Biden’s democracy agenda is limited but Trump is against democracy

Tisch College Dean Dayna Cunningham and I have a piece in The Conversation today. We begin:

President Joe Biden argues that “democracy is on the ballot” in the 2024 election.

We believe there are potential threats to U.S. democracy posed by the choices voters make in this election. But the benefits of American democracy have for centuries been unequally available, and any discussion of the current threats needs to happen against that background. …

For us, Biden’s talk of democracy is a useful starting point for a broader conversation about U.S. democracy and the 2024 election. …

youth views of Israel/Palestine

CIRCLE has published detailed data on young people’s views of the current war in the Middle East. I’ll share two graphs, but I recommend their whole document.

First, compared to older generations, young Americans are much more likely to perceive genocide in Palestine (almost 50% agree that it’s happening) and to support an immediate ceasefire.

Second, young Americans are split on whether to sympathize more with Palestinians or Israelis and are divided about US support for Israel. There are differences by race and ethnicity: white youth are least critical of Israel; Asian/Pacific Islander youth are most critical. To my eye, these differences are not very large–particularly between white and African American youth–and the disagreements within each demographic group are more notable.

(By the way, not being sure what to think of this issue seems understandable–for anyone, and especially for someone who is young.)

Whether and how young people will vote in the 2024 election is certainly not the only relevant or important question. That said, political scientists generally doubt that Americans vote on foreign policy issues; and in 2022, according to CIRCLE, just 4% of young Americans named foreign affairs among their top three issues. But in this cycle, as many as 82% of young people are naming foreign policy. I agree with CIRCLE that many young Americans may be “viewing this conflict through a different lens” and, in particular, seeing it as continuous with domestic US issues regarding race.

a different way in which the 2024 election is a failure for democracy

Here’s a modest and basic account of democracy: While they seek office, candidates make proposals. Voters select the politicians with the proposals they prefer. The winners try to implement their ideas. Voters observe, discuss, and evaluate what happens. In the next election, voters decide whether to stay or change the course.

In 2020, Joe Biden and congressional Democrats ran on a fairly clear platform of spending money to stimulate green manufacturing in disadvantaged places. They then managed to pass the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the $739 billion Inflation Reduction Act, and the $280+ billion CHIPS Act. The total was less than some of them had proposed, but it was more than I had expected, considering that congressional Republicans were also elected who opposed these ideas.

The net effect is not only a significant change in policy but also a turn of the steering wheel. We’re now at the beginning of a long journey toward a green industrial policy.

In 2024, the voters will–as they should–determine whether to stay on this route or hit the breaks. But they will not make a conscious decision. The federal budget will not be a decisive issue, or perhaps even a prominent one. Whether the country shifts to an industrial policy will be an unrecognized side-effect of votes cast for other reasons.

Biden does not seem likely to emphasize the federal spending because it doesn’t poll well. Perhaps that’s partly because voters (including liberal ones) do not believe what Democratic incumbents claim about their own policy successes. Instead, Biden will run on Trump’s unfitness, Jan. 6, and abortion, and he may well win on that basis.

Trump will not run against the federal spending because he has other grievances on his mind. Besides, he does not really oppose ambitious and expensive federal interventions. The rest of his party will take pot shots at the deficit but not challenge the spending because doing so would concede that the Democrats have made substantial changes. They prefer depicting Biden as feckless rather than wrong.

And the press won’t cover the spending because its results are not yet very tangible, and it no longer qualifies as a live political conflict. As a rough proxy for press attention, consider the trend in Google searches for “Inflation Reduction Act” since 2020. The current rate is one fiftieth of the brief peak that occurred while the Act was political news.

I favor the Biden-era policies. I understand principled arguments against them from several directions. We should be debating green industrial policy and deciding whether or not to continue this course.

One reason we will miss this debate is that Donald Trump has given us other grave matters to discuss. Indeed, it would be problematic if voters failed to consider the threat he poses to the constitution. But I don’t think Trump is the only reason. The failure of a major ideological change to register on the public consciousness is symptomatic of a breakdown in news, attention, and public discussion that prevents the people from controlling our government.

See also: preparing for a possible Trump victory; a presidential election with two incumbents?; 1984 all over again? The Reagan/Biden analogy; whether to make the election a referendum on MAGA

preparing for a possible Trump victory

I make no predictions about the 2024 election. It is still far away, and all kinds of dramatic shifts could occur between now and then. But there is a clear chance that Donald Trump will win. One of several paths to that outcome leads through a recession during the next six months.

