"UNLESS." Building Back to What?

Illustration of The Loras from Doctor Seuss, in front of a photo of the Capitol Building. Image Description: Illustration of The Loras from Doctor Seuss, in front of a photo of the Capitol Building.

Summary: We’re hitting the pause button in honor of our 50th full episode. Quite the milestone, and we wanted to celebrate together. And, in true UNFTR fashion, we celebrate by running through 2021 from a congressional perspective. What did we actually accomplish, and why? How? We top it off with some ways for Unf*ckers to get involved and make change in their communities so that come end of ’22 we can (hopefully) tell a different story.

“At the far end of town where the Grickle-grass grows and the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows and no birds ever sing excepting old crows...is the Street of the Lifted Lorax.”

When my kids were little, this was the book I read to them more than any other. Aside from the problematic aspects of good ol’ Dr. Suess’ personality we now know about, no other book encapsulated their childhood story time more than the Lorax. I came across it again recently when organizing some things at home, and it got me thinking about the word “Unless.”

I’m hitting the pause button again in honor of our 50th full episode. Quite the milestone, and I wanted to celebrate together. Sort of. At the moment, I’m very much in the research weeds on several upcoming episodes, and my mind is full of possibilities. But, when I tried to listen deeply to my own thoughts, to get small and quiet, I couldn’t block out the noise.

Sometimes, in order to retain a sense of ourselves and our place in the world, you have to stop. It’s in the silence that answers are found, like Thoreau in Walden, a monk in a monastery or a Quaker in meeting for worship.

The beauty of a podcast (or an essay accompaniment to one) is that it can become very personal. This is your show. You are my listener. Together, we’ve entered into a pretty special contract. I give you my all, and you give me your time. These are the most valuable things that we have, so in my mind, we’ve transcended the transactional. So let’s talk about this contract. Just have a conversation. To do this, you’ll need to suspend disbelief a bit, but I really want you to imagine that it’s just us. Talking it out. Working through something.

One of the prevailing sentiments you’ve offered in your comments is to ask what you can do. Some of you have volunteered things that you are doing with the information we share and the conversations we have in show notes. You send along resources and ideas for upcoming shows. Offer suggestions and feedback to help further our understanding of the world. But, there’s always that nagging feeling that in spite of our growth and learning together, the issues that plague us are entirely too monumental to break down. And, to that end, I must agree.

Taken together, the topics we cover are too big to tackle. And that’s exactly what they want. And who are they? The corporations that run the United States and, by proxy, the world. We can say the media, but the media are corporations. Even the independent voices we seek are on platforms controlled by mega corporations. Their algorithms control what we see. What we listen to. Recommended shows on your podcast app. Videos you may also like on YouTube. Suggested posts in your social media feed. Or ads based on your behavior.

Doing the work is harder than ever and prevents us from coalescing around big ideas and making progress.

Episode #1468 of Best of Left pulls together clips from sources addressing gains being made against neoliberalism around the world. The election in Honduras. Leftists back in charge in Chile. A farm labor strike in India that prompted the Modi government to revoke legislation that attacked price supports. While we focus on the continual losses of the left in western nations, there are other parts of the world that are experiencing a left renaissance; but you won’t hear about it, read about it or watch it on TV unless you seek it out. And that is very much by design.

When the establishment Dems snuffed out any chances of the left making headway in the presidential field, we inevitably landed on the safe middle path in the form of Joe Biden and a running mate whose career is defined by defending the status quo. Leadership didn’t change, but we made progress on the ground by electing more progressives to the House despite so many losses on the state and local level.

And now the prognostications for the midterms are almost a fait accompli. It’s going to be a bloodbath. We’re losing on messaging surrounding critical race theory, mask mandates and our inability to move legislation forward amidst democratic infighting. But this is larger than Manchin and Sinema. It speaks to a corporatist and defeatist mindset that pervades the left and keeps us suppressed and in check.

The lack of vision is astounding, and progressives are partly to blame for this. Yes, it’s a failure of leadership from the top, but it’s also a lack of vision and capability from the bottom up. To illustrate this, I want to run through 2021 from a congressional perspective. What did we actually accomplish and why? How? It’s revealing when taken in totality and demonstrates a few things that we’ll talk about shortly.

Check this out. Here’s what your Congress did last year. We know the big stuff, as we’ve pretty much covered them all:

  • There’s the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that has to be passed every year to authorize the military budget. I think we’ve exhausted the absurdity of this.

  • Increasing the debt limit. Never a problem when Republicans want to. Always a battle when Democrats do.

  • The Itsfuckedforsure bill.

