Opinion: Can America survive a party of saboteurs?

Photo/Thalassa Raasch/The New York Times / A tattered flag hangs at a polling location in New Hampshire on Jan. 22, 2024. One of America's two major political parties is now dedicated to achieving power at all costs, and will try to make the nation ungovernable when a Democrat sits in the White House. How long can our democracy survive under these conditions?, NYT columnist Paul Krugman ask.
Photo/Thalassa Raasch/The New York Times / A tattered flag hangs at a polling location in New Hampshire on Jan. 22, 2024. One of America's two major political parties is now dedicated to achieving power at all costs, and will try to make the nation ungovernable when a Democrat sits in the White House. How long can our democracy survive under these conditions?, NYT columnist Paul Krugman ask.

Almost four years have passed since Congress approved and Donald Trump signed a huge relief bill designed to limit the financial hardship created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The CARES Act did its job. Although around 25 million Americans temporarily lost their jobs there was far less monetary pain than you might have expected, given the magnitude of the public health crisis.

In fact, according to a Federal Reserve survey, the percentage of Americans "doing at least OK financially" was actually higher in July 2020 than it had been before the pandemic, presumably because for many people, government aid, including one-time checks and greatly enhanced unemployment benefits, more than made up for lost jobs and business.

So the CARES Act was a huge policy success. But given recent political developments, I've found myself thinking: What would have happened if Democrats in 2020 had behaved like Republicans in 2024?

Imagine an alternative history in which Joe Biden, who was already by then the strong favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination, had urged Democrats in Congress not to pass a relief bill — the same way Trump has bullied Republicans into voting against a border security bill — because he believed that reducing Americans' misery might help Trump get re-elected.

Imagine a history in which Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House at the time, had behaved like Mike Johnson, the current Republican speaker, and prevented a bill attempting to address an urgent national priority from coming to the floor.

It seems clear that the CARES Act did, in fact, help Republicans politically. It's true that they lost the White House in 2020, but by a less decisive margin than many expected, and that while Democrats did gain control of the Senate, they did so by the smallest possible margin. Republicans surely would have done much worse if Trump had been presiding over a full-scale COVID-induced depression.

Now, my imaginary history didn't happen and couldn't have happened. For one thing, Pelosi isn't that kind of politician. She's partisan, of course, but has never as far as I know engaged in political extortion by holding the well-being of the nation hostage.

Even if Pelosi herself had wanted to engage in economic sabotage, her colleagues almost certainly would have refused to go along.

But Trump's Republicans are everything the Democrats of 2020 weren't. They've rejected a border security and foreign aid bill that they themselves demanded and then negotiated, one that was far harsher than Democrats would have wanted. And they aren't even trying to hide their naked cynicism.

Oh, and a significant fraction of Republicans, Trump included, would prefer to block aid to Ukraine because, by all appearances, Vladimir Putin is their kind of guy.

Biden is clearly planning to make Republican sabotage a major issue in the 2024 campaign — akin to the way Harry Truman ran against the "do-nothing Congress" in 1948 — with the extra edge that this time, Republicans are more or less openly trying to damage American interests for political gain. Whether this strategy will work remains to be seen.

But even if it does work, and Biden wins — even if Democrats were to regain full control of Congress — I'm worried about the future. One of America's two major political parties is now dedicated to achieving power at all costs and will try to make the nation ungovernable when a Democrat sits in the White House. How long can our democracy survive under these conditions?

Upcoming Events