There Is No Magic Bullet Message On The Economy
When all the top economic indicators favor Trump and the GOP, Democrats can’t assume better economic messaging will carry them back to power.
Earlier this month, comedian Bill Maher caused a mild up uproar on social media when he stated during a panel discussion on his television program that he hoped for another economic recession so that President Trump would be kicked out of office in 2020. Conservatives pounced on his remark almost immediately, refusing to waste an opportunity to prove how out-of-touch liberals are with most Americans. And liberals, many of whom dislike Maher’s cultural politics anyway, quickly distanced themselves from his remark.
But as Trump boasts a steady 40 percent approval rating amid ongoing investigations into his campaign’s ties with Russia, his alienation of key Western allies over trade, and few legislative victories under his belt, Maher’s remark echoes a thought that has probably crossed the mind of every liberal at some point over the past two years: Would it take a catastrophic downturn in the economy for voters to flee Trump?
For liberals, this sense of an unassailable presidency persists for two reasons— the strength of Republican partisanship and the weakness of the Democratic opposition.
So far, congressional Republicans have stood by President Trump. There is little indication that if special counsel Robert Mueller finds criminal wrongdoing by the president or members of his campaign related to the 2016 presidential election that House Republicans would begin impeachment proceedings. And beyond Twitter statements denouncing attacks on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, there is not much push back on the right to the president’s trade or foreign policy rhetoric that is already causing the U.S. to lose its standing in the international community.
Similarly, Democrats have not been able to find a leader or a message that unites all elements of the Trump resistance. And they continue to struggle with making appeals to the working class and non-college educated white voters they’ll need to win back the White House as well as down-ballot races across the country.
For instance, in a recent New York Times op-ed post, Lily Geisman and Matthew Lassiter argue that Democratic efforts over the past 40 years to turn white, wealthy, and traditionally Republican-leaning suburbs blue have led the party to marginalize issues affecting working class voters, including working families of color:
Modern liberalism offers less and less to the blue-collar suburbs of Detroit, small towns in Pennsylvania and other working-class and once-unionized areas that have experienced the downside of the postindustrial economy and shocked the political system by voting for Mr. Trump…
The Democratic fixation on upscale white suburbs also distorts policies and diverts resources that could generate higher turnout among nonwhite voting blocs that are crucial to the party’s fortunes and too often taken for granted. It should not be that hard for liberalism to challenge the Republican tax scheme to redistribute income upward, and build on Mr. Obama’s important but inadequate health care reform, with policy solutions that address the real diversity of American suburbia.
The way to win back these voters, the authors contend, is a “broad economic platform” that can appeal to working class voters across racial and cultural lines.
The positioning of economics as a magic bullet of sorts to lure working class whites away from the white identity politics of the Trump-led Republican Party has been trotted out in just about every news publication with very little evidence to support its effectiveness. For one, proponents of economics-as-destiny never seem willing to engage the wealth of research showing that white Americans’ opposition to social welfare programs is largely motivated by racial stereotypes of minorities; or polls like the one conducted by HuffPost/YouGov back in 2015 that found Trump supporters liked Barack Obama’s views on universal healthcare, social security, and affirmative action much more when they heard they were actually the views of Donald Trump.
The economics-as-destiny proponents also don’t seem to have much of an answer for President Trump’s consistently positive job approval ratings on the economy (despite inheriting much of this good fortune from the Obama administration), or voters’ high confidence in an improving job market (despite little growth in wages). As one Democratic pollster confessed to The Hill last month, “The economy is the No.1 issue out there for people and right now Trump has a very aggressive economic message that seems to cross traditional party lines to voters.”
Of course, the academics and policy wonks that comprise the intellectual power center of the Democratic Party won’t allow party leaders to lie and say the macro-level picture of the U.S. economy is bleak. So, Democrats must learn to thread a needle between all the top indicators that point to a strong economy (high G.D.P., low unemployment) and the reality facing the bottom half of Americans (stagnant wages, rising costs of living).
Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy offered a brief but clear contrast to Trump’s boasting about the economy in his rebuttal to the president’s State of the Union address, focusing on the nation’s underlying income inequality. “We see an economy that makes stocks soar, investor portfolios bulge and corporate profits climb but fails to give workers their fair share of the reward,” he said. In his public statements denouncing the Trump administration, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has also zeroed in on income inequality, but he has pointed to specific instances in which candidate Trump made a promise to ease the burden on workers and instead helped to line the pockets of CEOs and the super-rich.
What made Kennedy’s speech memorable and what made Sanders such a strong contender for the 2016 Democratic Party presidential nomination is that they not only offered a clear counter-message on the economy, but dictated to voters the kind of society they could be a part of if they were willing to fight for it.
In other words, proponents of economics-as-destiny fail to recognize that voters don’t really view economic policy separately from their understandings of what a just social order looks like. Republicans who support a higher minimum wage in theory but who also believe fast-food workers shouldn’t make as much as teachers are not going to join Fight For $15 activists on the steps of the Capitol and demonstrate for a living wage.
Despite this, many progressives continue to assume that if pro-worker policies are presented to voters in a bold fashion, support will naturally follow (because, progressives assume, all working people understand their class interests are aligned). But there is no evidence from recent special elections that candidates who focus squarely on populist economic policies are moving the needle for Democrats (let alone Republicans) more than any other type of candidate.
To be sure, running for office in a special election isn’t entirely like running for president. It’s possible that a Sanders-style outsider who doesn’t win the support of party loyalists would have broader appeal and thus be a better general election candidate than the chosen nominee. But to win the party’s nomination one needs the support of the base. If a strong economic message is really all that’s needed to win anywhere, progressives should first figure out how to get Democratic voters to buy that.
All Lies Matter
Perhaps what is most lacking in the economics-as-destiny view of electoral politics is that proponents don’t see the president’s willingness to lie or mislead voters on any given issue as a problem for Democrats seeking to construct a counter-argument on the economy. And it’s not as though the media reliably challenges the president’s lies (debates over whether it is appropriate to call the president a liar rage on) or that it has not become the raison d'être of Fox News programming to make Trump’s wildly inaccurate claims somehow true.
Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign never really saw Trump’s lack of accountability to truth for the advantage that it was for him, and it showed. Trump was able to siphon off popular Democratic positions on a range of issues from criminal justice reform to the Iraq war, leaving Clinton to appear at times to the right of her own party. Again, as all macro-level indicators point to continuous growth in the economy, who’s to say Trump won’t be just as effective in the fall or in 2020 lying about the success of his plutocrat-driven tax law for the working class?
At its core, economics-as-destiny theory assumes that voters are always seeking out the candidate who best represents their material interests. Under this assumption, lies and misleading statements from candidates are easy to detect, and there’s a strong will to get to the truth — to dig deeper than the surface of G.D.P. or unemployment numbers. Ultimately, economics-as-destiny theory assumes voters will always get it right.
But American elections are not rational-choice contests. Voters, with busy lives and a dizzying news cycle, don’t think about policy all that much unless someone compels them to do so, and they tend to mold their preferences to fit those of the candidates who do. Progressives who care about economic justice and money in politics must adjust their thinking to this reality, and lay out a vision that ties these issues to voters’ basic desires for identity and belonging. That includes appealing to the Democratic brand as much as it does building out from it and reaching those who can still be persuaded to support an inclusive social-democratic society.
As of now, Stacey Abrams’ campaign for Georgia governor comes closest to this ideal type. She captured the party nomination by billing herself as a black progressive Democrat eager to steer the party from its old, losing ways. Like candidate Obama, Abrams embraces the cultural significance of her nomination, and the potential to become the first black female governor in the United States. Abrams is also clear and intentional in her demands: eliminate poverty in the state by fighting for measures like equal pay, paid leave, a living wage, and the Medicaid expansion.
She faces an uphill battle in red Georgia, but Abrams is showing that an economic message that is grounded in the human quest for community and crusade is much more compelling than one that pretends to be above so-called identity politics.