Originally published on RealClearPolicy.com
President Biden may have the rarest of political openings — the possibility of becoming only the third administration since the Civil war to retain or pad its House and Senate margins in a midterm election (1934 and 2002). The similarities with these precedents are striking. Like both FDR and George W. Bush, Biden has notable legislative accomplishments to tout. And all three faced singularly unpopular opposition — in Biden’s instance the batty Republican Supreme Court stripping rights from voters.
Should Biden succeed in adding at least two anti-filibuster Democratic senators in the midterm elections, the following two years could be as transformational as the New Deal and Great Society. Turning this pipedream into reality requires that Democrats improve their standing with noncollege or working-class voters. Many issues are important to this cohort, but a recent analysis of Midwest factory towns makes a compelling case that economics is paramount.
That’s no surprise.
Pay-to-Play Politics: 40 Years of Weak Wages for Most Americans
Real median wages for working class Americans — the two-thirds of men and women without college degrees — have fallen 13.7% since 1979 (wages for college graduates are up 9.2%). In contrast, real median wages have risen broadly in Western Europe because some 55% of productivity increases there go to wages; it’s a paltry 14% in the U.S. and that is reaped largely by the top one-third. This plight reflects how little policy influence average Americans have, as documented by authoritative analyses. Their dismal economics is a consequence of a Supreme Court-dictated pay-to-play government where lawmaking is unduly dominated by political donors, many busily extracting value from workers. In stark contrast, other democracies like Germany strictly limit political donations, enabling creation of public policies like codetermination that prioritize value creation for workers.
Unsurprisingly, pay-to-play has soured Americans on U.S. democracy — 84% in 2020 convinced that the government is run mostly for the benefit of elite economic interests. That policy bias explains the pronounced American income disparity, worst of all rich democracies. It also explains why assessments rank the U.S. standard of living only 20th internationally (and only 22nd in providing a nurturing environment for children).
A litany of factors resulting from pay-to-play — corporate wage suppression, job offshoring, hobbled unions, de-industrialization, predatory Wall Street and the independent contractor scam — have left working class households and communities in economic and emotional turmoil. Too many workers have sought an escape enabled by drug dealers like the Sackler family and Mexican cartels. The Obama administration let them down too, gutting the Drug Enforcement Administration at the behest of Wall Street and Congressional Republicans. Moreover, for five years during the mediocre Obama recovery, real household incomes of the poorest quintile of Americans were actually lower than in 1973.
Inept or Worse Democrats
Working-class voters know Republicans are corporate shills. But that dispiriting history has also soured them on Democrats. Recent analyses find working class voters no longer believe Democrats have their backs. They are viewed as inept — unable to prevent families (as analyst Annie Lowery puts it) being predatorily “bled dry by landlords, hospital administrators, university bursars and child-care centers.” Child care and health insurance now exceeds an immiserating $35,000 a year.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg summarized his findings this way:
(Working class voters) are surprised to hear that Democrats are dissatisfied with an economy where many of the voters themselves live paycheck to paycheck. They are surprised that Democrats prioritize big changes in the economy and who holds power.
Other in-depth analyses of working-class voters similarly highlight both their ire toward corporate America and their view of “Democrats as too weak and incompetent to get anything done” about it. Until this year this harsh judgement was accurate. True, Republican legislative obstruction has been important. But Clinton and Obama administration policies supported job offshoring and minimized unions — benefitting corporate shareholders and Wall Street, not working class families.
Enhancing Working Class Voters
Unlike his predecessors, Biden leans toward workers rather than Wall Street, pledging in July 2020 to put workers first. Importantly, his broad legislative successes reflect that focus and constitute a signal accomplishment for a President whose obituary was being written in the spring. These successes are a powerful boost for the Democrats’ urgent challenge in regaining the allegiance of working class voters. Moreover, in the midterm elections ahead, the Democrats may have an edge with working class white women thanks to the batty Republican Court justices.
Surveys since the Court’s Dobbs ruling have documented rising concern for abortion rights among women, including a notable shift by white noncollege women toward congressional candidates supporting reproductive choice. An NPR/Marist survey found that cohort strongly disapproves of Biden and typically supports Republican Congressional candidates by a 57% to 39% margin. Yet, in the wake of Dobbs, those same women by a margin of 45% to 42% told pollsters that they will “definitely vote for” congressional candidates seeking to restore Roe. Republican officials are frightened.
A different survey examined the impact of Dobbs on self-identifying independent voters. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s mid-July survey found that 56% planned to vote for “candidates who want to protect access to abortion;” 52% of independents supported Biden in 2020.
These sentiments, Biden’s legislative and other successes (including some notable bipartisan laws) and effective messaging may enable Democrats to retain Congress while adding at least two new Senators in the midterms. If so, the legislative roadblock posed by the filibuster could be removed, the key to a truly transformational presidency. That would enable Biden to cement the loyalty of working class voters by addressing major policy shortcomings in health care, taxes, community college and university costs, child poverty and child care, antitrust law enforcement and labor policy (including strengthening the National Labor Relations Board) while ending policies encouraging job offshoring.
… And American Democracy
Improving prospects of a middle class lifestyle for working class men and women is important. But Biden confronts an even more vital agenda to improve the foundation of American democracy.
Without a filibuster, the Democrats could use their majority to strengthen democracy by guaranteeing voting rights and by erecting legislative safeguards for the conduct of elections and presidential vote counting — including eliminating the risk of state legislatures manipulating election outcomes. They could also upgrade the architecture of American democracy itself by adding several states to expand the Senate, ending gerrymandering with the state-wide proportional representation systems widely used in other democracies, and even ensuring the popular election of presidents. They could also unpack the Supreme Court. The framers did not envision a dominant role for the court nor a partisan one; their original intent could be implemented by expanding the number of justices as Republican Charles Fried and constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe have proposed.
It is stunning.
But if Biden’s successes and promises convince working class voters in November that he has their backs, he could join FDR and LBJ as a transformational President.