By James Kwak
Updated based on feedback from Matt Stoller. See bottom.
Mike Konczal wrote an article a few days back arguing that various progressive policies aimed at helping poor people would not be able to pry the “white working class” away from Donald Trump and Trumpism. I think the article was insightful and intelligently argued. This was my quick response:
In other words, it’s the long term that matters. We need policies that create broadly shared prosperity not because they will peel away Trump supporters in the short term, but because they are the right thing to do. And in the long term, if progressives prove that they can deliver the goods—a society with less inequality and less economic insecurity—that will change the political landscape.
Dani Rodrik wrote a longer, better response to Konczal. Rodrik’s perspective, which he’s presented in greater depth in the Journal of Economic Perspectives and a recent paper with Sharun Mukand, is that political outcomes result from the interaction of interests and ideas. As he writes in his recent post, “The politics of ideas is about activating identities that may otherwise remain silent, altering perceptions about how the world works, and enlarging the space of what is politically feasible.” Politicians appeal in part to voters’ interests, but also attempt to make salient identities that they share (or pretend to share) with particular segments of the electorate.
In this framework, Konczal may be correct—progressive economic policies may not appeal to white, working class Trump voters—but that’s because progressives lost the battle of ideas long ago. The implication is that progressives need better ideas, not just more effective policies. In his post, Rodrik cites Konczal’s example of people who “view the federal government as something that is helping people ‘cut in line,'” and continues:
In other words, people dislike and distrust the government. And yes of course, conditional on that belief, the progressives’ agenda of enhanced environmental regulation will not draw the support of the people it tries to help. Same with dealing with the banks, creating more jobs, or progressive taxation.
Clearly, the progressives have lost the war of ideas here – on government as a force for good. Equally clearly, they will not win it by offering detailed policy proposals on each one of these areas.
We progressives tend to be rather smug about the belief that our policies (infrastructure spending, social insurance, expanded family leave, universal pre-K, etc.) will do a better job helping poor people than typical conservative policies (cut taxes and regulations and let the invisible hand do its magic). Where we have generally failed is in convincing ordinary people, not policy wonks, that our vision will create a better society for them and their families—or perhaps that we have a vision at all.
This is hard to do, and I don’t have a simple answer for how to do it. But it is something that the right did extraordinarily well during their decades in the wilderness after World War II. It was an article of faith among Hayek, Friedman, Buckley, and the old conservative warriors that ideas mattered—that they could only gain political power by undermining the intellectual and political near-consensus around the New Deal. Part of their success lay in transforming their economic policy program—small government, low taxes, union-busting—into a powerful ideology that could appeal to people in all classes. Ronald Reagan’s message that government was the problem, and that the solution lay in unleashing the energy of the free American people, was and remains compelling even to people who have been the victims of Reaganite policies. More generally, the idea that markets are the best way to solve all problems has become so completely baked into contemporary discourse that it is no longer seen as an ideology. (This is roughly what I call “economism” in my new book.)
In the battle of ideas, progressives have been on the back foot ever since Reagan, which is probably one reason why we like to retreat to the realm of policy detail, where we can revel in our technocratic superiority. But somehow, as Rodrik points out, “they need to convince the electorate that it is their interests they have at heart – not those of bankers or of large corporations.” That could also take thirty-five years. But we have to begin somewhere.
Update: Matt Stoller responded with several tweets on Twitter. I think this one encapsulates his criticism:
Stoller is rightly pointing out that you could read my post to say that the only fault of progressives has been failing to make a better case for their policies—when, in fact, Democratic administrations have inflicted plenty of lousy policies on the poor and the middle class (welfare reform, 1997 capital gains tax cut, financial deregulation, HAMP, looking the other way on foreclosures, etc.).
Now, I don’t consider either Bill Clinton or Barack Obama a progressive, but there is disagreement about what that term means. So let’s just say this: One reason Democrats have failed to win the hearts and minds of large segments of the working class is that our actual policies, when we have been in power, have not served them that well. Yes, our policies were generally better than what Republicans would have done; and yes, there were some that helped the poor, such as Medicaid expansion and the Obamacare subsidies. But on balance, the Democrats have done little to reverse the tide of the Reagan Revolution. In the future, if we want to win back the whole working class, we’ll need both better policies and a better vision than “we’re not as bad as the Republicans.”