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A weekly review of the rogues and scoundrels of American politics

Low Unemployment Is Good. Bank of America Disagrees.

Time to put the kibosh on all this corporate talk about how workers have to sacrifice their labor market leverage to fight inflation.

Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan on Fox Business
John Lamparski/Getty Images
Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan on Fox Business in 2020

With a few months remaining before voters go to the polls for the midterm elections, no one should be under the illusion that the economy is offering Democrats many political advantages. Elites are arguing about whether we’re in a recession. Maybe we are, maybe we aren’t, but the very existence of that debate is not a great sign. Meanwhile, after a long period in which they didn’t seem to want to talk about inflation, beyond halfheartedly pinning the blame for it on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Democrats have only belatedly realized they can’t run from the issue and have renamed the Build Back Better Act as the Inflation Reduction Act (the bill itself got quite a reduction, too).

While these factors are far from ideal for Democrats, there are economic conditions worth highlighting—especially where the labor market is concerned. Federal fiscal relief helped engineer a swift recovery relative to the 2008 recession. The unemployment rate is low and employers are competing for talent rather than batting away job applicants. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 0.6 unemployed persons per available job, which means there are about two job openings available for every unemployed person. And the recent boffo jobs report suggests that this part of the economy is still cooking with gas.

This is the sort of labor market that President Biden wanted to create, and for good reason: During his vice presidency, the Great Recession sent that ratio as high as 6.5 workers per job opening. It was a time of real despair for American workers, who largely shouldered the losses of Wall Street’s irresponsible gamblers. That workers took it on the chin was hardly celebrated as an act of patriotism. In fact, in the first midterm election after the recession began, the long-term unemployed were being regularly maligned by Republicans such as Senator Rand Paul, who on the campaign trail characterized the unemployed as people who needed to accept “a wage that’s less than we had at our previous job” in order to get off the dole. “Nobody likes that,” he said, “but it may be one of the tough love things that has to happen.”

And yet, here we are twelve years later, with workers off the dole and in jobs, and they’re still being maligned for their insufficient fealty to the demands of capital. Where their biggest sin was once nursing from the government teat, they’re now under the gun for coasting along in a market that’s suddenly become favorable to worker interests. The fact that workers might now be able to move more freely from a bad job to a better one, and command a better wage than they did at their previous place of employment, is somehow also seen as a problem in some quarters.

Last week, The Intercept’s Ken Klippenstein and Jon Schwarz obtained a private memorandum from a Bank of America executive who rather bluntly stated that his hopes that conditions for American workers might get materially worse.* The memo—which its author, Ethan Harris, characterized as a “mid-year review”—expressed grave concerns over the leverage that workers have at the moment. “By the end of next year,” Harris wrote, “we hope the ratio of job openings to unemployed is down to the more normal highs of the last business cycle”—that is, a ratio more conducive to employers having the leverage again.

As Klippenstein and Schwarz note, the memo “tells us what we suspected all along: The most powerful economic actors in the U.S.—entities like Bank of America and its clients—do not like working people to have power.” But this should probably come as no surprise: Intermittent presidential advisor and capital-class amanuensis Larry Summers has, in similar terms, endorsed the idea that American workers must give up their labor market gains in order to end inflation.

But in a speech during a recent conference on “Inclusive Populism,” author and TNR contributor Zach Carter was singularly unsparing in his critique of this anti-worker position:

Anyone who calls double-digit unemployment a solution to anything does not belong in politics. But the reasoning in play here should simply horrify people who believe in democracy. The most important cost-of-living issue for families this year is housing—in many cities, rent has exploded. Ask yourself: if the goal is lower rent, should we a) build more houses, or b) indiscriminately fire a large number of people from their jobs? The latter is the serious contention of this newly revived austerity brigade.

To contemplate engineering a spike in unemployment, at a moment where our republic is in genuine peril, is truly deranged. We need more stability and social cohesion right now, not less. And for the Democratic Party, which happens to be the only major party that wants to preserve the American experiment in multiracial democracy, there is a desperate need to connect better with voters outside of the affluent college-educated Americans they’ve already won over. They won’t get there if they allow workers to once again be thrown to the wolves without fighting for them.

