Friday, January 21, 2022

The Return of Political Realism

As it becomes ever clearer that the Biden presidency never had the transformational potential assigned to it by many Democrats in and out of the administration, it is perhaps time to cast comforting illusions aside and look clear-eyed at political reality.
Two articles today are helpful. Nate Cohn looks at the non-FDRness of Biden's time and Biden's actions:
"Joseph R. Biden Jr. was supposed to be another Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democratic president who enacted transformative liberal legislation and in doing so built a lasting political coalition....
Rather than following Mr. Roosevelt’s playbook and focusing relentlessly on the crises facing the nation and voters, Mr. Biden’s efforts have shifted from the pandemic and the economy to also pursue longstanding Democratic policy goals — universal prekindergarten, climate change, voting rights, a child tax credit.
Even if those proposals are needed or important, they do not rank high on the list of the public’s demands at the heart of a pandemic and with rising inflation. Only 33 percent of voters say the president is focused on the issues they “care a lot about,” according to a recent CBS/YouGov poll.
The decision to prioritize the goals of his party’s activist base over the issues prioritized by voters is more reminiscent of the last half-century of politically unsuccessful Democratic presidents than of Mr. Roosevelt himself....
It is a presidency aimed at matching Mr. Roosevelt’s transformative legacy while forgetting the most basic, high school history class lesson about the root of the New Deal’s political appeal: It was designed to meet the challenges of the moment.
While liberals cherish the New Deal for expanding the role of government, the core of its political success was its focus on addressing an immediate crisis facing the nation — the shuttered banks, failing farms and mass unemployment of the Great Depression."
Matt Yglesias has some ideas about what a more realistic approach might be at this point for the Democrats:
"For Mr. Biden and his team to give Democrats a fighting chance and turn his numbers around before electoral disaster strikes, they need to keep two slightly paradoxical thoughts in mind. First, Mr. Biden is governing in extraordinary times, but his presidency is still governed by the normal rules of American politics. Second, generating a feeling of normalcy around American politics and daily life — as he promised to do during the campaign — would itself be a transformative change....
Yet even when it turned out that the [pre-election] polls were off and his victory was much narrower than expected, Mr. Biden never really let go of the dream of a transformative 1930s-style presidency, though he clearly lacked the large legislative majorities to deliver on a New Deal or Great Society....
When all is said and done, the frustrations of the Biden supporters who want a return to normal are more politically significant than those of the more progressive crowd who yearn for transformation.
That means more focus on the short-term economic situation. The good news on inflation is that the gasoline price spike of 2021 is unlikely to occur a second time, and the Federal Reserve is likely to pivot into inflation-fighting mode as well. But there are risks, too, from economic disruptions in China, and monetary policy efforts to curb inflation could do too much to curb real growth as well.
The fate of Mr. Biden’s presidency — and if you believe the dire warnings of many Democrats and academics, of the republic itself — hinges less on the fate of legacy items like Build Back Better or a renewed voting rights act than it does on the normal procession of macroeconomic events. Unfortunately for Mr. Biden, no president has control over them entirely — but pushing for a final version of the bipartisan U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which contains provisions to strengthen the semiconductor supply chain, could be helpful.
It means more attention to classic Biden themes of patriotism, bipartisanship and normalcy, and fewer headlines dominated by high-profile squeeze plays against moderate senators.
Most of what has happened to Mr. Biden has been very normal. But if Democrats take their own fears about the opposition party seriously, they should be very worried about the consequences of the normal cycle of overreach and backlash, and try harder to surprise the country by doubling down on normalcy."
It all reminds me of something I wrote at the beginning of the year in one of my first contributions to The Liberal Patriot:
"Biden got 51 percent of the vote in 2020, enough to win the election, but hardly a dominant majority. And Democrats’ downballot performance was distinctly inferior, leading to disappointing performance in Senate, House and state legislative races. The Biden administration now confronts a divided country racked by twin pandemic and economic crises. In the not so far distance looms the 2022 midterm elections where an incoming Presidential administration traditionally loses ground. The last time Democrats faced this situation in 2010 they suffered massive losses....
[Democratic success] can only run through a successful attack on the pandemic and economic crises. Really for the next period of time nothing else is important. Not immigration reform. Not criminal justice reform. Not climate change. Not child poverty. Not executive orders. Not Trump’s trial. Either solve the twin crises or prepare yourself for the wrath of voters who will, not unreasonably, think you have failed them. The Biden coalition will shrink, not expand and all the great ideas progressives have for improving the country will come to naught."
In retrospect, it appears I might have been on to something.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

