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Are You Feeling It?

Surveying the Great Disconnect

In the blinkered view of President Biden, the economy is doing just fine—better than ever, actually. As a matter of fact, it’s “literally the envy of the world,” or so Biden claimed during the State of the Union last month, adding that while it “takes time,” the “American people are beginning to feel it.” Unfortunately for the president and his re-election narrative, the American people are not beginning to feel it: a February poll found that just 26 percent of registered voters believe that the economy is good or excellent, and in a CBS poll, registered voters overwhelmingly thought that the economy was better under Trump.

The New York Times has labeled the jarring dissonance between strong economic indicators—rising wages, slowing inflation, record job growth—and voter’s negative view of the economy the Great Disconnect. Among Democratic strategists, policymakers, and commentators, it has caused genuine bafflement. How could voters be dissatisfied with the economy and even further discontented with Biden’s handling of it when all signs indicate things are going so well? The responses range from an outright rejection of the premise to the addled belief that it’s all just a communication problem, attributable to either the media or the party, which will ultimately end when voters realize that they have it pretty good.

The Democrats keep repeating that what we are seeing is remarkable: the pandemic recovery was the strongest in the G7; average GDP growth under Biden is almost 3 percent; this is the strongest labor market in decades, sending real wages higher and higher while inflation recedes. We’re told that the Democrats have abandoned neoliberalism by enacting a fiscal program that will invest hundreds of billions on long-term infrastructure projects, which will revive manufacturing and create secure jobs in struggling post-industrial communities—all while securing a greener future. In response to criticism, Biden retorted, “I know what the hell I’m doing. I’ve been president. I put this country back on its feet.”

The Democratic Party is not set up to understand the subjective nature of economic experience or to speak to mass dissatisfaction.

There are many ways to interpret a statistic. An alternative to the party line is, despite objective signs of overall economic improvement, the economic experience of many Americans remains one of profound risk and struggle. Over the last twenty years, between 40 and 50 percent of Americans have earned less than the inflation rate, which itself does not account for spiraling housing costs for owners and renters alike. In a recent poll, close to 40 percent of households reported that they relied on multiple jobs to make ends meet, and while there may be more jobs available, it is far from clear that these are good jobs, nor are they necessarily available where working-class people live. The absence of anything even remotely resembling a functioning safety net leaves Americans exposed to the shock of a loss of income or an emergency.

This constant sense of insecurity leads many to conclude, reasonably, that the economy has been engineered by the powerful to the benefit of big corporations. The puzzle is why this translates into support for Trump and not the Democrats, the purported party for working Americans, the party dedicated to, as Biden puts it, “building an economy from the middle out and the bottom up, not the top down.”

Party strategists like Simon Rosenberg may complain that any question over the strength of the economy have “become ridiculous and embarrassing for the national media.” But it is possible that the problem is that the Democratic Party, structurally speaking, is not set up to understand the subjective nature of economic experience or to speak to mass dissatisfaction. The real Great Disconnect is one between the party and the people: voters feel real anger at their experience of the economy and, in a party whose knowledge production is outsourced to think tanks and consultants, there is no means of filtering this discontentment to those leading the party.

Across the Clinton, Obama, and Biden administrations, a core belief has endured: only the competency of enlightened technocrats might possibly restore the economy after periods of Republican indulgence. Only their stable of experts are smart enough to fine-tune the market to provide the stability for private, always private, investment to create opportunities for everyone. Embedding this political orientation required significant organizational transformation, namely the outsourcing of the party’s core functions to wonks, spin doctors, and the fine folks at McKinsey.

Perhaps no single figure better embodies this ill-conceived metamorphosis than John Podesta, whose storied career charts how the Democratic Party became professionalized and disconnected. As an advisor to the last three Democrats in the White House, Podesta has not influenced every decision, but he has been the perennial adult in the room, offering sage advice on issues from tech to the environment to executive authority. Podesta’s continued presence is reflective of the dissonance between the world of the wonk, capable of devising complex solutions, and the simple insecurity that fuels the anger and despair of so many.

Alongside a great number of future Democratic Party professionals, Podesta’s start in politics came through the New Politics campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. In the postwar era, labor “anchored” the party by providing a range of resources, not least reliable voter turnout in exchange for pro-labor policies and the modicum of a social safety net. But labor came into conflict with the New Politics—an electoralist iteration of the New Left that emerged in the 1960s—which saw organized labor as ultimately too conservative to orient the party, as evidenced by, among other issues, the AFL-CIO’s support for the Vietnam War.

