Private investments in clean energy, batteries, or biomanufacturing leveraged by the Biden-ere spending bills

federal spending for both climate and democracy

Two huge problems may have the same solution. If this is true, it makes a powerful case for the main strategies of the Biden Administration.

The first problem is climate change, disastrous for both natural ecosystems and human lives and welfare. Underlying that problem is the fact that many constituencies around the globe benefit from burning carbon: not only authoritarian governments and powerful corporations (although they deserve the most criticism), but also regular communities and the parties and unions that represent them. As long as people who benefit in the short run from burning carbon have preponderant political weight, it is hard to pass truly satisfactory policy solutions.

The second problem is the marked tendency of poorer people to vote for the right, not only in the USA but in many other countries—in an eerie echo of the 1930s. Parties of the right that have lower-income constituencies cannot offer their voters tax cuts or deregulation. Instead they typically promise to strengthen the state to the exclusion of–or even against–minority groups or foreign populations. Unlike libertarianism, this form of politics has no natural limits; state power can keep ratcheting up until it reaches genuine fascism. Meanwhile, the center-left parties that are left with relatively upscale voters may try to defend individual rights, but they won’t address deep social inequities.

Federal finding authorized by Congress in Biden’s first two years addresses both problems. It tilts toward poorer districts (including those that are predominantly white and nowadays Republican) and green industries. The “theory of change” might be: 1) use federal funds to 2) “leverage” private investments in new industry that 3) mitigate climate change while 4) providing good jobs, thereby 5) building constituencies for green policies.

I am all for also using other strategies simultaneously, such as regulating or taxing carbon and divesting. I just think the Biden theory of change may be a necessary complement.

The map with this post (from the White House website) shows the locations of private investments in clean energy, batteries, and biomanufacturing that have been leveraged by new federal spending in the Biden years. Many observers have noted that a majority of this money–perhaps two-thirds–goes to districts represented by Republicans, who generally voted against the bills. I would draw attention to the concentration of projects along the Appalachian spine and in the heart of the Rust Belt. These are poor regions that happen, today, to be dominated by Republican representatives.

The effects are not yet evident in polling. In Pew’s June survey, 62% of all Americans disapprove of Biden, 41% very strongly. He receives net approval from college graduates but the disapproval of 66% of people with high school diplomas or less. He performs best among those who classify themselves as upper income and faces 2-1 disapproval among everyone else. Fifty-six percent of whites without college strongly disapprove of him, as do 57% of rural people.

This political strategy will take several years to work. People will have to see clear and sustained benefits from state action that is both equitable and green. The argument must begin now, but it will take time to change minds.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and some of her cabinet colleagues are visiting the locations of major new investments, most of which are in Republican districts. If Granholm were trying to affect the 2024 election, this trip would probably be a waste of her effort, since many of these districts are very safe for the GOP. For instance, she recently visited the district of Rep. Patrick McHenry, who won his last reelection by 45 points. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is going to Kentucky’s fifth district, which GOP Rep. Hal Rogers won by 65 points last time and which has been Republican since 1962. These trips may generate some social media calling out Republicans’ hypocrisy, but that won’t change minds. However, I do think actual jobs can shift people’s fundamental beliefs about both government and climate. For that purpose, both the federal spending and visits by Democratic leaders to tout it can be seen as highly promising.

See also: the major shift in climate strategy; Civic Engagement in American Climate Policy: Collaborative Models; social class inversion in the 2022 US elections; class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesis; the social class inversion as a threat to democracy; investing in the Appalachian cities