  • A technical extension of government funding, basically allowing government agencies to continue operating during the budget process under last year’s appropriations.

  • And the American Rescue Plan; the big stimulus near the beginning of the term that extended much of the Trump-era stimulus to help Americans recover.

Now, I’m not taking anything away from the Rescue Plan or the Itsfuckedforsure Bill. They did their thing, even though the Democrats allowed themselves to be hoodwinked that Manchin, Sinema, Menendez and others would actually consider Build Back Better as a separate bill on the merits after the passage of the Itsfuckedforsure Bill. Be that as it may, these were the big actions that kept the government moving, the checks flowing and the economy and military pumping.

So, apart from the big items, I thought it would be interesting to check in on the rest of the legislative agenda from Biden’s first year to see exactly what these people do for a living.

All told, there were 85 bills signed into law. Recognize that there are smaller bills and amendments attached to the big bills, so there were more bills technically, but many of them are subordinate to the larger spending measures and omnibus bills that we just discussed. In pure net new legislative terms, here’s what your 117th Congress has been up to with a democrat in the White House and Democratic control of the House and Senate:

  • A bill to exclude goods from China that were made in forced labor camps. (Completely ignoring the private profit prison system that employs labor in our own country, but okay. We’re off to a great start.)

  • Little Marco did a deal to lease land from the Seminole Tribe. (More stealing of native land, cool!)

  • A bill that allows extraterritorial jurisdiction over any criminal offense toward a federal officer. (So, we made it illegal to murder U.S. government officials anywhere in the world under our laws. Does that mean murder is legal somewhere?)

  • A bill to ensure that the FCC prohibits radio frequency devices that pose a national security threat.

  • Bob Menendez outlined a plan to keep meddling with affairs in Nicaragua. Actually put that shit in writing.

  • Some help for teachers with their education loans. Which is actually cool.

  • The Havana Act. Ah yes. Financial support for CIA or similar operatives in other countries that are affected by a make believe condition that our own government just said doesn’t exist.

  • A construction bill that eliminates the lowest bidder fallacy for complex government projects. (I actually really like this bill, but that’s for another day.)

  • An appointment. A federal holiday (Juneteenth) and a reauthorization of stem cell research.

  • A bill that lets people travel on a boat between Washington and Alaska during COVID without having to stop in Canada. (I don’t even know what the fuck this is about, but I’ll assume the Alaskans know what’s up here.)

  • Offering continuing education through the FDA to healthcare providers, two other technical FDA bill corrections and Amy Klobuchar wrote a whole bill that allows senators to share staff.

  • Two studies, one on hate crimes the other on cybersecurity in schools.

  • Two bills protecting Medicare from budget cuts through this year.

  • Three technical changes to controlled substance laws.

  • Three bills to clean up the mess from January 6th.

  • Three joint resolutions to close Trump-era climate and banking loopholes.

  • Five extensions of existing legislation from budgets and PPP loans to bankruptcy protection during COVID.

  • Five gold medal awards.

  • Seven buildings named after people.

  • 20 bills micromanaging the VA.

  • And a partridge in a motherfucking pear tree.

So there you go. I read the summaries of all 85 bills so you didn’t have to. A couple of takeaways here.

First, this is the sausage they always talk about. I’m frustrated and angry at how the Democrats are approaching their time in the sun here and will stand by it, but I also want to give credit where it is due. This is how the government works, and this shit ain’t easy. And anyone who thinks that it is doesn’t get it. Let’s start with a big bill as an example and see what it took to get it done. We’ll do the Itsfuckedforsure Bill.

MANNY: I know this is supposed to be a one-to-one conversation kinda thing, but just for clarity’s sake, like how I have to tell new listeners that Uncle Dicknoggin and Uncle Fuckbreath are both Milton Friedman…When Max is talking about the “It’s Fucked For Sure bill,” he means the Infrastructure Bill. So very clever. Anyway, continue.

So, the first thing to recognize about a bill this significant is that it’s comprised of 90 other independent bills. 90. That is a fuck ton of work. This one actually started in the Senate. After that, it was introduced in the House. Considered by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The committee then ordered a report to the full chamber to recommend consideration. The text of the bill was published and the House version was passed, then sent over to the Senate where it failed cloture, a process to make it filibuster proof. This took about three weeks to work about before it passed and was sent back to the House with changes. The House then dilly dallied for about two and half months before finally agreeing to the changes, signed it and sent it to J’Biden’s desk for signature. So, let’s acknowledge that this was a lot of work. Great.

