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Opinion US politics

Jan-Werner Müller

Fri 8 Oct 2021 06.17 EDT

The Build Back Better agenda creates more options for working people. Conservatives calling such measures antithetical to freedom have things the wrong way around

Politics is not just talk, but no major political project can do without someone crafting persuasive language. Democrats have done a singularly bad job at making the case for what is still only known as “the $3.5tn bill”. They have advanced neither symbols nor even comprehensible concepts for what this supposed monster piece of legislation is really about. As a consequence, it has become all too easy to discredit the bill as an incoherent progressive wishlist from which items can be arbitrarily subtracted. What’s worse, the right has been able to portray the bill as inherently un-American, since it supposedly erects a – God forbid – European-style “cradle-to-grave” nanny state. It might sound counterintuitive, but the Democrats should ground their plans in the very value conservatives love to claim for themselves: freedom.

The fact that the bill is so large and combines what is now commonly described as strengthening the social safety net and tackling the climate emergency is not just due to Democrat’s strategic failures: it is partly dictated by the constraints of the reconciliation process. But putting together two seemingly disjointed agendas has also made it easy to portray the legislation as incoherent; it has provided self-described “centrists” (mostly self-centered, rather than offering any principled notion of a “center”) with a politically costless way of calling for cuts to what they characterize as a bloated bill. Similarly, the hefty price tag is a chance for what lazy journalists still keep describing as “moderates” to prove their fiscal rectitude and adherence to a zombie ethos of bipartisan “responsibility”.

The crucial question, though, is not about numbers, but about what’s perceived as legitimate. We do not put figures to the horrendously large defense bills (and we’d probably be shocked if we did); we also stopped long ago debating the Affordable Care Act in terms of costs. True, many of the individual initiatives in Biden’s central bill are popular (even in West Virginia, as no leftwing pundit will fail to mention). But it is naive to assume that consent to particular policies will amount to legislative success overall. Absent powerful symbols and a moral language that resonates with citizens, the whole will not just seem like less than the parts – the whole might be tossed away altogether.

In recent decades the right has been generally better at what is sometimes dismissed as “symbolic politics”. Plenty of people thought the financial crisis would usher in a golden age of social democracy; instead, the Tea Party ended up making the most of the crisis and paved the way for Trump. Today, there are again plenty of people – including distinguished academics – warning that things like better access to childcare and community college are somehow un-American – and, more particularly, that US citizens will end up working fewer hours and hence be poorer, just like those benighted, lazy Europeans.

Plenty of empirical comparisons with Europe are cherry-picked and ignore the fact that so many Americans lead more stressful and significantly shorter lives in a society that has for decades failed to invest not just in roads and bridges, but also in a civic infrastructure of shared goods such as affordable care for dependants. So many parts of the Build Back Better agenda actually aim to create more options for working people: they would have a choice about how they rear their children and take care of elderly relatives, with obvious implications for their ability to enter the labor market; they would also have more resources to use as they see fit, if drug prices came down. To describe such measures as antithetical to freedom has things exactly the wrong way around; rather than the state dictating to citizens what they have to do, it generates more choices for them.

And climate? That is about freedom, too. If we fail to act now, future freedoms of how to live – and, not least, where to live – will be drastically curtailed

The rejoinder by the right is predictable enough: to call tax increases freedom, they will say, is positively Orwellian; coercing citizens into handing over more of their income to the state and calling it liberty is a perfidious sleight of hand. Here a further Democratic weakness becomes obvious: had they really tried to make the owners of concentrated wealth pay their fair share, they would have forced their opponents to go out there and make a very different kind of case: namely that the essence of being American consists in buying one’s fifth vacation home with money simply not available for folks who can’t afford the services of what the social scientist Jeffrey Winters has called the wealth defense industry – pricey accountants and lawyers who can set up that tax shelter in the Cayman Islands which lesser mortals will never even understand in its complexity. Going after income instead of wealth is already a victory for the kinds of people exposed in the Pandora Papers, as is the fact that there is no serious effort to strengthen the IRS’s arsenal in its battle with the wealth defense industry’s nuclear weapons.

And climate? That is about freedom, too. If we fail to act now, future freedoms of how to live – and, not least, where to live – will be drastically curtailed. But, again, the case would be easier if the owners of concentrated wealth were made to pay for a livable future world – after all, they will have to live in it, too, unless they can go to Mars or make that luxury retreat in New Zealand climate-apocalypse-proof.

Even if they made the philosophical case for how their proposals would set many Americans free in their daily lives, Democrats would still lack a powerful symbol of what their plan is about. Perhaps Trump’s speechwriters only put down “Build the Wall” to remind him that he must always mention immigration (and, not to forget, add some racist dog whistles). But, as a political symbol, it was brilliant: even if no one really knew any details of Trump’s plans (of course, often there weren’t any), people understood what he was about – and that he meant business. Yet even Bernie Sanders, with all his fulminations about the “billionaire class”, has never come up with anything as effective as Trump’s image. The task remains to link the fight against inequality with a symbol for freedom.

  • Jan-Werner Müller teaches politics at Princeton University. His book Democracy Rules was published in July by Allen Lane

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