The post-pandemic revolution isn’t coming – Financial Times

As a Republican lost the presidential election, letting Joe Biden into the White House, the future was the left’s to author. Governments had just intervened to the tune of several percentage points of national output to save livelihoods. What could be fairly described as a contagion had torn through a dangerously globalised world. No crisis like it had been seen since the first half of the 20th century.

In the end, the financial crisis of 2008 did not inaugurate a progressive imperium across the democratic west. The left misread public support for emergency measures as a lasting shift to their way of thinking. To judge by today’s stalled and overambitious Biden presidency, it has repeated the error. Extrication from this mess is still entirely possible. But the left has to accept that a revolution that seemed at hand when the pandemic began is probably not coming.

It can start by no longer talking about the pre-pandemic world as a Dickensian ordeal. Whatever the uses of alliteration, Build Back Better is an odd name for a social-spending bill. It assumes a widespread disillusion with the status quo ante that tallies with nothing in survey data or the collective memory. According to Gallup, 70 per cent of Americans in 2019 felt it was a good time to find a “quality job”, far more than at the peak of the previous boom. About 12 per cent named economic issues as the nation’s main problem.

Defaming that period does not just breed overconfidence about the public appetite for structural change, it also forfeits the credit that Democrats (including Biden, as vice-president from 2009 to 2017) should be sharing for the pre-pandemic economy. Republicans are being left to “own” an era that was, if not a paradise lost, then the last normal time most people remember.

The weird negativity about the recent past does not end there. According to a thousand unsmiling think pieces, the “Great Resignation” is proof of the public’s long-suppressed qualms with the nature of work and of capitalism itself. You wouldn’t know that, of the job-quitters, many are moving to higher-paid vacancies in an economy that is ravenous for labour. Or that low-wage staff in leisure and hospitality are among the winners. Such exploitation of demand and supply is a case of the system working, surely, and not of its reputational crisis.

At play here is one of the left’s less attractive qualities: the attribution of misery to what are just normal lives. In this account, the supermajority of Americans who consistently tell the General Social Survey they are “very” or “moderately” satisfied with their jobs are the dupes of false consciousness. “McJob”, that masterpiece of condescension, is a phrase that only recently stopped doing the rounds. As for “burn out”, it now covers the stress of office life and the strain of working from home.

At the risk of succumbing to the psycho-jargon of the day, Democratic anger at Joe Manchin — the senator who is delaying Build Back Better — is classic “transference”. The party’s real quarrel is with an electorate that failed to give it the clear Senate majority that some polls had anticipated in 2020. The response to that disappointment should have been a pruning of legislative ambitions. There was still more than enough support for wider healthcare coverage and paid leave, among other incremental reforms. Instead, the party went for so crammed a bill that, even if it passes, as it soon might, voters will have no clear sense of what they have gained.

For the second time in this young century, progressives have assumed rather than achieved a sea-change in public sentiment. Such turning points are extraordinarily rare. There was one after the second world war, which gave rise to the Keynesian state. There was a laissez-faire reaction against it after the Opec oil crises of the 1970s. In the decades since, there has been nothing like as abrupt or far-reaching a turn. If and when another comes, don’t take for granted that it will be in a progressive direction.

With an election in the offing, the left remains a dormant electoral force in France. In the UK, it has only recently started to trouble a Conservative party in its 12th year in power. In each of those cases the party in question would be advised to learn in opposition what the Democrats have discovered in office. The most beguiling offer in today’s politics is a restoration of and an improvement on normal life, not a rupture. What taste the public had for dramatic upheaval was more than satiated over the past 24 months.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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