What if we gave people nice things?


Joe Biden’s cabinet — assuming it’s confirmed — might be the most diverse in history. Lloyd Austin would be the first black man to run the Department of Defense. Deb Haaland is the first ever Native American to be appointed to a cabinet-level position. Five of the thirteen nominees (so far) are women, including Janet Yellen, who would be the first female Secretary of the Treasury. Three are Latinos. One is gay. And, Kamala Harris, of course, will represent a series of firsts, being the first black, Indian, biracial, and female Vice President.

Some on the left, have, rightly in my view, criticized Biden for his cabinet selection process. They perceive his use of diversity as “sterilized and gamified”. When Joe Biden offered Marcia Fudge, who is black, the job she didn’t want — Secretary of Housing and Urban Development — instead of the one she did — Secretary of Agriculture — he was, it appears, operating under the cynical assumption that the purpose of the cabinet is to hit certain racial quotas and appease key constituencies (here, the Congressional Black Caucus), rather than to have a well-functioning administrative state. It should be obvious, I hope, that diversity and expertise need not conflict: it is entirely Biden’s fault that they have been pitted against each other. As a minority, I would feel uneasy thinking that I have been elevated to such a position not because I am interested or qualified, but because I represent a certain important racial group. And, if I were white, I would likely be equally troubled that this is the Democratic Party’s idea of “promoting diversity”.

(As an aside, the actual nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, is a white man whose principal qualification seems to be that he has been Biden’s friend for decades. The double standard is both obvious and nauseating.)

Biden’s cabinet constitutes “good politics” in a narrow sense. The Congressional Black Caucus, and Jim Clyburn in particular, was instrumental in his primary victory. And without Latino and Asian-Americans, Biden would have lost the general election. It is natural to think that these groups should be “rewarded”, as off-puttingly transactional as that sounds, for their contributions. Or, to put it another way, it would certainly be perceived as an insult if minorities propelled Biden to victory and he proceeded to form a cabinet that looked like this.

Biden’s cabinet is clearly good for the Congressional Black Caucus. But is it good for black Americans? And, as a separate question, will ordinary black people even care? One could ask the same question about what Pete Buttigieg’s nomination to the Department of Transportation means for the gay community, or what Xavier Becerra’s nomination to Department of Health and Human Services means for Latinos. At the risk of being reductionist or glib, the Democratic Party’s prevailing strategy for appealing to minority voters is to point out the Republican Party’s bigotry and to tout their own party’s inclusivity. But what if that strategy is wrong, or, at the very least, insufficient? I am reminded of two articles, one from the 2016 presidential election post-mortem, and one from 2020’s:

Some voters said they had adored President Obama but didn’t know much about Mr. Biden. For better or worse, these voters said, they felt they knew Mr. Trump. Others said they appreciated getting a pandemic stimulus check bearing Mr. Trump’s signature, which showed he cared about them.

The president’s border wall expansion is deeply unpopular in the region, but some local Trump supporters said it didn’t matter as much as other issues because he had only small success adding sections in South Texas. Mrs. Lazo shrugged off Mr. Trump’s often-derogatory comments about Mexicans and his hard-line border policies. “I’m Hispanic,” she said, “but I’m American.”

Mr. Balderas said his vote for the president was based on economics. Under President Obama, he said, gas prices “were like $4 and now it’s like $2.”

Other locals said they saw support for the Republican Party growing in the past year. Mr. Guerra, the former Roma mayor, started to see pro-Trump posts on his Facebook feed. The most fierce, he said, were from the wives and girlfriends of Border Patrol agents. After the stimulus checks, he started to see memes of Latinos holding out their hands to “Papa Trump” for money. “If we speak in the language of memes,” he said, “there were a lot of Trump as this fatherly figure who was going to help you.”

The Wall Street Journal, “Why Democrats Lost So Many South Texas Latinos—the Economy”, November 8, 2020

Four barbers and a firefighter were pondering their future under a Trump presidency at the Upper Cutz barbershop last week.

