The future of U.S. social welfare policy is looking pretty grim right now

Elation over the election of Joe Biden on a relatively progressive social welfare agenda, barely a year ago now, has given way to deepening despair over the future of the U.S. social safety net. As 2021 comes to its dreadful Omicron close, Biden’s ambitious “Build Back Better” family and worker-friendly agenda seems headed for the dumpster like so much discarded Christmas wrapping paper. Worse still, at the moment the prospects for the Dems retaining their slim-to-none electoral majorities in Congress after the 2022 elections appear very dim indeed. And let’s not kid ourselves, social workers: A Republican Congress will be a hostile Congress, one very likely bent on further deterioration of social welfare supports.

So what happened? In a nutshell, Biden and the Democrats have managed to “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory” by running up a record of unparalleled failures. Here are just the big-ticket highlights.

Broken promises. Biden and the Dems have spectacularly failed to deliver on major electoral and legislative promises – Promises on a minimum wage increase; promises on Build Back Better, the once ambitious collection of social welfare program advances (still inadequate, but far better than what we have now); promises on student debt forgiveness; promises on climate crisis mitigation; promises on reforming the astoundingly anti-democratic filibuster; promises on DC statehood; promises on expanding the Supreme Court to counter reactionary court packing by Republicans; promises on voting rights protection. In every case, initial bold talk has decayed into either silence or a posture of surrender to internal party and/or Republican party opposition.

Delusory expectation of bipartisan possibility. Amazingly, following a year of frustration, President Biden continues to lead a dwindling chorus of Democrats pining for bipartisan cooperation on critical governance issues. This despite the aggressive purging from Republican ranks of anyone who won’t kowtow to Trump and his big lie of a “stolen election”; despite insistence that the Biden administration is illegitimate and therefore warrants fierce opposition; despite outspoken Republican Congressional commitment to the ultimate priority of frustrating the Democratic agenda, whatever it might be.; despite the Republican party’s unleashing of violence-prone fringe elements (e.g., Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor-Green, Lauren Boebert, Mo Brooks) ; despite an evident drive to worsen social conditions to the greatest extent possible, laying the basis for “owning the liberals” in the 2022 and 2024 electoral campaigns. What “friends” in the Republican opposition is Biden looking to ally with?

Unwillingness to confront blatant antidemocratic and fascist trends. The evidence of organized Republican subversion of the popular will (the flipside of which is dedication to one-party minority rule) is everywhere and undeniable – from electoral district gerrymandering and voter suppression measures, to plans for vote nullification and permission for right-wing legislatures to send Electoral College slates contrary to voter preferences, to legislation criminalizing social justice protests. Rightwing elements, in most cases heavily armed, now openly threaten violence against local and state election officials who don’t embrace the narrative of leftwing “socialist extremism.” As more evidence on the January 6 Capitol assault emerges, it becomes increasingly clear that the reaction to Trump’s 2020 electoral defeat was neither a one-off event nor a spontaneous MAGA insurrection, but rather an orchestrated attempt to stage a coup d’etat that would install Trump as president-for-life with virtually unlimited authority. Yet despite the abundance of evidence, Biden and the Democrats act as if they are oblivious to the fascist threat, and seem to be sleepwalking to their own defeat. Voting rights legislation languishes; the January 6 investigation moves at a snail’s pace; Merrick Garland’s Justice Department seems inordinately fearful of appearing “biased” in its prosecution of the insurrectionist/fascist leadership – Steve Bannon, Mark Meadows, Rudy Giuliani, and Trump himself. The rightist strategy is simple – run out the clock, expecting the 2022 elections to reinstate Republican Congressional control, whereupon all investigations and efforts toward reform legislation will end – and the Democrats are doing little to prevent the strategy from succeeding.

Blaming recalcitrant “moderates” for legislative impasses won’t cut it. Telling voters they need to work harder to elect more progressive Democrats before voting rights can be protected and before substantive social welfare policies can be enacted justifies a perception of myopic incompetence and will succeed only in deepening voter alienation. In the context of intensifying political crisis, such fecklessness equates to capitulation.

If they retain an ounce of integrity, Democrats should quit sitting on their hands and recognize that only an urgent mass mobilization of the progressive working class base has any real hope of stemming a rightwing authoritarian tide. We should be very, very fearful of Republican party minority rule. Purged of moderate elements, it will be thoroughly authoritarian, indeed fascist, in character. It will roll back hard-won political, civil, and environment rights; it will curtail minority and women’s rights in particular; it will demonize immigrants as it promotes the myth of lost national greatness; it will advance “white pride” as the key to restoring greatness. It will shamelessly expand welfare-for-the-rich tax elimination while dismantling what’s left of a sadly inadequate social welfare safety net for poor and marginalized populations – precisely those whose interests professional social work claims to champion and defend.

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