Lawmakers Calling for “Unity” Should Support Policies Voters Actually Want
Americans largely support progressive policies—despite objections from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Now is the time to pass them.
In the wake of an historic election and even more historic insurrection, Democrats find themselves in an unusual national moment. For the next two years, they will control both Congress and the presidency, offering the possibly short-lived opportunity to make good on the promises they made to voters during the election.
A key lesson from the Democrats’ Senate runoff victories in Georgia is that voters, whatever their traditional partisan loyalties and ideological leanings, respond to ambitious, results-oriented leadership. In a last-minute bid to win re-election, even the Republican incumbents opted to follow the lead of Senator Bernie Sanders by voicing their support for $2,000 stimulus checks that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had repeatedly blocked. In the midst of a prolonged economic and public health crisis, having a “D” or an “R” by your name is no longer enough to secure votes: Voters are demanding that their representatives deliver results.
In an evenly-split Senate, Democrats will need perfect unity to pass their agenda without Republican support, since Vice President Kamala Harris will have the power to break ties. But unless they’re staring down the barrel of an attempted coup, Democrats are not a monolith, ranging in ideology from people like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And with Republican politicians torn between fully claiming a mantle of sedition or moderating their platform in a bid to catch up to their own voters, voters who might have previously backed GOP candidates are more persuadable than ever. Facing a ticking clock and the enormous challenge of finding agreement across such a ideologically diverse coalition, identifying the key issues that are popular enough to prioritize on day one is essential for both the Biden administration and Democrats who wish to remain in power after 2022.
So what should be in that top-priority group? Democrats must find policies that garner such overwhelming support among voters that their broad array of members can stand behind them. These must be things that matter concretely to ordinary Americans—things that people think about during sleepless nights, that they worry about as they cook dinner. These must be things Democrats can run on in key districts and still win. With those two criteria—broadly popular, concretely meaningful ideas—any opposition from Republicans, or even within their own party, would have to be an example of extremist, partisan antics rather than meaningful disagreement.
Happily, there are a number of initiatives that fit this mold, all of which could bring people together and create what American voters have almost forgotten how to recognize: consensus and progress.
To begin with, there are the $2,000 stimulus payments which 81 percent of likely voters, including 80 percent of Republicans, support. Nearly two-thirds support repeated payments.
But stimulus payments alone aren’t enough to survive a crisis, let alone build an economy in which ordinary families can thrive. Democrats need to tackle raising the minimum wage, and people are ready for them to do so: 68 percent of likely voters, including 59 percent of Republicans, support raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and adjusting it each year to account for national cost of living increases.
When it comes to creating jobs, 64 percent of likely voters, including 78 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Republicans, support a federal job guarantee program as part of the government’s response to the current economic crisis. Certainly there is ample paid work to be done in driving vaccines and food supplies across the country, helping kids recover from the disruption in their schooling, creating urgently-needed safe housing, and otherwise repairing the damage to American communities sustained during the last four years.
One such opportunity might be the clean energy sector. Across the political spectrum, Americans want a world in which their children can flourish, particularly if that world spurs economic growth today. With 66 percent of likely voters, including 54 percent of Republicans, supporting the federal government investing in clean energy infrastructure, it is easy to envision how this expenditure could be paired with a federal work initiative.
Jobs aren’t enough if people aren’t free to take them, though, which is why nearly three-quarters of likely voters, including 67 percent of Republicans, support providing families with refundable tax credits to help cover the cost of childcare, and two-thirds support providing all 3- and 4-year-old children with access to free, high-quality pre-kindergarten. Investing in the economy means investing in families, letting parents work, and letting kids thrive in a post-COVID world.
For those who have struggled on low incomes, providing simple protections against predatory lending is also a popular policy. A recent poll showed that likely voters also favor ending this financial abuse with interest-rate caps on credit cards and loans, with 65 percent of those surveyed supporting such a measure.
Beyond the freedom to thrive economically, voters want a new vision of safety for themselves and their loved ones. Most voters, including Republicans, are ready to legalize the sale and use of marijuana, ending the failed war on drugs and reinvesting the tax revenue from marijuana sales in communities most harmed by punitive drug policies. On this front, 62 percent of likely voters, including 60 percent of Republicans, support the MORE Act, which would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level—and which the House of Representatives passed in December in a bipartisan vote. With the Senate now in Democratic hands and such strong support from voters, this is the ideal time to finally pass legislation to undo decades of harm and spur economic growth.
Even the question of policing, so often thought of as a divisive, hot-button topic by people whose lives are not regularly touched by police, has aspects which are ripe for unified action. One idea is that police are carrying too much; police were never meant to be crisis counselors, providers of mental health first aid, substance use experts, or social workers. The idea that local leaders must create a new type of first responder is broadly attractive: 66 percent of likely voters, including 74 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans, support a federal grant program to support community-based, non-law enforcement emergency and non-emergency response. In places like Colorado and Oregon, non-police emergency responders are already dispatched through 911 to crises that require a different skill sets. As it turns out, mental health workers need assistance from police less than 1 percent of the time.
These are not fringe policies. These are concrete, sensible ideas that the majority of American voters can and do stand behind.
Calls for unity seem hollow—if not offensive—when they are mere rhetorical reflexes that ask Americans to embrace those who would violently overthrow our democracy. But Americans, and particularly those in the halls of Congress, can and should seek unity with those who use different political labels but are ready to support ideas that would create a real, tangible difference in people’s lives, far removed from the churn of an obsessive news cycle or the tangles of Beltway conversation. If brought to bear now, in this unique window of Democratic power, these ideas will serve as the kind of kept promises that push voters back to the polls two years from now.
After all, a lesson from Georgia is that you can get people to the ballot box more than every four years. But not without big, exciting ideas, and a willingness to fight for them.
Emily Galvin-Almanza is co-founder and executive director of Partners for Justice, a program focused on breaking the cycle of poverty and incarceration. She is also a senior legal analyst at The Appeal and an anchor of “The Appeal Live.” You can follow her on Twitter at @GalvinAlmanza.
Sean McElwee is a co-founder and the executive director of Data for Progress. You can follow him on Twitter at @Sean McElwee.