Originally published at Project-Syndicate | November 25th, 2022
The unanticipated outcome of the US 2022 midterm election shows that Americans can sense the challenges they face, and believe that they can do a better job of addressing them through civil, informed debate and well-designed public policy. In fact, whether they realize it or not, most support progressive objectives.
NEW YORK – The world heaved a sigh of relief this month when the feared “red wave” of Republican victories in the US midterm elections failed to materialize. While the Republicans took the House of Representatives by a narrow margin, the Democrats held on to the Senate. The Republican Party’s performance was not only worse than expected; it was the worst midterm performance in decades for a party not in control of the White House.
Voters this year seemed to reject Republican extremism and hypocrisy, largely denying victories to the many candidates endorsed by former President Donald Trump. To win Trump’s endorsement, they embraced his lie that the 2020 election was “stolen,” and they openly called into question fundamental democratic principles, such as the peaceful transfer of power and non-partisan stewardship of elections. Most of them lost, including in key battleground states like Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
But we should not be too sanguine. In many cases, the margin of victory was slim. Large numbers of Americans voted for extremists, and some of those candidates did win. This should give us pause.
As with Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s victory over Jair Bolsonaro (“Tropical Trump”) in Brazil, we must not let some heartening electoral results distract from the broader trend of rising authoritarianism. From recent elections in Italy, Sweden, and Hungary to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s sham “re-election” by the Communist Party of China, there is no reason to think that the world has been made safe for democracy. That will happen only when democratic governments show that they are consistently serving constituents’ interests and addressing the defining problems of the twenty-first century.
WHAT BIDEN HAS DONE…
To be sure, there is always a danger of misreading an election outcome, given the complexity of factors that go into determining how an individual votes. That seems especially true of the 2022 US midterm elections, when many powerful forces were pulling every which way. But from my perspective, the average rational voter recognized the Democrats’ historic successes from the past two years. Thanks to President Joe Biden’s recovery bill (the American Rescue Plan), the United States had the strongest recovery of any of the world’s advanced economies, reducing childhood poverty by almost half in the space of a year.
Biden also oversaw the passage of the first major infrastructure bill in decades; America’s first major legislative response to climate change, the Inflation Reduction Act; and a major industrial-policy bill, the CHIPS and Science Act, which explicitly recognizes the government’s key role in shaping the economy. And these landmark bills all passed despite a historically unwieldy Congress.
Had there been more cooperation and good-faith negotiation on Capitol Hill, Biden might also have pushed through a windfall profits tax to redirect some of the fossil-fuel industry’s obscene war-fueled revenues toward better ends. Profits are supposed to provide incentives to meet economic needs; but these greedy companies refused to open the spigot, because they saw that withholding supply would lead to even higher prices and profits.
But Biden got done what he could. Moreover, his accomplishments have not been limited to legislation. He appointed the first black woman to the US Supreme Court, and he issued executive orders to alleviate student-loan debt, improve antitrust enforcement, and update financial regulations for the era of climate change. He brought America back into the Paris climate agreement and made notable gains in restoring American leadership on the world stage. Though he has gotten very little credit for it, history will likely show that his management of the Russia-Ukraine war has been masterful.
… AND WHAT HE FACED
Neither of the two major sources of unhappiness in America today (beyond our acrimonious politics) can be pinned on Biden. The COVID-19 pandemic has lasted longer than it should have, but at least Biden – unlike Trump – did everything he could to contain it. Anti-vaxxers and those refusing to take basic low-cost preventive steps (like wearing masks) have been a major obstacle in bringing down the hospitalization and death rates, particularly in the Trump-supporting counties where these cohorts are concentrated.
Nor can inflation be blamed on Biden. While some commentators, even within his own party, have asserted that inflation is the result of excessive government spending, the evidence suggests otherwise. US aggregate demand has been largely below trend, and the US inflation rate is little different from that of other advanced economies. The reason is obvious: the pandemic, and then Russia’s war, caused a host of supply-side bottlenecks and sectoral demand shifts.
And, again, had there been a “better” Congress, Biden might have been able to do more. To the extent that there have been labor shortages, these could have been alleviated by bringing more women into the labor force. Biden’s proposed childcare and pre-K education plan would have done that, but it was killed in the Senate. Similarly, some price increases have been out of proportion to companies’ increased costs, reflecting a blatant abuse of market power. While Biden and his team have been trying to address this problem, they have been stymied by both Congress and the courts.
Higher outlays for renewable energy would make America less dependent on global energy disruptions. The misleading argument that renewables are only as reliable as the weather must be weighed against the fact that a few petrostate dictators can hold the rest of the world hostage on a whim. Similarly, a semiconductor shortage was a key source of inflationary pressure during the early days of the pandemic recovery. But with the CHIPS Act, Biden has mobilized major investments to ensure a more adequate domestic supply in the future.
WHERE AMERICANS STAND
Now that the American electorate appears to have rejected Republican extremism, some will argue that Biden should tack right to capture the political center. But that is the wrong way to read the 2022 midterm result, because the electorate is not seeking some kind of Solomonic splitting of the baby.