I am also reluctant to predict what Trump will do if elected; I suspect he doesn’t know himself. But we should take seriously the possibility that he would do what he has been talking about lately, including directly ordering the prosecution of political opponents, invoking the Insurrection Act, building mass camps for immigrants, purging the civil service, and even attacking Mexico.

I disagree with Hillary Clinton that these events “would be the end of our country as we know it.” On the contrary, they would mark the beginning of a new phase with highly uncertain outcomes. Much would depend on how opponents respond. Now is the time to prepare for this contingency.

Trump would have significant support, including a popular base. Certain organizations and institutions would take his side, perhaps including at least one house of Congress.

But he would also face mass resistance from segments of the population and from important organizations and institutions–notably, from some state and local governments. He would quickly encounter roadblocks, which would frustrate him and his supporters. Some of his efforts might go forward, at least temporarily, which would enrage his opponents.

The result would be intense conflict, not only in Congress and courts but also potentially on the streets. I don’t think a literal civil war is likely, if only because the US military and security services would refuse to be drawn in, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to create an army from scratch. But it is common around the world to see periods of political conflict, typically labeled “unrest,” “instability,” or “disorder.” We might expect:

  • constant debates about whether various institutions should make statements about recent incidents, with repercussions for members of these institutions who disagree;
  • frequent crises that are permitted by existing laws, such as government shutdowns and even a debt default;
  • politically motivated pardons, amnesties, and blocked prosecutions;
  • prominent dismissals and resignations;
  • bans and purges of ideological minorities within institutions such as universities, corporations, and publications;
  • overt refusals to follow constitutionally permissible directives (e.g., state governors might resist federal mandates);
  • temporary closures of schools and colleges that are political hotbeds;
  • attempts to declare martial law and states of emergency at various levels;
  • arrests of questionable legality;
  • illegal orders that are either accepted or refused;
  • Increasingly flagrant displays of weapons;
  • paramilitary and revolutionary organizations, with training programs, uniforms, insignias and the like;
  • large and frequent protests, some of which may involve clashes with counter-protesters or the police;
  • frequent threats of violence;
  • politically motivated assaults and homicides of various kinds (not only assassinations, but also quasi-accidental deaths).

I’d expect similarities to periods like the Years of Lead in Italy or The Troubles in Northern Ireland–among many other examples. In fact, we may already have entered a period like that.

I would anticipate passionate and fraught disagreements within the potential resistance to Trump. For example:

  • Should the objective be to restore and protect the constitutional system as it has been, or was that system already flawed (and responsible for the present crisis) so that it needs to be changed? If it requires change, how basic and radical must that be?
  • Is the Democratic Party a worthy vehicle of resistance, or even the main opposition, or is it part of the problem? This debate will be especially fraught if it looks as if Biden would have won without third party presidential candidates in 2024.
  • How broad should the coalition be? It’s easy to say “As broad as possible,” but the hard questions arise when activists must consider whether to defer causes that they consider important in order to collaborate with people who are ideologically dissimilar. For instance, imagine that it is possible to draw businesses into a pro-democracy movement, but at the cost of delaying strong action on climate. Many people would balk at that tradeoff. But what if strong federal environmental action seems impossible, anyway? Would it then be worth submerging environmental goals to expand the pro-democracy movement?
  • What means are appropriate–or necessary–to combat authoritarian tendencies and street-level violence?

I think the response should be massively nonviolent, and we should eschew concrete, physical violence even in the face of institutionalized injustice. Nonviolent direct action is a powerful strategy with a strong record of success. It is particularly likely to draw broad participation and to yield a stable democracy as its outcome.*

There may be times when violence is appropriate: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt all commanded armies that fought for freedom. And sometimes it is a mistake to criticize acts of violence even if you wouldn’t endorse them. In response to the Detroit riots of 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walked a careful line. He said that crimes committed during the riots were “deplorable” but also “derivative.” He explained, “If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.” Nevertheless, King continued to defend nonviolence because he believed that it was the most powerful option, with the greatest chance of creating a better society. That argument will be even stronger under conditions of social unrest and escalating, tit-for-tat violence. Apart from anything else, as Bayard Rustin argued, political success requires the support of a substantial majority, and violence alienates people.

Nonviolence takes skill, discipline, and values, all of which that can be taught and practiced in advance of a crisis. Now is the time for practice and training.

