Many Democrats think delivering tangible economic benefits to working class and lower-income voters will help them win more elections.
Some policy wonks call it "deliverism." But does it work?
"Providing material benefits to people actually doesn't have much of an impact on their political allegiances," Deepak Bhargava, senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, says.
"People are capable of voting to increase the minimum wage and supporting an authoritarian candidate at the same time."
Today, On Point: Why voters aren't impressed by 'Bidenomics.'
Deepak Bhargava, senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Distinguished lecturer at the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies. Co-author of a recent piece “The Death of ‘Deliverism.'” Co-author of the book “Practical Radical: Seven Strategies to Change the World."
Mike Lux, longtime Democratic consultant, CEO of the consultant firm Mike Lux Media. President of the progressive group American Family Voices. Served as a senior staffer or advisor on six different presidential campaigns. Author of “How to Democrat in the Age of Trump.”
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I’m here to talk about what we’re doing to invest in America. And I mean invest in America, all of America. Starting here in South Carolina.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: In recent months, President Joe Biden and members of his administration have been crisscrossing the U.S., visiting more than 20 states. They’ve dubbed it the “Investing in America” tour. The goal is to tout the administration’s economic accomplishments, part of a plan the team calls “Bidenomics.”
There was a stop in West Columbia, South Carolina in July, as you just heard, where Biden highlighted a partnership between two companies to make solar micro-inverters that the president said would create 600 jobs in South Carolina.
And then in Durham, North Carolina, in March, Biden visited Wolfspeed, a semiconductor maker.
BIDEN: Right here in America, here in North Carolina, we’re making chips that go into electric vehicles. These vehicles are powered by batteries and critical minerals that you’re making here in North Carolina. We’re making electric vehicles here in North Carolina.
CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. Since Biden took office, the administration says more than 12 million jobs have been created, including 800,000 manufacturing jobs. And the unemployment rate, Biden’s team points out, is at a 54-year low.
But those positive economic numbers are not translating to Biden’s voter approval ratings. They have stayed in the 40% range for more than a year. More recently, just 34% of Americans approve of how he’s handling the economy, according to a CBS news poll.
For more than 30 years, Democrats have adhered to the belief that a strong economy leads to better outcomes at the voting booth. The idea was crystallized in Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign when advisor James Carville coined the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Now, some Democratic analysts are wondering whether it was stupid to presume that it is the economy, exclusively, that drives voter attitudes and behaviors. And they say that Democrats are missing something fundamental about what Americans care about.
Well, Deepak Bhargava is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and a distinguished lecturer at the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies. He’s co-author of an article titled “The Death of Deliverism," that appeared in a publication called Democracy Journal. Deepak, welcome to On Point.
DEEPAK BHARGAVA: Thanks so much for having me, Meghna, it's a delight.
CHAKRABARTI: I wonder if you could start off with a story that you tell in the article about a class that you once taught. And you were, you hopped into the classroom, very excited about a certain economic policy, but you were met with an unexpected response.
Can you tell us that story?
BHARGAVA: Sure. Yeah. I was teaching a class on U.S. social and economic policy, and I was doing it at an incredible time when the Biden administration had proposed and enacted some of the most sweeping economic legislation that we've seen in decades.
I'd been working for much of my career on trying to expand income support for low income and working-class people, and the American Rescue Plan that the Biden administration got passed, included a measure called the refundable child tax credit, that essentially delivered thousands of dollars in the bank accounts of parents with children. Remarkable provision. It had the effect of reducing child poverty in this country by nearly 50%, a historic achievement.
So I walked into class one evening. My students were largely working-class people, many of them parents. I asked how many people had gotten the money in their bank accounts. Most of the hands went up. I then asked how many of them were happy about it and not a single person raised their hand.
And so there began the beginning of the search to answer this mystery that I stumbled upon. Why wasn't there a positive response?
CHAKRABARTI: As you said, these students of yours were mostly working class, many of them parents, many of them adults of color, which is an interesting point.
What were they more concerned about than receiving this child tax credit?
BHARGAVA: Yeah, the things that were preoccupying them were everyday quality of life issues in a place like New York City. So a lot of anxiety about a perception of rising crime and violence, what it was like to take the subway in New York and what you encountered on the way.