More often than not, Biden’s age and experience is treated as a liability from the same pundit class that doesn’t seem to understand why it’s beneficial for workers to have the leverage they do. But it seems likely that a battle royale between labor and capital is starting to hover into view. Here, Biden’s belief that employers should compete for workers and his affinity for labor organizers is an example where his old-school thinking truly is aligned with our present needs. Taking up this fight may not save the Democrats’ bacon in the midterms, but there is another election just around the corner where victory may be even more necessary. Biden should go to any length to win it; his vision of a labor market that works for ordinary people will put him on favorable terrain.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

*This article originally reported that The Intercept was the first to report on the memo.

Corporate America Doesn’t Really Care About Your Abortion Rights

Democratic governors are pitching their states as havens for companies that want to protect their employees’ reproductive rights, but Big Business has never been a reliable ally of such causes.

A billboard reads, “Welcome to California where abortion is safe and still legal” on July 12 in Rancho Mirage, California.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
A billboard reads, “Welcome to California where abortion is safe and still legal” on July 12 in Rancho Mirage, California.

In the last month, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority has unleashed a tidal wave of political power to secure a plethora of long-standing ideological goals, including leveling the administrative state, tearing down the barrier between church and state, and gutting reproductive freedoms that Americans have enjoyed for generations. With the right mounting up for ever more destruction in the not-too-distant future, it’s only natural that the people who have gotten screwed by all of the Supreme Court’s wheeler-dealings might seek out some equal or opposite societal energy that might be harnessed to push back in the other direction. One such force that’s recently emerged as a ray of hope is corporate America.

Those who look to Big Business for succor in these trying times might have been uplifted by The New York Times, which reported this week that the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision is “threatening to reshape the lines of economic competition between conservative and liberal states.” As Alexander Burns reports, the loss of reproductive freedom could cause a “disruption to the calculus” that has made some Republican-run states attractive to businesses—the idea being that as more onerous restrictions come online in various states, it will be harder for firms to attract talented potential hires to move to places where they’ll have fewer rights.

As the Times reports, some Democratic governors have acted upon this premise—North Carolina’s Roy Cooper, for instance, has vowed to veto any abortion ban on the grounds that it would hurt the state economically. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo has, in similar fashion, maintained that “the states imposing rigid abortion bans were all but certain to suffer economically.”

It’s understandable why people might look to corporate America to be a corrective force. A brain drain is certainly possible as young and talented workers avoid states with abortion restrictions or choose not to attend big state universities where top firms recruit. And there’s some logic in the idea that stability is good for business and upheaval is bad. We’ve even seen corporate America step forward to play a role in tempering such upheaval, when business leaders joined the campaign to get President Donald Trump to hew to the peaceful transfer of power. Perhaps the end of Roe’s protections are, in a sense, bad for business.

Since the Dobbs decision, we’ve been hit with a tidy barrage of stories about certain major firms, from Amazon to Citigroup, offering to help affected employees cover travel costs in order to get abortions out of state if necessary. It’s easy to talk a good game about these commitments in these early days, when nothing is certain but that the nerves of employees need to be calmed.

But even now, not every firm is speaking with encouraging words about reproductive rights: Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Snapchat have been guarded in their responses about whether they’ll hand over private data to police investigating recriminalized abortions. Some firms have already initiated crackdowns on their employees talking about their rights in both public and private fora.

I’ve expressed skepticism about corporations being a reliable ally of reproductive rights because sooner or later, all roads lead to corporations’ monomaniacal goal: increasing profits to shareholders. What’s going to happen when the cost of transporting the employees affected by abortion bans, and the possible legal expenses that accompany recriminalization, start cutting into bottom lines? I have some personal experience with this situation: In 2014, the company I worked for—AOL—attempted to rook its employees by reducing the generosity of our benefits packages on the grounds that two employees covered by our health insurance plans had “distressed babies” that imposed onerous expenses on the firm. AOL was certainly no model of corporate excellence. But if two employees’ medical bills can rattle a firm to that extent, imagine what happens when it’s hundreds of employees incurring new expenses.

