Economic inequality could be the signature issue for Democrats—one that speaks to purple voters, progressives, and maybe even some current Trump supporters. But the Democrats don’t seem to understand this. They need to decide if they are running as a party of governance, or just one of protest.
On economics, an issue voters reliably care deeply about, President Donald Trump’s approval rating is 58 percent. While many factors affecting the economy are the result of decisions made one or five administrations ago rippling forward, the reality is that the president in Oval Office gets the credit on Election Day. That payoff is due to be collected by Trump. Throw in his tax changes, that he is the only president since the fall of the Soviet Union to not start a new war, and his red-meat-to-the-base wins on immigration and Supreme Court appointments, all coupled with the whimpering end of Russiagate, and you have a candidate with lots to crow about.
On the other side, “Not Trump” will be enough for the Whole Foods base. But Democrats appear willing to punt too many other votes for lack of a message about what they might do if elected. The recent Politico headline, “Biden Goes Light on Policy, Heavy on Emotion,” is not good.
Meanwhile, economic inequality, the disparity at the heart of our nation, is shaping whether America will remain something of a pluralistic democracy, or complete its descent into a modern form of feudalism where 0.01 percent of Americans effectively control the rest of us. That could be a very powerful anti-Trump message.
Yet the Democrats’ version is erroneously based on economic inequality being a minority/POC (people of color) issue, maybe something to address via reparations or more social justice programs. Democrats scold into deep resentment the vast numbers of white midwesterners stuck in poverty (who lean Trump) as too stupid to vote in their own self-interest. They turn to books like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (due out as a Ron Howard film for 2020) to feel informed about the Heartland in crisis, but too often come across as indulging in patronizing caricature, as though the Rust Belt today is just teeming with meth-addled yokels and teen moms.
Simultaneously, Democrats are throwing away an issue that should resonate with progressives: economic inequality drives the search for scapegoats, the handmaiden of racism and hate. It has to be someone else’s fault I’m not doing well, because “they” get handouts from the government, or because of immigration policies that take my job away to give to “them.” Reduce economic inequality and you will reduce its societal ills. That could be a very powerful anti-Trump message.
Using government money to reduce economic inequality goes against the ethos of many. But we have underestimated the societal disruption economic inequality created in America even as we mark a surge in deaths of despair from alcohol, suicide, and opioids. Robert Merry, writing in these pages, calls our time “definitional” and wonders if the polity will hold. While we wait for everyone to lift themselves up by their bootstraps, we are missing what a volatile people we are, and have ceded our darkest tendencies to those who manipulate them for their own gain. We have become too violent and too well-armed and too goaded by social media to let the market sort this out.
Yet according to a CNN poll, 71 percent of Americans still rate the nation’s economic conditions favorably. Democrats must explain to Americans that while things are not visibly bad on the surface, they are fundamentally not good for about 90 percent of us. Silliness like “Trump might still crash the market” or “Obama deserves the credit” simply encourages the short-term thinking that drives that CNN poll. Democrats need to explain the big picture—how the top 0.1 percent of households now hold about the same amount of wealth as the bottom 90 percent, and that it is only getting worse. The share earned by the top 0.01 percent rose from 0.5 percent in 1973 to 3.3 percent in 2010. Something that threatens the financial life of 90 percent of us is a majority, not minority, problem.
Economic anxiety, more than what the Left imagines as racial or cultural uneasiness, lies deep in the Heartland. Trump spoke to it in 2016 in the guise of promises to bring back coal mining’s glory days, raise tariffs, and slow immigration. Democrats should also speak to that anxiety. The answer should be infrastructure.
