Biden is presiding over a generational transition in economic thinking. It’s a shift that may also shake up the country’s political coordinates: Democrats are more aggressively seeking to build the kind of social democracy that exists in many European countries, where access to health care and education is more equitable and the safety net far deeper. Growing ranks of Republicans, meanwhile, are flirting with a brand of nativist populism already prevalent among the European far right and illiberal nationalists in power in countries such as Hungary and Poland.
“Exiting the stage after a long run in power is a group of accomplished centrist economists who came of age during an inflation spiral in the 1970s and governed from the 1990s to the 2010s, with a mixed record of success and failure,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Jon Hilsenrath. The “new economic guard on the left” that’s entering the fray, he added, “hasn’t seen inflation in 50 years and doesn’t worry much about it. With interest rates low, it doesn’t worry much about budget deficits either.”
Now they want to see action. “Reagan’s small-government philosophy resulted in a decades-long squeeze on the federal government, especially domestic spending, and on tax policies that mainly benefited the wealthiest Americans,” wrote my colleague Dan Balz. “If Biden ultimately gets his way legislatively, and that is a big question mark, those policies would be replaced with ones that would directly address long-standing economic, racial and gender inequities that have only become more apparent during the coronavirus pandemic.”
To a certain extent, Biden simply reflects the emerging political zeitgeist in the West. Multiple polls show significant majorities of Americans back his coronavirus relief package and proposed infrastructure and social welfare spending bills. A Pew survey published last week found that pluralities in France, Germany and the United States all believed their country’s economic systems need “major changes.” Pew noted that “when asked about various economic interventions the government could undertake” — from building more public housing to providing universal basic income to raising taxes on the wealthy — “publics generally voice high levels of support for each potential program.”
“The model of pre-coronavirus capitalism, with high levels of inequality, is losing popular support, suggesting the need for a post-Covid world with more support for the vulnerable and higher taxes, especially on extreme levels of income, wealth and profits,” wrote Chris Giles of the Financial Times.
There are, of course, likely limits to how much Biden will be able (or may actually want) to implement. His proposed legislation faces steep fights in Congress, where Republicans are only narrowly in the minority. But the more penny-pinching Republican counterproposals to Biden’s plans — $618 billion for coronavirus relief a couple of months ago and $568 billion for infrastructure more recently — already reflect a considerable change from a previous era of deficit hawkishness. (Trump, as Balz noted, disbursed some $4 trillion in tax cuts and coronavirus spending.)
“Compared with the line that Republicans took for most of the Obama presidency,” observed conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, “they represent a dramatic shift, with a combined price tag far beyond Obama’s $787 billion in stimulus spending, which Republicans back then denounced as profligacy or socialism.”
Culture, not economics, is the terrain where Republicans seem keener to fight. They are far more animated about the apparent “wokeness” of corporations that make statements in defense of voting rights than they are about Democratic aims to raise corporate taxes. In a process that began under President Donald Trump, growing numbers of Republicans are embracing a kind of politics more familiar to far-right parties like France’s National Rally or Italy’s League — a creed that’s not tethered to free market dogmatism, wholly opposed to immigration, and rooted in an appeal to “working class,” nativist interests.
Oren Cass, a public policy expert and one of the intellectuals of the “new right,” sees Trumpism as the first flush of an anti-liberal political creed that’s arguably taken clearer shape in Europe. “The backlash can be seen in the United Kingdom, where Brexit rejected an antidemocratic globalism; in Eastern Europe, where the success of Poland’s Law and Justice party and Hungary’s Fidesz has revitalized a Christian traditionalism; and in Spain, where the rise of Vox has given the world a rare right-wing party with a labor union,” Cass wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this year. “The politics and circumstances of course vary by country, but tremors from the same tectonic shifts that set off the United States’ earthquake can be felt far and wide.”
Those tremors keep rippling through America as well. Tucker Carlson, probably the most influential right-wing pundit on U.S. cable news, now explicitly touts the “great replacement” theory that immigrants, and especially undocumented ones, are somehow “replacing” native-born Americans. It’s language that is also proliferating within the GOP — never mind that the 2020 Census charted the slowest population growth in the United States in almost a century and lagging immigration.
The rhetoric of “replacement” has for years existed on the fringes of Europe’s far right, seen more often in the manifestos of white supremacist gunmen than on prime-time American television. But as Biden and his allies push for social democratic transformation, this too has gone mainstream.
There are plenty of ways that the American scene is hardly aping Europe, not least in rolling conflicts over race and its role at the heart of American history. The Democrats, still dominated by establishment centrists, could scale back their ambitions. The Republicans could resume their opportunism over the deficit should the economic winds turn. But the showdown between the two very different political passions currently unleashed — one animated by left-wing economics, the other by right-wing nationalism — could be a defining struggle of a new era of politics in the United States and beyond.