The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Swing back, sweet pendulum!

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Many of my posts talk about the political pendulum swinging back. To state the obvious, this is not a profound prediction. It’s an observation based on President Trump’s low approval rating (unusual, given the good economy), the unpopularity of conservatives’ singular legislative accomplishment (their tax cut), and a reliable historical trend of pendulums doing what they do (i.e., swinging back).

But back to whom and what?

On the “whom” part, progressives spend a fair bit of time, with good reason, thinking about who could beat Trump (or Vice President Pence, if Trump doesn’t go the distance), as in this Timothy Egan op-ed in which he calls for a younger Biden. This part of the argument is above my pay grade (it may well be above anybody’s pay grade). I will say that I worked for Joe Biden during the Obama administration, and we keep in touch; as I see it, Joe Biden is a younger Biden, but what do I know?

My value added is on the “back to what” part. Clearly, “we’re not them” is a strong selling point, but not strong enough. On economic policy, Democrats need a positive agenda.

The economic agenda must start with the clear recognition that markets have many useful characteristics but constantly fail, and that their failures can be addressed only by representative, functional government.

Let me unpack that (also above my pay grade, as Biden often reminded me: speaking in ways that might resonate with voters). By market failures, I’m not just talking about big recessions that bookend business cycles. I’m talking about less-recognized failures, such as people and places left behind at full employment; the jobless rate among blacks, which is almost always twice that of the rate for whites; the clockwork tendency of financial markets to deregulate once amnesia about the last crash has time to set in. In fact, those market failures are currently in play.

People intuit that something important is going wrong. I recently reported on a Gallup-Sharecare survey of Americans’ well-being that found Americans to be “more glum now than they were during the Great Recession.” Majorities get that the economy is improving, but “they don’t think their overall well-being is going up.”

Part of this is the old inequality story. I don’t think Trump’s economic policies — tax cuts for the rich, benefit cuts for the poor, a bunch of whining about other countries ripping us off — will raise the GDP growth rate by half (from 2 to 3 percent). But even if they did, if growth isn’t reaching people, why should people applaud faster growth?

Of course, it’s early days, but despite White House claims to the contrary, the tax cut is showing up in the profit statements of banks and shareholders, not in paychecks. That’s recent news, but middle-class wage stagnation is a decades-old story that underlies a sense of economic insecurity — a sense that your family could backslide at any moment.

But the feeling that something big is wrong goes deeper, into a more fundamental sense of insecurity. It is an insecurity born of a complex world characterized by great disparities, huge environmental and geopolitical challenges, and great differences in wealth, governance and religion. In this world, we need the protection of a capable government.

Consider, for example, that majorities of Americans believe climate change and gun violence pose existential threats, yet our national government is not only incapable of acting on either issue, but it is on the payroll of industry lobbyists representing narrow, opposing interests.

Thus, the progressive policy agenda must reestablish a functional, amply funded government that will implement a policy agenda to boost the economic security of the majority of Americans who have lacked such security for far too long.

For those who cannot find work where they live, a jobs program that includes a training component linked to higher-value-added work must be in place. For those who have jobs that pay below a living wage, a higher minimum wage must work in tandem with an expanded earned-income credit that reaches not just low- but also middle-income workers. Those facing barriers to labor-market entry — skill or health deficits, discrimination, criminal records, the absence of work supports such as adequate child care — must get help to overcome them.

Unlike Republicans, Democrats should not blithely put their agenda on the credit card, and the revenue to support the agenda should come from the repeal of the tax plan. That said, there is no need to get hung up on precise “pay-fors.” Though they will shamelessly attack any proposal with a price tag, Republicans, by dint of their deficit-financed tax cut, have zero credibility on responsible fiscal policy. The correct response to their “We can’t afford it!” must, at this point, be derisive scorn and dismissal.

Once the pendulum swings back, the attacks on our social insurance and anti-poverty programs must end, and the policy focus must shift to shoring them up. When facts are allowed back on the scene, we must elevate the research that shows Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and SNAP (nutritional support) work well, helping to offset market failures with big bangs for their bucks. Conversely, factual guidance means we stop doing what doesn’t work, most notably trickle-down tax cuts.

I’ll have more to say about this as the politics and policy debates evolve, but let me end here by recognizing that I just blew by one of the most important components of the return to sanity and security: bringing back the facts. That sense of insecurity that underlies contemporary American anxiety is deepened by presidential lies, starting Day 1 about the crowds at his inauguration. The depth of the problem is further revealed as we learn about the powerful role of social media in spreading falsehoods.

Those are serious problems, but I’m increasingly confident that we can correct them. Much the way that antibodies in the human bloodstream attack and reject threats to the physical system, I see the resistance movement slowly taking hold, picking off electoral victories, developing bold policy solutions and planning to hit the ground running.

So, swing back, sweet pendulum, comin’ for to carry us home!