The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll has found that President Trump’s approval ratings are lower than those of any of the past 11 presidents at the same point in their presidencies, going all the way back to Dwight Eisenhower. Only 40 percent of those surveyed in mid-April approve of Trump’s performance, while 54 percent disapprove. To compound the bad news for Trump, his disapproval rating among independents is as bad as it is among the population at large—as the Journal notes, “he risks losing the nation’s political middle ground.”
But another finding in the poll was just as eye-opening, if not as well-noticed: Fifty-seven percent of Americans believe government should be doing more “to solve problems and help meet people’s needs,” the highest percentage since the question was first asked, in 1995. Back then, only about 30 percent of those surveyed believed government should do more to help Americans, and less than 45 percent thought so as recently as 2010.
This is a remarkable reversal and another telling example—along with Democrat Jon Ossoff’s near win of a congressional seat in heavily Republican Georgia, along with the GOP’s failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act—that Americans want something far different than what Trump is offering them. His cynical promise to make government work again by eliminating regulations and social programs is not cutting it. Americans want government to do what it started doing in the New Deal.
Loss of faith in government has been the foundation of disappointing economic progress and the unfair distribution of income since the 1970s. But small government was never the answer, because the “free market” cannot provide America a fair and prosperous economy on its own. It certainly cannot handle the complexities of health care.
Back in the 1970s, Jimmy Carter professed himself a fiscal conservative. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan devoted himself to reducing the size of government, cutting taxes to force reductions in social spending—to “starve the beast,” as Milton Friedman put it—even as he raised military spending markedly. Big corporations were allowed to get bigger as anti-trust policy was immobilized, labor regulations were loosened or went unenforced, and probably the worst of the financial-deregulation bills, the Garn–St. Germain Depository Institutions Act, was passed, which led to the crash of savings and loan banks in Reagan’s second term, requiring a major federal bailout.
These policies were the beginning of decline, not the “morning again in America” that Reagan followers, and perhaps most Republicans to this day, believe. Wages stagnated and income inequality started its rise to the levels of the Roaring Twenties. Big finance became outsized and channeled investment to corporate takeovers, leveraged buyouts, and wasteful speculation that eventually led to the 2008 crash. Huge corporations came to dominate markets and set monopolistic policies in health insurance, pharmaceuticals, banking, telecommunications, and high technology to an extent they hadn’t done since at least the 1920s, and maybe even the late 1800s. The minimum wage was rarely raised, so it fell far behind the cost of living.
The need for major government support was momentarily recognized even under Republicans—but only in order to bail out the big banks at the height of the crash, in 2008. However, after Obama skillfully steered his more than $800 billion stimulus package through Congress in early 2009, he was then stifled from spending on social policies. And he joined in the bipartisan obsession with balancing the budget, eventually adopting the sequestration that limited government spending.
What has generated the changing attitudes? Even 59 percent of independents, not just Democrats, now favor more government programs, compared with 38 percent in 2010.
The Republican threats to the Affordable Care Act have probably led the way. Americans like Obamacare. They want insurance companies to accept people with preexisting conditions, they want 26-year-olds to be covered under their parents’ plan, and millions of poor people, including single individuals, want and now have Medicaid coverage.
The myth that private markets can do it all more efficiently has always been a bankrupt ideology; now, at last, it may be eroding. Aside from fear about the repeal of Obamacare, Americans have seen the benefits of higher minimum wages in many states and a few especially brave cities; such wage hikes were once thought to be politically impossible. Many also know that their wages are being stolen as labor laws—minimum-wage laws, overtime rules, maximum-hours restrictions— go unenforced. They got a whiff of hope from the Obama regulation to expand the numbers of those who qualify for overtime, but that was undone by a Texas court order.
Women recognize that not all businesses have opened their doors for them. The lack of parity in wages for women, even after years of commentary and debate—still some 80 percent of male wages, adjusted for education and experience—is hard to ignore. The tireless demands of reformers for paid-family-leave programs are receiving increasing support, as Americans find out more about such programs in Europe. And Republican threats to defund Planned Parenthood underscore how critical government support has been to women’s health. Certainly the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court has made abortion rights less safe.
