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Historically Speaking: A New Beginning?

By Will Bellaimey:

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Will Bellaimey and Historically Speaking!

Edited transcript:

Hi, I'm Will Bellaimey, and this is the latest in our series, Historically Speaking, connecting what's happening right now to what's happened in the past.

Maybe we should start with legislation.


The process of passing new laws is something that you do together with Congress as president, and Biden came into office after the special elections in Georgia with a 50/50 Senate, which means that you have to get every single Democrat to vote with you to pass legislation, or you could convince a Republican, but good luck with that. There is a pretty slim majority in the house compared to even what Trump had going in, what Obama had going in—it's really narrow margin to pass legislation. And so not surprisingly, in terms of new laws being passed, the accomplishments of the Biden administration one year in are mixed.

The two that did pass are obviously the COVID relief bill, which was a $1.9 trillion spending bill that was passed with a mixture of Democratic and Republican support. That continued [with] the stimulus check program and also sent a lot of money to state and local governments, some of which were really hurting in the pandemic. That kept those governments afloat. It also helped drive, as the vaccine kicked up, a pretty strong economic recovery. And that's then combined with the infrastructure bill, which was also a bipartisan bill passed with Democrats and Republicans, that turned out to be a trillion dollars worth of spending on things like roads and bridges. Ultimately that also drove pretty strong economic growth, which also led to some significant inflation, which is certainly in the news right now.

In terms of the two bills that didn't pass, one would be the supposedly called the "Build Back Better" bill, which is basically a combination of different social spending programs that Biden wanted to see done. A lot of Democrats kind of saw this as a wish list of progressive reforms, including expanding the child tax credit, which is a pretty big but short-term accomplishment in the COVID relief bill that gave families with children some extra money. Democrats wanted to make that permanent. They weren't able to do that along with a lot of other climate change–related things that basically Joe Manchin, senator from West Virginia, and Krysten Sinema, from Arizona, just refused to back.

That's ultimately what happened also with the Voting Rights Act this last week, which was attempting to kind of push back on a lot of Republican legislatures at the state level that have been trying to, as we've talked about in the past, just chip away at how many people can vote, and particularly how many people of color are able to vote in certain states. If that voting rights act had passed that would've been a really big accomplishment, but I don't think, without changing the filibuster, it was ever gonna happen in the first place, and since Manchin and Sinema weren't willing to change the filibuster . . . game over.

The Insurrection

As a history teacher I'm certainly grateful that there are people investigating what happened on January 6th. They weren't able to get a bipartisan commission, like the 9/11 commission, because McConnell and others blocked it—probably because it would not have revealed anything particularly flattering to them or Donald Trump, who continues to be the Republican party leader by pretty much any measure. Without a voting rights act on the federal level a lot of the action in terms of the state of our democracy is happening at the state level. That involves just making it a little bit more difficult to vote in a thousand different ways in a bunch of states, which I think could have some effect on really close elections in the midterms, but also some troubling decisions to kind of change the basic mechanisms going into the 2024 election for certifying a presidential election.

In Georgia, a Republican named Brad Raffensperger was under pressure from then-president Trump to change the count or to refuse to certify. And since then, Georgia and a number of other states have passed laws that take that power away from that official and hand it directly to the state legislature. There have been different times in American history where electors have been certified in different ways, but for the last, like, hundred years, it's been pretty consistently in the hands of someone like the Secretary of State—who is not nonpartisan, but who has a very specific executive job to oversee fair elections. Having it in the hands of the legislature who are more nakedly political in their means—and also this has to do with sort of the makeup of a lot of different states, because in a lot of states, sort of like the presidency, the way that legislatures are are set up, you can have a Democratic governor, but a Republican state legislature because there's a compromise between liberal and urban—sort of like the House and the Senate. For instance, my home state of Minnesota has a Democratic governor who's up for reelection and seems like he'll probably be able to hold on but has consistently faced a Republican Senate.

The most effective way to "steal" an election, and I put quotation marks around the word "steal," is to prevent your opponents from voting in the first place. Trump can say that he doesn't like the results, but once the votes are out there and are being counted, it's pretty difficult at that point to change the outcome—which is exactly what all the investigations into the supposed "steal" of the 2020 election found. But historically there's been all sorts of very effective methods of preventing your opponents from voting—I guess the Jim Crow Laws being the most obvious ones. If Blacks had been able to vote in the South there would've been many more close elections in those places. Just by passing laws that made it difficult or impossible to do so, they shifted the power pretty consistently into the hands of white supremacists for a long time.

There's also the Reconstruction period as an example of constant disputed elections, and I think that's the historical parallel that feels to me the most relevant in where we're at right now.

I think we're in a calm moment because there's not a major presidential election happening, but when 2024 rolls around—and even probably to some extent this fall for the midterm elections—you're going to see a lot more questioning of the results of the elections. The fact that a majority of Republicans in the country still feel that the 2020 election was stolen. that has a compounding effect on the feelings of people about the legitimacy of future elections, and Democrats, in their concern about these voting restrictions, are also delegitimizing the elections, but those things aren't really equivalent, because one of them is . . . based on fact.


Will Bellaimey teaches U.S. Government and Politics at Flintridge Prep School outside Los Angeles where he is also the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Geography, which is staffed entirely by seventh graders. His podcast, All the Presidents, Man, is available here.

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