Just over a year ago there was a robust debate among Democrats over whether they should enter a dangerous midterm cycle emphasizing economic or cultural appeals. There were a lot of voices arguing for various reasons (ranging from the simple poll analysis of “popularists” who wanted Democrats to stress their most popular positions, to those fearful that progressive cultural positions would repel key swing-voter blocs) that the Democratic Party should campaign on the “kitchen-table issues” that were central to the Biden administration’s legislative agenda, from child tax credits and child-care subsidies to minimum-wage increases, pro-unionization efforts, and clean-energy subsidies. It all made good practical sense, particularly if Democrats managed to make progress on enacting some of their favorite economic-policy proposals. And it reflected a very old tradition in which economic issues provided the glue that kept a culturally heterodox (albeit increasingly anachronistic) New Deal coalition together.
Then inflation arrived as the only economic issue that mattered to most voters.
The advent of the first really major wave of price inflation since the late 1970s didn’t make any Biden-Democratic economic-policy proposals less popular, except insofar as together they were presumed to be contributing to an overheated economy or overstimulated consumer demand. When Joe Manchin began gradually decimating the Build Back Better budget reconciliation bill citing inflation fears, he was appealing less to sophisticated economic opinion than to a crude public belief that too much government spending and/or deficits was the only intelligible explanation for this curse (never mind that later versions of BBB were often designed to reduce budget deficits and hold down prices).
Worse yet, even though most Americans under the age of 50 could not remember inflation as a major national problem, it has historically been a problem that left-of-center parties have little credibility to challenge, much like right-of-center parties have little credibility on reducing unemployment or maintaining the social safety net. The perceived evasiveness of Democrats and their “experts” on the subject most recently — apparently denying and then rationalizing inflation as temporary, while dismissing the threat of a real deterioration of the purchasing power of wages, savings, or pensions — has increased that credibility gap.
Unless inflation significantly abates well before November (and there’s certainly no guarantee of that), Democrats will face midterm voters, who are already disposed to smite the party controlling the White House, in a poor position to argue they are the party that can be trusted to help middle-class families make ends meet. That doesn’t mean that if they can wrest some popular domestic proposal out of Congress such as negotiated prescription drug prices for Medicare, it won’t help; they should fight for that and do everything in their power to demonstrate Republican loyalty to Big Pharma via this issue. But it’s likely to be a small life raft against a large wave of distress about inflation, the one economic problem that afflicts nearly everyone.
Democrats thus have little choice but to shift their attention to those “divisive” cultural issues where they at least can get the attention of voters and command majority support. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s radical Dobbs decision, that now includes abortion rights, an issue where Republicans are in a weak position. Abortion rights are also an issue that can be used to illustrate the GOP’s more general hostility to majoritarian values and more general reliance on anti-democratic institutions like the courts, the Electoral College, the filibuster-controlled U.S. Senate, and reactionary state legislatures. On this front it’s the GOP, not Joe Biden or his party, that is clearly responsible for a clear and present danger to swing-voter interests. Add in a renewed threat of a return to power by Donald Trump or some MAGA successor, and you have the ingredients for a fighting chance for Democrats.
To be sure, emphasizing cultural rather than economic issues is an emotional reach for some Democrats. The Democratic left has an ancient materialist tendency to consider economic concerns the only legitimate issues, while the Democratic center has long feared the negative impact of progressive cultural positions on various swing voters. (Both, in their own way, echo the Marxists of the 1960s who told proto-revolutionary hippies to cut their hair so as not to “alienate the workers.”) But while Democrats can and should obviously hold onto a firm commitment to economic equality as the party’s long-term goal — while understanding that some cultural issues like abortion are economic issues in their own right — at present, too many voters just don’t hear or trust Democrats when they gather, to use the old cliché, round the kitchen table to discuss their daily concerns. Meanwhile those who depend on the rights that Republicans and their judicial hirelings are threatening have no one else to defend them.
Political opportunity and moral responsibility are converging. This one time, at least, Democrats need to make their strongest appeal a matter of values and rights that go deeper than the wallet.