Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 22 February 2024

 In this terse column, David Brooks broaches a profound insight that we have been shouting from rooftops and this blog for years. Please read carefully and scour this blog for the countless contributions sustaining this vitally crucial theme - for the survival of Western civilization and of humanity itself!

The Political Failure of Bidenomics

A photograph of a torn, weathered glove perched on some rebar at a construction site.
Credit... Elliott Verdier for The New York Times

Opinion Columnist

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After Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, most sensible Democrats realized they had a problem. The party was hemorrhaging support from the white working class. More than 60 percent of Americans over 25 do not have a four-year college degree; it’s very hard to win national elections without them.

So in 2020 the Democrats did something sensible. For the first time in 36 years, they nominated a presidential candidate who did not have a degree from Harvard or Yale. Joe Biden won the White House and immediately pursued an ambitious agenda to support the working class.

The economic results have been fantastic. During Biden’s term, the U.S. economy has created 10.8 million production and nonsupervisory jobs, including nearly 800,000 manufacturing jobs and 774,000 construction jobs. Wages are rising faster for people at the lower end of the wage scale than for people at the higher end.

study by the economist Robert Pollin and others estimated that 61 percent of the jobs created by the infrastructure law Biden championed wouldn’t require a college degree; the same applied for 58 percent of the jobs created by the Inflation Reduction Act and 44 percent of those created by the CHIPS act.

study from the Brookings Institution found that since 2021, the new laws have directed almost $82 billion in strategic sector investment to the nation’s employment-distressed counties. As a result of the private investment set in motion by Biden policies, we are in the middle of an employment, manufacturing and productivity boom in many of the places that had been left behind, benefiting the sorts of workers who had been hit hard by deindustrialization.

But what have been the political effects? Have these huge spending programs increased working-class support for the Democratic Party? Are the Democrats reclaiming their mantle as the party of the working class?

The answer so far is unfortunately a resounding no. Biden’s economic policies have done little to help the Democratic Party politically. In fact, the party continues to lose working-class support. In a recent NBC poll, voters said they trusted Donald Trump more than Biden to handle the economy — by a 22-point margin, the largest advantage any candidate has had on this issue in the history of NBC polling going back to 1992.

Some of the loss of support is happening among some of the party’s historically most loyal constituencies. A recent Gallup poll measured how many Americans identified with the Democratic and Republican Parties. Over the past three years, the Democrats’ lead among Black Americans has shrunk by 19 points. Among Hispanics, the Democratic lead has shrunk by 15 points.

The Gallup poll also showed that the diploma divide is still widening. Those with postgraduate degrees are increasingly turning Democratic; those without college degrees are increasingly Republican.

Franklin Roosevelt built the New Deal majorities by using government to support workers. Biden has tried to do the same. While his policies have worked economically, they have not worked politically. What’s going on?

The fact is that over the past few decades and across Western democracies, we’ve been in the middle of a seismic political realignment — with more-educated voters swinging left and less-educated voters swinging right. This realignment is more about culture and identity than it is about economics.

College-educated voters have tended to congregate in big cities and lead very different lives from voters without a college degree. College-educated voters are also much more likely to focus their attention on cultural issues like abortion and L.G.B.T.Q. rights, and they are much more socially liberal than non-college-educated voters.

Matthew Goodwin, a political scientist who writes about the diploma divide in Britain, titled his recent book “Values, Voice and Virtue.” He argues the educated and less educated have different values. The former are cosmopolitan progressive, while the latter are traditionalist — faith, family, flag. He continues that educated voices drown out less-educated voices, thanks to their dominance at universities and in the media, the arts, nonprofits and bureaucracies. Less-educated voters feel unheard and unseen. Goodwin writes that across the Western world, “workers and nongraduates are consistently the most likely to endorse statements such as ‘the government does not care what people like me think.’”

Finally, less-educated voters feel morally judged for being socially backward. An analysis of more than 65,000 people across 36 countries by the Dutch scholar Jochem van Noord found that people who do not belong to the new elite are united not only by economic insecurity but also by “feelings of misrecognition, that is, the extent to which people have the feeling that they do not play a meaningful role in society, that they possess a (stigmatized) identity that is looked down upon.”

The British writer David Goodhart gets to the nub: “In the last two decades it sometimes feels as if an enormous social vacuum cleaner has sucked up status from manual occupations, even skilled ones, and reallocated it to the middling and higher cognitive professions and the prosperous metropolitan centers and university towns.”

For the sake of the country, Biden was obviously right to focus his policies on those being left behind. I was among those who hoped that working-class voters would interpret these policies as a sign of respect and recognition. But the chasm between the classes is also about morals, status and identity, and those wounds have not been healed. The crucial question is: Can the Democrats try anything else to slow the realignment?

There are reasons for pessimism. In a study for the Manhattan Institute, the political scientist Zach Goldberg argued persuasively that the educated class would continue to remake the Democratic Party in its own image. Educated Democrats, Goldberg showed, were more politically engaged than less-educated Democrats. They were more likely to donate to candidates. They controlled the means of communication.

Goldberg observed an emerging paradox: “The Democratic Party will likely become a majority-minority party relatively soon, but one that is still largely and disproportionately steered by liberal college-educated whites.”

If there’s hope for Democrats, it’s found in people like Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, who works strenuously to reduce social distance between Democrats and the working class. As the analyst Ruy Teixeira pointed out in his The Liberal Patriot Substack, Fetterman has gone against progressive orthodoxy on immigration, fossil fuels and Israel. He shows his strength by tilting against party elites. Similarly, the Democrat Tom Suozzi won back his Long Island House seat by playing up issues like controlling the border and fighting crime.

Joe Biden has done a masterly job of holding together the diverse Democratic coalition. But in order to win working-class votes, you probably have to show some degree of independence from the educated elites who lead it.

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