Our fragile democracy, minimum wage fight, justice system and more

Feb 2021 With Trump’s Acquittal, The Fragility Of America’s Democracy Is Even More Clear (FiveThirtyEight) — “Even if Trump himself doesn’t seek the presidency again, aspiring Republican politicians know now that the party’s base and elected officials will tolerate a lot of anti-democratic behavior. So, both Trump and Trump-style politics remain major threats to American democracy and potentially the future of the Republican Party.”

Senate’s vote on Saturday to acquit former President Donald Trump, following the House’s impeachment of Trump last month, played out almost exactly as expected — but it also captured the broad outlines of his four-year presidency in miniature:

  1. Trump does something anti-democratic and/or extreme that is hard to imagine any previous president doing, regularly breaking with democratic norms
  2. Republican voters stand by him, as do core party activists;
  3. With the GOP base behind Trump, Republican members of Congress don’t break with Trump, even while they carefully try to avoid defending his specific actions;
  4. plurality or outright majority of the public align with Democratic criticism of Trump, but opinions are also split along party lines;
  5. And finally, Democrats decide against taking the most aggressive anti-Trump steps available to them and instead move on to policy issues, since most steps to restrain or punish Trump can’t happen without votes from Republican elected officials.

What happened on Jan. 6 and the days leading up to it — an American president spending weeks trying to reverse the results of a free and fair election, culminating in his supporters storming the U.S. Capitol to try to keep him in power by force — was so shocking that it seemed at least possible (if unlikely) that it would break the pattern. Could Republicans stick with Trump again? And if they did, wouldn’t Democrats try to shame GOP senators as much as possible?

But by the time we got to Feb. 13, less than six weeks after the attack on the Capitol, it was obvious that nothing had fundamentally changed. Democrats, fully aware that there weren’t nearly enough GOP votes to convict Trump, opted against calling any witnesses and, in less than a week, wrapped up Trump’s second impeachment trial, stemming from one of the most terrible incidents in recent American history. In the end, only seven of the 50 Republican senators voted to convict Trump of the charge of “incitement of insurrection,” joining all 50 Democrats. The 57 votes against Trump — versus the 43 GOP votes to acquit — fell short of the two-thirds needed per the Constitution to convict. Trump was acquitted. He can run for president again. And, at least for now, he remains an influential figure in the Republican Party and therefore American politics overall.

In some ways, it’s as though Jan. 6 never happened — Trump is a fairly unpopular, impeached, one-term president who still retains a deep base of support among Republican voters. Trump and his brand of politics may be politically damaged, but they’re not going anywhere.

How did we end up in a situation where not much has changed? Well, the big story of the weeks since Jan. 6 is simple: The GOP base stuck with Trump. Even before the attack at the Capitol, some top Republicans, most notably Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, were ready for the party to move on from Trump, viewing him as a drag on the GOP’s electoral prospects (since Trump’s election in 2016, Republicans lost the House, the Senate and the presidency, in part due to voter backlash against Trump). In an alternate reality, Jan. 6 might have both strengthened the resolve of the party to dump Trump and also ease that break, since Republican lawmakers could argue that of course they were uncomfortable with a president whose supporters invaded the Capitol.

But the party’s base, particularly core activists, was overwhelmingly opposed to Trump being convicted in the Senate or facing any kind of punishment for Jan 6. Once that became clear, Republicans in Washington started citing an argument — one rejected by many legal experts — that it is unconstitutional to convict a president who is out of office. This was a convenient rationale — it allowed Senate Republicans to avoid both angering the base and defending Trump’s conduct in the run-up to and on Jan. 6.

Progressive Leaders Warn Biden Administration To ‘Hold The Line’ On Minimum Wage Hike (Yahoo News) — “Progressives say they’re frustrated by the amount of time it has taken to pass a relief package through Congress, and argue that the promise of $2,000 checks was essential to Democratic victories in last month’s Senate elections in Georgia. Additionally, proponents of a $15 minimum wage like Turner believe Biden should ‘hold the line’ on an increase despite resistance from congressional Republicans and moderate Democrats.”

The national minimum wage has been at $7.25 since 2009. Experts say that if it had kept pace with productivity growth since 1968, it would be near $24. Democrats believe $15 is a compromise, and that with control of the House and Senate, their best chance at passing it is now.

