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Politics

There’s No Working Class Backlash to Biden’s Climate Law

Despite lots of fretting, the evidence for one is incredibly flimsy.

A man and clean energy.
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Is the Inflation Reduction Act hurting President Biden’s hopes for re-election?

As Biden celebrates the first anniversary of his historic climate law, there’s handwringing in some Democratic circles about exactly that. According to Axios’ Josh Kraushaar, one of the reasons that Biden is struggling in head-to-head polls with leading Republicans is that “Democrats are pushing the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy too quickly,” something that he identifies as “a consistent theme with working class voters of all backgrounds.”

The evidence for this broad claim is incredibly flimsy. Kraushaar points to one poll which finds that respondents favor a mix of energy sources moving forward over phasing out “the use of oil, coal and natural gas completely,” by a margin of 72-26. And that’s about it. That’s odd, because when voters are asked about the individual provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act, including EV subsidies, tax incentives to install solar panels and industry subsidies for wind and solar power generation, they support them by double-digit margins. A recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, for example, found that voters approved of the EV tax credit by a margin of 50-22.

It is only when respondents are presented with the stark, all-or-nothing language beloved by the fossil fuel industry that they tend to balk, activating fears that AOC is going to personally repossess your gas-powered truck tomorrow morning or that Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm is going to shut off your natural gas lines and starve you out until you install an electric stove. It’s the thinking pushed by former Democratic strategist Ruy Texeira, now with the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, who attributes to Democrats the position that “We need a rapid green transition to end the use of fossil fuels and replace them with fully renewable energy sources” and then identifies this position as Biden’s chief vulnerability.

Because the overwhelming majority of Americans still drive rides powered by internal combustion engines and rely on fossil fuels every day, it should not be surprising that sudden, dramatic change polls poorly. Americans, after all, have a very well-known status quo bias that must be worked around if meaningful social change is to be successfully pursued. But leading Democrats, including the president, aren’t pushing for that kind of dizzying change anyway. The administration has set a goal of having 50 percent of new vehicle sales by all-electric by 2030 – seven years from now.

Even that timeline means that the infrastructure for gas-powered vehicles will have to remain in place for decades, and that’s assuming future presidents don’t reverse course. But making electric vehicles a growing component of America’s long-term transportation plan requires some up-front investment and subsidies and that is exactly what the Biden administration has done. To paraphrase former President Obama, if you like your gas-guzzling Canyonero, you can keep it.

It’s worth noting that the Biden administration does not anticipate generating all of America’s electricity with “wind and solar,” as the poll that Texeira cites suggests, which would indeed be hard to pull off. That’s because the administration’s lofty goal of phasing out fossil fuels by 2035 relies heavily on massive new investments in next-generation nuclear power plants, not just the $6 billion band-aid that has been placed on propping up the country’s existing atomic generators. And while the administration has not released plans, or publicly pushed for, big new investments in nuclear power, they should consider it. If anything, it is generally liberal Democrats, not working class voters, who oppose nuclear energy, which polls well with Americans, and Biden and his team would be wise to unveil more specific ideas about how they plan to fill the gap between renewable capacity and dead dinosaur juice.

But Kraushaar, Texeira, and other centrist fretters are also missing a huge and consequential aspect of status quo bias in our politics — in another year, the Inflation Reduction Act and its provisions will be the status quo, as Republicans found out the hard way when they tried to overturn what they thought was the hated Affordable Care Act in 2017. It turns out that, while people had and still have mixed feelings about Obama’s signature health care reform, they also didn’t want to return to a world in which you could be denied insurance for “pre-existing conditions.” The law went from consistently unpopular to a third rail virtually overnight when Trump was elected.

Not only that, but the green initiatives in the IRA are already very well-liked, at least when they’re spelled out. As the percentage of Americans with EVs or plug-in hybrids grows, so will the appreciation for the tax credits, the expanding charging infrastructure, and more. Yes, there is still some dissatisfaction with aspects of the economy, but that has much more to do with Biden’s inability to wave a magic wand and conjure 2019 prices back into being than it does with tax discounts at the local Chevy dealership.

There’s also more to holding power than strictly hewing to a public opinion consensus.

Nowhere in the ruminations of people worried about the electoral blowback of green energy initiatives is there much concern about climate change itself, a particularly galling blind spot given this summer’s relentless, record-breaking heat waves, the deadly blazes that consumed the Hawaiian island of Maui, and the wildfire smoke repeatedly blanketing parts of the U.S. in a choking, sun-blotting haze. Democrats aren’t pushing for green energy because they are consumed with woke ideology – they are trying to do their part to arrest the planet-wide catastrophe that fossil fuel burning has set into motion. And they have already done the most important thing they can do with power – using it instead of cowering in fear of the electoral consequences.

Read more about the politics of the energy transition:

Biden’s Climate Messaging Problem

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David Faris

David Faris is an associate professor of political science at Roosevelt University and the author of The Kids Are All Left: How Young Voters Will Unite America. His work has appeared in The Week, Slate, The Washington Post, The New Republic, NPR.org, the Chicago Sun-Times, and The Christian Science Monitor, among other publications. Read More

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