If you’re feeling sinister, I suppose you might note the dark irony of how, in this narrow instance, two abortions would have been more cost-effective to AOL than two “distressed babies.” But that’s not the world we should be seeking to build. And frankly, neither is a world where some companies celebrate themselves for making less-than-ironclad commitments to workers about providing reproductive health care. As Today in Tabs’ Rusty Foster noted, while “eliminating the right to abortion unless you work for a certain employer” certainly “brings abortion in line with the rest of our national health care policy, where only the submissive employee has a right to any health care at all,” this is not the future for which we should be fighting.

As it stands, we might be kidding ourselves about this imagined future. Even if every rosy assumption becomes reality—liberal states outcompete Republican-run states for talent, workers relocate to reclaim lost rights, red states suffer economically—we should remember that if the national abortion ban conservatives are pushing for now comes to pass, none of that will matter. And as corporate America continues to fund the campaigns of anti-abortion politicians, you shouldn’t presume that they haven’t already thought of this.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

How Safe Will We Be on Election Day?

As gun violence and political intimidation increasingly push into the public square, our polling places loom as vulnerable targets.

Voters fill out their ballots at the Old Stone School polling location in Hillsboro, Virginia.
Bill Clark/Getty Images
Voters fill out their ballots at the Old Stone School polling location in Hillsboro, Virginia.

There was a sense in the days running up to the Independence Day holiday that something bad was brewing—that people just felt less safe. As Gothamist’s Matt Katz reported on July 2, New Yorkers were feeling apprehensive about being out in public because the prevalence of mass shootings in America was causing a similar prevalence of panic-inducing false reports of violence. As psychiatrist and sociologist Jonathan Metzl told Katz, it’s a problem that extends well beyond New York City: “I do feel like our entire country right now is traumatized by the fact that it feels like a mass shooting can happen anywhere at any time.” 

Clearly, those fears were well founded: As CBS News reported, there were 11 mass shootings over the weekend, including the Highland Park shooting that claimed seven lives. In the wake of another fresh round of mayhem, the usual social media admonitions to get out and vote in the midterms circulated urgently—some more ham-fisted than others. These were of course followed by an equally robust fusillade of calls to do more than simply vote. 

Obviously voting is an essential ingredient to political change. But a lot of politics happens between election days—something conservatives often seem to understand better than liberals. Still, for those hoping for high turnout, it’s worth asking: Will it actually be safe to go out and vote?  

We live in an age when being out in the public square increasingly seems like a frightening prospect; it no longer feels like there’s safety in numbers. And standing in a line to vote at publicly demarcated polling places very much requires us to venture into a space that now feels vulnerable—where we might find ourselves under attack.

As Georgetown professor Heidi Li Feldman explained on Twitter, “Anti-democracy institutions and people” propagate fear and vulnerability by making “more guns available to more people”—the single condition that accounts for America’s unique problem with gun violence. “By making it dangerous for people of diverse backgrounds to gather in public, gun mongers promote fear and suspicion of one another,” Feldman notes. “By making public space so vulnerable to deadly violence, those who promote and push guns strike at the civil fabric.” What gets lost as that fabric frays is a sense of a “civil society” that we can all share.

And what we gain is more fear. As Amy Spitalnick, the executive director of Integrity First for America, points out: Sowing fear is “why mass shooters [and] extremists directly target public events—from neo-Nazis attacking Charlottesville community members who were protesting, to attacks on Pride events and abortion protests, to the targeting of public officials. The violence is key to undercutting democracy.”

As the right continues to plot its path toward permanent minority rule, it is making political violence more mainstream, alongside the GOP’s massive voter-suppression project. It’s hard to deny how violence has become an essential ingredient of the plot to deconstruct democracy. Since the 2020 election and the disputes that arose from President Donald Trump’s Big Lie, election workers have quit in droves because of the constant violent threats they receive. Two Georgia election workers, Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, recently provided harrowing details to the January 6 commission about the ways their lives were “upended” by a nonstop firehose of “harassment and racist threats.”

