Acknowledging Economic Strength Doesn't Undermine Progressive Goals
The fight for a more just society goes on.
Having written about this issue fitfully over the past couple years, and tweeted about it a fair amount in that time, and then published two pieces on it these past few days (welcome to the third!) I’ve developed a rough schema to help explain the mismatch between economic sentiment and economic fundamentals. Why do majorities of Americans say their local economies are solid, but the broader U.S. economy is a train wreck?
The phenomenon is driven, to a large degree, by Republican voters who are well trained to give every trend in American life a thumbs down during Democratic presidencies.
Mainstream media outlets contribute through hesitancy to report on the Biden administration in any way that might expose them to bad-faith allegations of partisan bias. Only now are those outlets reporting on the decoupling of economic fundamentals and perceptions, which is a step forward, but still a very meta way to report on a boom economy.
Social media contributes, in the way it incentivizes and amplifies the sharing of gloom and doom.
A faction of the fractured democratic-socialist left—those who were stung by Bernie Sanders’s defeats and his subsequent cooperation with Joe Biden—are also cynically invested in fomenting economic despair, for much the same reason Republicans do: to beat the libs. The difference is that, if their efforts combined succeed at beating the libs, Republicans, not democratic socialists, will come to power.
Then, of course, there are millions of Americans who are struggling economically. There are fewer of them than normal now, but there is always a great deal of ruin in a nation.
These categories sometimes overlap or bleed into one another.
That’s a huge engine of consensus formation, facing very little resistance, in part because many mainline progressive leaders and media figures don’t want to challenge the resulting conventional wisdom. There’s a sliver of progressives who seem to grasp that the economy is better, by American standards, than it has been in living memory, but won’t acknowledge it for strategic and ideological and social reasons. And some of them might be cajoled off the fence on the grounds that 1) if Joe Biden loses after enacting big fiscal stimulus and improving the fortunes of working-class Americans, it’ll be a disaster for the whole progressive project; and 2) acknowledging the strength of the economy today in no way obliges anyone to abandon the longer-term pursuit of economic justice.
DREARY OF RELATIVITY
A level of mutual incomprehension arises from a failure to set terms.
What do I mean when I say the economy is “strong”? Relative to what? My contention is that today’s economy is better and fairer than recent U.S. economies, not that it’s preferable to (say) a Nordic social democracy or another theoretical alternative. Without a basis for comparison, though, the notion that the economy is “strong” conveys some normative sense that it’s fundamentally good or just. And if it’s Mission Accomplished, might that not undermine arguments for building our own social democracy? Might it not introduce a level of incoherence when we petition the government to redress lasting economic grievances?
I don’t believe either assumption follows.