Joe Biden’s June 28 Chicago speech on Bidenomics was a bold step forward in framing the economic debate. It is undeniably a gamble, as voters—especially working-class voters—have been unhappy about the economy for a long time. And justifiably so: We have an economy where most working families have been squeezed and hurting for more than four decades.
Democrats will have to overcome long-term cynicism and bitterness about the decline in economic fortunes for the two-thirds of voters without a college degree (as well as a whole lot of people with college degrees). And the Republican spin machine that vilifies not only Democrats but any government effort to lift up regular folks won’t be easy to overcome either. But the combination of Biden’s economic policy wins and a successful reframing of the trickle-down versus Bidenomics debate gives Democrats their best opportunity in a long time to begin to win the hearts and minds of working-class voters.
The Deliverism Debate
There is an important debate going on in progressive and Democratic circles, spurred in large part by Biden polling poorly in spite of his impressive list of policy victories: Will those policy accomplishments on behalf of working-class voters lead those voters to have a more favorable view of Biden?
Writers Matt Stoller and David Dayen coined the term “deliverism,” which argues that if Democrats deliver genuine, tangible benefits to working-class and poor people, they will win more elections. Stoller and Dayen have plenty of cautions and caveats to that formula—especially that policies need to be more far-reaching than most legislative measures for voters to notice—but the fundamental idea of deliverism is a critical one that the Biden team is counting on.
The pushback on this notion is significant, especially because, according to the polls, voters still don’t know about Biden’s policy changes, and still don’t feel their lives are getting appreciably better. A thoughtful and nuanced expression of this reaction can be found in the recent article “The Death of ‘Deliverism’” by Deepak Bhargava, Shahrzad Shams, and Harry Hanbury.
In this article, Bhargava, Shams, and Hanbury bring a lot of evidence and experience to bear in raising doubts about whether the good policies that have been enacted can overcome voter cynicism, decades of effective right-wing propaganda, and an unhelpful media environment to move more voters toward the Democrats. The article is the kind of thought-provoking piece that is fascinating to dig into, and it captures the challenges of our country’s politics right now. The authors talk about working-class folks being cynical about the pandemic-era expanded child tax credit (“What’s the trick?”); about Biden’s poll numbers not moving in spite of all the legislation he has passed and the good economic results his Administration has produced; and about people voting for progressive economic policies like minimum wage increases when they are on the ballot while in the exact same election voting for right-wing Republicans who oppose those initiatives. Importantly, the authors raise the fundamental idea that voters’ overall happiness in life matters a lot in how they vote.
Their solution is for progressives and Democrats to do a better job of telling a compelling story about their policies, one that involves naming corporate enemies on these issues. They argue that progressives need to be creating a deeper vision about the country we want to build, and to do more and better organizing that engages people in their daily lives.
The authors touch on something fundamental in American politics right now, which is, not to get too technical in my language here: Politics is complicated as fuck. Just passing good laws and sitting back and waiting for the acclaim is not nearly enough to win electoral victories next time around. I agree with them on that proposition for sure.
I think they got the solutions—better organizing and better storytelling—right. I would add that part of our challenge is to expand progressive media, especially at the local level, and that our organizing needs to include community building to address the isolation voters are feeling. But I also think that their central notion, that deliverism is dead, is wrong. Passing big policy changes is not the only thing we have to do, but it is the first big thing we have to do. The path to electoral success still has to have at its center the enactment of policies that truly and deeply improve working-class voters’ lives.
This isn’t either/or. We need good progressive policies, but we also need deeper organizing, better storytelling, more innovative ways of getting the story out, and a long-term vision of a better society for working families.
Finding New Ways to Reach Voters and Build a Sense of Community
The Factory Towns project I started in 2021, which focuses on the nature of voters’ attitudes in the small and medium-sized working-class counties outside of major metropolitan areas, showed how intensely skeptical and cynical these voters are about government, politicians, and campaign promises. But it also showed that working-class voters have a deep understanding of how trickle-down economics has been screwing them and their communities for decades, and that if politicians demonstrate to them that they get it too and are going to fight to do something to change it, folks will be open to listening.
A couple of other points need to be made here. Our Factory Towns work showed that one of the biggest problems Democrats and progressives face in telling their story is the lack of pathways available for getting information out to people. Working-class voters don’t trust national media sources, which they describe as deeply biased and totally profit-driven “corporate media.” Meanwhile, local newspapers are laying off reporters or closing down altogether. And three far-right-wing media companies—Sinclair, Gray Media, and Nexstar—now own 50 percent of local TV stations. The online right-wing disinformation machine is a powerful barrier as well. Democrats and progressives desperately need to invest in media and in innovative organizing and messaging techniques targeted to working-class voters.
One of the most important things we have to do is the kind of organizing that builds community. Working-class voters, especially those living outside metro areas, feel abandoned, isolated, and forgotten. More than half of them, according to one poll we ran, report that they or a close family member have experienced job loss, retirement savings loss, or an addiction or other mental health problem. Their communities are fraying, and in the era of Trump every political conversation seems angry. They want to have places, whether in-person events or online communities, where they can rebuild the ties that bind, where they can rediscover that sense of the beloved community Martin Luther King Jr. talked about. We can’t just be talking politics and policy with folks: We need to be talking with them about their lives and well-being.
The Game of Inches vs. the Full Flowering of Bidenomics
Here’s the other major point some of the deliverism discussions are missing, and this may be the most important of all: the difference between the short-term game of inches and the long-term project of building a sustained governing majority. Both are important, but they are very different things.
In the short term, for all kinds of reasons discussed here, in “The Death of ‘Deliverism,’” and in other places, it is going to be tough to usher in a tectonic shift with working-class voters between now and 2024. However, Democrats can certainly make gains in that game of inches. In 2020, they gained just enough in working-class neighborhoods and communities to win Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Arizona for Biden, and to win the Senate back. In 2022, they gained enough inches to give Pennsylvania and Michigan Democrats impressive victories in statewide and legislative races, and to win a majority of the competitive congressional races in working-class districts in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. More of the same is possible in 2024.
Over the long run, a decade of fully flowered Bidenomics—where we build on the good things that were passed in 2021-22 and add important components like child care, affordable housing, a higher minimum wage, and a permanent expanded child tax credit—gives us an opportunity to change the dynamics. If we combine these policies with deep organizing, good storytelling, and innovative ways of delivering the story, we will have real potential to break loose big chunks of working-class voters. Democrats could start to consistently compete again in states like Ohio, Iowa, Missouri, and more of the South, as well as winning in more of rural America.
Our country in recent years has been on the verge of breaking. Trump accelerated that danger but did not start it. The cracks in our democracy were driven in part by ever-increasing right-wing extremism, but also by the reality that too many leading Democrats over the past 40 years bought into the myth of trickle-down and catered to wealthy donors from Wall Street and Silicon Valley.
But this is not an impossible dream. We can build a more beautiful and prosperous country based on the ideas that people should have dignity and agency at work, that small businesses and consumers can thrive if they are protected from the rapaciousness of monopolistic corporations, and that the economy’s goal should be for everyone to have the freedom to build the lives they want to have. An America where progressive policy wins make a better life possible for most people will restore our democracy for the long term, and make the Democratic Party the party of working people again.