Meanwhile, right-wing militias that once vowed to “protect the polls” have only increased their presence in our politics and our civic life, where they’re massing in the public square and taking orders on who to intimidate. After the most recent evidence surfaced by the January 6 commission, it’s no longer hard to imagine such thugs receiving instructions from on high to shut down Democrat-heavy polling places by any means necessary. 

Wasn’t the 2020 election supposed to be a rebuke of the culture of political violence Trump and his ilk famously promulgated? Apparently not: “Far from reducing violence, the 2020 election and its aftermath heralded a step-change in the mainstream acceptance of violence as a political tool,” writes Rachel Kleinfeld at Just Security. “Why would a faction of Republicans still in power or running for office at the federal, state, and local level make common cause with violent criminals? Because violence and intimidation are already bolstering their power.” 

What is to be done? Unfortunately, we remain stuck in the “vote harder” endless loop; we aren’t likely to pass a law protecting voters at the polls, for the same reason we’ve not enacted any voter protections in spite of these threats to democracy—not enough Democrats believe these measures are more important than preserving the filibuster. Democrats who feel otherwise must elect additional senators who are willing to change these rules. To get there, Democratic voters must feel safe enough to go to their polling places, and cross their fingers that their votes get counted.

This might be one occasion when less skittish Democrats should try their luck at passing a bill to make our polling places safe, force Republicans to take a hard vote, and then get them to explain why the ostensible party of law and order opposes ensuring safety and security at the polls. If that’s the only thing that can be accomplished in the short term, Democrats can at least distinguish themselves as the guardians of stability in the public square, thus advancing the Good Life agenda in a small but meaningful way. And if something unthinkable happens on Election Day—well … we will at least be able to name and shame the lawmakers who enabled it. 

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.

The Republican Plot to Turn Back the Clock Is Just Getting Started

Conservatives have no plans to moderate their destructive agenda after the overturning of Roe. Their next goal: a national abortion ban.

Clarence Thomas and Mitch McConnell
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell at a Heritage Foundation event last year in Washington, D.C.

As told by former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson this week, on January 6, 2021, President Donald Trump went to a “Stop the Steal” rally, hoping to meet a crowd of armed and angry supporters whom he expected to personally lead to the U.S. Capitol; he lashed out when he was told that no, he could not join his mob in their collective mission. Hutchinson’s account sent shock waves through the media, and for good reason: Her testimony speaks to Trump’s intentions that day, a pattern of facts that’s often very necessary but very elusive in successful criminal prosecutions.

But while this may have gone a long way to helping some future criminal case get made, it’s also true that we didn’t actually learn anything new about the man who served as the president for four misbegotten years. No new facts are necessary to demonstrate that Trump was a sulky, smooth-brained baby, prone to fits of pouty anger, enabled by a coterie of vile liars and violent stooges. What’s far more interesting is how these revelations reflect upon the contemporary Republican Party. In Washington, as you know, the jury is still out on whether the GOP is redeemable. But based upon what you’ve learned during the January 6 commission’s work, would you say they seem like a party that holds comity, compromise, fellowship, or restraint as a civic virtue? Do they hew to any civic virtues at all?

It’s a question that answers itself; those Republicans who might cleave to a more reasoned form of political rhetoric are mostly doing so now from the safety of newsletters or the MSNBC greenroom; conservatives who once spoke of higher ideals, or even who want to govern, are retiring from their posts. The one avatar of this imagined “better” GOP, Liz Cheney—herself no peach—is being drummed out of the party. With all this in mind, we shouldn’t have much trouble drawing conclusions about the Republican Party’s plans in the days and weeks ahead.