In terms of bipartisanship, it should be noted that 28 of the original sponsors of the successful bills were Republican. And most of these bills pass with nearly unanimous support, whereby if the respective heads of the chambers feel the sense of a bill’s success, they can actually suspend an in person vote and just move it along.

So the system is working. They can pass bills. That’s what this looks like. But there are a few things that occur to me when looking through the summaries of the bills. First, if you want to append your name to a bill with a solid chance of passing, just make it something about the VA. These people spend a lot of time campaigning on criticism of the VA, and even more time legislating small technical changes to how the VA works. This agency is buried in so many regulatory quirks, it’s hard to imagine how the hell it even functions.

Another way to look like you’re doing something is to name a Post Office after someone. Again, most of those building namings were Post Offices; and it’s funny here again how people like to campaign on how fucked up the Post Office is, but once they’re in office, they’ll slap a name on the side of one of them to show that they did something.

The vast majority of the successful bills are changes to the U.S. code and necessary updates to existing legislation. If the bill sounds super patriotic or it’s just mean spirited, it’s probably a Republican bill. If it’s insipid, like Amy Klobuchar’s “let’s share staff” bill, then it’s probably a Democrat.

What’s missing is vision.

Updating the U.S. Code, closing outdated or even dangerous loopholes and doing the mind numbing procedural work is all part of normal course of business, and there are real technocrats in Congress with specialties who are looking out for us and making small changes that might be really meaningful to certain segments of the population. But this was year one of what was supposed to be the big mandate year.

Dems have control of both houses and the executive branch. This is the time for visionaries to come forward and for the president to bend holdouts to his will. To exhaust the opposition with a torrent of measures, some of which will pass; others that won’t, but will be useful as bargaining chips. Instead, we get Marjorie Taylor Greene making bizarre speeches to an empty chamber about mask mandates and gazpacho, politicians spending more time on Fox and CNN than in their districts or writing legislation and a fucking chief executive who has seemingly vacated his post. The lack of vision and energy here is astounding.

All the while the Democrats keep talking about Build Back Better. How it’s LBJ or FDR-like in scope. Pramila Jayapal has even pledged that the entire thing will be back on the agenda come March, but this is where we’re losing the fucking plot.

Big sweeping changes like the ones proposed in Build Back Better (BBB), or even something as enormous and overdue like Medicare for all, are invigorated during a crisis. That’s when the big stuff happens, and even still it rarely happens all at once, as we’ll talk about. Why wasn’t COVID a big enough crisis to make BBB happen then? Well, the person in place at the time of the crisis matters a whole lot in the equation.

Just look back at the big crises that we equate with massive change, for better or worse. Even just over the last 100 years. The crisis and the person we choose to manage it matter greatly:

  • During the Depression, we had FDR and got the New Deal out of it.

  • At the height of the civil rights battle, we had LBJ and we got the Great Society out of it.

  • During the stagflation crisis, we got Reagan, which fucked the next two generations and maybe more.

  • During 9/11, we got Bush and lost what was left of our privacy, civil liberties and we entered into two of our longest and costliest wars.

  • During the housing crash, we got Obama, who only played a progressive on TV and blew his political capital on a healthcare plan from the Heritage Foundation that made insurance companies richer.

  • COVID delivered us from Trump and right over to Biden, and we’re blowing it because we drove the middle lane. Played it safe. We left the career conservative Democrats in charge and expected that they would somehow be ready to govern. Instead, it’s just more of the same.

Look at our so-called leaders on the left. Pelosi and Schumer were tripping over themselves to provide funding to Ukraine because, for some reason, what happens there matters to us. It’s a “matter of national security.” Not to channel Fucker Carlson here, but even if you combine the GDP of Russia and Ukraine, it would still be less than South Korea. Less than Italy. Less than France. The combined GDP wouldn’t crack the top 10.

Here in New York, the Democrats agreed to approach redistricting ethically and listen to an independent, non-political committee when Cuomo was governor. Instead, they threw that all away and gerrymandered the districts so badly they should be ashamed of themselves. Across the country, that dill weed Gavin Newsom, who we actually defended in an episode about his recall, just punted on the seminal universal California healthcare bill after magically receiving a massive 11th hour donation from a healthcare company. Imagine that. (Check out David Sirota’s reporting on that if you want to learn more.)

Point being, progressives have made a lot of headway, but we’re still losing the plot and are unable to affect real change at the moment it’s finally possible. Yes, we’ve got Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, Ayanna Pressley, AOC, Cori Bush, Ilhan Omar, Katie Porter, Barbara Lee, Jamie Raskin, Bernie Sanders and scores of other Democrats who lean progressive.

But it’s not enough, and they’re not leveraging their influence in a way that grabs attention. They have just enough influence to go small and consistent, but not enough to go big one time, and yet they insist on trying to boil the ocean.

I’ll explain. Go back to the New Deal and the Great Society for a moment. In both eras, you had incredibly savvy and forceful leaders who still had to break big issues into smaller chunks and fight like hell to get them done.

Amid racial and political upheaval in the 1960s, LBJ gave us a legislative tour de force we lovingly call Great Society.

In stark contrast to Joe’s stalled Build Back Better plan, the Great Society consisted of 200 separate pieces of legislation.

All said and done, the policies enacted beginning in 1965 included everything from civil rights protections; Medicare and Medicaid; food stamps; urban renewal; federal investments in public education; Head Start and college aid; immigration reform; landmark consumer safety and environmental regulations; funding that gave voice to community action groups; and the famed War on Poverty. Again, these weren’t passed under a single umbrella plan, but as part of a sprawling and exhaustive legislative agenda.

For example: While the War on Poverty is well known to most students of history, it was actually the Economic Opportunity Act that served as the framework for LBJ’s anti-poverty regime. And, remember how for decades white European immigrants received preferential treatment when coming to the U.S.? Well, LBJ did away with that shit with the passage of the Immigration Act. Medicare and Medicaid? You got it, that emerged from legislative tentacles of the Great Society as well.

The collapse of Build Back Better meant Biden’s entire agenda failed, including efforts to combat the climate crisis. Well, because LBJ and his gang of lawmakers didn’t condense everything into one package, they were able to pass the Air Quality Act without sacrificing any other key priorities contained in the Great Society. You get the picture. Lawmakers flooded congress with bill after bill after bill—and it worked!

Of course, LBJ wasn’t some sort of visionary. He was simply following the path forged by FDR, an unwavering optimist who sold hope to an anxious America and essentially bent Congress to his will.

FDR promised the New Deal as the Democratic candidate for president, and he delivered—piece by piece.

Only a few months into his administration, FDR forced Congress into an emergency session and passed his banking reform plan in order to strengthen the financial sector and restore confidence among consumers.

A few months later, he signed the Securities Act and the Glass-Steagall Act—a hugely consequential law that prohibited commercial banks from engaging in investment banking.

Perhaps what people remember most from the New Deal was the creation of the Social Security Act, essentially creating a social safety net for millions of Americans. At the time, the Social Security Act wasn’t even considered part of the New Deal, but as part of an evolution of FDR’s priorities.

Great Society. New Deal. Both were audacious in name and in execution. The key difference between these and BBB: LBJ and FDR put each policy through the legislative grinder and actually found success.

If we want to succeed with a progressive agenda, we need to determine what matters most to us. Set up a list of priorities and tackle them one-by-one. Forgive me for once again quoting myself from a prior episode, but we also need better marketing. Create a calendar to set expectations and bring actual bills to a vote. Give them better titles.

Working backwards from the country we want to see, it gives us even more clarity:

  • End child hunger and child poverty.
  • Protect senior citizens.

  • Retain the number one economic ranking in the world. (Hint, this is actually the climate change piece.)

  • Protect the health of newborn babies and give them a chance at life.

  • Lead the world in education.

Children. Seniors. Economy. Planet. Education.

Here’s the part where I obnoxiously quote myself from a prior episode, but it’s worth repeating as we drive to our main point.

Month 1: The No Children Starve in America Act.

Make the Child Tax Credit payment permanent and adjust for inflation. Offer universal Pre-K with school meals to continue lifting children out of poverty. I dare you to vote against that.

Month 2: The Greatest Generation Protection Act.

Extend Medicare, cover in-home nursing and limit prescription drug price increase.

Month 3: Beat China to Net Zero Act.

Climate economy provisions that beat those commie fuckers to net zero, so we can outlive them and be number one! And fuck the civilian corp, by the way. Americans don’t want more government employees. But what you can do is put in a provision that any company that sets down in coal country to build a zero emission plant pays no taxes for 10 years. So long as they’re union.

Month 4: Protect New American Babies.

Are the right-to-lifers really going to stand in the way of paid family leave when we point out it could be the difference between abortions and having babies?

Month 5: Make America Smart Again.

Higher Pell grants, free state college. Oh, and here’s something the administration could just do. They don’t even need new legislation. Knock ten thousand off of all outstanding federal student loans like Biden promised he would and refinance the balance of student debt at the same fucking rate you give big banks. The difference in what you save from defaults would completely offset losses in interest payments on the debt.