I am discussing a threat that comes from the extreme right. This threat is not symmetrical. However, intimidation and violence may be reciprocated, and ugly behavior may spread across the spectrum; this common pattern must be resisted.

It will be crucial to promote dialogue and listening. People will need ways to exit extremist movements and be reintegrated. And we need to hear about legitimate grievances from all quarters so that they can be addressed.

Anyone who is knowingly involved in violating civil rights should ultimately be held accountable. But tens of millions of people will vote for each major party’s nominee in the 2024 election, and voters on both sides are members of our national community. As the risk of violent conflict rises, so does the need for empathy and curiosity across partisan differences.

*See also: the case for (and against) nonviolence; Why Civil Resistance Works; tools for the #resistance; timely quotes from Bayard Rustin (1965)

a presidential election with two incumbents?

Incumbent presidents have a substantial advantage for reelection. Only 10 have lost. Statistical models that attempt to control for other factors, such as the economy, typically give a presidential candidate a bonus of 4-8 percentage points just for being the incumbent. In 2009, David Mayhew noted that parties had won the White House only half the time when they didn’t run an incumbent for reelection, but two thirds of the time when they did. That disparity is a little smaller now that Trump has lost a reelection race, but it’s still substantial.

Incumbents also have a vast advantage in their own party’s nomination race, with only Franklin Pierce actually losing his party’s support while he was in the White House. (Several others have chosen not to run.)

However, it’s not clear what these patterns mean for 2024. After all, two leading candidates have recently been presidents of the United States. Whether one, both, or neither will get an incumbency advantage is hard to tell from the historical data. There have only been 59 presidential elections ever, and only 23 in the modern era since FDR beat Hoover. Many variables are relevant to the outcomes of these cases. It is therefore hard to detect which aspects of incumbency may matter–and certainly hard to extrapolate any patterns to our unprecedented situation.

(I think that only one president was unseated but got his original party’s nomination again in a subsequent year: that was Grover Cleveland, who won the rematch.)

Mayhew identified 12 possible explanations for the presidential incumbency advantage and collected the evidence that might bear on each explanation. See his table 3.

Possible explanations of presidential incumbency bias from Mayhew 2008.

Some of these factors presume that the incumbent typically has impressive “capabilities,” because a president has already managed to win a national election and has governed for up to four years. The challenger could be equally capable, but the odds are against it.

In this case, I personally think that Joe Biden has demonstrated strong capabilities, whereas Trump’s campaigns and his time in office demonstrate a blatant lack thereof. However, it doesn’t matter what I think, but what the electorate decides. According to today’s New York Times/Siena poll, 44 percent of Americans agree with me–they hold a very unfavorable view of Trump–but 42 percent strongly disapprove of Biden’s performance in office. What is unusual is the fact that both likely nominees have recently served as the president, which may make this factor a wash.

Voters might also simply prefer a candidate who already holds office. For instance, perhaps some voters are risk-averse: biased against changing horses. Or perhaps they think that any newcomer would need too much time to become effective. Risk-aversion might help Biden a bit in 2024, although some voters may feel that electing him in 2020 was the unwise change. Voters can presumably see either Trump or Biden as the status quo if they want to. Some Trump voters even believe that he is the rightful winner of the most recent election.

“Incumbent party fatigue” refers to the pattern that each party loses a small amount of support–on average–each year that it holds the White House. However, this trend does not doom incumbents, in part because too little “fatigue” typically occurs within four years. The candidates who tend to suffer are those who try to succeed a president of the same party.

The explanations that Mayhew calls “strategic behavior” are of the following type. Perhaps the party of an incumbent president typically organizes to renominate him if he’s been doing well but moves against him if not–as was the case with LBJ in 1968. That would imply that incumbents who run for reelection have generally had successful first terms. And perhaps the opposition party is easily captured by marginal figures when its prospects already look weak against a popular incumbent (consider Barry Goldwater in 1964, or Michael Foot against Margaret Thatcher in 1983). However, Mayhew does not see a lot of power in this type of explanation.

Somewhat buried in his list are factors under the incumbent president’s direct control, such as the ability to allocate funds (e.g., to decide whether to locate the Space Command in Colorado or Alabama), where to deploy cabinet members, which bills to sign or veto, etc. Early in 2021, I predicted that the “$1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 would prove popular by putting cash directly and quickly into people’s pockets,” and this would help Democrats in 2022. Democrats did somewhat better than most people expected that year, but there’s no evidence that nearly $2 trillion helped them electorally. (In other words, I was wrong.) The other side of the coin is that presidents must make difficult and unpopular decisions.

