It was in July 1944 at the Democratic National Convention when right wing Democrats used dirty tricks to block the re-nomination of Henry Wallace as VP - thus ushering in the national security (aka deep) state under the helm of Harry Truman.

Why can't the "left" fight?

David Palmeter said...


The "left"can fight, but so far it can't win. It would be nice if the House could have a progressive Speaker, but the Democratic caucus isn't progressive enough. Ditto for Bernie in the Senate. If he were to replace Schumer tomorrow, he'd be a failure because a large number of Democrats wouldn't follow him. The key is to move the caucuses to the left, and to do that, we have to move the voters to the left--and that's the hard part. If the voters move left, the career politicians like Biden will follow. Leaders have to stay in the center of their caucuses, but if that center moves left, they'll move left.

Unknown said...

I can give you at least three instances of when the left fought hard for liberal causes– two from the distant past, and one quite recently.

In 1937, President Roosevelt fought for legislation to pack the Supreme Court. He was rebuked for attempting that maneuver by the press, and he ultimately lost.

In 1964, when President Johnson, a Southern Democrat, broke ranks with his Southern colleagues and pushed thru the Civil Rights Act. He did it again in 1965, when he pushed for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

And in 2009, when President Obama pushed for passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, nullifying the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear.


s. wallerstein said...

The left fights, but they generally don't fight dirty.

Let's look at Sanders and Biden. They're not the same human type. Sanders is a guy who adopted some noble ideals very young in life, stuck to them and surprise, in his old age he's a rock star. Biden is a guy who has twisted and turned politically since he was in the 1st grade in order to win power. I'm sure we all recall them, the Bidens and Pelosis, in our 1st grade classes, kids who were already playing dirty to win back when I at least had no idea that winning even mattered because I just played for the sake of playing.

And when the left does play dirty, as in the SDS party struggles in the 60's, they mix up motives of power and ideological motives, everything gets confused and it's all a mess. Ideals and ideology never get in the way of people like Biden and Pelosi: they seek power, as Machiavelli advises and they get it. Of course the Bidens and Pelosis pay lip service to some vague general liberal principles that just about everyone in this world pays lip service to except sociopaths and proto-fascists like Trump and his ilk.

And when the left plays really dirty and wins as in Venezuela, they fuck everything up. You get a dictatorship, with massive human rights violations and the trains don't even run on time.

So I'd say that the Bernie Sanders of this world should stick to their ideals and that some day it may be that they'll in a position to put their ideals into practice. If not, they've at least led good lives.

Jerry Fresia said...

David P, I appreciate your emphasis on the ideological bent of each chamber's caucus but I don't think the ideology of the voters/base - assuming there is one - drives the ideology of anything, let alone congressional caucuses. The Framers ensured this. The ideology of Party establishments are driven by the realities of capital (of the respective sectors/coalitions of capital each party represents). Expanding the franchise in various ways since 1789 through struggle has increased the level of annoyance that the electorate poses to capital, but a democracy out of our Constitution this expansion does not make.

SW - Instead of saying "dirty tricks" I should have simply said "hard ball." I think the mess in Venezuela has far more to do with western imperialism than with Chavez's playing dirty. I do agree that Pelosi and Biden were probably maneuvering in elementary school, however.

jeffrey g kessen said...

Well said, S. Wallerstein. I have no love for either Biden or Pelosi---both stammering, stuttering avatars of Democratic cluelessness. Still better than Trump.

Unknown said...

For those of you who are so disillusioned with the state of American politics and yearn for a full-fledged revolution – a wholesale remaking of our institutions promoting total social and economic equality, a halcyon camaraderie of brother- and sister-hood, I would quote the Who – not esteemed political scientists with Ph.d’s to be sure, but perspicacious in their insight nonetheless:

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
Don't get fooled again
No, no!

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

And some words of warning by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men ...” There are exceptions, of course – Gandhi, Dr. King, and John Lewis (actually, not so sure about the latter, given what he did to Julian Bond in order to get elected), but the vast majority of people, particularly those who seek power in order to lead, act out of self-interest.


Unknown said...


I agree with you that significant social and political change cannot occur in this country unless a sufficiently large segment of the electorate moves sufficiently to the left. But I do not see this occurring in our lifetime, or our children’s or gandchildren’s lifetimes. There is simply not the degree of dedication on the part of the American public to be willing to engage in the work necessary to bring about substantive change of our political and economic system, or in their willingness to pay sufficient attention to the need for political change in this country. The vast majority of them are too devoted to using their smart phones to communicate with one another and take photos, to watching reality TV shows on their oversized screens, to indulging themselves in the latest technological gimmick that Silicon Valley can provide for their immediate gratification, to exchanging gossip on Facebook, to watching their favorite football, basketball, hockey, etc. teams (note the demand to bring back athletics, despite the pandemic), to achieve any meaningful social change in this country. They have become the human equivalents of Pavlov’s dogs, who respond to the ring of the latest advertisement which will offer them the escape from reality they have become addicted to. The size of the protests which we have seen in the BLM movement is not nearly sufficient to bring about the changes you propose. And I predict that those protests will soon wan.


David Palmeter said...


Since Trump was elected, the statement that frequently pops into my mind is George Carlin's: "Think how stupid the average person is and realize half of them are stupider than that."

Nasty, I know. I should be ashamed. But there you are.

s. wallerstein said...

Jerry Fresia,

The latest report from the UN human rights commission on Venezuela.

PhilosophicalWaiter said...

I must be part of the idealistic fringe, since what RPW wrote seems to me to be minimal common sense.