Five months. Five bills. Wrapped in the flag and shoved down the throats of the oligarchs that truly control this nation. Here endeth the self quoting.

I would be remiss if I didn’t question where the fuck the energy behind the For The People Act went because truly, honestly now, none of these initiatives are possible if we don’t change the nature of campaign financing and ensure complete access at the polls.

Now, borrow a page from the right. You need public support. So you’re going to need experts, talking points and decisive leadership to bring these kinds of reforms out to the public, and you have to repeat them over and over and over again.

Go back to where we started our show a year and a half ago. Think of all we have learned watching the likes of Uncle Dicknoggin, Jim Buchanan, The Koch Brothers, Robert Mercer, Rupert Murdoch, Greenspan, Reagan, the list goes on and on. If the progressive caucus is going to make an impact, it can’t just be in the halls of Congress and talking among themselves. Support for progressive ideas has to come from the progressive think tanks so they can run the numbers and demonstrate the benefit of these bills individually and collectively.

Go on the offensive like Lewis Powell and Michael Horowitz suggested in the memorandums that shaped the new right’s pro-business and conservative judiciary ideals. Leverage the power of our young people to reclaim the mantle of badassery in public movements. The one thing I’ll credit Obama for was his admonition that the left are now seen as latte sipping coastal elites who peer down their noses at the working class. And even though this is exactly Obama, it doesn’t make him wrong.

In your public messaging campaigns, you want to recruit the Karens and the Billy Bobs of the world to take up pitchforks against corporations. If ever there was a ready for primetime villain in our story, it’s giant faceless corporations. Forget targeting billionaires. Target the mechanisms of the system that allow for the creation of them.

The leadership of the think tanks must fan out and appear on broadcast outlets, independent podcasts and speak plainly, powerfully and clearly about this. They can use their leverage to create model bills for states that mirror the federal agenda and flood the blue state legislatures with them as a start. Right now, for example, anti-trans legislation modeled in South Dakota is being presented to red state legislatures all across the country. And it’s going to work. This Supreme Court is going to rule on the side of state’s rights every single time, so the power shift is on and back at the local level.

And that’s where we come in, Unf*ckers.

This is the exercise and where I’m driving in all of this. Because, of course, this is all still too big and beyond our control. But your corner of the world is not.

Several of you have written to talk about small, but meaningful actions you’ve taken. Going vegan or vegetarian. Joining your local progressive coalition or organization. Even running for office. If you’ve taken some sort of meaningful action or step forward, let us know, and we’ll shout it out and try to connect you with others in your state. Let’s have a conversation and build together.

That old saying about the squeaky wheel? More true than you know when it comes to politics. Every congressperson has a constituent affairs office near you. Who runs it? I bet it’s a young, plucky staffer anxious to learn about the political process. Perhaps an intern. Or a committee-person. Bottom line, is that these are the people in the ear of your congressperson.

Get to know them. Go to their office. Schedule a meeting. Ask about their legislative priorities and ask why they haven’t done more to advance the For the People Act. Then schedule a follow up meeting, and bring a few friends with you. Get loud Unf*cker.

Go to startguide.org and look up every progressive organization in the country. Is there one near you? Can you join? If you can and you do, let us know and we’ll call you out in show notes and try to connect you with others in your area.

How about an Unf*cking Book Club? Start a progressive book club. Pick an episode that your members have to listen to, then read one of the books that we source and put in our bookstore. You’ll be supporting local bookstores by buying your books there and spreading the word about UNFTR. Come up with a creative name, and we’ll make space for you on our website.

Follow progressive elected officials on your social channels and tag them with these episodes. Ask them what they’re doing about the issues we cover. About the bills we mention.

Push. Pull. Bite. Scratch. Claw. While everyone else mopes around and stays home come the midterms because the corporate media told them they’re going to lose anyway, defy the odds in your little corner of the world. You’ll be shocked how much energy you have the capacity to generate. And I’ll be here for you every step of the way.

Remember where we began our story today:

“Now that you're here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”

I appreciate you coming along for these first 50 shows. I got 50 more in me, and then some, so long as you come along for the ride.

Get involved. Get Noisy. Unf*ck the Republic one bill, one meeting, one phone call, one conversation at a time.

Here endeth the conversation.

Max is a basic, middle-aged white guy who developed his cultural tastes in the 80s (Miami Vice, NY Mets), became politically aware in the 90s (as a Republican), started actually thinking and writing in the 2000s (shifting left), became completely jaded in the 2010s (moving further left) and eventually decided to launch UNFTR in the 2020s (completely left).