“We got to figure this out,” said Cedric Fleming, one of the barbers. “We got a gangster in the chair now,” he said, referring to President-elect Donald J. Trump.

They admitted that they could not complain too much: Only two of them had voted. But there were no regrets.

“I don’t feel bad,” Mr. Fleming said, trimming a mustache. “Milwaukee is tired. Both of them were terrible. They never do anything for us anyway.”

At Upper Cutz, a bustling barbershop in a green-trimmed wooden house, talk of politics inevitably comes back to one man: Barack Obama. Mr. Obama’s elections infused many here with a feeling of connection to national politics they had never before experienced. But their lives have not gotten appreciably better, and sourness has set in.

“I’m so numb,” said Jahn Toney, 45, who had written in Mr. Sanders. He said no president in his lifetime had done anything to improve the lives of black people, including Mr. Obama, whom he voted for twice. “It’s like I should have known this would happen. We’re worse off than before.”

But Mr. Obama did do something important: “He did give black people something to aspire to. That’s a lot. I’m happy my son was able to see a black president.”

Mr. Fleming, 47, who has been trimming hair, beards and mustaches for 30 years, had hoped his small business would get easier to run. But it hasn’t.

“Give us loans, or a 401(k),” he said, trimming the mustache of Steve Stricklin, a firefighter from the neighborhood. His biggest issue was health insurance. Mr. Fleming lost his coverage after his divorce three years ago and has struggled to find a policy he could afford. He finally found one, which starts Monday but costs too much at $300 a month.

“Ain’t none of this been working,” he said. He did not vote.

The New York Times, Many in Milwaukee Neighborhood Didn’t Vote — and Don’t Regret It”, November 20, 2016

I do not mean to suggest that these voters are representative of the racial blocs with which they are associated. In 2016, most registered black voters did not stay home. Most did not write in a third-party candidate, as Mr. Toney did. And, in 2020, most Latino voters favored Joe Biden, not Donald Trump. I do believe, though, that these individuals are representative of a certain type of “marginal” voter: the one who pays attention to the presidential election only to the extent that it affects him.

The alignment of interests should be obvious. The Democratic Party should, ostensibly, care about improving the material well-being of America’s citizens. And at least some of those citizens care about politics only when their material well-being is being improved. “Papa Trump” sent out checks with his name on them. He lowered the unemployment rate, in part by bullying the Fed into keeping interest rates low. The price of gas fell under his administration (the connection to any of his actual policies is unclear, but, for a low-information voter, that fact doesn’t really matter). Obama, by contrast, gave us an unaffordable health insurance marketplace, one in which Mr. Fleming could not find a policy for less than $300/month (it is likely that he would benefit from the marketplace’s subsidies, but often the people who would benefit the most from government help have the hardest time navigating the system.) There are obviously hundreds of confounding factors in this analysis, but strong circumstantial evidence indicates that material appeals were successful in peeling off some black and brown voters relative to Obama, or at least convincing them to stay home. And it therefore stands to reason that the same appeals can bring them back.

This matters doubly if you are not a preternaturally charismatic politician like Obama: if you don’t have people who “adore” you merely for looking and sounding the part. When Biden runs again in four years, when his party runs again in two years, these voters will ask, correctly: what did you do for me? Responding with “we nominated people who look like you to the cabinet” will not be good enough.

Given the dismal prospects for legislative action, at least as long as Mitch McConnell controls the Senate, Biden will have to act on his own. Fortunately, there is no shortage of things he could do. The American Prospect put together a truly thoughtful and well-curated collection of essays and articles, called “The Day One Agenda”. In other words, these are things Biden could do on Day One, without needing legislative backing. They all have the virtue of being the right thing to do. But some have the further virtue of being things that will make people’s lives better in a memorable way, the same way in which checks with Trump’s name on them did.