What Democrats Actually Should Be Doing As Opposed to What They Are Doing

Peter Juul at The Liberal Patriot suggests a wiser course of action that holds some promise for getting the Democrats out of their current hole.
"It’s safe to say that President Biden hasn’t had the best of winters. His two main legislative priorities – the Build Back Better legislation and a voting rights bill – appear stalled. The omicron variant of COVID-19 sent cases skyrocketing across the country amidst a shortage of tests to detect the virus, though thankfully cases appear to have peaked and free tests will start shipping through the U.S. Postal Service by the end of the month. Inflation hit seven percent in December, the highest rate since 1982, and the third straight month with more than six percent increase in prices. To top it all off, Russia appears dead set on starting a full-blown war with Ukraine.
No wonder President Biden’s approval rating has bottomed out just a year into his presidency. A recent CBS poll, for instance, showed just 44 percent of the public approving of Biden’s performance – a first-year rating that bests only former President Trump’s dismal 37 percent. That poll also gives us a good indication of why the public mood has turned so sour one year into the Biden administration: a perceived lack of focus on the two issues Americans care most about, the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation. Fully two-thirds of the public says the administration isn’t focused enough on inflation and that the fight against the pandemic is going badly. Making matters worse, 57 percent of Americans say the information provided by public health officials is confusing....
While most Americans remain focused on the persistent threats of COVID and inflation, the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress find themselves in a legislative quagmire of their own making. The passage of the landmark Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November has been overshadowed since by bickering among Democrats over the Build Back Better legislation, voting rights, and the fate of the Senate filibuster that’s stymied progress on both fronts. Nor have fiery presidential speeches and jawboning behind closed doors conjured up the necessary votes for these bills.
As a matter of both politics and policy, the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress need to rededicate themselves to the two issues that the public cares most about: the pandemic and the economy. As John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira have argued, the public cares little for the actually-existing-version of Build Back Better put forward by Congressional Democrats and doesn’t see voting rights as an existential priority in the same way as progressive activists. Worse, a failure to effectively address pressing public concerns about the pandemic and the economy threaten to undermine support for active government in the future."

A Master Class in How Not to Build a Coalition

I continue my popularity campaign among the Democratic party left by evaluating their theory of the case on coalition-building. I am not enthusiastic. Read it all at The Liberal Patriot!
"It’s fair to say that the left of the Democratic party has been in ascendance for some time. You could see it in how candidates positioned themselves during the Democratic primaries. You could see it in the uncritical embrace of pretty much every aspect of the protest movements that erupted in the wake of the George Floyd murder. You could see it in how deferential Joe Biden was to the left after he secured the Democratic nomination and campaigned for the Presidency. You could see it in the staffing decisions made after Biden was elected and the rhetoric coming out of the administration. And you could certainly see it in the way Biden has repeatedly tried to mollify the left, especially the House’s Progressive Caucus, as he desperately tried to craft a successful legislative agenda.
Now that a year has passed since Biden took office, it’s a good time to ask: how’s all that working out? The left of the Democratic party has a theory of the case on how their actions will build a dominant progressive electoral coalition. In what follows, I will compare five key aspects of this case to actual results in the real world. It’s not a pretty picture."