Oddly enough, however, the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe has given rise to a new round of insistences and assurances that the GOP writ large is not as bad as all that. Surely, they won’t pry other hard-won rights out of our hands. Why, they may even build a super-robust welfare state! I’m here to tell you that this is incorrect. Yes, a push for a national ban on abortion is coming. Yes, an attempt to roll back contraception rights and marriage equality will follow. Yes, Republicans will abolish the filibuster to complete their work if they need to. These next moves are fully embedded in the logic of the Dobbs decision, but more to the point, Republicans are simply saying these things out loud.

The conservative justices have, in their legal opinions in Dobbs, embedded vague assurances that they won’t be pushing for more than what they’ve already taken. Alito, for example, wrote, “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.” He doesn’t say anything about returning matters to the states, however. The court’s conservative majority, in any event, isn’t shy about stepping in and overruling state governments when they do something that they don’t like. As Carol Rose, the legal director of the ACLU noted, of Alito’s decision, “This is not an originalist document, it’s an ideological document” that invites Republicans at the federal level to forgo their supposed fealty to states’ rights in favor of a snatch-and-grab job.

As TNR’s Matt Ford points out, Brett Kavanaugh, in his concurrence, “emphasized that Dobbs did not threaten the court’s precedents on contraception, same-sex marriage, or similar issues.” He also said “that states could not … ban women from traveling to other states to obtain” abortions. Should you take the conservative justices at their word when they make such commitments? I invite you to recall that just this week, their decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District rested on an obvious lie. Besides all that, there is Clarence Thomas’s own concurring opinion to consider, which does in fact set the stage to undo the aforementioned precedents. While it’s being sold as an outlier among the court’s conservatives, the seemingly far-out opinions that Thomas expresses on one day have a funny way of becoming the majority opinion not long afterward, Matt notes.

Republicans, of course, hardly need the permission of the Supreme Court justices to carry out such aims. As The Washington Post’s Caroline Kitchener reported this week, anti-abortion activists and GOP lawmakers have begun developing their strategy for a national abortion ban. This is no surprise: As I noted in December, the Republican Party is a slave to purity tests. There is no moderating force to be found anywhere in its ranks; only a loud clamoring from its donors and leaders to push further. Lest you imagine there is a place for moderate Republicans, let’s recall the recent television ad put forth by Eric Greitens, the controversial Republican front-runner for Missouri’s Senate seat, in which he led a squad of armed men on a hunt to kill “RINOs,” or “Republicans in name only.” That’s how this party views moderate squishes now—as worthy of extinction.

It’s not clear that Democrats have woken up to what the GOP has become. The Biden administration still seems to think the Republican Party’s fever might break. On Wednesday, Biden reportedly reached a “deal” with Senator Mitch McConnell agreeing to support the nomination of an anti-abortion judge to the federal bench. (The timing is just exquisite.) Sizable majorities of normal Americans, however, both oppose the Supreme Court’s decision to gut Roe and are worried about what rights might be stripped next. No one should dissuade these people of their fears. It’s in moments like this that people, concerned about looming disasters, often get treated by media elites as alarmists—Chicken Littles squawking about doom in the sky. Have you read the news lately? The sky has fallen; the next disaster is on its way.

The Democrats’ Theory of Change: Wait for the Republicans to Screw Up

The party tends to succeed only after the GOP brings disaster. Meanwhile, conservatives are busy executing decades-long plans that are transforming the country.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

This week, when I saw The New York Times teasing a story on Twitter about a “coordinated, multiyear strategy” that Republicans were about to bring to fruition, my first thought was, “Sure, they’re about to overturn Roe v. Wade.” It took me a minute to remember that they actually had two such projects in the works and that the Times was referring to the culmination of a plan to “limit the federal government’s authority to reduce carbon dioxide from power plants.” That these plans are coming to fruition at the same time is all the more notable because their outcomes are not likely to be popular. The vast majority of Americans support abortion rights; few if any want to be shouldered with the burden of cleaning up the pollution to which a hamstrung Environmental Protection Agency cannot tend.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s June docket, this is a boom time for coordinated multiyear strategies, so much so that you wonder: Do the Democrats have any of their own up their sleeve? Alas, for Democrats the flowers of such labors seem unlikely to bloom anytime soon. But what is sprouting from the roughly tilled soil of our politics is a clear distinction between the two parties’ theories of change. For the GOP, change comes after long periods of hard work, steady funding, and maintaining enthusiasm and momentum through periods of setback. For Democrats, change is reactive, coming only after the GOP’s ambitions have hurt just enough people to make Republican rule untenable. It’s clear that the first approach is proving more successful and more durable than the other.