Obviously, the crisis of livability, expenses, affordable housing, a sense that life was really stressful and hard. The everyday experience of it was hard. And when I asked them why they didn't have a more positive response to Biden's child tax credit, to the money in their bank accounts.
A number of them responded by asking, "What's the catch?" Meaning that they had not experienced government as a positive force in their lives, and they had trouble even imagining that this was being done to benefit them. And if it was, surely someone was going to recapture the money with penalties, so it felt just totally distant and disconnected from the realities of their everyday life.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So what's interesting to me and why this story is so captivating as an introduction to the ideas that you present in this paper, is that even in this discussion, I'm hearing a little bit of uncertainty around language. Because you said that they had some perceptions about crime.
But then on the other hand, perhaps in the lives of these students of yours, in the neighborhoods they lived in, those perceptions are realities, as you also said. But then you note that these concerns that were really top of mind for them, more so than the checks, which they wondered if they had a catch, that those concerns were often spoken to or spoken of by the right and not the left.
Can you tell me more about that?
BHARGAVA: Yeah, in general progressives and Democrats have tended to proceed from the assumption that people are rational economic actors, that what really moves them at the end of the day is economic policies that deliver very concrete money in their bank accounts, money in their paychecks, bread and butter kind of stuff.
And the right has historically spoken to a much broader swath of issues, including things like crime, playing on emotion and fear to try and generate support. And in fact, often manufactured crises that didn't really exist. So panics about what's being taught in schools around race and racial justice, or panics about trans kids and so forth, that really don't have a bearing on most of these folks' lives day to day.
Certainly not in a negative way. But they have a strong visceral appeal. And so it's this interesting contrast between the more bloodless, kind of lack of emotion around some of the economic issues, and some of the passion, emotion on issues appeal to the right that seem to have greater political impact that partly launched us into this investigation.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Oh, so much to talk with you. Talk about with you, Deepak. I've just got to keep myself on track here. That's when you bring about this concept known as 'deliverism,' which is what you just described, right? The belief that if a policy delivers tangible economic impact, positive impact, that will be rewarded by voters at the ballot box.
Is that kind of a good summation of that concept?
BHARGAVA: Exactly, that's the idea. And I've certainly been a believer in deliverism for many years. So it's a puzzle to me that it hasn't proved to be the formula that one might think it would be.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay, so this is really important because it's not just you, right?
As I pointed out, that at least as far back as 1992, so we're on 31 years now in the Democratic Party, this idea that "It's the economy, stupid" has really held sway. Talk to me then about, you don't have to list them all at the same time, but what you think one of the primary reasons why in reality, deliverism hasn't played out as Democrats might have expected it to.
BHARGAVA: Yeah. I think one of the key reasons that we talk about in this piece is that we've had a growing crisis of unhappiness, of a declining wellbeing in the country that's been going on for 30 or 40 years, and that's both people's self-reported sense of satisfaction with their lives and how they're going.
And it's also very objective measures. Increasing suicide, rates of addiction. Reported loneliness, lack of friends, mental health crises, and so forth. And that phenomenon has colored people's perceptions of what's going on in their life. It's created this kind of sense of deep dissatisfaction that has been mobilized politically by the right.
It has not been mobilized successfully politically by the left. Which has tended not to speak in these kinds of more emotional, visceral terms. So one of the reasons is that there's this kind of underlying thing going on that is not part of the typical liberal progressive policy storybook.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. So we're gonna come back to that in a second. Because there's another issue that you bring up, that relates to what your students had told you. That they were wondering what's the catch right with those checks that came to them for child tax credit. Because you talk about, in the paper, how there's been a successful campaign for at least 40 years to create the expectation that government is not going to help in any way, shape, or form.
And to that point, I want to just play what I think is one of the more famous summations of that. This is from President Ronald Reagan during a news conference in August of 1986.
RONALD REAGAN: The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."
CHAKRABARTI: Deepak in the 30 seconds we have before our first break here, how effective has that line, that thinking been in convincing the American people that deliver is not going to really change their lives?
