The media has been vaunting the divide between the Democrats’ left and center and how the cleavage threatens Democrats’ tenuous majority. Here, a thousand miles outside the Beltway, a lot of the conversation seems pretty obscure: Like who the “squad,” a crew of House members with a talent for press relations and a vocal national constituency, do and do not like among Biden insiders; and how activist slogans designed to attract attention can put Democratic candidates in an uncomfortable vise.
Once we are past the immediacy of the pandemic, Democrats face an overriding challenge that I believe will determine whether we expand or contract our narrow majority: whether Americans are convinced Democrats have an agenda that will bring sustained economic growth that benefits most of us, and particularly lower and middle income Americans. That is what voters want of their leadership and so a successful economic agenda is necessary to Democratic success.
There are three reasons for the utter centrality of economic issues.
Urgency. We almost lost our democracy in no small measure because incomes for lower and middle income Americans have been falling behind since at least the early 1980s. They know it. They are angry about it. They think the Republicans have more to say about it than the Democrats do.
For a refresher on income trends see https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/01/09/trends-in-income-and-wealth-inequality/. It shows that wealth for lower and middle income households has been declining since 1983. It also shows that people recognize that income inequality is growing. “Income inequality” is not the framing that engages them – they are more concerned about their family than the abstraction. Polling did not ask whether they favor or oppose making more money for the same amount of work, because it doesn’t have to ask that obvious question. Polling does show that the economy rated more highly than other issues, except for the immediacy of health care and the pandemic in some polling. (See Q9 in https://www.washingtonpost.com/context/oct-6-9-2020-washington-post-abc-news-national-poll/e4e13300-1a85-4b08-ac26-5975d0de0d51/.)
President-Elect Biden won despite Trump having an advantage on the economy because of Trump’s perceived character, craziness, and his failures to address the coronavirus pandemic. Democrats cannot expect to keep winning without a coherent economic narrative. They should expect continued deep divisions on climate change, racial justice, and immigration if lower and middle income white voters (and the issues are not exclusively with whites) continue to feel a Republican narrative of tax cuts combined with hostility to liberals, black people, and immigrants is closer to their interests than whatever building back better ultimately means in economic terms.
A coherent and cohesive economic narrative leaves room for internal disagreement in its particulars. The shape of the program and its emerging narrative must, most of all, be practical. It needs to work. Ideology is secondary to that overarching goal.
Confidence in Leadership. Voters confidence in their government and their political system is at a low point and their confidence in the electoral process has dropped. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/07/22/trust-and-distrust-in-america/.
People need to feel their government can respond to them and their needs. A coronavirus vaccine will doubtless help, as will real and consistent information before then on how to stay safe. But if they continue to believe the rich get richer while the poor and the middle class get left behind, as they have felt for a generation, then our democracy will continue to be under threat because too many will feel it does not works for them. Voters’ anger at being, in their view, ignored produced a Trump in the first place. Trump will not be the last demagogue.
Room for a Broader Agenda. Racial justice, climate change, and immigration are each critical issues – and there are more. But realities on these in particular have been masked by growing anger at stagnant incomes and reduced wealth. I am certainly not suggesting waiting on any of these issues. I am asserting that voters must see the economic agenda as central and as inclusive.
Black people and immigrants are disproportionately represented among those whose incomes have stagnated. Increasing their wealth is part of the economic agenda although the central thrust must be lifting incomes for the many who need it. If the outcome and its narrative are successful, there is more room to build support for reality-based approaches to America’s history and to our current crises.
From my perspective, we all owe a debt to Black Lives Matters protesters and to grassroots organizing for racial and economic justice throughout our history. Change generally comes from the bottom and not from the top. Responsible governance listens to grassroots voices. Those crying out for wage growth – even though they are sometimes doing so in resentful and unappealing ways – also need to be heard if we are to restore our democratic equilibrium moving forward.