Naturally, that the Republicans have managed to prevail on some long-term plans despite the relative unpopularity of their policies comes down to a few structural advantages. The ideological homogeneity of their electorate makes both messaging and expectations management much easier than what’s possible in the Democrats’ own frequently fractious tent. We’re also seeing the long-term investment made by the Christian right finally pay off. In decades past, institutional Republicans haven’t always seen eye to eye with the religious right, but together they have created a base that’s excited to vote in local and national elections. Over time, whatever cleavage may have existed has been sanded down, and now they’re building the future together.

The most important advantage the Republicans enjoy, of course, is that they’ve been far more adept at rigging the electoral system to their advantage through a by-any-means-necessary approach that helps them overcome the unpopularity of their policies. Democrats can, and often do, win more votes across the country in national elections, but the way their voters are concentrated in urban locales, combined with the GOP’s willingness to slice and dice districts through aggressive gerrymandering (with an assist from a friendly judiciary) means that Democrats have to run up the score and beat Republicans by wider margins to actually take control in Washington (and even in certain statehouses and state legislatures).

Despite all of that, Democrats do win elections, and occasionally wrest control of the government away from the GOP. But in recent cycles, to make that possible some truly terrible things had to happen to ordinary people first: The humiliating failure of the Iraq War and the depredations of the 2008 financial crisis facilitated Obama’s trifecta; Trump’s misshapen and scandalous first two years handed Democrats a wave midterm election in 2018; the Covid-19 pandemic created the conditions necessary for Biden to defeat the advantages Trump enjoyed as an incumbent president. The Democrats’ mantra may as well be: “We’ll always be there when the other guys screw up.”

There are worrying signs that Democrats have been conditioned to believe that the key to their success comes through periodic collapse—that there is a perverse comfort to be taken in the courting of imminent disaster. At the moment, Democrats’ hopes for the midterms lie in the potential galvanization of voters that might (or might not) follow the gutting of reproductive freedom. And across the country, Democrats are trying to help extremist candidates win GOP primaries in the hopes that those candidates will be less competitive in the general elections. Larry Summers believes that whipping inflation will require higher unemployment rates, and Democrats are listening. Even the strange reluctance among national Democrats to rise to the defense of the LGBTQ community, amid the daily genocidal rhetoric of Republicans, suggests that they’re counting on some amount of mayhem to inspire a normalcy-inducing backlash. It’s quite depressing to live in a political system where one party can only ascend to power on the backs of the victims the other party leaves behind.

Any solution must begin with a commitment to evening the asymmetries between the parties’ structure and strategies. Democrats need their own equivalent of the Federalist Society and their own plan to remake the judiciary and retrieve all the civil rights that are about to be stolen. They need to start staking out long-term transformative goals and define themselves in the same way the GOP has for generations, as a party with a wholesale commitment to a specific vision of the world. And they need to get their voters excited about casting their ballots at all levels of government—and then embrace a politics that works harder between election days.

But more immediately, Democrats should stop talking about the GOP they wish existed—a party that, in their imagining, up until recently was reasonable and only went astray when Trump came to power—and start talking in stark, unforgiving terms about the GOP that actually exists: a party that committed itself to the decades-long labor of fulfilling the very projects that now threaten to bring a new round of mayhem and harm. It’s nice that voters seem to turn to Democrats whenever there is a multitude of casualties, but Democrats need to break this cycle if they ever want to possess the durable power necessary to reverse the maladies that will soon be unleashed.

This article first appeared in Power Mad, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Jason Linkins. Sign up here.