BHARGAVA: There's been a huge erosion in trust in government. And for poor and working-class people, government programs often are degrading, abusing and there often is a catch. So my students had lived experience that backed up their concerns.
CHAKRABARTI: Deepak Bhargava is with us here today talking about what Democrats are missing, and specifically progressive Democrats are missing, when they presume that a strong economy delivered by Democratic policies will automatically translate in to votes when it comes to elections.
Deepak, can you just talk to me a little bit more about the effectiveness of conservative and Republican rhetoric about the government not being an entity that can help. And how that's really, it just didn't happen overnight. This has been going on for decades and how it's set up this almost perverse expectation amongst Americans.
Because when I read that part of your paper, what jumped out at me was I was remembering back, what, even in the '90s, people started saying, "Get your hands off, your government hands off my Medicare." And that's something that resurfaced again in 2009 prior to the Affordable Care Acts' passage or all these town halls in which senior citizens were standing up and saying, "You keep your government hands off my Medicare." The disconnect was profound, wasn't it?
BHARGAVA: It is profound, and there's really two things going on here. One is an effort to delegitimize government as a way to solve social problems, economic problems, that any interference with government is inherently a bad idea.
So that's one piece of it, a kind of ideological assault. But the second piece has, in a way, been even more insidious, which is that if you make government work badly, by underfunding services or by creating a punitive element in programs, people actually have a bad experience with government programs.
So for the working class students of color that were in my class, many of them would encounter government through law enforcement. Or they would encounter government through a program like food stamps or Medicaid, which are vital programs. But often the way people are treated when they seek public assistance is an incredibly demeaning way.
So is it a surprise when they get a check, they're wondering, I don't have experience that people giving free money without a whole lot of paperwork and demeaning questions. So it's both the ideology, but also many of the ways government works for working class people, especially, is not right.
It doesn't work for them.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And as you point out in your paper, government not working for them has been brought about by policies both Republican and Democratic, which we'll come back to in a minute.
CHAKRABARTI: But the heart of your paper is really this what you said earlier, that there's this long-term epidemic of unhappiness in the United States.
How would you define unhappiness? Because we could just think of it as I'm having a bad day, but it's more specific than that.
BHARGAVA: Yeah. So my co-authors, my wonderful co-authors, Shahrzad Shams, Harry Hanbury and I went on a search to try to understand how do people understand their own lives?
And we landed on this word happiness, by which we mean not just your moment-to-moment experience of, "How's your day going, or how are you feeling right now?" But how do you assess the quality of your life? So that's the subjective part.
But then we also looked at a variety of objective indicators, things like suicide, rates of addiction, mental health, and so forth. And if you look at both the subjective data and the objective data, there's been a decline in people's reported wellbeing, their happiness, that spans decades. It's not just a COVID phenomenon. COVID made things harder for everybody. It is a long-term problem spanning decades and has very significant class and race dimensions, as well.
CHAKRABARTI: So when policy focuses on tangible economic benefits, or I'll put it more broadly, things that can be economically measured, it perhaps misses some fundamental truths about what really matters to people, is part of what you're saying. And when I read that part of the paper, which you're right to note, you co-authored, I keep saying authored, you co-authored, here's what sprung to mind for me, that someone else, decades ago, pointed out this same thing.
In 1968, Robert Kennedy gave a speech, and I'm sure you're familiar with it, at the University of Kansas, where he took on this same idea. And he said, when we talk about gross national product or gross domestic product as a measure of the country's health and wellbeing, we're actually measuring everything except what matters.
ROBERT KENNEDY: Too much and for too long we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community value in the mere accumulation of material things.
CHAKRABARTI: In that speech, Robert Kennedy then goes on to say, we measure for GDP, we measure everything, every material and economic aspect of the country, from jobs to corporate profits.
He mentioned things like cigarette advertising, to the value of the locks on doors that companies make, and the value of the jails for people who break those locks. But then Kennedy points out this.
KENNEDY: The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children. The quality of their education, or the joy of their play.
It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate, or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything in short except that which makes life worthwhile.
CHAKRABARTI: So that was Robert Kennedy in 1968. And Deepak, what I'm wondering is I'm thinking of key players in the Democratic Party who came of age watching people like Robert Kennedy, absorbing their message, and then when they come into power, I'll use Bill Clinton as a specific example, instead of following this line of thinking about how can government help make people's lives fuller, of not just economic benefit for meaning.
