For anyone hoping that 2021 would restore some semblance of normalcy in the United States, the last year looks like a disappointment. Even after a year of lockdowns and sacrifice, a combination of vaccine hesitancy and new variants have kept the pandemic part of our everyday lives. The political threat of Donald Trump, meanwhile, including an attempt to overturn a presidential election, was defeated. But Trumpism has metastasized throughout the conservative movement, with Trump himself potentially running again in 2024.
President Joe Biden impressed many on the left with both the level of his initial ambition and his appointment of progressives to key positions. Indeed, some hoped his administration would mark a new political era—addressing the problems we face and creating an electoral movement capable of sustaining it. In this telling, Biden, emboldened by the experience of the pandemic, would preside over a political revolution, with Franklin Roosevelt (whose portrait hangs in the Oval Office) and the New Deal as his guiding lights.
Yet a series of institutional challenges and the weaknesses of the Democratic coalition have left a sense of doom hanging over the party and the larger network of left-liberal political actors, writers, and organizers that surround it. After moving decisively to address the pandemic recession with the American Rescue Plan, progress on the Build Back Better bill, the centerpiece of the Biden agenda, has stalled. It is uncertain whether the bill will pass through reconciliation as this section goes to print in December. It’s also unclear what will end up in the final version if it does pass. A robust legislative agenda is collapsing in the Senate, showing how a small conservative minority can perpetually destroy even moderate attempts at reform. Moreover, decades of achievements on voting rights, reproductive rights, and more are being dismantled by a reactionary Supreme Court, the main vehicle conservatives now use to enact their agenda. The fear that Republicans are successfully stacking the electoral map against progress can make any political win feel like a pyrrhic victory.
Has everything changed, or nothing? The answer is somewhere in the middle. Only with hindsight will we know if a new regime of political economy has begun. But it’s clear that the terms of many major economic debates have radically shifted. The work of the left at this moment is to try to understand what new spaces have opened up, despite the serious obstacles, and how to build upon them. This Dissent section gathers writers trying to make sense of this moment on those terms. Each author tackles a different political sphere, yet they all address the same fundamental question: Does the Biden administration represent new political energies that offer an alternative to neoliberalism? Or are current reform efforts set to fail, burn out, or be absorbed in the old political regime? These articles give a sense of both the real possibilities, and the urgency with which they need to be pursued—because the right’s solutions are so much worse.
Corporate-led globalization has been the dominant paradigm over the last forty years. But Trump ripped apart the neoliberal playbook, bringing back aggressive trade wars and tariffs. The Biden administration and the broader economics establishment has seemed unsure of what to do about these developments, even as the COVID-19 crash and recovery have revealed the fragility of global supply chains. How should the left respond to growing frustrations with the risks to which globalization has exposed us? Paolo Gerbaudo argues that we must re-embed economic activity in institutions capable of democratic decision-making in order to improve people’s lives and stop more authoritarian solutions from gaining power worldwide.
Biden’s chief economist has said that “care is an important part of our infrastructure,” and the administration began a trial run of child allowances and has pushed to make funding for central aspects of care work just as high a priority as traditional physical infrastructure. Does care have the potential to become the framework for restructuring our economy, or is it another potentially radical notion to be co-opted and commodified? In an interview, Sarah Leonard and Deva Woodly dive into this question, and Woodly makes the case that care is a central part of the new political philosophy that has emerged among twenty-first-century justice movements: radical Black feminist pragmatism.
Climate change remains the central political challenge of the twenty-first century. No part of Biden’s agenda has higher stakes than his climate program, but it’s also the terrain where the opposition both within and outside the Democratic Party has been the strongest. Adrienne Buller argues that the shape of climate legislation—who carries it out, and who benefits—is just as important as the dollar amounts attached to it. Governments must take a more active role in implementing decarbonization if we are to achieve an energy transition that does more than pad the balance sheets of asset managers with questionably “green” investments.
Will the ambitious spending policies of the past year be just a one-off occurrence due to the nature of the pandemic? Will bold fiscal and monetary ideas be destroyed by the political pressures of inflation and class conflict? Or could we be entering a new era? In our second interview, J.W. Mason and Tim Barker discuss how the left can adjust to a political-economic terrain with features we haven’t seen in decades—including everything from supply-chain bottlenecks to inflation to pockets of serious bargaining power for some workers. They explore the lessons of earlier periods of macroeconomic ambition, and how activism and economic theory can bolster one other.
A series of notable appointments in the antitrust world have led some to wonder if the federal government could once again act as a check on corporate power. President Biden issued an executive order addressing antitrust and competition policy that called out the previous intellectual regime by name—the “misguided philosophy of people like Robert Bork”—and has sought to address injustices that activists and academics have prioritized for over a decade. Do these actions represent a new intellectual paradigm, or are they a series of good initiatives lacking a firmer foundation? Sanjukta Paul examines the ideas behind the antitrust reformers—a commitment to containing domination and creating more space for autonomy—and describes how they could help bring about a more egalitarian and democratic economy.
Neoliberalism called for markets to structure society, and for society to be structured like a market. The result was an era of unbalanced trade protected from democratic accountability, increasingly unaffordable child and elder care, no effort to slow the heating of the planet, slow growth and weak macroeconomic performance, and massive corporate concentration. Any successful political movement in the twenty-first century needs to be able to address these challenges. The Trumpian right has provided enough inchoate answers to allow it to take over the Republican Party. There’s a chance we will look back and see the Biden administration as the moment we actually started to tackle all these crises, but it will be up to the left to find and push for the answers we need.
Mike Konczal is the Director of Macroeconomic Analysis at the Roosevelt Institute, the author of Freedom from the Market: America’s Fight to Liberate Itself from the Grip of the Invisible Hand, and a member of Dissent’s editorial board.