“This is why we all came to Washington. It’s like an episode of a TV show.… Maybe The West Wing, if something good happens, maybe Veep if not.”—White House press secretary Jen Psaki, responding to a question about when Congress would vote on the infrastructure bill
“The $3.5 trillion Biden plan isn’t socialism, it’s marxism.”—Marco Rubio, tweeting
It’s hard to imagine two quotes that better illustrate the shallowness of U.S. political culture. Both Jen Psaki’s West Wing shout-out and Marco Rubio’s groundless tweet emerged Thursday as hopes for a deal on a comprehensive spending package—likely this country’s last, best hope to pass climate policy for a generation—seemed to implode in real time. Of course, the infrastructure bill isn’t remotely socialist or Marxist: Though its tens of billions of dollars a year in climate spending is desperately needed, that falls well short of the at least $1 trillion a year needed to rapidly decarbonize the U.S. economy. But as Democratic Twitter exploded over Rubio’s provocation, I had a different reaction. Surely the United States would have a healthier political culture—and better shot at passing an infrastructure package—if at least as many people came to politics through Marx’s writings as through Aaron Sorkin’s.
For the sake of transparency, I say this as a socialist. I want the things that socialists want: for working people to live full and dignified lives on a planet that isn’t careening toward the edge of habitability, with far more control over how the institutions that structure their lives are run. I also want the decidedly nonsocialist $3.5 trillion reconciliation measure to pass, so that Democrats have something to run on in 2022 that can keep the House out of Republican hands. The style of politics The West Wing proposes, that’s inspired legions of Beltway-dwellers, just seems like a bad fit for that.
The West Wing imagines politics as an accumulating set of fast-talking conversations—down a hallway, preferably—where facts, reason, and a good argument will persuade your opponent to come around once you figure out what makes them tick. There’s some vague notion of stakes—that somewhere there are people who will feel the downstream effects of decisions made in the halls of power. But all the action and intrigue happens there before trickling down to the masses.
Public debate about the infrastructure package has proceeded mostly on those terms. The main antagonists in this episode—for those who want the spending bill to move forward, at least—are Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who have each balked at the Democratic proposals in recent weeks, gesturing at the expense.
The substance of the bill being debated is secondary to the interpersonal drama that revolves around them: What do they each want? Will Biden be able to persuade them to come around in time to save the deal? Are congressional progressives going to be able to throw a wrench in Manchin’s and Sinema’s plans to sink the president’s agenda? The problem is that the plot is basically impossible for anyone who isn’t a brain-poisoned political junkie to follow; the characters in this drama—Beltway politicos—are the audience. It’s not clear why anyone else should tune in to watch a complex legislative process aimed at passing a bill whose defining feature is how much money it will spend.
Here’s where Marxism can lend a hand. The immortal science of dialectical-materialism offers several basic insights you don’t need to have read even one volume of Capital to understand. Perhaps the most important is that people—and politicians, especially—are driven mainly by their material interests, not a well-written set of humanizing idiosyncrasies to be unveiled over an hour of prime time. Manchin made half a million dollars last year off a coal company owned by his son, and takes in more fossil fuel cash than any other senator. He accordingly wants to strip the reconciliation package of climate provisions and preserve fossil fuel subsidies. As my colleague Daniel Strauss pointed out last week, Sinema has raked in $932,065 from the industry groups leading the charge against the reconciliation bill, primarily because of its tax provisions. Her main sticking point in negotiations has been making sure any deal doesn’t include tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy.
Marxists and socialists generally propose that the counterweight to the unified interests of the bourgeoisie is a mobilized working class, using its leverage over the means of production to extract improvements in their material conditions. Political protagonists, in other words, don’t necessarily need to hold elected office. Many countries have a labor or socialist party created to represent the interests of the working class in government, which holds several seats in the national legislature and is accountable to trade unions and social movements. Thanks to our eighteenth-century Constitution and well over a century of brutal red-baiting, the U.S. has never had this. Left to their own devices, our two parties of capital have often worked to dismantle unions that might otherwise have been able to fight for something much more expansive than spending $3.5 trillion over a decade on public transit, clean drinking water, paid leave, and other amenities that are utterly ordinary in countries where the left has been allowed to govern.
Historically, it’s been socialists who have put forward imaginative, enticing visions for what a more decent society could look like. Another consequence of Democratic and Republican administrations each violently crushing budding left movements and leaders has been an inability for even self-styled progressives to turn policy items like a $15 minimum wage and climate investments into a coherent picture of a better world. Instead, their political agenda is articulated as a laundry list of seemingly disconnected policy goals that amount only, in this case, to a $3.5 trillion reconciliation package that is neither socialism nor Marxism. If only.