Joe Biden’s “Popularist” Politics

He Should Stick to the Popularist Stuff

A lot of what Joe Biden is doing or trying to do is very popular! The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan had and continues to have very high levels of support. The American Jobs Plan (AJP) and the American Families Plan (AFP), a cool $4 trillion between them, also seem to be generating strong support. This is quite a different approach from his predecessor, as shown by the chart below from Christopher Warshaw of average levels of net support for different bills and initiatives.

Nathaniel Rakich at 538 usefully summarizes some of the specifics around the popularity of these bills:

The American Jobs Plan, a $2 trillion bill to improve infrastructure, is also popular, but recent polls disagree on how much. According to Fox News, which was in the field April 18-21, the plan is fairly divisive: Although a plurality (49 percent) of respondents support it, almost as many (41 percent) oppose it. However, it received higher support in other polls, such as CBS News/YouGov on April 21-24 (58 percent support, 42 percent opposition) and ABC News/Washington Post (52 percent support, 35 percent opposition). Monmouth University’s April 8-12 survey, which detailed that the proposal would spend money on “roads, bridges and trains, internet access, power grid improvements, and clean energy projects,” gave the proposal its gaudiest numbers. A full 68 percent of adults said they supported the plan, while only 29 percent opposed it.

CBS News/YouGov also asked about specific infrastructure improvements, and notably, each was more popular than the full bill (which the poll identified merely as “the Biden Administration’s infrastructure proposal”)….Wednesday was the first time we learned details about the American Families Plan, which would put $1.8 trillion toward universal prekindergarten, federal paid leave, child-care subsidies, free community college and more. However, we have known it was coming for some time, so Monmouth was able to poll the popularity of “a large spending plan to expand access to healthcare and childcare, and provide paid leave and college tuition support.” That proposal also garnered widespread enthusiasm, with 64 percent support and 34 percent opposition. But as with the physical infrastructure plan, some elements of the plan are more popular than others. For instance, according to an older (March 26-29) Morning Consult/Politico poll, 60 percent of Americans support free community college while 33 percent oppose it. And they like the idea of extending the child tax credit expansion, 62 percent to 24 percent.

In total, these three bills add up to a $6 trillion investment by the federal government, and Biden has already announced his intentions to pay for them by increasing the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent and raising taxes on wealthy individuals. These moves are also popular with the public, though again, the polls disagree about just how popular. For example, CBS News/YouGov found that Americans support raising taxes on both individuals making more than $400,000 a year and corporations by the same wide margin: 71 percent to 29 percent. Per Monmouth, though, support was a bit lower: Americans favor higher corporate taxes 64 percent to 34 percent, and they support raising taxes on $400,000-aires 65 percent to 33 percent.”

This is great stuff. Biden is practicing what some are now terming “popularist” politics. This is the seemingly obvious—but frequently ignored—principle that if you want to do good things for people, it makes sense to concentrate on initiatives that are actually popular so you can get elected to do those good things and then pass them when in office. This leads in turn to the opportunity to do more good things and so on.

That’s not rocket science but it’s extremely important. But let’s be realistic here: as smart as Biden’s popularist politics is around these issues, there is still very far to go to achieve the changes in American society progressives—and all people of good will—should want. The AJP and AFP, while popular, are not as popular as the American Rescue Plan and there are huge Congressional obstacles to passing them in their current form. That said, it is plausible that some subset of Manchin-approved items from these massive bills will eventually pass and become law.

But it is safe to say that even that will not achieve the transformation of the American political economy that is so necessary to provide a good life for American citizens across region, race and class. That is a longer-term project that will require more reforms, more successful elections and broader majorities than the Democrats currently command.

In that regard, it is sobering to survey the upcoming electoral landscape, with a daunting 2022 election where the Democrats will have to beat the odds to retain control of Congress and a 2024 election that is sure to draw a strong Republican challenge. The Democrats will need all of Biden’s popularist politics and then some to succeed. They have little room for error.

That is why Democrats must resist the siren call of “unpopularist” politics driven by the activist left of the party. On immigration, the administration has been more liberal and humane at the border, but has no clear plan to stop the surge, enhance border security and tighten rules for asylum-seeking. The lack of action on these problems is unpopular but, since the left is adamantly opposed to doing anything that smacks of toughness on immigration, that is the de facto policy.

On policing, the administration is pursuing police reform, which is popular, but has had little to say about the surge of violent crime which suggests the need for more, not less, policing in communities, including black communities. But this approach too is verboten on the party’s left, so nothing is being done even as the crime issue spikes in salience.

On education, the steady march of “anti-racist” ideology into curricula of not just elite private schools but now public schools will generate a backlash among normie parents that the administration is studiously ignoring. Indeed, we now have gaffes like an Education Department proposed rule for a civics education grant program that touts the Ibram X. Kendi/1619 Project approach to understanding American society and history. The administration is doing nothing to head off this impending culture war in the schools because to do so would bring the wrath of the stridently woke sector of the Democratic Party down upon Biden’s head.

What Biden needs instead is a consistent and unifying policy approach that goes beyond his laudatory economic programs. Only that will permit the Democrats to pursue a progressive agenda that goes beyond 2022 and achieves a thorough transformation of American society away from the current, dysfunctional neoliberal model. The administration should promulgate an inclusive nationalism that emphasizes what Americans have in common and their right not just to economic prosperity but to public safety, secure borders and a world-class but non-ideological education for their children.

Now that’s popularist!