Overall, I think that Biden has an advantage in 2024 if the economy avoids a deep recession. I think a substantial Biden victory is possible if the economy starts to lift. I suspect that the 4-8 point incumbency advantage–which would typically give Biden a landslide–will not apply, because the electorate will split on the question of who is the rightful incumbent in the first place.

*Mayhew, David R. “Incumbency Advantage in U.S. Presidential Elections: The Historical Record.” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 123, no. 2, 2008, pp. 201–28. See also: 1984 all over again? The Reagan/Biden analogy; What kind of a claim is “Biden has an 87% chance of winning”? (on the metaphysics of probability)

whether to make the election a referendum on MAGA

In an interesting conversation between Ryan Grimm and Dimitri Melhorn (who represent two very different strands in today’s Democratic Party), Melhorn says:

So, imagine you’re the average voter, and you’re saying, OK, there are three things you can choose to believe about politics, and adjust your behavior accordingly. One, politics can do nothing for you. Two, politics can make your life better. Three, politics can make your life worse. People will believe the third. They normally default to the first, but they will believe the third. Within a rounding error, for electorally viable purposes, nobody believed the second, other than Bernie [Sanders] and his staffers and, you know, some other folks. It doesn’t work that way. I wish it did. It doesn’t.

I won’t dispute that Dmitri is right about the USA right now, and perhaps his theory would apply in Britain and much of the EU. It’s hard to persuade undecided voters that new or different leaders or policies will improve their lives. They are ready to believe that some current proposals would hurt them, and this fear can persuade them that voting matters. In turn, many of the current proposals that frighten the most Americans come from the hard right. Thus, Melhorn argues, the path to a Democratic victory is to make the election a referendum on right-wing ideas while downplaying ambitious progressive ones.

Although Dmitri may be correct about the present, this can’t be a law of nature. Surely FDR persuaded Americans that “politics can make your life better.” Maybe Roosevelt didn’t need a positive case to win against Herbert Hoover in 1932, but he and his party did argue for a New Deal, and the result was a whole new social contract, not only some electoral victories. Likewise for Clement Atlee in Britain (1945-51) and many other cases. Skepticism about the positive potential of elections and policy is a particular feature of our time.

Nor is skepticism universal now. In the 2020 American National Election Study, when presented with a forced choice, 42% of adults said “the less government, the better,” but 58% said there are “more things government should be doing.”

I would acknowledge that general pro-government sentiment doesn’t always translate into support for actual candidates who propose to do specific things. For one thing, almost a quarter of those who voted for Trump wanted government to do more, and they may not have the same kinds of interventions in mind that I do. Worse for progressives, the level of openness to more government was weakest where government might do the most good. In 2020, people without any college experience were split 50%/50% on the value of more government, whereas those with bachelor’s degrees favored more government by a 36-point margin (68%-32%). Black people were nine points less likely to support increasing government than white people (60% vs. 68%).

This class inversion has profoundly bad implications for our politics (and not just for progressives), but it is not historically typical. It’s a trap we must get out of.

During the Biden Administration, Democrats are actually making dramatic policy changes that might–if they succeed–make people’s lives better. When the Inflation Reduction Act passed last August, it was predicted to provide $270 billion in tax credits for green energy and manufacturing. Now the CBO is projecting the law’s cost at $553 billion. Goldman Sachs predicts that the “law will cost roughly $1.2 trillion — three times more than the official government forecast — and spur trillions more in private-sector investments.”

These estimates are being circulated as evidence of a budgetary problem, but for me, they are hugely hopeful (if true). Several trillion dollars in green investments could save the planet and improve people’s lives. Arguably, Congress recently enacted those policies.

It would therefore be ironic if Democrats’ best path to reelection was to make voters fear Republican ideas while offering largely symbolic proposals of their own, such as background checks for guns. That is like smuggling a new social contract past the voters.

Again, I would not be surprised if “Stop Republican craziness” polls better than “We are the midst of transforming the economy.” But that is a symptom of deeper troubles. The situation was different during the Clinton Administration, when Democrats actually did little except to block some GOP proposals. But during the Biden years, when the party is beginning to transform the economy, not to be able to run on that record is very odd.

See also: class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesis; social class inversion in the 2022 US elections; using federal spending to strengthen democracy