How to Negotiate With People Who Don’t Care If You Die

To win another stimulus bill, the Democrats need to embrace chaos.

Hamilton Nolan September 9, 2020

(Photo by Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images)

It is Sep­tem­ber. The pan­dem­ic is still rag­ing. As a result, the real econ­o­my (if not the stock mar­ket) is still being gut­ted by bank­rupt­cies, small busi­ness fail­ures and unem­ploy­ment. The term K shaped recov­ery” has been coined to describe the path we are pro­ceed­ing down, in which the wealthy expe­ri­ence an easy, upwards V shaped” recov­ery after the spring’s momen­tary slow­down, while every­one else expe­ri­ences a con­tin­ued down­ward slope into pover­ty. State and local bud­gets across the coun­try are bro­ken. The win­ter will like­ly cause anoth­er surge in virus cas­es. Our only hope is anoth­er fed­er­al stim­u­lus bill big enough to car­ry us through the crisis. 

So nat­u­ral­ly, we seem to be doomed. 

You may recall that just a few months ago, the pas­sage of anoth­er big fed­er­al stim­u­lus bill was seen as a fore­gone con­clu­sion. The CARES Act, which passed in March and did a decent job of staving off some of the worst effects of the ini­tial coro­n­avirus shut­downs, was clear­ly not going to last long enough, after the White House’s ignore the pan­dem­ic” approach failed to make Covid mag­i­cal­ly dis­ap­pear. The House passed the $3 tril­lion HEROES Act in May, a bill appro­pri­ate­ly sized for the scale of our cur­rent cri­sis. It extend­ed both direct cash stim­u­lus pay­ments to fam­i­lies, and the $600 week­ly unem­ploy­ment bonus — a ben­e­fit that has sin­gle­hand­ed­ly saved mil­lions of Amer­i­cans from finan­cial dis­as­ter, and has enabled spend­ing that has kept much of our econ­o­my afloat. It also includ­ed mon­ey for haz­ard pay, loan for­give­ness, and assis­tance on hous­ing pay­ments. And, cru­cial­ly, it con­tained hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars to fill the bud­get holes in state and local gov­ern­ments, so that pub­lic ser­vices don’t start shut­ting down. It is the bill that should have passed already, in a sane world. 

We do not live in a sane world. The HEROES Act was nev­er going to make it through the Repub­li­can-led Sen­ate. We all knew that. We knew that there would be a process of win­now­ing that bill down to a small­er size that every­one could grudg­ing­ly agree on. But the real pur­pose of this col­umn is to dis­cuss the fact that it is now Sep­tem­ber — and not only have we not passed anoth­er stim­u­lus bill, but it’s look­ing increas­ing­ly like­ly that Con­gress will not pass any new stim­u­lus bill before the Novem­ber pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Which is — speak­ing sole­ly from the per­spec­tive of some­one who believes that unnec­es­sar­i­ly impov­er­ish­ing tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans is an unde­sir­able pol­i­cy goal — insane. 

Since the Democ­rats passed the HEROES Act, Nan­cy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, their lead­ers in the House and Sen­ate, have been play­ing hard­ball in nego­ti­a­tions with the Repub­li­cans. This has not proven to be suc­cess­ful. As is often the case, the Democ­rats find them­selves being on the right side of the pol­i­cy argu­ment in the­o­ry, but com­plete­ly inef­fec­tu­al in mate­r­i­al real­i­ty. The Repub­li­cans ini­tial­ly coun­tered with a $1 tril­lion pack­age, and the Democ­rats fig­ured they could land at $2 tril­lion, split­ting the dif­fer­ence. Instead, the lat­est Repub­li­can coun­terof­fer has been cut in half again, to about $500 bil­lion — and even that may not get enough Repub­li­can votes to pass. Mean­while, mil­lions of peo­ple suf­fer with­out the ben­e­fits they need to sur­vive, and count­less busi­ness­es get clos­er to clos­ing for­ev­er, and munic­i­pal gov­ern­ments pre­pare to slash ser­vices out of neces­si­ty. All of which will only make the sit­u­a­tion for most peo­ple even worse. 

It is not easy to nego­ti­ate with peo­ple who are will­ing to let the world burn. Repub­li­cans are not even will­ing to tell their con­stituents to wear masks that might con­trol the pan­dem­ic that is destroy­ing their liveli­hoods and endan­ger­ing their health. There is no chance that Mitch McConnell and Mark Mead­ows will be per­suad­ed to agree to an ade­quate stim­u­lus pack­age out of a sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty for mass nation­al suf­fer­ing. But in this case, Democ­rats do not have the lux­u­ry of being moral­ly right while fail­ing to get a bill passed. We need a fuck­ing bill. At min­i­mum, we need a bill that res­cues state and local gov­ern­ments and con­tin­ues enhanced unem­ploy­ment pay­ments while pro­vid­ing some mon­ey to tide over busi­ness­es to pre­vent mass bank­rupt­cies. Fail­ure to get these things, in some form, will cause a long and deep reces­sion that will sen­tence mil­lions of non-rich peo­ple to anoth­er lost decade, as the rich get rich­er. We need some­thing right now, because peo­ple are des­per­ate. So Pelosi and Schumer need to reimag­ine what their lever­age is, in a more real­is­tic way. 

How do you nego­ti­ate mean­ing­ful­ly with peo­ple who don’t mind if every­thing goes to hell? By putting pres­sure on them, per­son­al­ly and direct­ly. A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Con­gres­sion­al Repub­li­cans are okay with let­ting you be evict­ed, starve, and catch a dead­ly dis­ease. As long as the stock mar­ket hasn’t crashed, the entire Repub­li­can donor base is on the good side of the K shaped” recov­ery. The rest of us are on the bad side. 

Pelosi and Schumer mis­cal­cu­lat­ed their lever­age by fail­ing to take into account what inequal­i­ty has done to this coun­try. We live in two nations, rich and non-rich, sep­a­rate and unequal, and if the non-rich nation col­laps­es into great suf­fer­ing, that is not the con­cern of the Repub­li­can Par­ty, which works for the rich nation. There­fore Repub­li­can lead­ers feel no great pres­sure to pre­vent such suf­fer­ing by pass­ing an ade­quate bill. One way or anoth­er, they need to be made to feel the suf­fer­ing of the bot­tom two-thirds of the income dis­tri­b­u­tion, who they do not work for. Tra­di­tion­al­ly that has been done through street protests and riots and a lev­el of social chaos that grows so dire that even the rich can’t tol­er­ate it. Of course, the reac­tion to that unrest from the right is often to dial up police oppres­sion, rather than to solve the under­ly­ing social prob­lems. If all of this sounds famil­iar, it’s because it describes what we are all liv­ing through right now. 

The Democ­rats must rec­og­nize that their lever­age is not in the halls of Con­gress. It’s in the streets. Time to stop dis­avow­ing it, and start embrac­ing it. If the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment lets months go by with­out com­ing to the aid of peo­ple who now have nowhere else to turn, the chaos will be all that peo­ple have left. 

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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