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

What Democrats Should Learn from the History of Their Own Party

Michael Kazin will come out with his new history of the Democratic party on March 1. The Liberal Patriot highly recommends it (pre-order today!) John Halpin is out with an early review of the book, focusing especially on what today's Democrats can--and should--learn from it.
"Only three Democratic presidents in U.S. history have been elected to consecutive terms while winning a majority of the popular vote: Andrew Jackson (1828 and 1832); Franklin D. Roosevelt (1932, 1936, 1940, and 1944); and Barack Obama (2008 and 2012). Other Democratic luminaries have won the presidency consecutively with pluralities of the popular vote, including Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton, or had big impacts as one-time winners like Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. But only the trio of Jackson, FDR, and Obama rise to the top level of Democrats who knew what it took to win and had the right mix of politics and policies necessary to garner a majority of American voters.
Although historian Michael Kazin’s new single volume history of the Democrats looks well beyond these three presidents, his incisive account of the entire 200-year history of the party, What It Took to Win, provides a sharp answer for why these three in particular were successful:
Democrats win when they build broad-based coalitions to advance the economic interests of ordinary workers and their families. Democrats lose when they get overly moralistic, fall into factional splits along rural, urban, and educational lines, or when they allow cultural antagonisms to dominate economic concerns....
Looking across Kazin’s well-constructed historical evidence, there are 3 main strategic and policy cleavages that have determined success or failure for Democrats: the role of government; class and race; and the primacy of cultural vs. economic policies.
Andrew Jackson and the early Democrats favored a hands-off government that sought to protect poor whites from predatory financial interests while upholding racial supremacy. FDR in contrast promoted an active government that advanced the economic interests of all working people—one that acquiesced to the reality of racist Southern Democratic power while beginning the process of creating true equality and economic inclusion for African Americans. Barack Obama also favored an active government that sought to transcend divisions between “red America and blue America” by building a multiracial coalition dedicated to a strong middle class and economic security for all.
In each of these instances, the only thing that really brought most Americans together behind Democrats was their economic agenda—either challenging monopolies and market domination or creating stronger protections and income support for workers. As Kazin rightly argues, this process of bringing competing factions and regions of the country together behind a vision of economic advancement for all workers is the core 200-year mission of Democrats.
So, what are the main lessons for Democrats today?
When Democrats advance equal dignity and rights for everyone—and focus primarily on the economic interests of working people—they win. When Democrats divide themselves and other Americans along regional, class, and ideological lines—or bicker internally over cultural divisions and downplay unifying economic policies—they lose."
Sound familiar?
The Fight for Economic Dignity and Moral Capitalism
The Fight for Economic Dignity and Moral Capitalism
Historian Michael Kazin’s splendid new book presents the good, the bad, and the ugly of the world’s oldest political party – the Democrats.

Monday, January 17, 2022

MLK and the Class Struggle

In honor of MLK day, Matt Yglesias posted again something he posted last year about MLK and class struggle. I liked that post so much that I will follow Yglesias' lead and publish it again here.
"Martin Luther King, Jr. died in Memphis standing in solidarity with a sanitation workers’ strike. But at the time of his murder, he was planning something bigger for later in the year. And the week before the assassination, my grandfather met with King and his lieutenants to preview their agenda for the coming months, publishing an article titled “Dr King’s March on Washington, Part II.”:
A few minutes later, in Dr. King’s office on the other side of a thin partition, an office no larger than Young’s and much more cluttered, I asked King also if he hadn’t abandoned moral issues for the class struggle. He was in shirt sleeves and had leaned back in his chair, one arm raised, tapping his head lightly with his hand, a favorite position with him. Now he leaned forward and spoke directly, a manner I was to find customary with him, so that interviewers seldom have to rephrase questions; he responds to the tone and level of the question but also, as if fulfilling a personal need, to implications that at first do not seem implicit in the question: an intellectual curiosity that gives the effect of total sincerity.
“In a sense, you could say we are engaged in the class struggle, yes,” he said. He explained that the gains for which the civil-rights movement had fought had not cost anyone a penny, whereas now — “It will be a long and difficult struggle, for our program calls for a redistribution of economic power. Yet this isn’t a purely materialistic or class concern. I feel that this movement in behalf of the poor is the most moral thing — it is saying that every man is an heir to a legacy of dignity and worth.”
Although we went on to talk of other things, this question remained with him, and I heard him the next night, at a church in Birmingham, expand on it. There he continued with a discussion of the parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. Lazarus had not gone to heaven simply because he was poor, King argued, nor was the rich man to hell because he was rich. “No, the rich man was punished because he passed Lazarus every day and did not see him … and I tell you if this country does not see its poor — if it lets them remain in their poverty and misery — it will surely go to hell!”
In his office, however, I quoted to him a New York radical who had said that Dr. King’s political problems derive from the fact that his present support comes from middle-class Negro churches and organizations: they would oppose his new tack. Has there been opposition?
He shook his head. “When we began discussing this thing last fall, we expected there would be opposition — from the timid supplicants and from the ultra militants.”
He shook his head again.
“In a sense, you could say we are waging a consensus fight. The Harris Poll recently showed that 68 percent want a program to supply jobs to everyone who wants to work, and 64 percent want slums eradicated and rebuild by the people of the community — which means a great many new jobs.”
I think this is quite different from — and much better than — both the washed-out version of MLK that you can from conservatives and the Tema Okun version of racial justice politics that has become faddish recently."
I couldn't agree more with Yglesias' last sentence here. We've got to find our way back.

Friday, January 14, 2022

We Need a Politics of Abundance!

