Last week I argued that, whatever the outcome of the 2022 election:
Democrats’ uncompetitiveness among white working class voters and among voters in exurban, small town and rural America puts them at a massive disadvantage given the structure of the American electoral system. This problem has only been exacerbated by recent attrition in Democratic support among nonwhite working class voters….[T]he current Democratic brand suffers from multiple deficiencies that make it somewhere between uncompelling and toxic to wide swathes of American voters who might potentially be their allies. And those swathes are very, very important. Without better performance there, Democrats’ hold on power will be ever tenuous, as will be their ability to implement their agenda at scale.
To fix this problem, I suggest a three point plan for reform and renewal. I covered the first part of that plan last week:
This week I will discuss the second part of the plan (the third part will follow next week):
Democrats Must Promote an Abundance Agenda
Voters do not think much of Democratic management of the economy. Despite considerable legislative activity that impacts the economy and a very tight labor market, Republicans are consistently preferred to Democrats on handling the economy. In the most recent NBC poll, Republicans have a 19 point lead over Democrats on dealing with the economy, the largest lead for the GOP ever recorded by this poll.
Obviously this has a lot to do with high inflation and energy prices, along with lingering supply chain problems. In the last year, real wages for workers have actually gone down, because wage increases have not kept pace with inflation.
Democrats can argue that these are merely episodic problems along the road to something much better. But voters are not convinced and they can be forgiven for their skepticism. The truth of the matter is that Democrats’ theory of the case on the economy leans heavily on the idea that a dramatic expansion of the social safety net and a rapid move to a clean energy economy will—eventually–result in strong growth, a burgeoning supply of good jobs and a rising standard of living for all. So far the results have not been impressive.
This theory reflects the priorities of Democratic elites who are primarily interested in redistribution and action on climate change. But voters, especially working class voters, are interested in abundance: more stuff, more growth, more opportunity, cheaper prices, nicer, more comfortable lives.
Thus to reach and hold these voters, the Democrats need an abundance agenda. Right now, they don’t have one. Sure, they have a climate agenda. But the two things are not the same.
Start with the fact that climate change, while having very, very high salience for Democratic elites, has low salience for ordinary voters, particularly working class voters. Surveys repeatedly demonstrate this. In a Gallup “most important problem” poll this year, climate change came in at a very modest 2 percent (open-ended response). A Pew survey asked the public about a lengthy series of policy priorities and whether they should be a “top priority” to address in the coming year. Dealiing with climate change came in 14th overall and among working class (noncollege) voters.
Surveys have repeatedly showed that, while the public mostly acknowledges climate change is ongoing and they are at least somewhat concerned about it, the issue is not so salient that they are willing to sacrifice much to combat it. In a an AP-NORC survey testing this, less than half of working class respondents said they would be willing to pay an extra dollar on their electricity bills to combat climate change and just 23 percent would be willing to pony up $10 a month.
No wonder Democratic messaging around a Green New Deal tends to rate poorly. Testing by Blue Rose Research for Data For Progress found this message on a Green New Deal ranking in the bottom third of possible Democratic messages to voters:
The Green New Deal decarbonizes our economy while ensuring we leave no community behind, including job transitions for miners, labor rights, healthcare and wages. We are running out of time to act on climate. We need a Green New Deal now.
Maybe the median voter isn’t terribly interested in a Green New Deal, which is predicated on getting rid of fossil fuels entirely and fast and replacing them with renewables. The median voter’s view is more an “all of the above” approach as captured by a recent Pew question. Pew asked the public which energy supply approach it preferred “Phase out the use of oil, coal and natural gas completely, relying instead on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power only” or “Use a mix of energy sources including oil, coal and natural gas along with renewable energy sources”. The all of the above approach was favored by an overwhelming 67 percent to 31 percent margin.
Maybe instead of a Green New Deal, they’d rather have abundance. It has been a huge mistake for the left to lose sight of the need for faster growth. Growth, particularly productivity growth, is what drives rising living standards over time and Democrats presumably stand for the fastest possible rise in living standards. Faster growth also makes easier the achievement of Democrats’ other goals. Hard economic times typically generate pessimism about the future and fear of change, not broad support for more democracy and social justice. In contrast, when times are good, when the economy is expanding and living standards are steadily rising for most of the population, people see better opportunities for themselves and are more inclined toward social generosity, tolerance, and collective advance.
Yet many Democrats still regard the goal of more and faster economic growth with suspicion, preferring to focus on the fairness of how current growth is distributed and its potential effect on climate change. This reflects not just laudable progressive goals, but also a general feeling that the fruits of growth are poisoned, encouraging unhealthy consumerist lifestyles and, worse, driving the climate crisis that is hurtling humanity toward doom.
Democrats should set their sights instead on a generally more productive, higher growth, and less regionally unequal American capitalism. That will take some time and require more robust and far-reaching industrial policy and regulatory reform than Democrats are currently comfortable with. What they are comfortable with is collapsing industrial policy to climate policy and collapsing climate policy to renewables. This is highly inadequate and will not produce the desired results.
This is true even with a narrow focus on the energy sector. If there is to be an abundant clean energy future, it will depend on our ability to develop the requisite energy technologies which must necessarily go beyond wind and solar to include nuclear, geothermal, CCS and other possibilities. This will require a considerably streamlined regulatory process plus a lengthy period of backup by fossil fuels. The rush to renewables has attempted to skip these steps with predictably negative effectson the price and reliability of energy.
The same needs for societal investment and patience apply to a wide range of other technological challenges that could underpin a future of abundance: AI and machine learning; CRISPR and mRNA biotechnology; advanced robotics and the internet of things. These technologies, just like clean energy technologies, need to be developed aggressively and over a lengthy period to unleash their potential.
That’s why it’s inadequate for Democrats to focus narrowly on a clean energy, Green New Deal-type future. Not only is there an excessive focus on wind and solar, but the challenges for an abundant future cannot be reduced to the need for a clean energy transition. And make no mistake: what Americans want is an abundant future not just a green one that, they are told, is mostly necessary to stave off planetary disaster.
In short, what Americans want and need is an abundant economy, of which a clean energy economy (and even more, renewables) are merely subsets or components. That can be a winning vision of where Democrats want to take the economy in ways a Green New Deal simply can’t.
As British science journalist Leigh Phillips has observed:
Once upon a time, the Left . . . promised more innovation, faster progress, greater abundance. One of the reasons . . . that the historically fringe ideology of libertarianism is today so surprisingly popular in Silicon Valley and with tech-savvy young people more broadly . . . is that libertarianism is the only extant ideology that so substantially promises a significantly materially better future.
That should be the Democrats’ mantra: more innovation, faster progress, greater abundance. Without that, simply being fairer and greener will fail as a unifying economic offer.