Economic benefit, but also with meaning. They, instead, Clinton instead turns to neoliberal economic policy, which as you said earlier, just presumes everyone's a rational actor. Can you explain that?
BHARGAVA: Yeah. This is such a profound and important point that we all as human beings have aspiration for living a full and good life, for flourishing. And economic wellbeing is a piece of that.
It's a very important piece of it, but there's many other things that are going on there. There's time to spend with loved ones. There's a sense of safety and security. There's feelings of dignity and belonging and respect, and what that Robert Kennedy quote speaks to is really that larger vision of a good life.
So beginning in the '70s, we really saw a neoliberal intellectual revolution find its way into politics. And some of the core elements of that are, we're not communities, we're just individuals, in efforts to reduce our wants and desires to just the material, to consumption, to income. And both Democrats and Republicans adopted this language, this neoliberal language, and put it into policies with things like deregulation, and tax cuts and the hollowing out of government.
Things like welfare reform and punitive crime policies, et cetera. That was a bipartisan enterprise. And I think a lot of the social turmoil, unrest, that sense of deep dissatisfaction, comes from both a failure to see public leaders articulating a vision of the good life that everyday people can relate to and believe in.
And it comes from the cumulation of all these policies over many years that have actually made people's lives objectively harder.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I would say that the intellectual grip that this neoliberal economic theory has had on both Republicans and Democrats has really left quite a complex set of policies and outcomes in its wake.
And it's always confused me, quite frankly, about how politicians picked up on this idea that people are purely rational actors, that they behave as they do, as they would on paper, right? That you can predict everything from that supply and demand set of curves and ignored the subjective, like you point out, the subjective aspects of how people experience satisfaction in their lives.
That has always confused me. But that aside. You say, you and your co-authors say in this paper that what this has wrought is fertile ground for people turning instead to authoritarian messaging and authoritarian form of government. Why?
BHARGAVA: If there's this kind of roiling discontent, this deep unhappiness, the authoritarian right-wing project speaks directly to it, it invents people to blame for why things are so bad. That may be immigrants, it may be people of color, it may be trans communities. The targets of the anger may shift, but there always is a villain. It creates a sense of a "we." We are in this together. The supporters experience these kinds of ecstatic moments in these authoritarian rallies. It provides that sense of community and belonging.
And it really taps into emotion, mostly anger and fear. And it goes to that visceral sense of something not being right, and someone's going to do something about it. And in that context, the authoritarian project doesn't have to be right on the facts.
Trump said, "I'm gonna bring manufacturing back." He didn't bring manufacturing back. Quite the contrary, actually. But he goes around today at these rallies saying, "Manufacturing is booming." And people applaud. So in that context, the emotion, the story, the identity, is much more powerful than any kind of rational appeal to objective evidence, and that, I think is the essence of what's happened here.
The tapping into that deep sense of dissatisfaction, mobilizing the emotion, creating a coherent story around it, it's very powerful.
CHAKRABARTI: So then what are you proposing that Democrats or progressive Democrats do, should they abandon the idea of delivering tangible economic benefits as a way of winning elections?
BHARGAVA: Well, I want to be very clear that addressing economic inequality, dealing with economic injustice is incredibly important on its own terms. Whatever its political impact may be. And I think it is also part of a crucial strategy for politics. It has to be, it's an important element. But by itself it's not enough.
And what needs to be added to it are two essential things. One, there's gotta be a story, a narrative about policy that says, "Why are we where we are? Who caused these problems? Who's the us that's been on the wrong side of it?" And you saw some very important and positive things, I think, by Bernie Sanders and his campaigns that told the coherent story that was believable, that was simple, that was emotional.
So one piece of the solution is storytelling. The second piece I think is really outside of the realm of politics. So it's not just politics. And that is organizing. So what we've seen over the last 40 years is a decline of institutions where working-class people come together to make meaning, to understand what's happening to them and to change things.
