Political reporting often portrays progressives as impractical and intransigent, unwilling to make the compromises needed to get things done, while centrists are realistic pragmatists. What’s happening in Congress right now, however, is just the opposite.
The Democratic Party’s left wing is advancing sensible, popular policies like negotiating on drug prices and cracking down on wealthy tax cheats, and has shown itself willing to make major compromises to advance President Joe Biden’s agenda. In particular, the $3.5 trillion in spending Biden is asking for over the next decade is much less than progressives originally wanted. The party’s conservative wing, however, seems willing to risk blowing up its own president’s prospects rather than give an inch.
What’s going on? Contrary to legend, many of the balking Democrats don’t come from swing districts; anyway, the Biden economic agenda is popular almost everywhere. For example, its main elements command overwhelming support in West Virginia. Furthermore, does anyone really imagine that the outcome of the midterm elections will depend on whether the eventual package, if there is one, is $3.5 trillion or $1.5 trillion?
We can, of course, invoke the usual suspects: Corporate money and wealthy donors are surely having an impact. But I was struck by something Eric Levitz of New York magazine said in a recent article on this subject, which helped clarify a point I’ve been groping toward. Namely, some Democrats seem to have formed their perceptions about both economics and politics during the Clinton years and haven’t updated their views since.
That is, it makes a lot of sense to see Biden’s problems getting his plans across the finish line as being caused by the Rip Van Winkle caucus, Democrats who checked out intellectually a couple of decades ago and haven’t caught up with America as it now is.
Specifically, some Democrats still seem to believe that they can succeed economically and politically by being Republicans lite. It’s doubtful whether that was ever true. But it’s definitely not true now.
On the economic side, there was a widespread perception in the late 1990s that the harshness of American social policy — our high level of inequality, our lack of a European-style social safety net — was to a large extent vindicated by economic success. When Bill Clinton declared in 1996 that “the era of big government is over,” it looked as if small government was being rewarded with a booming economy. We were surging ahead technologically and outpacing the rest of the advanced world on job creation; it’s hard to grasp now the sense of American triumphalism that pervaded elite opinion circa 2000.
But it was not to last. The technology-led productivity boom that began in the mid-1990s petered out a decade later. And America never did establish a durable technological lead; at this point, to take one visible measure, many European nations have faster and cheaper internet access than we do.
U.S. job creation has also lost its luster: prime-age European adults are as likely to be working as their U.S. counterparts.
Beyond economics, in the 1990s many Democrats believed they could mollify noncollege white voters through a combination of validating rhetoric — denouncing Sister Souljah, talking tough on crime — and cuts in programs widely perceived to mainly benefit Black people. Clinton really did end Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the program most people meant when they talked about “the bums on welfare,” without providing any real replacement.
But none of it worked. If racial antagonism had been driven by perceptions of inner-city disorder, it should have faded in the face of the spectacular decline in violent crime between the early 1990s and the mid-2010s. It didn’t. If this antagonism reflected the perception that many able-bodied Black men who should have been working weren’t, it should have faded when the problem of prime-age men not working (and the social disruptions that appear to go along with lack of jobs) became as severe in overwhelmingly white rural areas as in inner cities. It didn’t.
Instead, the voting behavior of white working-class voters seems more driven by racial resentment than ever. And such voters can’t be won over by trimming back social spending; they want their racial hostility served raw. Trumpists can give them that; Democrats can’t without effectively becoming Trumpists themselves.
In other words, if there was ever a time when individual Democratic members of Congress could hope to swim against the tide by positioning themselves to the right of their party, that time ended long ago. It doesn’t matter how much they force Biden to scale back his ambitions; it doesn’t matter how many pious statements they make about fiscal responsibility. Republicans will still portray them as socialists who want to defund the police, and the voters they’re trying to pander to will believe it.
So my plea to Democratic “moderates” is, please wake up. We’re not in 1999 anymore, and your political fortunes depend on helping Biden govern effectively.
Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is a columnist for The New York Times.