In the era of anti-government attitudes, Democrats have spoken little about poverty. Perhaps that’s because the poor don’t vote in the numbers one would like—or because they can’t make major political contributions. And there is a fear that the suffering middle class has shifted to the right and doesn’t want to make poverty a high priority. Even Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders today talk mostly about the middle class.
But the American poverty rate remains near the highest in the developed world (and far worse than most other rich countries), and child poverty in America, a moral tragedy, is also almost the highest in the developed world. It’s not because the economies of Europe work more fairly; they produce about the same level of poverty as America does. But they have aggressive social programs that bring their poverty rates down far below America’s.
As for racial justice, the black unemployment rate, though it has fallen since the Great Recession, remains roughly twice that of whites. While more poor children are white, a higher proportion of black children are poor. We know working-class white males were neglected in this election, but were the issues that affect blacks truly addressed? Is this why they didn’t turn out in large numbers for Hillary Clinton?
Lack of good jobs is the paramount issue. Pay for low-wage workers has risen so slowly in the past four decades that it is almost imperceptible. There are not enough jobs that pay decently for less educated blacks, and now, since Trump’s victory, we can no longer neglect the fact that there aren’t enough decent jobs for less educated whites, either.
Globalization and technological advance are major causes of the disappearance of good manufacturing jobs and their replacement with lower-paying ones, often service jobs. But so are de-unionization, overly tight monetary and fiscal policies, and lack of government jobs programs. Some 42 percent make less than $15 an hour. Most are white, but the low-wage sector comprises a larger proportion of black and Hispanic workers, and a high percentage of women as well.
Expectations play a large part in worker discontent. Many white men in the Rust Belt saw their fathers earn good pay in unionized or industrial jobs, and these have disappeared. The reality now is that many men cannot support a middle-class family. They need help. Manufacturing is inevitably in decline, but that doesn’t mean government cannot take constructive actions to counteract many of the damaging effects.
A low-wage society has been a choice America has made by neglecting needed government policies and accepting overly tight fiscal and monetary policies. It is time to build a high-wage economy for young and old, black and white, male and female. What better way to do that than to give Americans the government they now say they want, and to fight hard against Republican dominance in Washington? The people don’t want the Republican agenda.
Obamacare should not only be defended strongly; Democrats should take the lead in improving it by supporting a public option. They should also support still higher minimum wages, a more expanded earned-income tax credit, better labor protections, strong financial regulations, and, I’d argue, cash allowances for poor children. Trump’s vicious anti-poor budget should be resisted vigorously.
A high-wage economy should be the first priority. This requires an aggressive infrastructure program not financed through tax credits, smart manufacturing-subsidy programs, some of which have already worked, and more flexible trade policies that allow development of infant industries and the rescue of failing industries that are not inevitably folding their tents. Professor Fred Block of the University of California at Davis argues that Obama’s efforts to support clean-energy manufacturing projects were already working. We should also have viable and aggressive apprenticeship programs and a high-quality early-education system.
At bottom, this will require fighting tax cuts—including the Trump proposal to slash business rates to 15 percent. Tax reform should be welcomed, but not if it sharply cuts federal revenues. A high-wage economy may require what some believe is unthinkable: providing a government-paid job for those who can’t find one. President Clinton’s welfare reform of 1996 originally had a provision for creating jobs for those dropped from the welfare rolls after the end of the new time limits, but Clinton agreed to drop it in the final negotiation with Republicans over the bill. The result, scholars Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer tell us, is growing numbers of families whose members live on $2 a day.
This is a long and, some might argue, idealistic agenda. But it is what is needed for a 21st-century nation. Democrats should face this reality. We won’t get there under Trump. To the contrary, America is being turned back, by a man with no apparent historical education or understanding, to a primitive era that is blind to technological and social change. That so many people now say we need a proactive government is the best opportunity in a long while for a decent society and a prosperous future. It’s time to test whether the people really mean what they are now saying.