The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How the coming war over infrastructure will reveal even deeper divisions

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Kristi Noem, the Republican governor of South Dakota, triggered epic mockery when she offered a creative argument against President Biden’s new infrastructure plan on Fox News on Wednesday night.

“I was shocked by how much doesn’t go into infrastructure,” Noem said. “It goes into research and development, it goes into housing and pipes and different initiatives, green energy, and it’s not really an honest conversation we’re having about what this proposal is.”

Of course, pipes are infrastructure, and the plan would spend more than $100 billion on pipes and water systems, partly so no kids drink lead-tainted water. It would spend enormously on the most conventional infrastructure projects, such as bridge and road repair ($115 billion), ports and airports ($42 billion) and public transit, Amtrak and freight rail ($165 billion).

But in a way, the more important distinction Noem drew is between “infrastructure” on one hand, and “research and development” and “green energy” on the other.

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Because this points to a hidden way that the coming war over Biden’s bill will exacerbate deep partisan divisions, while serving as yet another indicator of the GOP’s radicalization.

Republicans and Democrats, it turns out, have deep differences over what constitutes “infrastructure.” In the case of Biden’s bill, this could shape arguments over it in surprising ways.

This is explained in an interesting new piece from Politico’s Michael Grunwald. As he notes, the two parties’ diverging definitions over infrastructure reflect increasing geographical polarization.

With Republicans increasingly becoming concentrated in rural, small-town and exurban America, even as Democrats are increasingly concentrated in cosmopolitan areas and inner suburbs, their priorities on infrastructure have cleaved:

Republican lawmakers have increasingly equated infrastructure with new highways that connect rural communities and promote exurban sprawl. Some of them also support dams, drainage projects and rural development programs that help farmers and farm towns.
But they see most of what Biden proposed as “Democratic infrastructure,” supporting Democratic policies, Democratic interest groups and Democratic voters who overwhelmingly live close together in racially diverse cities and transit-friendly inner-ring suburbs.

The GOP conception of “Democratic infrastructure,” Grunwald suggests, includes things such as investments in research and development, which pump money into places with universities and research hubs.

Meanwhile, Grunwald notes, money channeled into public transit and green energy projects, and investments in community college and boosts to the multiracial caregiving working class, might also be seen as primarily benefiting cosmopolitan or urban America.

Of course, upgrades of roads, bridges, electrical grids and piping could be spread around everywhere, and presumably freight rail will benefit heavily manufacturing areas. And while many things in the plan are not conventional infrastructure, investments in health care, child care and education may still benefit the national interest, with Americans everywhere heavily dependent on a badly underfunded caregiving infrastructure.

But all that aside, if this distinction is really setting in, it tells us something important by itself. If Republicans no longer see investments in things such as research and development — or in knowledge that could help facilitate future green technologies — as public expenditures on par with concrete infrastructure spending, then this diverts from the GOP of the past.

Back during the Eisenhower era, Republicans widely supported large public investments in big projects such as the interstate highway system. But they also supported big investments in research and development, in the technologies of the future and in education for the express purpose of facilitating future national development.

“After the launch of Sputnik, for the federal government to spend whatever it took to produce universities and scientists and high technology became priority No. 1 of the Republican Party in the Eisenhower administration,” economist Brad Delong told me.

“Education and engineering in high technology became the key piece of lacking American infrastructure that the Eisenhower administration wanted to create,” continued DeLong, the co-author of a book about government’s role in reshaping the economy at key historical moments.

Republicans at the time viewed this as “essential to America achieving its national purposes,” DeLong said.

Political scientist Jacob Hacker, co-author of a book about how cooperation between government and the private sector has driven U.S. prosperity and innovation, adds that some of the big public investments in the mid-20th century were forward-looking knowledge investments.

If Republicans now scoff at investments in research and development and in future green technologies — and see this as not “real” infrastructure — that’s a vast difference from that old GOP, Hacker told me.

“The party led by Eisenhower, including overwhelming majorities of congressional Republicans, backed risky technologies that transformed our economy,” Hacker said. “They were supportive of huge R&D investment in the technologies of the future.”

When Biden tries to drum up nostalgia for the big public investments of the 1950s and 1960s, he’s also referring back to that old GOP. But as Noem’s widely mocked quote has revealed, that party is long gone.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Biden’s big bet: He’s found the kryptonite that will defeat Trumpism

Henry Olsen: Republicans are right to oppose Biden’s infrastructure plan. But they must offer an alternative.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Biden is transforming the nation’s political assumptions

The Post’s View: Biden’s infrastructure plan is a big bet on big government

Karen Tumulty: How Nancy Reagan helped end the Cold War