Joe Biden may present himself as a ‘working-class hero’, a claim reiterated recently in the leftist American Prospect, but increasingly America’s workers are showing signs not of common cause but disquiet. Hollywood workers just announced a large-scale strike, some of whom blame their hard times on the ‘disruption’ to their industry wrought by tech firms, which are distinctly hostile to unions. There’s also increased tensions at Disneyland, as well as numerous organising efforts targeting Biden’s oligarch allies like Amazon and Starbucks.
One possible cause for the unrest lies with inflationary pressures that have cancelled out any income gains for most people outside the oligarchic elites. The sad economic reality of today – real wages are in decline – contrasts uncomfortably with the far better performance for working people under the pre-pandemic Trump administration.
High inflation – notably for food, rent and housing – cutting against working- and middle-class budgets seems likely to spread more labour unrest across the country. Today only 22 per cent of Americans express optimism about the economy, and confidence in Biden’s economic leadership has fallen to nearly 40 per cent.
This grassroots unease poses a major challenge to a man who some see as the reincarnation of Franklin Roosevelt. Indeed, Biden’s programme, shaped by Senator Bernie Sanders, is far more aggressively socialist than many expected. This is quite a transition for a man once widely castigated on the left as a predictable ‘corporate hack’, particularly subservient to credit-card companies based in his home state. In 2019, the Guardian accused Biden of ‘dressing up his candidacy in a blue-collar costume’ – adding that ‘he’s never taken a political risk for workers’.
Biden clearly lacks FDR’s charm, easy-speaking manner and vision, which were critical to the New Deal’s political legacy. Unlike FDR, who enjoyed huge congressional majorities and widespread public support, Biden faces a divided congress, backing a programme that polls poorly outside his own party. Roosevelt dealt with a global economic catastrophe where deflation and mass unemployment were the key challenges. Biden’s spending programme comes amid a labour shortage and high inflation now rising faster than at any time in 30 years (as also seems to be the case in Europe).
Biden’s programme of massive new spending and tax increases has been criticised not just by conservative economists, but also by veterans of the Clinton and Obama eras. Former Treasury secretary Larry Summers has criticised Biden’s multi-trillion-dollar spending programme as inherently inflationary. This is not the medicine an economy choked by supply issues, rising commodity shortages and low labour participation needs, he argues.
Since 2016 the seeming unity of the Democratic coalition lay in common detestation for Donald Trump, which motivated a wide array of people. Yet as soon as Biden was in power, his coalition began to fracture, as Big Tech companies, Wall Street and well-to-do taxpayers rallied to make sure that progressive reform does not morph into a democratic socialism.
Biden’s dual identities – ally of oligarchy and friend of the working class – are in fundamental conflict. On green, gender and other gentry-liberal issues, the progressive left and the oligarchy are in fundamental agreement. But when it comes to class issues, like taxes and labour organising, the new oligarchs, however sartorially modest they are these days, still think like corporate aristocrats. They are desperate to preserve their quasi-monopolies and unorganised workforce, and often use groups like the Business Roundtable as convenient fronts.
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Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.