LANDMARK LEGISLATION - In Washington, the big debate over President Biden's Building Back Better program is coming to a head. It will soon be settled—one way or another.
Most Americans who work hard, worry about the pandemic, fear for their children in school, and struggle to plan in this troubled time have neither the time nor the faith to pay much attention to posturing politicians.
Opponents focus on the price tag because they dare not argue against the necessity of the wildly popular reforms.
This time, however, it is important to understand what is at stake. The press focuses on the debate over unimaginably large numbers—$3.5 trillion against $1.5 trillion, and the $550 billion infrastructure bill against the $3.5 billion reconciliation bill. But this isn't a debate about numbers. It is an argument about morals, about what kind of country we are, and what kind of country we want to be.
The dollars are the least interesting thing about the Biden plan. What is compelling is that it addresses pressing needs and offers action. Aid to families with children that would cut the number of children in poverty in half. Paid family leave so that working mothers and fathers can have the time to care for their babies or their family in time of sickness. Major steps to make daycare affordable so that young couples won't be afraid to have children and mothers and fathers can afford to work.
Tuition-free community college and advanced training so that young people can afford to go to college no matter their parent's income. Medicare coverage for dental, eye and hearing costs so that seniors can afford the treatment they need. Lower prescription drug costs so we can afford the drugs we need, and the government can save billions that would otherwise be ripped off by the drug companies. The first modest down payment on addressing the real, present and growing costs of extreme weather and climate change.
This is the real deal. The argument isn't about whether we can afford to do it, but whether we are so foolish not to do it. Opponents focus on the price tag because they dare not argue against the necessity of the wildly popular reforms.
We don't know what will happen. The 50-50 split in the Senate and the four-vote Democratic margin in the House, along with unanimous Republican obstruction, means that Democrats must unite to get anything done. That allows the wealthy and corporations to focus their legion of lobbyists and millions in ad campaigns on a handful of politicians.
Joe Manchin, one of the most notorious foot-draggers, said one thing that is true: If Democrats want to see change, "elect more liberals" (read "reformers with integrity)." To forestall that, Republicans in states across the country are passing laws to make it harder to vote, particularly for the young, for people of color, for the infirm. And they are empowering legislatures in states they control to overturn the results of an election if they don't like the outcome. That's a good part of the reason pundits say Democrats are likely to lose seats in the House and Senate in the midterms next year.
We can elect new, large reform majorities that cannot simply pass the Build Back Better Agenda but go beyond it to address the inequality and injustice, the market fundamentalist idolatry, the rigged system that fails most Americans.
The Republican agenda and pundit projections are based on business as usual and on a distracted, low-turnout electorate that can easily be turned off by making voting more difficult.
In that assumption lies our power. As Dr. King taught us, we can mobilize and vote in large numbers to teach them the cost of their insult. We can elect new, large reform majorities that cannot simply pass the Build Back Better Agenda but go beyond it to address the inequality and injustice, the market fundamentalist idolatry, the rigged system that fails most Americans.
In primary elections and in general elections, we can choose reformers over the corrupt, those who represent their voters over those who serve their donors.
That can start now. On campuses, young people flock to class and to football games, but they would flock to register and vote if they knew the stakes. They should be able to vote where they currently live and get their mail, which now is on their college campus. Working and poor people could ensure they are registered and know where to vote as the rules are changed. Parents and teachers can inform one another on the possibility of real change.
In 2020, the turnout of voters for both parties exceeded all expectations. We should start now to let politicians know that they will be rewarded for leading, not obstructing, the change we need.
(Jesse Jackson is an African-American civil rights activist and Baptist minister. He was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988 and served as shadow senator for the District of Columbia from 1991 to 1997. He was the founder of both entities that merged to form Rainbow/PUSH. This OpEd was featured in the Chicago Sun Times.)