build back better

Why Are There So Many Democrats to Joe Biden’s Right?

The mod squad. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

Joe Biden didn’t ask moderate Democrats to do anything he wouldn’t.

During his 36 years in the Senate, Biden was a walking, talking weather vane. Wherever political winds blew, he followed. He was for school integration before his constituents were against it. He was skeptical of “tough on crime” politics before the electorate clamored for it. You might let your conscience be your guide; Biden stuck with the median voter.

The president is more liberal now than he used to be. But so is the country. And Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda evinces the same concern for political expediency that structured his Senate career. Unlike his predecessor, Biden isn’t trying to remake the American health-care system or (overtly) increase the cost of fossil fuels. Unlike his top primary rival, the president wouldn’t dream of asking middle-class Americans to pay higher taxes. Biden’s ambition is merely to invest in green technology, enact several popular social reforms (including universal pre-K, paid family leave, price controls on prescription drugs, a child allowance, and at-home care for the elderly), raise taxes on the top one percent, and cut them for the bottom 90 percent. 

Taken together, this agenda is historically consequential — and yet politically anodyne. The Build Back Better Act has attracted some pushback from conservatives and well-heeled interests. But this opposition is negligible when compared to the Tea Party mobilization of 2009. Moderate Democrats have not seen their town halls conquered by apoplectic reactionaries in tricorne hats. Corporate America has barely opened its pockets. This week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce unveiled “a six-figure ad campaign” against the Biden agenda; 12 years ago, America’s health insurers spent $100 million trying to defeat the Affordable Care Act. By the time the ACA came up for a vote, it had a 40 percent approval rating. Build Back Better still commands majority support.

Nevertheless, the bill won’t make it to Biden’s desk intact.

Progressive and moderate Democrats are still arm wrestling over the details of Build Back Better. But all recent reporting suggests that the party’s right flank will force it to cut the package’s cost. At present, the legislation authorizes $3.5 trillion in new spending over a decade. That amounts to less than a 5 percent increase in the federal budget. It is also inadequate to fully fund the president’s platform; to keep the bill’s fiscal cost under $3.5 trillion, Democrats were planning to phase out Biden’s child allowance by mid-decade and delay the implementation of various other programs. Conventional wisdom now holds that the final bill will be more than $1 trillion cheaper.

On one level, this is unsurprising. Democrats barely control Congress; the party’s Senate majority rests on the whims of a coal magnate from a deep-red state. If Joe Manchin unilaterally derailed Biden’s agenda — or else, did so with the aid of Kyrsten Sinema and a couple pseudo-Democrats in the House — there would be little to explain.

But the president’s intraparty opposition hasn’t been so limited. It isn’t two or three House Democrats who’ve been calling on Biden to, in so many words, “build back smaller” — it’s roughly a dozen of them. Meanwhile, various ad hoc House coalitions have managed to kill or set back some of the president’s most popular proposals. Congressional Democrats didn’t just reject Biden’s proposal to raise the top tax rate on capital gains to 39.6 percent; they also refused to close the infamous carried interest loophole, which allows hedge-fund managers to pay a lower rate than school teachers. That provision’s own beneficiaries can barely defend it with a straight face. Even Donald Trump called for its repeal. And yet, forcing private equity managers to pay the same tax rate as other professionals proved unpalatable to a critical mass of House Democrats.

Similarly, allowing Medicare to negotiate (a.k.a. “lower by fiat”) prescription drug prices is one of the most popular ideas in American politics. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll taken in June found that 88 percent of voters approve of that policy; among Republican voters, support stood at 77 percent. At one point, Donald Trump pretended to support it. Nevertheless, a small band of House Democrats have thus far kept it out of their party’s bill.

As of this writing, it still looks like Democrats will pass a package of worthwhile progressive reforms, including some that defy the will of powerful interest groups. But the fact that so many congressional Democrats are so far to Joe Biden’s right — on issues handpicked for their political viability — remains dismaying. And it demands explanation.

I think that structural factors are part of the answer. In a capitalist democracy, the political playing field is always tilted in the wealthy’s direction. Effective electoral campaigns and lobbying drives require time and money. Hedge-fund managers can shoulder those costs more easily than home health-care aides. Historically, trade unions mitigated this imbalance by enabling working people to collectivize the costs of effective political engagement while also increasing labor’s objective economic power.

But organized labor isn’t what it used to be. When Lyndon Johnson enacted his Great Society programs, more than 23 percent of the U.S. labor force was unionized; today, that figure is 10.8 percent. The year of LBJ’s election, America witnessed 3,655 major work stoppages; the year of Biden’s, it saw 8. In this context, one might expect the Democratic Party to have a limited appetite for antagonizing corporate power.

