The Fate and Future of American Democracy Hangs On the Minimum Wage

If Biden & Harris don’t act now, the window will close

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It looks like President Joe Biden is going to cave on the $15 an hour minimum wage. And it looks like Chuck Schumer is going to cave on ending the filibuster.

While these are disappointing failures to progressives because of the harm they’ll do to working people, they’re also extraordinarily dangerous to the future of American democracy.

These failures will add to the skepticism of the American people that government, as we have it today, can never work on their behalf, and thus increase their willingness to accept replacing democracy with a Trump-style strongman oligarchy.

The simple fact is that the Republican Party no longer believes in democracy. They haven’t for some time, which is why they’ve spent the last 20 years working so hard to make it more difficult for Americans to vote. It’s why they’re willing to promote monstrous Big Lies to achieve their political goals. It’s why they refuse to use the correct name of the Democratic Party (the oldest political party in the world) and instead will only call it “the Democrat Party” (something that doesn’t even exist).

Republicans now only believe in billionaire money and power, and that kind of a singular focus by a country’s politicians usually leads to the replacement of democracy with oligarchy and, soon thereafter, tyranny.

We saw this movie once before in the 1930s in Europe, and are watching it play out today in Hungary, Turkey, Russia, Egypt, the Philippines, and Brazil, among others. Democratic governments in each of these countries have been or are being replaced by modern-day fascist governments with strongman leaders.

Tragically, because of Trump’s rhetoric and four decades of unwillingness by the GOP to pass any legislation that benefits average people, tens of millions of frustrated Americans are on-board with the Republican’s move toward fascism and the end of the American democratic republican experiment.

They believe in a zero-sum racial theory that says the prosperity of the 1950s and 60s, which they want to re-capture, was based on keeping women and minorities down, and that to recapture that prosperity we have to re-capture the old social order.

They think that having a “tough guy” strongman leader like Donald Trump, Rick Scott, Josh Hawley or Tom Cotton will mean that Black people and women will be put back in their place, and white men will thus prosper, bringing back the white, male-dominated middle class we had 40 years ago.

But what created that middle class 40 years ago was the government that actually worked on behalf of the majority of Americans. While de facto segregation was real then and women were largely blocked out of positions of power in politics and the marketplace, those were not the reasons why the middle class worked. It actually worked despite those things.

Prior to the Reagan Revolution, both Democrats and Republicans worked to build an American middle class where people were reasonably paid for their work, had support in purchasing and keeping their homes, weren’t afraid of being wiped out by medical bills, and their kids could pay for college with a part-time job in the summer.

While most of those benefits did go to white people, as a result of civil rights successes, particularly in the 1960s, they were rapidly beginning to extend to racial minorities and women as well.

Democracy worked, America worked, and the American middle-class was growing in a pluralistic and multiracial way that was the envy of the world.

But in the 1980s, with the Reagan Revolution, the billionaire class drove a new experiment in governance, based on bizarre theories out of the Chicago School of Economics and people like Milton Friedman and Robert Bork.

This theory, first laid out in 1951 by Russell Kirk in his book The Conservative Mind, suggested that if the middle class got too large or too strong economically and politically, the result would be social chaos.

Followers of Kirk in the 1950s predicted that if the middle-class grew to a certain point, society would start to break down: Young people would defy their parents, racial minorities would forget their place in society, and women would want to leave the kitchen and get out into the workplace.

While most mainstream Republicans back in the 50s thought this was a fringe theory, when the women’s movement, antiwar movement, and Civil Rights movements all began to roil the American landscape in the 1960s, Republicans like Lewis Powell and Ronald Reagan got on board with Kirk’s more radical followers.

The result was the Reagan Revolution, whose explicit mission was to destroy the union movement to reduce the wealth of the middle class, to throw college students deeply into debt so they would stop protesting, and to put women back under the control of their husbands.

You can draw a straight line from that governing philosophy and the changes they put into place with their neoliberal agenda in the 1980s to neofascist Trumpism today.

And now we find ourselves at a turning point. After 40 years of Reaganism, average Americans have seen their lives shattered, their children indebted, and their hopes for achieving the American Dream vanish. The Kirkians and Reaganistas won.

Desperate for a return to the power and wealth — and the future they once saw — working-class Americans are believing the sales pitch of a serial-rapist failed-businessman grifter and the dozens of high-profile Republican politicians who’ve adopted his style and rhetoric.

At the same time, the Republican Party has completely given up on democracy. They’re proposing laws in over 40 states now to make it harder for people to vote, the core function of any actual democracy.

They fight every effort to control money in politics, even in the face of 3000+ years of history reaching back to Socrates’ revolt, proving that money always corrupts politics unless it is constrained by law.

They’ve completely surrendered to right-wing billionaire oligarchs who, themselves, are wary of any democracy that may increase their taxes and put constraints on their monopolistic behavior in the marketplace.

We’ve hit the perfect storm, exacerbated by the coronavirus.

If power isn’t now returned to the majority of the American people, and they don’t quickly see the results of that power in a real and meaningful economic change in their lives, history tells us they will accept the lies of conmen fascists like Trump and Cruz.

This is why it’s so vital that Democrats end the filibuster now, so they can accomplish real and significant things that will directly and immediately improve the lives of the vast majority of Americans.

At the very least, these include raising the minimum wage to $15, guaranteeing healthcare as a right to all Americans, and ending student debt, and making college and trade school available to every qualified American. Add to this a massive infrastructure program that will modernize America’s systems and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and you have an economic stimulus that will put America’s working people back on their feet and restore their faith in democracy.

Nothing short of the fate and future of democracy in America— and, thus, around the world— is at stake.