There's been a lot of talk lately about Biden's falling approval numbers corresponding with increases in gas prices and the general freakout over inflation. Some have expressed bewilderment, considering how much the economy is growing, wages are rising and jobless claims are shrinking.
It might be confusing, unless you understand a simple fact: we live in a republic of consumers (apologies to Lizabeth Cohen.)
Once upon a time the social contract may have revolved around a social safety net or human rights but those things are pretty immaterial to most Americans. What makes a successful polity in their eyes is maintaining the flow of cheap consumer goods and services. For at least the past forty years this has been at the heart of everything.Workers' wages have been stagnant, postindustrial and farming communities are falling apart, but you can still get almost anything you want for cheap at the local Wal-Mart. You might not have much, but you can still afford to go to a fast food restaurant and afford a hot meal made by others who have to serve you. The rise of globalization and consumer credit that accompanied the onset of neo-liberalism have made it possible for massive wealth and income inequalities to not lead to revolutionary change.
Those on the left might find this to be a rather paltry reward, but talk to most workers and they've basically given up on any idea of solidarity. (Notice the recent, high profile failures to start unions at Amazon.) Things like universal basic incomes and free college are ephemeral, cheap gas and enough workers at the local Mickey Ds to keep the dining room open are not.
In a lot of ways we have failed to understand what the last four decades and counting of neoliberalism have done to our mental geographies. Most people still hold fast to its basic tenet that there is no such thing as society. Billionaires like Elon Musk are treated like superhuman heroes. When the New York Times reported on the Build Back Better bill it only listed the price-tag in the headline, never bother to enumerate the bill's many benefits.
Talk to even affluent moderate liberals in a suburb like mine and they will still bitch about property taxes and unions like they were Republicans. They might have a Black Lives Matter sign on their lawn and a Pride flag hanging in their window, but don't you dare integrate the schools or challenge exclusionary zoning. In a lot of ways, they are basically the same Rockefeller Republicans who lived here fifty years ago, old politics with a new party label on them.
You may have noticed how the rise in prices (which is there but not as unprecedented as it is made out to be) has registered far more with the collective psyche than the deaths of 800,000 people from COVID. The fact is that a majority of Americans simply DO NOT CARE what happens to people they don't know as long as they are doing fine. If it wasn't someone in your family dying the pandemic might as well not even be happening in the minds of most people. Similarly, if animals are slaughtered inhumanely to make your cheeseburger or children are forced to work for pennies in sweatshops for your Wal-Mart duds it is immaterial. Hell, when the pandemic began prominent Republicans were basically calling on old people to sacrifice themselves to keep this economy the same. The small-r republican consumer is not interested in knowing that fast food workers are making a higher wage, they are mad that the help is not as plentiful as before.
I am not sure where to go from here, but the assumption on the left that passing popular policies will result in political popularity does not seem to be holding true. I think that's because the most popular policy is the one polling firms never ask about: maintaining cheap consumer goods and services uber alles. To paraphrase Dune: the cheap crap must flow! It is now the job of progressive and leftist politics to figure out how to win in these circumstances, because failure is not an option.