Rome Is Burning. Joe Biden Is Fiddling. Can We Survive the Assault?


A catastrophic fire broke out in Rome in 64 CE. As the legend goes, Nero Caesar was too consumed with fiddling while massive swathes of the city were destroyed. Some contemporaries assert he was just so taken with his supposed musical talent that he couldn’t be bothered with responding to the disaster — call this the “Ineptitude Argument.”

Others claim he was fully aware of the fire but was unconcerned because the fire was mostly devouring poor parts of the city — call this the “Malice Argument.” The latter is likely untrue because Nero was popular with the poor and working class; it’s likely a smear from his political opponents. Furthermore, the fiddle wasn’t invented until the 900s, so he definitely wasn’t playing one; that much is false. A lyre maybe? Either way, the legend survives. 

Play it Again, Joe

America currently faces fires great and small that threaten to consume the working and middle classes. Some of those, such as in California, are literal fires. Others are metaphorical, such as student loan debt, voter suppression, voter nullification, decaying infrastructure, creeping climate destruction, and democratic backsliding. The greatest conflagration, though, is the Big Lie.

Throughout the Republican Party from city councils up to the Senate, the idea that the 2020 election was stolen has become a fundamental article of faith. For most Republican voters, this is likely a good-faith attempt to understand why someone they support so strongly lost an election they thought he would easily win.

For Republican elected officials, the ones presented constantly with the actual evidence, this is an effort to seize power. These elected officials reap two basic benefits from convincing the public that elections cannot be trusted if Democrats win. First, they get money. People who are desperate to save their democracy will donate money to candidates who will “fight” against the theft of democracy. Secondly, they gain a mandate to cement their own power. 

State legislatures in red states across America are speedily passing laws that will allow legislatures or other chosen officials to alter the blatant results of an election. These laws typically either change who counts the votes or they allow legislatures to overrule the voters if the legislature can effectively argue something nefarious occurred. The plan is pretty simple: first, pick a loyalist to count the votes.

If Republicans lose the election, this handpicked apparatchik can just claim some of the ballots are suspect and throw them out. Just like that, their preferred candidates win. This is, not to be dramatic, the end of a true democratic republic. It’s something more like a diffused Putin-ist state. 

Thankfully, the House, Senate, and White House are under (narrow) Democratic control. So, what are they doing about this existential attack, this catastrophic fire? Joe Biden was in Pennsylvania on October 20 giving a speech about infrastructure. He might as well have played some Charlie Daniels covers because he was up there fiddling. 

You Gotta Have a Senate in the Band

Honestly, most of the blame lands on the United States Senate. There are 48 Democratic senators and two independents (Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Angus King (I-ME)) who are functionally Democrats. In a perfect 50-50 Senate, almost nothing can pass. In the Senate, 51 votes is sufficient to actually pass every piece of legislation. However, 60 votes are required to end “debate” on a bill and actually get to voting on whether or not the bill passes. In reality, this “debate” is just legislative purgatory from which a bill never escapes.

So, 60 votes are needed in order to authorize voting on the bill, which only requires 51 votes to pass. That 51 would be every Democratic senator plus Vice-President (and President of the Senate) Kamala Harris. However, ten Republican senators will never agree to join the 50 Democrats to move on to the actual vote. So, any legislation on voting rights is basically dead. This isn’t really a filibuster but we call it one. 

The fault, dear reader, lies not in Joe Biden but in the Senate that we are underlings. That being said, Joe Biden has expansive power of persuasion. Political scientist Richard Neustadt once said the power of the presidency is the power of persuasion. President Biden obviously doesn’t want to lean too hard on reluctant senators to abolish the filibuster because he doesn’t want to alienate or jeopardize them.

Conventional thinking says if he hammers Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) too hard, Manchin will either leave the party or lose reelection. That makes sense in an America in which the person with the most votes wins; just limp along while appeasing JoeMan until you can get more Democratic senators elected. That’s the old world, though. There’s no reason to believe that in 2022, 2024, and 2026, Republican state legislatures will allow Democrats to win in red states. 

All of this timid fiddling and tiptoeing will look pretty damn silly when Democrats lose illegitimate races from dog catcher up to president. There are still thirteen months until the 2022 elections; it’s still early. But in Washington DC, it gets late early. 

To quote Bane, the preeminent political thinker of our time: the fire rises.