By Robert Reich
Official Washington will be quiet this week, but the fallout from the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict will continue to divide America along the Trumpian fault lines of fear, violence, and racism.
Closing arguments are scheduled today in the trial of three men charged with the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. Though they chased him, they are claiming self-defense because, they say, Arbery tried to get control of a shotgun one of them was carrying. As with the Rittenhouse case, the trial raises questions of how self-defense laws will hold up as guns proliferate. Regardless of how it come out, the case also illustrates America’s deepening split.
Congress’s continuing investigation into the January 6 insurrection reveals the same rift, as will the Supreme Court’s expected decision on executive privilege in that investigation, and its likely move to strike down New York State’s law requiring people seeking licenses to carry handguns in public to show a “proper cause,” as violating the Second Amendment.
The fault line has now extended into almost every facet of American lawmaking. When the “Build Back Better” bill passed the House late Friday night, 220 out of 221 Democrats voted for it. But all of the House’s 213 Republicans voted against it. Why? The measures in the bill are hugely popular, according to polls. The bill includes the largest expansion of federal child-care assistance in history; free, universal prekindergarten for all American children ages 3 and 4; Medicare benefits covering hearing services; government for the first time being allowed to negotiate some prescription drug prices, aiming to lower the costs that seniors pay for lifesaving medicines such as insulin; and more than $550 billion to combat climate change — promoting greener energy and providing new perks for Americans who buy electric vehicles.
But policy popularity may be no match for fear, violence, and racism — which Republicans and the moneyed interests are now diligently exploiting to kill the bill in the Senate. So-called “moderate” Democrats (Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema) have expressed skepticism about its cost and scope. It would be one thing if Manchin’s and Sinema’s reservations were in good faith, but how can they be? Manchin frets about the bill’s effects on inflation even though the bill lowers prices for most Americans of major expenses like childcare, drugs, and healthcare. Sinema says she prefers “legislation that is crafted in a bipartisan way,” but who is she kidding? Mitch McConnell has made clear he won’t allow a single Republican senator to vote for the bill.
The votes of every Senate Democrat are needed if the bill is to pass, but Manchin and Sinema are allowing rightwing tropes — and the big money behind them — to divide Democrats. As the New York Times reported yesterday, cash has poured into Manchin’s and Sinema’s political coffers from political action committees and donors linked to Wall Street, Big Pharma, and Big Energy, which have opposed proposals in the bill that Manchin and Sinema helped scale back.
The question that keeps haunting me is this: Is an America so deeply divided, and awash in political money that exploits that divide, any longer capable of doing bold things that are broadly popular? The only big thing we continue to do is feed the ravenous military-industrial complex — itself founded on fear, violence, and racism. (Efforts to whip up a new cold war with China conjure up old fears of a “yellow peril.”) Congress is on the verge of giving the Pentagon even more money than the Pentagon and the Biden administration are seeking. The nation’s military tab over the next ten years will be upwards of $8 trillion and is not paid for with expected revenue, in sharp contrast with the $2 trillion cost of the House’s “Build Back America” plan, which would be paid for with tax increases on the wealthy and big corporations.
That America is becoming two separate nations is threatening everything we value. The most obvious beneficiaries (besides top executives of big corporations and Wall Street) are Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Rupert Murdoch, who appear to be doing whatever they can to divide us even further.