It’s a bright, cold Sunday morning with snow on the ground. The kids have evacuated the house at the crack of dawn to take advantage of the snow before it melts. With any luck, none of them will break any bones. I started to do some holiday shopping — online, of course — and got stuck. There is no other company or brand that elicits such complicated, contradictory feelings for me as Amazon. In so many ways, it is an essential utility for our life — and in so many ways, what’s wrong with the country.
Is the more powerful force in American politics greed? The pandemic has exacerbated these long running issues of income inequality: if Jeff Bezos gave each of his 876,000 employees a $105,000 bonus, he’d be left with as much money as he had at the beginning of the pandemic. And yet it will be a struggle for me to avoid Amazon this week for purchasing everything from winter boots to holiday gifts to the ingredients for my homemade mincemeat pies.
In one form or another, greed has undermined most of our institutions, from higher ed to journalism to the U.S. Senate. Right now, the Federal Reserve is pumping money into Wall Street — a strategy guaranteed to make the rich richer — while the Congress (or specifically, the Senate) won’t pass a relief package for everyone else. From dentists to port-a-potties, monopolization is at an all time high, further concentrating wealth in the hands of a ludicrously small number of Americans. (On that topic, this column by Matt Stoller should be required reading.)
It is easy to sit in judgement and see the problem of greed as the problem of the Republican Party. After all, Trump is about the purest embodiment of greed the culture has ever produced. If only it were so easy. Greed permeates American culture, infecting both political parties. You can see it in Biden’s narrow victory, and it is foundational to my Rule 1: It Will Get Crazier.
In Wisconsin, there are 536 communities that voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016. This past November nearly all — 509 — voted for Trump again. Why? It’s the economy, stupid. The Washington Post writes:
The parts of America that have seen strong job, population and economic growth in the past four years voted for Joe Biden, economic researchers found. In contrast, President Trump garnered his highest vote shares in counties that had some of the most sluggish job, population and economic growth during his term.
Trump fared well among voters who said the economy was their top concern, and he even won votes in places that didn’t fare particularly well under his presidency.
The Democratic Party is rapidly becoming the party of the white collar professional class. In 1980, the Democrats won only 9 of the 100 highest income counties. In 2020, Biden won over fifty percent (57/43) of the highest income counties. Although the unions remain institutionally among the biggest funders of the Democratic Party, white union members individually are (by and large) not voting for Democratic candidates. As the New York Times put it, “Joe From Scranton” didn’t win back the working class; nor did Biden bring much help to down ballot Democrats (“Weakest coattails in 60 years” screams the Washington Post headline). This was not a vote for Biden; this was a vote against Trump.
I am haunted to this day by John Edwards, the disgraced former US Senator from North Carolina. Edwards ran for president in the 2004 Democratic primary with a stump speech about how there are “two Americas”:
…There are two Americas, not one: One America that does the work, another America that reaps the reward. One America that pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks. One America that will do anything to leave its children a better life, another America that never has to do a thing because its children are already set for life…One America that is struggling to get by, another America that can buy anything it wants, even a Congress and a President.
He goes on to detail the stark realities of Two Americas in health care, in education, in pretty much every facet of American life. Those words were true in 2004, and in the sixteen years since the divide between the two Americas has grown even more dramatic. You can see it in our elections. Dr. Jane Mansbridge has an excellent presentation on the causes of political polarization, and her data argues that income inequality is a driving force of polarization. The last time the country was this polarized was the Gilded Age.
As we are constantly reminded, Biden ran a campaign on empathy and competence. Trump ran a campaign on populist rage and racism. And the country came out 50/50. If the Democrats continue moving towards being the party of the Acela corridor, the party of college-educated managers who live in and around big cities, then the party will keep losing. As I argued last week, we need a fundamental shift in the political landscape — not a fight around the margins. Biden has an opportunity to lead — to co-opt some of the populist right and reshape the landscape — and being a Teddy Roosevelt-style monopoly-buster would be a big winner. But his political appointees to date don’t signal any such thing. If anything, he’s signalling a return to 2004 — and that means the gap between the two Americas will grow, grow, grow, and it will get crazier.
Until next time,
PS. A big thank you to Joel Gagne for his encouragement and ideas while writing this piece. He’s a gentleman, a breeder of fine horses, a bawcock, truepenny and straight-fingered — indeed, the bee’s knees, or if you prefer, the elephant’s adenoids.