The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s devious plan to break the MAGA fever just might work

President Biden at the White House on Tuesday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
6 min

It seems almost like a vast controlled experiment. Can enormous amounts of federal spending launched under President Biden, much of it destined for MAGA country, dampen the right-wing populist fervor unleashed by his predecessor Donald Trump?

Two new reports illustrate the scale of spending that is coming under Biden’s biggest policy achievements — and illuminate the geography of that spending as well.

The first is from the Brookings Institution on the Chips and Science Act, which will spend tens of billions of dollars shoring up the nation’s semiconductor industry. Brookings finds that a large percentage of jobs created will likely be well-suited to people without college degrees.

The second report is from the Wall Street Journal. It finds that the Inflation Reduction Act’s spending on incentives for the manufacturing and consumption of renewable energies is heavily concentrated in red states and congressional districts.

Mark Muro, a co-author of the Brookings report, has long pointed to widening geographic inequalities as an essential cause of the populist backlash that fueled Trump’s rise, and has called for industrial policies to remedy them.

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I contacted Muro to ask whether Biden’s policies — which seem to be an extraordinarily ambitious effort at such a rebalancing — could mitigate that backlash. An edited and condensed version of our conversation follows.

Greg Sargent: Your new study suggests the Chips Act will create a lot of tech jobs specifically for people without degrees, often in red states. What is it about tech work that creates this kind of opening for noncollege workers?

Mark Muro: We’re talking about people working on the shop floor in increasingly high-tech environments. These are high-productivity jobs making high-value products. So the pay is good.

But they don’t require a college degree. We calculate that 60 percent of semiconductor manufacturing jobs are accessible to folks without a degree.

The Journal finds that the IRA is poised to spend big on creating green manufacturing jobs in red states and districts. The story for years has been blue metro areas pulling away in growth from red small-metro and rural areas. With Chips and the IRA, are we seeing almost a moonshot to correct this?

The surge of place-based industrial policy, which these programs represent, is partly intended to counter the pull-away of superstar metros on the coasts. This is in part an explicit effort to accelerate growth in new places — often ones that have been left behind.

These programs are large. They’ll meaningfully improve the geography of the U.S. industrial economy.

The “calamity thesis” of Trump’s rise sees right-wing populism as a reaction to a social emergency: being left behind by the digitizing, globalizing economy. Could investing huge sums in those places take the sting out of that populist backlash?

To the extent there’s an economic base to backlash politics, these programs may well counter that. They will accelerate accessible noncollege work opportunities in exactly the kinds of places left behind by deindustrialization.

These places have a familiarity with manufacturing. These new programs are going to scale that up and accelerate new plant openings. We’re going to see tight labor markets, forcing higher wages. This could be a very healthy development in some regions that have been going sideways.

Some theorists suggest the decline of manufacturing created a loss of status among working people, a sense that their contributions to our national life are less valuable than in the past. Biden talks about the “dignity of work.” Is the Chips Act partly an effort to create dignified work?

Jobs in chip plants are going to be some of the highest-tech, most sophisticated advanced manufacturing jobs in the world. Many workers will feel they are part of a compelling enterprise.

Of course, building new semiconductor plants will not itself produce accessible good-quality jobs. Much will depend on our creating high-quality training and building accessible worker pathways into this work, and upwards in the plants.

Many left-behind areas were fossil-fuel-dependent, making it easy to demagogue the green energy transition as a threat. Is there a new opening to persuade people in these places that green jobs are the manufacturing jobs of the future?

Maybe so. These plants are producing things like the F-150 Lightning EV pickup. Too much previous production has been on the wrong side of the shift from a carbon economy. These are new, viable concerns on the right side of long-term global trends and demands. Suddenly, green manufacturing is the source of great jobs making cool products for “real people” in America.

Yakov Feygin and Nils Gilman argue that such a transition could create new coalitions of Democrats and right-wing populist types around transitioning to a green future as a nationalist project.

The material fact of this work — at the cutting edge of global technology — is going to be inherently compelling. Many families have, after all, been buffeted by deindustrialization — a sense that they’re on the wrong side of the economy.

Workers feeling they are producing products of value that are becoming more important in the economy — not less — could be empowering.

An ad for one of the electric trucks casts it as part of a nationalist project of reorienting us toward the economy of the future.

Absolutely. This work is a form of Americana.

One dark aspect to this, as Eric Levitz points out, is that these investments are concentrated in low-wage, anti-union areas. Does this undercut the goal of building a new solidarity among working people?

It could. But the rules around use of Chips subsidies could encourage pro-worker features such as quality workforce training, job quality standards, union presence and the like. What’s more, a huge amount of hiring needs to occur. Regions — and the firms — are going to have to pull together to create the needed workforce.

There’s a theory that Biden was elected to take the steam out of the populist discontent of the Trump years. The optimistic take is that plant after plant opening could serve that.

The coming years are going to feature numerous plant openings and real hiring in increasingly tight labor markets, with significant potential benefits for noncollege people. If anything can cut through the current epidemic of backlash politics, it’s the kind of major economic revitalization that these programs are pushing.