Normative Narratives


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Human Rights, “Enabling Rights”, and Biden’s Plans

During my internship with the United Nations Development Program in 2013, I had the pleasure of working on the “post-2015 development agenda”. This was the consultative process which eventually yielded the “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs), the successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and guiding principles for achieving “sustainable human development” through a “human rights based approach to development“.

The “human” in “sustainable human development” is often left out, but it is an important component. Sustainable human development is not just about basic infrastructure, healthcare, education and environmental protection, it is also about how you get there. To be truly sustainable, development cannot be due to an autocrats benevolence, which can be taken away at a moments notice. It must also make space for civil and political rights so disputes to be resolved peacefully, not brutally suppressed and whitewashed by a propaganda machine.

In the developing world, civil and political rights are considered “participatory” or “enabling” rights, in that they enable people to claim other rights (economic, social, cultural) and peacefully resolve disputes through representative government. The absence of this priority explains why well intended and reasonably well funded development efforts in the past, such as the MDGs, have failed to live up to their promise–simply put, due to poor governance and corruption. SDG #16, promoting “peace, justice and strong [accountable and inclusive] institutions” represents the biggest shift from the MDGs to the SDGs.

American democracy, as flawed as it is, is still democracy; American’s, by and large, already enjoy the civil and political enabling rights missing in much of the developing world. America is the type of place people around the world would, and do, risk their lives to live in. Part of this is due to our relative wealth, yes, but the value of our freedoms (and their supporting institutions, such as an independent media and judicial system) are not lost on those who have experienced the alternative. Sadly, that affliction only seems to affect people blessed to have known nothing else.

In America more people don’t vote due to apathy, misinformation, or being too busy scraping by in our flawed economic system than due to disenfranchisement. This is not to say that our electoral system is not also in need of reform–more on that in a moment–but those issues can be overcome with concerted effort. Indeed they were in 2020; voter turnout increased dramatically, delivering a small window to push through many long needed reforms. Will this increase in turnout be an aberration or trend? Much of that depends on how well Biden and the Democratic Party deliver right now.

Because of our extreme worship of money in America, economic rights have become our enabling rights. I am not saying that this is right or good, but when going into battle it is always good to know the lay of the land. Expanding economic opportunity will naturally lead to more equitable economic outcomes and, by extension, help secure other non-economic justices and freedoms. Wealth buys better treatment in our legal system and better healthcare, it enables people to invest enough in themselves to build fulfilling careers, to take risks, to be entrepreneurial, and to live in good neighborhoods and otherwise invest in their children’s futures.

Biden’s plans, by jump-starting the process of wealth accumulation as the government did for white Americans in the mid 20th century, would act not just as a floor beneath which our most vulnerable could not fall, but also as a trampoline for them and their children to reach even higher. In other words these plans would enable people to claim other rights through our market economy, just as political and civil rights in the developing world do through democratic governance. This is not wishful thinking, it is how America already works for its wealthier residents.

Biden’s proposals operate under the framework of “targeted universalism“. By considering how historic disparities and systemic racism still impact outcomes today, and providing more support to historically marginalized groups to help them catch up as we invest in all Americans, Biden’s plans have the ability to make sure future American growth is broad-based and inclusive, reaching groups who often fail to see politicians’ promises materialize. The most obvious example is closing the racial wealth gap by correcting for historic discrimination in housing policy (as home ownership is the largest source of wealth in America), but there are many other examples in Biden’s proposals, such as investing in HBCUs alongside community colleges.

With the fairer economic system that would result from passing Biden’s proposals, cultural divisions would ultimately take on less importance because they would seem less existential, aiding in the fights for civil rights legislation to empower marginalized communities. By proving democracy can still deliver for the American people, Biden’s plans would help sustain higher voter turnout, helping to offset any regressive electoral laws the GOP may pass. On the global stage, nothing better promotes democratic governance than an American system that works.

Of course voting rights are still an issue, and our electoral system as it currently stands is an impediment to a more sustainably progressive America. Geographic realities have enabled gerrymandering and the structure of the Senate to completely bastardize the central democratic concept of “one person, one vote”. Hopefully the Democrats can carve out a filibuster-proof process for voting rights laws, in which case they would immediately become a top policy priority, but up to this point it has not been able to do so.

I hate to be fatalistic, but we simply will not get to the 60 Senate votes needed right now to meaningfully address priority areas that cannot be addressed through reconciliation (anything that isn’t budgetary or spending related in nature, mainly voting rights, immigration reform, or criminal justice reform.) To the contrary the GOP is doubling down on Trumpism, relying on misinformation to drum up fear about these issues as its economic platform becomes increasingly less popular. While Democrats at the national level should voice their support for such reforms, and put GOP lawmakers on the record for their regressive stances, these are fights that will need to be fought mainly at the state and local level and in the courts for now.

So while Biden tries to work with the GOP, which will assuredly come back with inadequate counter-proposals, he should not scale back his plans in the name of bipartisanship or waste too much of this precious window to act before the 2022 midterm elections. Nowadays infrastructure goes beyond pouring concrete, and creating a system that works for working-class Americans is long overdue. Moderate Democratic Senators like Joe Manchin (WV), Krysten Sinema (AZ) and Jon Tester (MT) should know this–their constituents sure do! As Democratic Senators they should also know that since the Great Recession, the field of economics has moved decidedly to the left on how much can be financed responsibly through deficit spending.

Lawmakers and people making up the progressive, liberal, and the centrist wings of the Democratic party must acknowledge exactly what Biden’s plans would mean for America if passed, and remain united in seeing them through. Splintering the party’s focus to pursue reconciliation-proof “woke” legislation is exactly what the GOP wants; as a general rule, it is a good idea not to do what your opposition wants you to.

Failure to pass Biden’s proposals would not only forgo important enabling economic rights, it would put other noble pursuits further out of reach. Ultimately it risks the further erosion of American Democracy by naturally lowering voter turnout through disillusionment and apathy. Nothing is more important right now than passing Biden’s plans. If, as a progressive, you think something else is, think of them as an attainable means to your more preferred ends.

In a perfect world all human rights–economic, political, civil, social, and cultural–would be promoted at all times. This is not a perfect world, and America is not a perfect democracy. Securing economic rights is foundational and feasible right now through reconciliation, and doing so would change the political and cultural landscape in ways that would help secure other rights going forward.