“That $15 an hour [does a lot],” Turner said. “Let’s get creative in the same way we’ve been creative decade after decade in making sure that the corporations and the ultra-wealthy in this country get their breaks.”

Some moderate Senate Democrats, however, say $15 is a bad idea. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have both said they won’t support it.

Biden has said he would prefer a bipartisan relief bill, but Republicans have shown no interest in backing the $1.9 trillion package that Democrats have proposed. The Democratic legislation includes money to reopen schools, aid to small businesses, assistance for state and local budgets and $1,400 direct payments, among other provisions. Republicans, however, argue that much of the $1.9 trillion in the Democrats’ plan is wasteful and counterproductive, and a group of moderate GOP lawmakers have instead proposed a roughly $600 billion relief plan.

Biden’s Buddy Tom Vilsack Is No Friend to Farmers (The Nation) — “Viewing the country only in red and blue often leads Democrats to ignore rural areas, assuming they’ll always go red; this ignorance has led Biden straight to a man who rural Democrats and Republicans agree is no friend to farmers: former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack.”

Thousands Of Judges Who Broke Laws Or Oaths Remained On The Bench (Reuters) — “Judges across America who were allowed to keep positions of extraordinary power and prestige after violating judicial ethics rules or breaking laws they pledged to uphold, a Reuters investigation found…Judges have made racist statements, lied to state officials and forced defendants to languish in jail without a lawyer – and then returned to the bench, sometimes with little more than a rebuke from the state agencies overseeing their conduct.”

How Billionaire Robert Smith Avoided Indictment (Bloomberg) — “U.S. prosecutors and Internal Revenue Service agents spent four years piercing the veil of secrecy that billionaire money manager Robert F. Smith wove to hide more than $200 million in income. Last year, according to people familiar with the matter, a team led by the Justice Department’s top tax prosecutor argued to then-Attorney General William Barr that the evidence warranted indicting Smith, who had made headlines for pledging to pay the student debt of a Morehouse College graduating class. But rather than expose a man worth about $7 billion to a possible prison term and potentially force him to give up control of his private equity firm, Vista Equity Partners, Barr signed off on a non-prosecution agreement.”

• The Quiet Winner of the Texas Energy Crisis (American Prospect) — “It’s called Macquarie Group, and perhaps no other business expects such rewards from the Texas energy mess. Macquarie, which trades in commodities like electricity and natural gas, has already announced that it would get up to a $215 million boost from the run-up in spot prices. That was enough to increase full-year profit expectations for the bank by 5 to 10 percent, just from this one action.”

• Amazon’s Great Labor Awakening (New York Times) — “In places like the Inland Empire, openings for warehouse pickers and sorters became seemingly infinite. For many workers who were juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet before Covid, Amazon suddenly became their sole source of income. Many of the jobs were physically demanding, with quotas dictating output. Some workers skip bathroom breaks or suffer injuries in order to scan upwards of 300 items per hour. The positions come with health benefits and a 401(k), but employee turnover is so high that many people don’t make it long enough to collect.”

Stuff to watch & listen to:

Biden’s History On Student Debt (Rising) — I was on Rising to discuss our reporting on Biden’s long history opposing initiatives to reduce student debt.

A message from Sirota


It’s now almost two months since Joe Biden promised “immediate” $2,000 checks to millions of Americans struggling to survive. So far, the checks have not been forthcoming. Meanwhile, Democrats may be backing off their promise to enact a $15 minimum wage and significantly reduce student debt.

We’ve been reporting on all of these stories, and I’ll admit — it has not been pleasant. It’s not fun to wake up every day and report on news of capitulation and surrender. But it’s also not our job to pretend everything is fine when clearly it isn’t.

It’s not to say that there is no good news. Each week, we publish You Love To See It, which includes tons of great news about progress and action steps. But it is to say that as journalists, we have an obligation to tell our readers the truth, even if that truth is painful.

Of course, the struggle for social justice is never easy. There’s a two-steps-forward, one-step-back dynamic that always defines battles to to hold power accountable and make progress. So as you read our stories, keep in mind that if it were all easy and good news, it probably means that nothing is fundamentally changing.

We’re living through a tumultuous time of chaos and misinformation. But I remain hopeful that things are going to change for the better, and I feel that way because even in our reporting, you can see resistance, struggle, and action. There are good people in Congress, in state legislatures, and in communities all over this country fighting for real change — and the past assumptions about what is and what is not acceptable are changing.