Policy Alone Doesn’t Cut It

If spending trillions of dollars to improve people’s lives isn’t a fair test of “deliverism,” then what is? A response to Matt Stoller and David Dayen.

By Deepak Bhargava Shahrzad Shams Harry Hanbury

Tagged DeliverismLaborOrganizingPolicy

We appreciate the response from Matt Stoller and David Dayen in defense of deliverism. And we agree with them that delivering for people is a good thing, that Democrats have not delivered enough for a long time, that confronting monopoly power is important, and that narratives matter at least as much as policies in shaping voter response.

Stoller and Dayen argue that deliverism is an untested hypothesis because Democrats haven’t delivered meaningful change on economic policy to voters. But is this a plausible claim? True, Obamacare didn’t fix health care for most Americans—but what about the millions who received health coverage through Medicaid expansions? It turns out that Obamacare had only a marginal impact on the political behavior of its main beneficiaries.

And if spending trillions of dollars on everything from reducing the price of insulin to making it much cheaper to buy electric vehicles to putting thousands of dollars in the pockets of working-class parents isn’t enough to be a fair test of the “deliverism” hypothesis, what is? It’s telling that the one example Stoller and Dayen give of deliverism at work—from the Progressive Era through the New Deal—is nearly 100 years old. If there isn’t a contemporary example of deliverism that proves their case, how useful is their theory?

Perhaps the Nordic countries, whose social welfare systems are the envy of American progressives, constitute a fair test of deliverism? Despite progressive economic policies, however, authoritarian movements and parties are surging in these countries. And there is an elephant in the room that Stoller and Dayen ignore: Why is the authoritarian project succeeding with so many people despite its failure to deliver on its promise of improving people’s material conditions? Clearly, something other than economic interests is at play.

Unlike Stoller and Dayen—who state that “You can write ‘MAGA extremists’ and ‘racism’ as much as you want and cite political scientists on racism, but Obama didn’t deliver on higher wages, and Trump did”—we believe the now overwhelming evidence from scholars (and our own eyes) that racism is central to understanding authoritarianism. Moreover, racial identity shapes how people understand and respond to economic facts, as evidenced by the dramatically different responses of white male workers and male workers of color to declining wages (with the former group exiting the workforce in large numbers).

Another difference in our approach is how we see cause and effect. Stoller and Dayen’s response is titled “Moving Past Neoliberalism Is a Policy Project.” We agree that policy is important, but we believe that organizing is crucial. Industrial capitalism gathered workers together and created the conditions for unionization at a large scale and for movements to press for policy change. Post-industrial capitalism has scattered and atomized the working class, while trends like social media and the hollowing out of institutions have worsened social dislocation and isolation. In such conditions of disorganization, is it realistic to think that policies descending from on high will change people’s allegiances? Without mediating institutions to translate people’s pain into demands for change, and to interpret changes from elites as a response to those demands, we’re unlikely to see much political effect from deliverist policies. In an atomized society, people distrust institutions. They believe in policies they had a hand in fighting for and shaping, and they are likely to be suspicious of ones imposed by shadowy and distant elites. Yet the progressive and liberal ecosystem has been obsessed with policy, and (with exceptions) has neglected the question of how to build mass organizations. This tendency—to fetishize policy as a cure and disregard organizing—is at the heart of what ails us.

Most importantly, we believe that economistic thinking breeds bad strategy. British cultural theorist Stuart Hall wrote about the defeat of the Labour Party at the hand of Thatcher in the 1970s and ‘80s. Elaborate and popular plans to fix the National Health Service proved no match for emotion- and identity-driven political appeals that were deeply attuned to the frustrations and anxieties people expressed every day. In a series of essays, collected in The Hard Road to Renewal, Hall cautioned that identity and interests are constructed, not automatically given. He enjoined leftists to listen to what people are actually talking about, rather than assume their priorities. We’d do well to learn from Hall as we contend with today’s more formidable and dangerous foes.

Read more about DeliverismLaborOrganizingPolicy

Deepak Bhargava is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and a Distinguished Lecturer at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.

Also by this author

The Death of “Deliverism”

Shahrzad Shams is the program manager for the Race and Democracy program at the Roosevelt Institute.

Also by this author

The Death of “Deliverism”

Harry Hanbury is a documentary filmmaker and journalist.

Also by this author

The Death of “Deliverism”

Click to

View Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus