Yesterday the Senate passed the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion piece of legislation that will, among other things, extend enhanced unemployment benefits; provide direct cash relief to the majority of Americans; deliver billions of dollars in funding for vaccinations, school re-openings, and cities and towns; lower the cost of health insurance bought on the health exchanges; and cut child poverty in half through a tax credit. This is good news for a nation still reeling from the ongoing pandemic and resultant economic crisis, but it is perhaps even better news for another element of America that is sick: our democracy.
For decades we have been told that government is the cause of, as opposed to a solution to, our problems. Reagan, who did so much to gut government and usher in an era of deregulation, tax cuts for the wealthy, and the reduction of social services for the poor and low-income, famously said that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help. ”
And sure enough, in many ways the government has not been here to help when it came to AIDS, the crack cocaine epidemic, mass incarceration, climate change, voting rights, and the opioid crisis. If anything, since Reagan uttered those confusing words–why become a public servant is your goal is to do less for people?–government has exacerbated the challenges Americans face.
This dangerous trend has coincided with an erosion of trust in democratic institutions and a rise in cynicism, income inequality, and extremism. The passage of a $1.9 trillion bill, the benefits of which go entirely to the people that need it–and not the wealthy or big business–can begin to reverse this trend. At last, Congress and the President decided to focus on what is popular among the electorate–even 70% of Republicans support it–and not what elected Republicans in the House and Senate are favor of. (Not a single Republican in the House or Senate voted for the bill.)
As stimulus checks show up in people’s bank accounts; as enhanced unemployment continues to cushion the economic suffering; and as the rate of vaccinations accelerate, Americans will experience directly how our government, when responsive to the voters, can be a force for good. If trust in democratic institutions, after four years of Trump and the GOP attempting to demolish them, begins to rise, so will rates of voter participation and engagement in the political process.
This is good news for everyone, because absent this engagement there can be no representative democracy. The question now is whether Democrats will build on this early success and move on to passing other urgent legislation, especially a voting rights bill, climate change mitigation, immigration reform, and D.C. statehood. So far, the messaging is spot on: focus on what the voters want, which is often surprisingly progressive (90% of Americans support universal background checks for gun owners, for instance) as opposed to what Mitch McConnell will support (spoiler alert: absolutely nothing).
In short, take a moment to celebrate. We are averaging 2 million vaccinations a day. Congress appears to be back to the business of passing legislation that benefits average Americans. There is cause for optimism. Let’s keep fighting for what’s right!
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