Biden could effectively legalize marijuana by taking it off “Schedule 1” of the controlled substances list. (Imagine running for re-election as the president that gave people legal weed!) He could also pardon and/or commute the sentences of individuals arrested for marijuana possession or dealing, allowing them to access jobs, housing, and other opportunities they would otherwise be denied. Biden could forgive student debt for everyone. He could enable “postal banking.” He could alter the federal calculation of poverty, thereby making benefits more generous. He could raise the minimum wage for companies that contract with the federal government. He could force drug companies to lower drug prices. And so on. He can give people nice things and make people’s lives better, in a way that is more meaningful than chanting “Black Lives Matter” alongside them or taking a knee at a football game. I do not think the Democratic party should abandon “identity politics”, meaningless as that is, but the politics of symbolism need to be supplemented by the politics of materialism.

Here is an excerpt from an article about Biden’s actual Day One agenda. Some of it, particularly the initiatives referred to in the second paragraph, is good. But, overall, it leans in the direction of symbolism than materialism; it favors task forces and roadmaps over paychecks and benefits.

He said that “on Day 1” he would begin to address systemic racism, although he has not said specifically what he would do immediately. He would “on the first day” direct his secretary of housing and urban development to form a task force, and, within 100 days, provide a roadmap for ending homelessness.

He has vowed on his first day to restore federal workers’ rights to unionize. He would also reinstate federal guidance, issued by Obama and revoked by Trump, that would restore transgender students’ access to sports, bathrooms and locker rooms in accordance with their gender identity.

“On my first day as President, I will rejoin the @WHO and restore our leadership on the world stage,” he tweeted on July 7.

“Day 1, if I win, I’m going to be on the phone with our NATO allies saying we’re back,” he told KPNX in Phoenix on July 14. “We’re back and you can count on us again.

When you are running for office, you are merely promising things that, most voters realize, you either have no power to do or no intention of doing (e.g., ending systemic racism). To take a concrete example, Joe Biden ran on increasing the national minimum wage to $15. Donald Trump’s party and Trump himself oppose this effort. If you are a minimum wage worker and you care about your material interests, you probably should have voted for Biden.

It’s actually not so simple though. The Democrats did not pass a minimum wage increase under the Obama administration. In fact, the last increase occurred during the Bush administration (with a Democratic-led Congress). A low-information voter might look at both parties and conclude, not insensibly, that neither party really cares about the issue and that, all things considered, the low-unemployment economy under Trump was better than the high-unemployment one under Obama. Plus, at the state level, minimum wage increases can be passed by ballot referendum, circumventing the gridlock of legislative politics entirely. Indeed, many voters concluded exactly that! In Florida, Biden lost by more than 3 percentage points; the ballot referendum increasing the minimum wage to $15 by 2026, on the other hand, won by more than 20 percentage points. This example has been taken to show that material appeals are doomed to fail, that voters can choose candidates who appeal to their grievances and referendums that appeal to their pocketbooks. This is true, in part. But the other part is that material appeals can be made much more credibly as an incumbent than as a challenger. As an incumbent, you can point to the stuff that you actually did. Now it is up to Biden to actually do that stuff.

(Some readers may feel that I am contradicting myself. Didn’t I say in my last essay that Biden faces an unenviable and almost impossible task in running this country? Yes, but I don’t expect him to fix our broken judicial system, our obstructionist Senate, our irresponsible state governors, our flawed redistricting process, our corporate media, or our brittle constitution. I only ask that he do what is within his power.)

Unsurprisingly, Biden and his team have pushed back against the Prospect’s Day One Agenda. Whether this is because they don’t believe in it procedurally, or because they don’t believe in it substantively, and are using procedural concerns to mask that fact, is a topic for another essay. (I lean towards the latter explanation.) But, regardless, I think David Dayen, executive editor at The American Prospect, summarizes the situation well:

The Day One Agenda is more than anything a way for the public to understand the options available to a president. In the Obama administration, there was a tendency among his defenders to point to an obstructionist Congress and apologize for inaction. Some of that was legitimate—but presidents have power. They might want to bang the table and say, “That’s beyond my constitutional authority”; they might seethe at the unfairness of voters expecting them to do more than they say they can. So be it. Nobody said life as the leader of the free world was fair.


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