So that's a decline of churches, a decline of unions, a decline of other kinds of organizations. And without these kinds of organizations, people are on their own, contending with all this traumatic change in society and the economy and technology. Without the benefits of community to hold them. And what we really need is a civic revival that reinvigorates organizing community, brings people back together.
Those two things I think are really fundamental to meeting the authoritarian threat.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay Deepak, standby for just a minute because I want to bring Mike Lux into the conversation. He's a longtime Democratic consultant and CEO of the firm Mike Lux Media, President of the progressive group American Family Voices, and he served as a senior staffer or advisor on six different presidential campaigns.
Mike, welcome to On Point.
MIKE LUX: Thank you so much for having me and Deepak, it's been great hearing your voice. Deepak is an old friend.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And just for the sake of transparency and disclosure, you are not currently affiliated with the Biden campaign, are you?
LUX: No. No.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, good. Just wanted to double, be double clear on that. So what do you make of Deepak and his co-authors' thesis here on not necessarily the death of deliverism as an effective doctrine for Democratic policy, but perhaps trying to enhance deliverism with a message that's more meaningful to the ways that Americans actually identify the central challenges in their lives.
LUX: I agree with most of most of what they wrote in their paper in terms of what we need to do going forward. I'm not as pessimistic as they are about our ability to make electoral gains by passing good legislation, good economic legislation. But I do agree with them that it's not a simplistic thing.
It's not, "Okay, we're gonna pass great policy then the voters are gonna elect us." The points that Deepak has been talking about here, about storytelling, about organizing, about building community, are things that I very much believe in, and they have to be part of the equation.
I think, though, that tangible policies that actually do benefit people and are felt by people do matter in elections. And I think we started to get a glimpse of that in 2022. When in contested house districts, for example, or senate races like the Pennsylvania Senate race, we saw working class folks move a little bit toward Democrats in a lot of places.
And we won a bunch of elections that people did not expect us to win in 2022.
CHAKRABARTI: Was that because of deliverism, or was it because of the overturning of Roe?
LUX: I think it was both. I think the overturning of Roe changed the dynamics in the race in a big way. And turned out bigger numbers of women, bigger numbers of young people in the electorate, and that was absolutely crucial.
I guess my view is that it's not, as my old friend James would say, It's not just the economy. It's weaving these things together and telling the story about the freedoms we want to build for the American people.
CHAKRABARTI: Mike, I wanted to get your direct response to really what's at the heart of Deepak and his co-authors' paper here. This idea that neoliberalism has embraced both by Republicans and Democrats in the past generation or two, that the neoliberal economic regime has fostered insecurity, increased personal risk in people's lives, isolation, anxiety, fear.
And they call that as the primary causes of unhappiness in American life that has been rising over time. And that is why people have a very difficult time believing that getting those tangible economic benefits is going to make a difference in their lives. What's your assessment of that thesis?
LUX: I completely agree with that thesis. And I think Deepak's discussion of the need to build community to bring people together again, to focus on people's happiness and helping them build good, safe communities is so critical. And I will say this. It's interesting, but Joe Biden, I think, gets that in the story that he's trying to tell, for example, in his Chicago speech.
Couple of weeks ago, he talks about 40 years of trickle-down policies. And I think he's referencing the fact that both parties have failed over the last 40 years. Both parties have not understood the importance of making working families' lives better. And I think that's exactly right, and I think telling that story, we've been digging this deep hole.
In terms of working-class folks for 40 years, we're just now seeing policies that will help us climb out of that hole. And people are going to be cynical for a while. There's no doubt about that.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So before we move forward more concertedly into what should Democrats do.
Deepak, there's another question I wanted to ask you about the centrality of this idea of profound unhappiness in American life as caused by neoliberal policies. Because you quote research in the paper you co-authored, and it said that unhappiness predicted the Trump vote better than race, income levels or unemployment, better than how many immigrants had moved into the country, or how old or religious the citizens were. That it was possibly the best predictor of whether or not people voted for Donald Trump in 2016. But then you say that what people were voting for, whether they saw it that way or not, was fundamentally a white supremacist movement.
So I wanted to challenge that. I wanted to challenge that in this way. I do agree with you that what Trump is saying and selling is an authoritarian white supremacist movement. But it seems like you have the implication here that people, especially white voters, when they voted for Trump, were acting on their own racism.