I quite liked this piece by Derek Thompson on the Atlantic site. He's singing my song!
"Zoom out, and you can see that scarcity has been the story of the whole pandemic response. In early 2020, Americans were told to not wear masks, because we apparently didn’t have enough to go around. Last year, Americans were told to not get booster shots, because we apparently didn’t have enough to go around. Today, we’re worried about people using too many COVID tests as cases scream past 700,000 per day, because we apparently don’t have enough to go around....
Zoom out yet more, and the truly big picture comes into focus. Manufactured scarcity isn’t just the story of COVID tests, or the pandemic, or the economy: It’s the story of America today. The revolution in communications technology has made it easier than ever for ordinary people to loudly identify the problems that they see in the world. But this age of bits-enabled protest has coincided with a slowdown in atoms-related progress.
Altogether, America has too much venting and not enough inventing. We say that we want to save the planet from climate change—but in practice, many Americans are basically dead set against the clean-energy revolution, with even liberal states shutting down zero-carbon nuclear plants and protesting solar-power projects. We say that housing is a human right—but our richest cities have made it excruciatingly difficult to build new houses, infrastructure, or megaprojects. Politicians say that they want better health care—but they tolerate a catastrophically slow-footed FDA‪ that withholds promising tools, and a federal policy that deliberately limits the supply of physicians.
In the past few months, I’ve become obsessed with a policy agenda that is focused on solving our national problem of scarcity. This agenda would try to take the best from several ideologies. It would harness the left’s emphasis on human welfare, but it would encourage the progressive movement to “take innovation as seriously as it takes affordability,” as Ezra Klein wrote. It would tap into libertarians’ obsession with regulation to identify places where bad rules are getting in the way of the common good. It would channel the right’s fixation with national greatness to grow the things that actually make a nation great—such as clean and safe spaces, excellent government services, fantastic living conditions, and broadly shared wealth."
This reminds me of some of the themes in my recent essay on The Five Deadly Sins of the American Left:
"The final deadly sin I discussed in my essay was technopessimism. I observed that:
[M]any on the left tend to regard technological change with dread rather than hope. They see technology as a force facilitating inequality rather than growth, destroying jobs rather than leading to skilled-job creation, turning consumers into corporate pawns rather than information-savvy citizens, and destroying the planet in the process. We are far, far away from the left’s traditional attitude, which welcomed technological change as the handmaiden of abundance and increased leisure, or, for that matter, from the liberal optimism that permeated the culture of the 1950s and ‘60s with tantalizing visions of flying cars and obedient robots.
The passage of a year and a change in presidential administration does not seem to have altered this attitude much. There remains a distinct lack of optimism on the left that a rapid advance and application of technology can produce an abundant future. But there is an endless supply of discussion about a dystopian future that may await us thanks to AI and other technologies. This is odd, given that almost everything ordinary people like about the modern world, including relatively high living standards, is traceable to technological advances and the knowledge embedded in those advances. From smart phones, flat-screen TVs, and the internet, to air and auto travel, to central heating and air conditioning, to the medical devices and drugs that cure disease and extend life, to electric lights and the mundane flush toilet, technology has dramatically transformed people’s lives for the better. It is difficult to argue that the average person today is not far, far better off than her counterpart in the past. As the Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr puts it, “The good old days were old but not good.”
Doesn’t the left want to make people happy? One has to wonder. There seems to be more interest in figuring out what people should stop doing and consuming than in figuring out how people can have more to do and consume. The very idea of abundance is rarely discussed, except to disparage it.
These attitudes help explain why the left does not tend to feature technological advance prominently in its policy portfolio. The Biden administration did manage to get the U.S. Competiveness and Innovation Act through the Senate (it has yet to pass the House) but with far less funding and far less probable impact on scientific innovation than it had when it was the Endless Frontier Act. But nobody on the left seemed to mind very much since it just wasn’t very high on their priority list.
You can also see this in the rather modest amount of attention and resources devoted to technological advance in the Democrats’ other bills. The bipartisan infrastructure bill did contain some money for developing next generation energy technologies like clean hydrogen, carbon capture, and advanced nuclear, but the amount was comparatively modest. The clean energy money in the last version of the Build Back Better bill, now shelved, was mostly focused on speeding up deployment of wind, solar, and electric vehicles.
It is hard to avoid the feeling that the left thinks about the clean energy future in a dreamy, fuzzy way as entirely driven by all-natural wind and solar power. But if there is to be a clean energy future, especially on the rapid timetables envisioned by most on the left, it will depend on our ability to develop the requisite technologies—not all wind and solar—quickly. Here is an area, perhaps more than any other, where the left’s technopessimism does not serve it well.
In the end, most of what the left says it wants to accomplish depends on rapid technological advances. That would seem to call for techno-optimism rather than the current jaundiced attitude toward the potential of technology."