Bernie Sanders loves infrastructure. Elizabeth Warren wants to rebuild the middle class. Biden’s liked it since he was vice president. Infrastructure underlies other candidates’ plans for guaranteed incomes and assured jobs. It’s hard to find anyone against infrastructure. But no one has presented something sweeping, linear, and encompassing enough to reach at economic inequality. This isn’t about jobs per se—unemployment is at a near-50 year low—but about how we live. Earnings for non-management, private-sector workers reached their peak in 1973—the high water mark of the middle class out there in Youngstown and South Bend, left today dry heaving about what’s still called the American Dream.
The response comes from the last time economic inequality was this bad. America needs a new version of the 1935 Works Progress Administration (WPA) to build roads, bridges, and rail lines. A new WPA to create jobs people can do without significant training (not everyone can learn to code) and which pay living wages with real healthcare. Get echelons of people used to chronic under-employment accustomed to working for a living again. People working multiple jobs should not need food aid as many do today.
Almost every community in the United States got a new park, bridge, or school under the WPA, never mind airports, train stations, over 600,000 miles of roads, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Hoover Dam. Upgrading all that after 80 years to improve lives is a powerful message. Fight growing racism and hate with the self-respect work gives. You don’t need to create an enemy if you don’t see yourself as a victim.
The Democrats flirted with something like this recently, after Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi met with Trump to “agree” on a $2 trillion infrastructure initiative. But peek behind the curtain and it’s just rhetoric. Despite knowing the House controls the budget, Pelosi almost immediately crossed her arms and declared it is Trump’s job, not hers, to figure out how to pay for it. The whole thing appears to be a cynical ploy to claim “we can’t have nice things because Trump.”
Let how to pay for it become part of the Democratic platform. But the message better be more sophisticated than “were gonna tax the rich” because voters have been burned too many times, when “the rich” ended up being themselves paying higher taxes while the benefits fell to those below. The real rich, the 0.01 percent, seem to always have a loophole. This simplistic message is particularly dangerous in 2020 when many purple voters fear what progressives might do when unleashed (Free medical care! No more college loans! A pony for everyone, just look under your seats!)
The thing is, the money is already there, or at least has been when we wanted it to be. The WPA over eight years used about 6.7 percent of the era’s GDP to pull the nation out of a full-blown depression with some 20 percent unemployment. The United States currently spends about 3.3 percent of its GDP on military.
But we don’t need that much. The United States spends $70 billion a year on food aid for 40 million Americans; repurpose some of that into living wages so people can earn their supper. During the last few wars, reconstruction and the building of infrastructure for Iraqis ate up $60.45 billion. The total for the same failures is more than $154 billion in Afghanistan, with the counter still running at about $9 billion a year on such projects. Only the most inane pundit could call such re-appropriation “anti-military” instead of pro-American; no much-needed bridge for you, Middletown, Ohio, we’re gonna build it in Helmand Province instead. The Obama-era American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, with its more modest goal of a short-term stimulus not intended to address inequality, spent $105.3 billion on infrastructure. Unemployment is obviously much lower today, and the goal—better jobs to nudge economic inequality—is different. Those numbers would make an accessible start.
Some 64 percent of Americans agreed with an earlier Trump proposal to improve U.S. infrastructure (75 percent support spending federal money to improve infrastructure when the idea was polled without Trump’s name.) Infrastructure spending also has bipartisan support: 78 percent of Republicans and 54 percent of Democrats agree with the need for more.
Though agriculture is a very different set of challenges, with complex regulations, domestic subsidies, and the push-pull between small family and BigAg farming, the problems of inequality there remain, too. To be fair, both Sanders and Warren have developed plans to help agriculture, even as Trump counts many farmers in his camp (he won Iowa by nearly 10 points in 2016 .) Economic inequality is very visible in BigAg areas, where in many cases the skin between getting by and outright poverty is thinner.
But overall, Democrats must tell voters what they’ll do, instead of just saying one day it may be Not Trump in the White House. We know infrastructure has bipartisan support, will reach purple voters and progressives, and address fundamental problems. The impact of the WPA is long, a bright moment in our history when government raised people out of depression. Imagine the power of owning that legacy.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99%.