So why is it that, it seems like you're saying that when white voters act on their unhappiness, it's racism, but it's not necessarily that when other voters, people of color act on their unhappiness, it's not racism.
BHARGAVA: The way I would think about it is that we all hold a lot of stories about how the world works and those stories, contradictory stories may exist in the same person. So what Trump did is activate one set of stories for some of the voters who voted for him. I'm not saying all of the voters were explicitly or even implicitly, that was their only motivation, but for a substantial number, race played a huge role.
It's not the only possible explanation people might have for the situation they find themselves in. So a very telling fact is that counties where there were high levels of what are deaths of despair, deaths due to addiction, mental health crises, suicidality, and so forth, that those counties are the strongest Trump voting, authoritarian leading counties.
What's going on in those places, I think, is in a search for an explanation for why things are so difficult and rough, you could, there might be multiple ones. So Bernie Sanders told a story of corporations that I think is a closer to the truth story, of the role of corporations in redistributing wealth outwards, upwards, and destroying opportunity and security for working class families.
That competed against the story that Trump told about destructive others who are trying to erode the quality of life for people. It's a very powerful story, but it's not the only story. So my answer is not to give up on people, to write people off as racist. It's really to activate other stories that I think exist in people. I think that's what Mike is saying, in part.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so then in that case, I think this is an important point to pursue a little, because I'm not sure that's what I'm hearing from progressive analysts on TV, or even from candidate surrogates on the campaign trail. Because there's a lot of talk on the progressive left that when white folks act on their unhappiness, that's just white supremacy and racism.
That's the message I think that's percolating through media right now. And so if you're going to reach out to those very same voters who have, as you've said, very specific, clear and concrete reasons to feel that rising unhappiness, how should Democrats be reaching out to those voters when out of one side of their mouth, they're saying, "You voted for Trump so you're a racist."
BHARGAVA: Yeah, no, I think that is obviously not the right way to go. My experience in social movements is that people come to understand who's with them and who's against them by participating in struggle with other human beings.
So when we come together as workers in the workplace to demand better wages, better working conditions, when we come together to push our politicians to do better, to do community projects together, to get more housing created, that creates a sense of agency, and it breaks through some of the walls that can divide us along lines of race and immigration status and other things.
So I think this is where the answer is not going to be found solely through politics. The political element to it is telling a story about a bigger we, that this is a shared project that crosses lines of race. And then there's an organizing project that's fundamental, where we're going to need to see a renaissance of people coming together to be protagonists, to be the people who are writing the story.
And I believe a lot of the people who have drifted, not all, a lot of the people who've drifted into the authoritarian camp can be won back over if they're invited, not just to be beneficiaries of a policy they didn't write or create or have anything to do with, but if they're invited to help create their future.
And that to me is the central thing. If people are passive spectators, it's dangerous.
LUX: Can I just add a comment here?
CHAKRABARTI: Go ahead, Mike.
LUX: I thought one of the fundamental messages of the paper that Deepak and his colleagues wrote was politics is complicated as hell. And it is, this isn't just you can't explain changes in the electorate, changes in voting patterns. Changes in people's lives with simple explanations. It's not just racism, but racism is at work. It's not just what we do on the economy, but what we do on the economy is important.
It's not just abortion, but abortion is important. It's a complicated quilt as Jesse Jackson would've put it that we're trying to put together. And I think people look too much for simple explanations.
CHAKRABARTI: Agreed, and that actually, but that's why I was raising what seemed to be some inconsistencies here.
Not necessarily what Deepak is saying, but in, I think, how progressives have tried to advance their messaging over the past several years.
BHARGAVA: One more point about that I think is important is we have seen dramatic increases in unhappiness among white non-college men. That's where the most dramatic changes have been.
And I think there is' an element there that is about status threat. That is to say, as the demography of the country has changed, as it has become more diverse and as politicians like Trump have played on people's worst fears, it has activated this kind of threat response, a sense of loss. I think the answer to that is to speak directly to that racism, to challenge it and to build a different sense of who are we that is inclusive and so forth.