Both forces fragmented across the 1970s and 1980s. While New Politics student radicals graduated into middle-class reformers, organized labor’s status in the party apparatus declined. Skillful labor leaders were (and remain) still influential, but as de-industrialization wrought havoc on the working class, these figures were increasingly deprived of the material resources and voters to consistently retain the privileged ear of senior Democrats. The electoral effects of Watergate propelled a number of reformed McGovernites into state and federal office—Bill Clinton, a McGovern organizer, only narrowly missed out. Representing predominantly middle-class, formerly Republican districts, this new political generation argued that the burgeoning suburbs were the future of the party. In their diagnosis, these groups could be won from Republicans with a platform of good government, balanced budgets, consumer protections, and the environment. These reformers translated their experience of obstruction at the hands of party and government in 1968 into a depoliticized worldview.

Amid the slow erosion of the industrial working class, the Democrats’ coalition fragmented, tied together only by polished PR campaigns and targeted television advertisements that were funded by cash rushed in from corporations and wealthy individuals. In exchange for access, advocacy groups would marshal specific segments: trade unions would mobilize the remnants of the working class, the Sierra Club would turn out environmentalists, business leaders would convey credibility to consumers. Lobbyists were a lynchpin, as they connected donors, advocacy groups, and elected politicians. Podesta is, again, emblematic. After working on Capitol Hill for much of the preceding decade, in 1988 he founded a lobbying firm, Podesta Associates, with his brother, which grew by securing the interests of Silicon Valley in the early years of the tech boom.

The problem that Democrats faced, as identified by the political scientists Daniel Schlozman and Sam Rosenfeld, was that without an anchoring movement, its means of suturing together its disparate constituencies resembles “more often a thin claim to take all comers than a thick vision of universalism.” The Clinton administration—in which Podesta served as chief of staff—concluded that the obvious solution was to proselytize the benefits of economic growth which, when coupled with careful market management, would be shared between capital and working people.

In 2003, Podesta founded the Center for American Progress (CAP), which became a refuge for Clinton administration alumni during the Bush years and, later, the “ideas factory” for Obama. While the Heritage Foundation, which reliably churned out the ideas that underpinned the Republicans’ revolution under Reagan, served as inspiration for CAP, it lacks Heritage’s unrepentantly partisan flair. Instead, it has served to advance the technocratic ideal that, through empirical observation, optimal solutions can be identified and supplied to forward-thinking politicians who, through the power of logical argumentation, will communicate socioeconomic improvements to voters. Supported by the likes of Walmart, General Motors, and Lockheed Martin, CAP provides an integral space in what Schlozman and Rosenfeld refer to as the Democrats’ “hollowed out” party structure, as its highly credentialed experts translate different interests into party policy. While CAP’s research calling for better tax enforcement or designs for universal health coverage would represent significant improvements for the average American, there is no effort to undertake a dialogue between the party and voters, which would allow the experiences that drive disenchantment to inform how policy is designed and implemented.

The disjuncture between how Democrats believe they handle the economy and how voters actually experience it was illustrated in the long aftermath of the Great Recession. While Obama famously bailed out Wall Street, it took over seven years for household incomes to return to pre-recession levels. Nevertheless, CAP gave the administration full marks, pointing to the acceleration of economic growth underpinned by strong jobs and wage growth. Ahead of the 2014 midterms, Obama described the economy that he had inherited as a car crash from which Republicans had simply walked away, while “we put our boots on, us Democrats . . . [and] finally we have this car pointing in the right direction.” The car metaphor worked in more ways than one, as part of Obama’s recovery was the bailout of the auto industry in 2009, which was conditioned on a wage freeze for workers. When the bailout, which saved the industry, ended in 2015 and revenue rebounded, executives declined to reward workers and instead conducted a stock buyback and increased executive pay. For the workers whose wages remained frozen, the car was hardly back on the road.