Some on the socialist left argue that labor’s weakness is further compounded by the political fragmentation of the working class. As non-college-educated voters have drifted right, Democrats have grown increasingly reliant on the support of affluent professionals — and increasingly deferential to the economic anxieties of households with low-six-figure incomes.

Separately, the intensification of urban-rural polarization has tilted congressional maps in the Republican Party’s favor. America’s most left-wing constituencies are increasingly clustered in urban districts, where they provide Democratic candidates with far more votes than they need to win. Right-leaning voters, meanwhile, are disbursed relatively evenly across space. Such geographic sorting — when combined with Republican gerrymandering — renders Democrats incapable of winning a House majority without winning districts that are more conservative than the nation as a whole. As a result, the party’s current House caucus is home to a large number of red-district representatives who are eager to distance themselves from progressives.

All this said, attributing congressional Democrats’ timidity to structural factors alone would be excessively deterministic. Organized labor’s weakness surely constrains progressive reform. But, as already noted, the $3.5 trillion version of Biden’s program is not very radical! Many of the bill’s provisions will redound to capital’s benefit. The Democrats’ dependence on affluent voters may limit the party’s interest in redistribution. But Build Back Better doesn’t raise taxes on any household that earns less than $400,000 a year. Nancy Pelosi needs to mollify the electoral anxieties of red-district Democrats. But the bulk of Biden’s program polls decently in (light) red America.

Moderate Democrats’ rebellion against Biden’s $3.5 trillion agenda was ultimately a contingent event. Structural realities do not mechanically dictate Kyrsten Sinema’s aversion to large increases in federal spending or drug-price reform. Elissa Slotkin and Matt Cartwright both represent districts that are more Republican than Arizona is. And both have nevertheless supported the full Build Back Better agenda and fought for it to include price controls on prescription drugs.

Josh Gottheimer represents an affluent suburban district. But that fact does not force him to oppose large tax hikes on the rich. Ro Khanna’s district has a median income of $148,000, which is about $38,000 more than the median income in Gottheimer’s, and that hasn’t stopped Khanna from supporting a wealth tax.

In truth, there is no tight correlation between a Democratic House member’s political vulnerability and their position on the Build Back Better Act. Hawaii’s Ed Case hails from a safe blue district and has nevertheless led the fight to lower the bill’s price, even as a long list of Democrats in purple territory have toed Biden’s line. Oregon’s Kurt Schrader will likely inherit a heavily Democratic constituency after redistricting. And he’s said he won’t vote for Biden’s program unless it’s cost is brought down to “way under $1 trillion.”

What separates Democratic opponents and supporters of the Biden agenda is not the partisan tilt or median income of their constituencies. It’s their own ideological convictions and political intuitions. Some moderate Democrats just believe that the national debt is a crisis and that federal spending is dangerously high. Some don’t. A good number of moderates think that the key to electability is to performatively distance yourself from the left’s position on a given issue, no matter its substance. Others subscribe to alternative theories of political pragmatism (“support popular things,” for example).

No law of political economy dictated that Nancy Pelosi’s caucus would include a critical mass of fiscally center-right, performatively anti-left Democrats. But structural factors did make that outcome rather likely. After all, the typical Democratic congress member is an affluent boomer. This is a demographic that watched Bill Clinton lead their party out of the wilderness while disowning Sister Souljah — and then, preside over a tech boom after slashing the deficit. Assemble a hundred-something Democrats with six-figure salaries and postwar birthdates and chances are a few are going to be skeptical of “big government.”

If organized labor were strong, and congressional apportionment fair, then progressives might have been able to screen out such moderates through primary campaigns, or else, convert them through lobbying efforts. As is, the left’s capacity to impose ideological discipline on Democrats is highly limited outside deep-blue urban areas.

So, I think that’s why we can’t have ($3.5 trillion worth of) nice things: Labor is weak, Congress is malapportioned, and some old rich Democrats have annoying beliefs.

One implication of this analysis is that waging the “war of ideas” — which is to say, attempting to influence elite opinion — matters quite a bit. Much of the moderate opposition to Build Back Better seems to be rooted in neoliberal economic theories that older Democrats glommed onto in their formative years.

A separate implication is that primarying centrist Democrats who represent relatively safe blue districts is a worthwhile endeavor.

Of course, even if progressives manage to cultivate a better class of House moderates, they’d still have to contend with their party’s massive structural disadvantage in the Senate. That problem has no easy solution. If Democrats lose Congress in 2022, red America’s overrepresentation in the Senate could make it impossible to advance significant progressive reforms again for a decade or more.

Which is why it’s a shame that the party can’t find the will to build back bigger.

Why Are There So Many Democrats to Joe Biden’s Right?