Playing Chicken With Nihilists

How progressives should deal with the incredible Democratic reconciliation debacle.

Hamilton Nolan

America is served. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

I’m sorry to say that we have reached the point at which it is finally appropriate to say, It’s time for some game theory.” The Democratic Party — a loose collection of natural enemies knitted together only by their shared refusal to say racial slurs in public — has managed to pull off a series of political feats so ludicrous you almost have to admire it: win the White House and both branches of Congress, but refuse to get rid of the filibuster in order to be able to make transformational change; put together a huge $3.5 trillion bill that could revolutionize our social safety net, but be forced to pass it through the reconciliation process, meaning all 50 Democrats must support it; spin off a separate infrastructure bill to please the centrists, and tie the political fates of both bills together in a delicate political equilibrium; and now, finally, see that delicate equilibrium collapse in mutual threats and recriminations that threaten to sink both bills, leaving the party with nothing. 

Ladies and gentlemen, The Democrats! 

One problem, of course, is that the range of political beliefs present in the Democratic Party is only very slightly more narrow than the range of political beliefs in all of humanity. In the Senate alone, you have some Democrats, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who believe that now is the time to push hard for better health care, stronger corporate regulation, and more economic equality. And you have other Democrats, like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who believe that now is the time to whip off their masks, Scooby Doo-style, and reveal that they were Old Man McConnell the whole time. This tends to lead to conflict. 

In the immediate moment, the impasse is fairly simple. The progressives in the House say they will kill the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that the moderates want if it is not paired with the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, that contains labor and environmental and health care and other provisions that would make it one of the most significant pieces of progressive legislation since the New Deal. At the same time, there is a growing drumbeat from the moderates saying they don’t wanna pass the $3.5 trillion bill — both Manchin and Sinema, and a group of House moderates, have said that the size of the bill is a nonstarter, and it remains unclear if there is a smaller number that could bring both sides together. 

What we have is a classic game of chicken. If the progressives sink the infrastructure bill or the moderates sink the reconciliation bill, there is a very good chance that both bills get sunk, and we all end up with nothing. This is clearly bad for everyone. What normally happens in these situations is that the progressives end up eating shit, and the smaller bill that moderates want gets passed, and the neediest people in America end up with nothing. This is also bad. Ideally both bills would pass at their full size, because this is a political moment of opportunity that is unlikely to come around again any time soon. But assuming Manchin and Sinema are serious, the very best case scenario now would seem to be the passage of the infrastructure bill, and then a vastly cut-down version of the reconciliation bill that leaves out enormous parts of the progressive agenda. 

This, you may notice, does entail the progressives eating a certain amount of shit. There is an alternate argument — that progressives should go ahead and sink the infrastructure bill to make good on their threat. This would presumably cause the reconciliation bill also to fail, but would at least establish the precedent that progressives are willing to play hardball, which could, in theory, make everyone in Congress respect the progressives down the road. The downside of this approach is that down the road” could be a decade from now and, in the meantime, nobody got anything.

In fact, it’s wrong to say that this is a conflict between progressives” and moderates.” The real divide here is between people who care about people” and utter political nihilists.” The reason why it seems so easy for Manchin and Sinema to needlessly trash this golden opportunity to transform our nation for the better is the same reason why progressives usually end up caving for half a loaf in these negotiations. The reason is that, if you got into politics in order to help people, you are always forced to recognize that something that helps people is better than nothing that helps people, whereas if you got into politics just to be a power-loving political creature, it is easy to do something that hurts 100 million people you don’t know in order to help you and your friends. Progressives feel the weight of what is left on the table more heavily than those who don’t really have ideals. Progress is most often made by small steps, dragging the status quo along with us. 

Even if we end up with some of what is in the full reconciliation bill, that could mean winning things like universal pre-K, paid family leave, free community college, and expanded Medicare. Those are meaningful accomplishments that will change lives. It is hard to argue that we should abandon those gains on principle. I would prefer to take them on principle, and then turn our attention to burning and pillaging the political careers of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema and making it impossible for them to walk among polite society ever again. 

Unfortunately, political impasses like this are just visible glimpses of the broken structure of our entire political system. Yes, moderate” Democrats are assholes, but there will always be assholes, and trying to vote them all out is like trying to rid the world of mosquitoes with a single flyswatter. The problem is our corrupt campaign finance system. The problem is the perverse incentives created by our two-party system. The problem is our obsolete first-past-the-post voting system, and the raft of voter suppression laws, and gerrymandering, and the existence of the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College, bodies designed from the beginning to thwart democratic will. We do not have a few bad people fucking up our fair and democratic political system — we have an unfair, oligarchal political system that is functioning as it was designed.

Changing all of that will come from organizing and radicalism and it will take a long time. For now, the worst possible thing that could happen would be for the Democrats to squander a two-year window of political opportunity like the indecisive, mealy-mouthed disappointments that they are. Get what we can get. Then turn our attention to destroying our internal enemies without mercy. Then, when we are done with that, get back to saving the world. 

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Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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