In coming to office, Biden acknowledged that expecting growth to trickle-down to working Americans had failed. Certainly, his administration has made significant strides to advance labor causes, expand anti-trust enforcement, and revive industrial policy. The latter has received the most attention because, as CAP informs us, industrial policy solves several problems—climate change, geopolitics, and job creation—all while restoring economic growth. After spending the entirety of the Obama administration in the West Wing’s inner circle, it’s no surprise that Podesta is currently in charge of implementing the bundle of legislation that will funnel hundreds of billions into new infrastructure: from repairing bridges to building electric vehicle charging stations, installing renewably powered homes, and onshoring semiconductor manufacturing. The intention is that a number of “buy American” and “make in America” requirements built into government subsidies and tax-incentives will ensure that the new blue-collar jobs created are good jobs.

When faced with a crisis, why wouldn’t you listen to the smartest guy in the room, especially when his answers usually keep your donors happy?

In the long term, industrial policy should expand the number of blue-collar jobs, but it does not immediately reconfigure the social standing of struggling Americans. As the economist Daniela Gabor argues, the mechanism through which industrial policy creates secure jobs in the green energy sector is by “de-risking” investment for private capital. In practice, the billions invested through the Inflation Reduction Act include few mechanisms to discipline the corporate recipients of taxpayer largesse. For instance, originally the IRA included a tax credit for the purchase of electric vehicles produced in union facilities, which would have encouraged manufacturers to employ union workers. But this was stripped out in order to guarantee Joe Manchin’s crucial vote in the Senate, which he proudly announced during a visit to a non-union Toyota plant in his home state of West Virginia.

The vast majority of IRA investment will flow into anti-union, right-to-work Southern states, which means that it will certainly create opportunities for multinationals like Toyota. But the provision of secure union jobs is more of a gamble than a guarantee and itself contingent on the organizing work of trade unions like the UAW, which, under new leadership, has radically expanded its organizing strategy to unionize auto plants across the South, starting with a successful campaign at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee last week. Early evidence is mixed: while the contract for the construction of a Ford battery plant in Kentucky—with the help of $9.2 billion from the IRA—has employed union workers, management took three months to respond to a mold outbreak that caused significant illness, and has still failed to adequately fix the issue. As one worker said, “We’re all scared because we know we could be carrying mold on our clothes back to our families, exposing the community. This is corporate America walking all over us.”

Under Biden’s original Build Back Better legislation, infrastructure investment was supposed to be paired with an expansion of the social safety net. However, as was detailed in The Lever, since Biden’s watered down American Rescue Plan enacted a range of antipoverty measures in March 2021, numerous pandemic-era relief measures have been allowed to expire. The result is that the ranks of the financially distressed expanded by 29 million and the food-insecure population increased by 6 million between September 2021 and September 2022. While a working-class American may have a job that pays slightly more than in 2020, the safety net that improved their economic security during the acute phase of the pandemic proved to be an aberration.

The Democrats struggle to bridge the gap between successful economic indicators and the economic experiences of the masses. It is easy to point the finger at obstructionists like Manchin and Krysten Sinema, who block progressive legislation in the Senate. Larry Summers, the chameleon standard-bearer for market centrism that refuses to go away, is another source of ire. But these figures are manifestations of the hollowed-out party organization that the far more diminutive Podesta helped to build. When faced with a crisis, why wouldn’t you listen to the smartest guy in the room, especially when his answers usually keep your donors happy? The Democratic Party is built around the likes of Podesta—the well-educated virtuosos of policy who solve problems by coordinating interest groups to make sure that everyone gets a piece of the pie. Big Tech, asset managers, and even the fossil fuels industry can be a part of the solution to climate change; with just a sprinkle of regulation, Wall Street can create secure jobs for organized labor!

Trump’s election in 2016 necessarily forced a reckoning, but technocracy is adaptable. Biden conceivably is the “most pro-union president in history” and there clearly has been a discursive shift where inequality is no longer a shibboleth. But labor and inequality are treated as policy areas; they are considered issues to be diagnosed and solved by the folks at CAP. But wonks cannot craft a language that articulates the precarity and monotony of work that defines the experiences of workers in care, gig, service, and manufacturing industries, and a policy fix does not automatically address the resentment that people face over the deprivation of essential services in their local community. Under the politics of technocracy, workers are to be helped but not empowered. In the hollowed-out party, where Democrats flitter between the interests of advocacy groups and corporations, there are few avenues for overworked and insecure Americans to express that they need more than a temporary tax credit.