The Economics of Social Issues

“It’s the economy, stupid” is an oft-repeated truism in politics, quoted by politicos and Beltway journalists alike, after James Carville minted the phrase during the 1992 Presidential election. While the triangulating politics of the 1990s have not aged well, this phrase remains embedded in our lexicon because it was straightforward and carried with it generally helpful guidance for how candidates should run their campaigns.

But the simplicity of the phrase belies something more nuanced. Namely, that economic issues are intrinsically linked to the social challenges we face, and candidates lose when they singularly focus on social issues. In short, if Democrats want to win in 2024, they have to understand the social issues that motivate voters of any ideology are economic at their core, and they cannot ignore the latter if they hope to win.

In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Caroline Fredrickson makes this case. A prominent legal scholar and former president of the American Constitution Society, Fredrickson argues that, over the last few decades, liberal legal activists like her spent too much energy trying to protect and advance civil rights while largely ignoring economic issues. On the other hand, conservatives understood how to wield both to gain political power, as they worked to appoint judges to federal courts that would overturn civil rights cases and go after troublesome business regulations and the unions who stood up to corporate interests.

And boy, conservatives certainly reaped a good return on their investment judging from the decisions we’re seeing from the Supreme Court now. Since Chief Justice John Roberts was appointed in 2005, the Supreme Court has dealt a series of blows to civil liberties. In just the last year, the Court overturned Roe v. Wade and struck down affirmative action at our nation’s colleges and universities. And while it has attracted less attention, the Court has been equally aggressive in their rulings against workers. Decisions like Glacier Northwest, Inc. v. TeamstersJanus v. AFSCMEEpic Systems Corp. v. Lewisand Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid are working in tandem to slowly but surely chip away at workers’ collective bargaining rights and boost the power of corporations. In 2020 alone, the Court ruled in favor of businesses 83% of the time. It’s no wonder that experts have deemed the Roberts Court the most pro-business court of all time.

And let’s not forget that the Court is showing itself to be pro-billionaire as well. As we’ve previously mentioned, the Court has agreed to hear Moore v. US, which has the potential to upend entire swaths of the tax code and preemptively nix proposals to tax wealth and unrealized gains – including our very own OLIGARCH Act. (Last week, our group sent an open letter to the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case, calling on them to correct materially inaccurate statements in their filings. You can read the letter HERE.)

Fredrickson concludes her piece by giving kudos to the Biden administration for their good work in advancing economic issues, especially as it relates to antitrust enforcement, which we discussed last week. But she also criticizes them for not appointing judges to federal courts that would uphold these efforts in court: Biden has excelled in appointing demographically diverse judges from backgrounds in public interest and civil rights activism, but sadly hasn’t nominated anyone with a background in labor or antitrust law. Biden should work harder to pick up the pace on pro-worker judicial appointments, especially before the 2024 election rolls around and the window of opportunity closes. Biden has certainly turned up the volume on his economic achievements and agenda on the campaign trail – “Bidenomics” is catching on! – but he must go further with the judiciary if he wants his work to actually stick.

To give credit where it’s due, Biden appears to be altering his pitch to voters to meet Carville’s maxim while recognizing the fundamental way the economy impacts social issues. From abortion to LGBTQ rights to climate change, the impacts of these challenges are material and economic. If we ignore this fact, we will never be able to solve these issues.

In the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections, Senator Bernie Sanders penned an op-ed for The Guardian where he called on Democrats to stop focusing so singularly on abortion and increase their energies and attention on economic issues. Sanders immediately received criticism from those who rightly argued that abortion access is also an economic issue. When discussing abortion, we cannot ignore the fact that 75% of women who seek abortions come from low-income households; if they’re denied care, they’ll struggle even more financially. We cannot ignore the fact that abortion restrictions cause the US to lose $105 billion a year from women’s lost participation in the workforce. We cannot ignore the fact that abortion access increases women’s probability of graduating college by 72%. And of course, we cannot ignore the research that shows that, in today’s economy, raising a child to age 18 costs an average $237,482 and that the child care industry is in crisis.

The same can be said of other social issues. When discussing LGBTQ rights, we must not ignore the fact that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans persons face higher rates of poverty than their straight counterparts. When discussing climate change, we must not ignore the fact that the global rich are disproportionately driving environmental degradation – billionaires emit a million times more greenhouse gases than the average person – but it’s the poor and vulnerable who will be most adversely impacted by increasingly severe natural disasters. When discussing racial justice, you cannot ignore the moral stain that is America’s racial wealth gap – white Americans hold $6 in wealth for every $1 Black Americans hold – and the fact that 47% of Black workers make less than $15 an hour.

Voters rank the economy as the single most important issue ahead of the 2024 election. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Voters live and feel the economy in everything that they do, and in virtually every other issue that matters to them. Democrats need to recognize this fundamental truth and change their campaign strategies accordingly before it’s too late.

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