Is Economic Populism Biden’s Best Hope for Beating Trump?

People watch Trump-Biden debate

What’s Biden’s best argument against Trump?
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There is an ancient yet still vibrant school of thought in center-left politics that is known as economic populism. It tends to hold that unstinting, class-warfare-style attacks on the wealthy and on corporations are the keys to the kingdom for Democratic politicians and typically envisions a return to the “New Deal coalition” — based on working-class voters who made Democrats the majority party from the Great Depression into the 1980s — as its goal. To some observers, it is an especially tempting option right now, at a time when the Democratic president of the United States is in danger of losing office over economic concerns to a wealthy Republican rival aligned with the interests of his fellow plutocrats.

So it’s not surprising to see New Republic editor Mike Tomasky (a shrewd and experienced political observer who also happens to be an old friend of mine) argue that President Biden needs to revive the economic messaging of the 1930s:

Biden needs to run a class warfare campaign against Trump and his Mar-a-Lago cronies and make the economic contrast crystal clear, because the differences in economic philosophy between these two candidates is probably greater than any since FDR faced Alf Landon in 1936.

Somewhat ironically, Tomasky admits that taking a page from the Democratic messaging of the distant past is essential because Biden can’t run on the economic record he compiled in the immediate past:

Biden can’t win an economic argument about the past. In reality, his economic record is strong, and the inflation wasn’t his doing. But very few people know or believe that. Meanwhile, people do believe, preposterous as it seems, that Trump is a successful businessman and was a good economic steward. If swing voters walk into the voting booth thinking about the candidates’ economic records, they’ll vote for Trump.

It’s the two candidates’ economic agendas for the next four years, and particularly Trump’s support for more tax cuts for the rich, that Tomasky recommends as Biden’s priority in the last few months of the 2024 presidential contest. He does not, to be clear, recommend shelving Biden’s other arguments about abortion policy and the threat Trump poses to democracy. But he appears (like many other Democrats) to share the populist premise that economic issues matter most and offer the strongest ground for any winning Democrat:

The voters who will decide this election care mostly about their bank accounts, and their future. The way to win a majority of them is to make Trump defend a position they strongly oppose.

I would challenge both of these premises. First of all, a vote is a vote, and in what is clearly going to be a very close Trump-Biden contest, the “voters who will decide this election” could just as easily be middle-class former Republicans upset about lost abortion rights or January 6 as it could be the legendary white working-class voters who have been sold a bill of goods by Trump. And while Biden and other Democrats should do everything within their power to identify Trump with the deeply unpopular economic-policy views of his Republican allies (and, indeed, of his presidency, once you look at what he actually advocated), it’s important to acknowledge the man is a master of evasion when it comes to confessing to unpopular views. It’s unlikely that Biden will be able to carry with him to a debate podium a copy of the Heritage Foundation’s 1,000-page Mandate for Leadership book laying out a radical agenda for a second Trump administration and hold the 45th president’s feet to the fire on its particulars. The incumbent and his advisers will need to skillfully distill the economic and cultural and constitutional challenges a second Trump term would create in a manner that makes and keeps them front of mind for persuadable voters.

Some Democrats are reluctant to focus on noneconomic issues because they, not necessarily voters, find them most compelling. Dating back to the classic populist analysis of Democratic futility — Thomas Frank’s brilliantly written 2004 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? — you often see a prejudice that “class warfare” issues are the only real issues and working-class voters the only legitimate target for progressive politicians. Compounding that prejudice is the stereotype of the American electorate as progressive on economic issues and more conservative on cultural issues. Indeed, the New York Times’ David Leonhardt asserted this very thing last year:

[It’s] arguably the most important fact about U.S. politics: Americans tend to be more progressive on economic issues than they are on social issues. If you can remember that, you will be able to make better sense of the 2024 campaign.

As it happens, Gallup has been asking Americans to describe their ideology on economic and on social issues for a very long time, and its latest findings contradict the economic-populist premise:

Gallup’s May 1-23 Values and Beliefs survey finds that Americans are currently about equally likely to say their views are conservative (32%), moderate (32%) or liberal (33%) on social issues. Though annual figures have fluctuated, the ideological parity in the latest measure is also reflected in a five-year average of figures from 2020 to 2024 …

Americans are currently most likely to describe their views on economic issues as conservative (39%) or moderate (35%), while about a quarter describe their economic views as liberal (23%).

Like Gallup’s trend on social issues, Americans have become more likely to describe their views as liberal, though this increase has not led to ideological parity as it has on social issues. The peak in liberal economic identification was recorded in 2021, at 25%; it has exceeded 20% for each of the past five years.

If, as most progressive folks believe, the fight to keep Trump from returning to the White House is a transcendent cause, then Democrats should go with whatever works, not with any preferred emphasis on economic issues as inherently more salient (or, as some believe, more legitimate). Abortion and constitutional governance are as likely to decide the Biden-Trump competition as the two candidates’ positions on taxes and economic inequality and vice versa. But it’s absolutely true that Biden needs to define his closing argument very soon and stick with it. Trump has no such problems since his candidacy has long since focused on marrying nostalgia for the price levels of the pre-pandemic Trump administration with a future filled with vengeance.

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