The near-term prospects for progressive change in the United States just got a hell of a lot rosier with the victories of Democrats Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Tuesday’s Georgia runoff elections against Republican incumbent Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, who had been largely favored to win.
Given Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s tiebreaker vote, the wins in Georgia will give Democrats a slim majority in both chambers of Congress—and the power to enact key parts of the Democratic Party agenda, should they choose to use it. Exactly how they do so will have significant bearing not only on Americans’ ability to weather the dual health and economic crises, but on the future electoral prospects of a Democratic Party no longer able to blame the GOP for inaction in Washington.
Since 2015, Mitch McConnell has served as Senate Majority Leader, consolidating the Right’s power by making extensive use of norm-breaking procedural tactics such as filibustering to require higher majorities to pass legislation, refusing to bring bills passed by the House up for a vote, and blocking confirmation of Obama-nominated federal appointments and judges at all levels of the judicial system—leaving a glut that allowed President Trump to fill some 25% of all seats on federal benches.
McConnell’s gambits illustrated that our political system has no functional institutional safeguard against an ideologically unified Republican Party spiking lofty ideas about democracy in favor of raw material power. In his exercise of that power, McConnell has been ruthlessly effective at serving the archconservative Republican donor class, which has received handsome tax cuts, a hobbled regulatory apparatus, and intense gerrymandering and voter suppression to secure future GOP victories.
With the two victories in Georgia, McConnell will no longer be in the driver’s seat, as Democrats will hold a majority in Congress, albeit a fragile one. That means the power dynamics have changed. In the immediate term, this could mean a more favorable stimulus bill after President-elect Biden is inaugurated: Ossoff and Warnock both ran heavily on $2,000 stimulus checks after the recent $900 billion relief package included direct assistance of just $600. (On Wednesday, incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) indicated that the $2,000 payments would be at the top of Democrats’ agenda.)
A Democratic majority could also mean more state and local pandemic aid, which was axed at the 11th hour from the previous bill despite major budget shortfalls in municipalities across the country. With the filibuster already nuked for federal appointments, it also means President Biden will be able to staff federal agencies and confirm judges, and that people currently holding such positions can retire or die without their seats being held open. While McConnell will almost certainly still use the filibuster to obstruct legislation passed along party lines, the process of budget reconciliation does offer Democrats a once-a-year workaround requiring a simple majority vote—a broadly interpreted option Republicans have used to pass things like massive tax cuts for the wealthy in 2017.
That’s where the political outlook gets murkier. The GOP is basically unified as a wish-fulfillment vehicle for capital—the fruits of a right-wing political project decades in the making. The Democrats, in contrast, serve an assembly of divergent bases, which includes a significant pro-business overlap with Republicans. On the other side stands a more progressive flank, embodied by figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, whose vision has been a realignment of the Democratic Party along opposite ideological lines from the GOP, to advance the interests of working people over bosses.
While some progress has been made in that direction since 2016, moderate Democrats still hold overwhelming sway in Congress. Anticipating this reality, news of Warnock and Ossoff’s victories led to Joe Manchin’s name trending on Twitter—a reference to the leverage that will be held by the centrist Senator from West Virginia who recently emphasized his refusal to scrap the filibuster.
But that shouldn't be a license for timidity. As Ossoff and Warnock’s winning campaigns which called for higher stimulus payments show, centering direct material benefits to constituents can pay electoral dividends. Whether it’s a $15 minimum wage, green jobs program or expanded healthcare, Democrats should now seize the opportunity and push for bold progressive policies (and their constituents should pressure them to do so however they can), just as the New Deal helped fortify Democratic loyalty for a generation.
Whether they’ll do so remains to be seen. It’s not just moderates like Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema who stand to hamper progressive dreams. Much of the Democratic caucus is still beholden to monied interests that are inherently threatened by transformative public programs like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal. Nearly all Democrats still take campaign donations from billionaires and corporations, a reality that has sparked backlash in recent years in the form of an upsurge in small donations to insurgent campaigns—a model that Sanders’ mega-fundraising hauls proved could work.
This is a promising shift, but the oft-derided problem of “money in politics” runs far deeper than tainted campaign donations, and gets at the heart of why the Democratic Party has been such an ineffective vehicle for transformative leftward gains. Democrats currently claim to be a party for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and gig workers, hospital executives and uninsured patients, real estate tycoons and tenants, all at the same time. Changing that dynamic requires building power from the bottom-up outside of electoral politics.
The success of Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock makes the path forward slightly less daunting, but it’s still full of problems the Democratic Party itself won’t fix.