Consider the divide between candidates who championed women’s reproductive rights and those who advocated an absolute ban on abortion, without exceptions even for rape, incest, risks to the mother, or any of the other compelling circumstances for ending a pregnancy. It is not as though America’s “middle” came out and said, “Draw the line at four and a half months, with exceptions for incest but not for any other cases of rape.” Whatever their beliefs about abortion – no one is enthusiastic about it – Americans have consistently signaled a general agreement that the decision should be left to the woman, not the government.
Centrism is the wrong approach for most other big issues as well. It is not left-wing extremism to note that the American economy has not been serving most Americans. US life expectancy, already markedly lower than in other advanced economies, has been falling since before the pandemic. Inequality has been rising, opportunities for social mobility have been drying up, and these problems have been exacerbated by a chronic lack of investment in education. Nowadays, young Americans’ life prospects are more dependent on their parents’ incomes and education than in almost any other advanced economy.
The sense of injustice is compounded by the fact that we should be able to solve these problems. The US is an extraordinarily wealthy country, and far wealthier than many countries that are providing better living conditions – longer life expectancy, more accessible education, greater social mobility, and so on – for their citizens. America’s failures are a matter of choice. Or, more accurately, they are the result of decisions made by a political system that does not reflect the interests of the majority of its citizens, because it has been captured to serve special interests.
Hence, while an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that the federal minimum wage should be increased sharply – at least doubled – it has not been raised since 2009. Likewise, most Americans believe that everyone should have access to health care as a basic human right, even if they differ over the best way to deliver it. It is also generally agreed that everyone who is able to benefit from a college education should be able to pursue one, regardless of their parents’ income, and without being burdened with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. And all Americans want a secure retirement and access to decent affordable housing.
It is not left-wing extremism to demand policy solutions to these problems, or to protect our environment, enhance our economic security, strengthen competition, and ensure that everyone’s voice is heard in our political system. While those on the right try to paint this progressive agenda as radical overreach, most voters aren’t buying it. If anything, the progressive agenda has become a centrist agenda. It is only extremist conservatives, blind ideologues, and special interests committed to preserving privilege who oppose progress on these fronts.
In fact, most of the progressive agenda aims simply to advance rights that are already recognized globally, such as in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Far from pie-in-the-sky, its objectives are considered common sense in many other places. The countries that consistently record higher standards of living and well-being (across a variety of metrics) have successfully adopted policies reflecting these principles – and that is no accident.
WHAT FREEDOM REQUIRES
One basic principle underpinning the progressive agenda is that most big problems – especially in the twenty-first century – are best tackled collectively, rather than individually. Another principle is that successful collective action must be mobilized democratically and inclusively.
The isolated farmers of the past may have been rugged individualists, but even they needed collective action to protect themselves from theft and violence, and government regulations to ensure the proper functioning of the markets in which they traded. Today, we face natural disasters, pandemics, and climate change – all threats that transcend individuals and borders. Fortunately, we also have an exponentially higher standard of living than did the societies of 250 years ago, thanks to advances in science and technology, which in turn were born of basic research – a global public good that will always be undersupplied if left to the private sector.
Today’s techno-libertarians ignore all this. They scoff at John Donne’s famous injunction that, “No man is an island,” because they fail to see – or refuse to accept – that one person’s freedom is likely to be another person’s unfreedom. One person’s right not to wear a mask or not to be vaccinated impinges on another’s right to safety from a contagious virus. An individual’s right to carry an AR-15 has all too often impinged on many other individuals’ right to live. When asked to weigh these rights, most reasonable people will come down clearly on one side.
Innovative, well-designed public policy can enhance everyone’s scope of action, radically expanding the realm of freedom. There is a subtle irony here: by forcing people to pay taxes, we can expand the opportunities available to them. Everyone can – and mostly does – benefit. Of course, everyone naturally would prefer that others’ bear the burden of taxes – what economists call the free-rider problem – but even in our divided society, I think there is widespread agreement that those who are more able to pay taxes, by dint of having more, should bear a greater proportion of the burden.
Equally, even in our divided society, there ought to be widespread agreement that voter suppression is morally wrong. What was remarkable about the 2020 and 2022 elections is the number of government officials – many of them Republicans – who recognized that politics is more than a game and deeper than a transaction. They took the high road and refused to give in to Trump’s efforts to undermine the electoral process and overturn the results.
The 2022 election shows, at a minimum, that a large share of the electorate want to move on from Trumpian politics. They sense the challenges we face, and they believe we can do a better job of addressing them together through civil, informed debate. Americans are tired of the name-calling and the scare tactics. Whether they realize it or not, most support a progressive agenda and its promise to deliver higher living standards for all.
Joseph E. Stiglitz: A Nobel laureate in economics and University Professor at Columbia University, is a former chief economist of the World Bank (1997-2000), chair of the US President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and co-chair of the High-Level Commission on Carbon Prices. He is a member of the Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation and was lead author of the 1995 IPCC Climate Assessment.