To me the answer here has to do with a storytelling that is equally emotional, but doesn't rely entirely on anger and fear. Although anger has its place, but also invokes a hope, a sense of community, a sense of shared purpose.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. We call it status loss. But you've also said, though, that the sources of those unhappiness for those non-college educated white men is real.
Their life expectancy has gone down. The communities they live in, many parts of this country, have been eviscerated by those neoliberal policies that we were talking about. So it's not just, I would say that when we bring in, "We have to combat that racism."
Yes, but we also have to acknowledge the truth of the sources of their unhappiness.
BHARGAVA: Absolutely. There's been a war on the working class in this country for decades that has crossed race lines. And people are right to feel a sense of grievance and anger and unhappiness about what's been done to their communities, their families, and our society.
CHAKRABARTI: Go ahead, Mike.
LUX: So one of the things I've been very involved in recent years is studying the communities that have been most affected by the industrialization and neoliberalism. And I've called it the Factory Towns Project. It's working-class communities that many of which used to be very Democratic in their voting, and now are tending to vote more strongly for Trump.
And in the surveys that we've done, the numbers are just heartbreaking in terms of the numbers of people who report that either they personally or a family member has suffered from job loss, from pension loss from mental illness problems, from addiction problems, from losing their homes.
We're talking big numbers. We're talking over half of the people we surveyed, mentioning at least some of these things to us that had happened to them in the last few years. So these folks are really hurting, and they feel like no party is paying any attention to them. They feel like big corporations and CEOs are ruining their economic chances.
As Deepak said, people have multiple stories in their lives. And part of what we need to recognize is the depth of how much hurt folks are in and the level of cynicism and bitterness there. And if we don't, if we don't speak to that, if we don't understand that, then we won't win their votes back.
I just want to make one other point, which is --
CHAKRABARTI: Sure. Quickly.
LUX: Yeah. I think we're talking right now about a game of inches. Inches are really important in politics. You win or lose elections based on inches. But I think if over time we pass policies that really do make a big difference in people's lives, that will change that cynicism, that will change that bitterness, their lives will get better, the happiness will increase.
So I think we have to look at it, the short-term game of inches and the longer-term goal of what we want to do for people.
CHAKRABARTI: I appreciate both of you saying those things and the reason why I was pushing on this point in particular, because you've both said there needs to also be a unifying narrative.
A message and a way of speaking with the American people that acknowledges their concerns. Narratives by definition are also, even though Mike, I agree with you. Politics isn't simple. It's complex, but narratives are an act of sort of intelligent simplification.
I want to just play two quick clips that show how, you know, what both of you are saying is a form of perhaps effective narrative for the Democrats. Bernie Sanders has been mentioned a couple of times, so here's what he said. At a union rally in San Francisco back in May of 2016.
BERNIE SANDERS: You are standing up and fighting back against corporate greed, and that's what we need all over this country. (CHEERS)
We will not accept an America where people are working longer hours for lower wages, and almost all new wealth and income is going to the 1%.
CHAKRABARTI: So that was Bernie Sanders. In 2016, he did not win the nomination, as we all remember. But here's President Biden in that Chicago speech that Mike mentioned in June of this year, where he talked about what he's outlined as Bidenomics.
BIDEN: This vision is a fundamental break from the economic theory that his failed America's middle class for decades now. It's called trickle-down economics. Fundamental economics, trickle down. The idea was, it's a belief that we should cut taxes for the wealthy and big corporations. And I know something about big corporations.
There's more corporations in Delaware incorporated than every other state in the union combined. I want 'em to do well, but I'm tired of waiting for the trickle down. It doesn't come very quickly. Not much trickle down on my dad's kitchen table growing up.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I will note that as senator from Delaware, Biden actually was a good friend to many of those same corporations he was talking about, but in the last 30 seconds that we have, Deepak, are there limits to how effective this messaging can be for Democrats because of actually their relationships with those same corporations?
And we only have about 10 seconds. I'm sorry.
BHARGAVA: Inclusive populism is clearly the future. Do you think, not just an anti-corporate message, but one that's about building an economy that works for everybody and where everybody gets to participate regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, et cetera. That's the winning combination. A positive, hopeful vision for the future.
This program aired on August 1, 2023.