By Kevin J. Dougherty and Tara Habibi (M.A. student, Economics and Education)

President Biden’s proposal for a massive program of new spending on infrastructure — aimed at reviving manufacturing, addressing climate change and meeting social needs — has attracted great attention, but also has been sharply criticized by Republicans and some business groups. The war of rhetoric around the Biden proposal raises the question of whether infrastructure policy will be one of the defining issues in the leadup to the 2022 and 2024 elections.

A curious feature of the partisan war over Biden’s infrastructure plan is that it obscures the fact that infrastructure and industrial policies have a long history in the United States, going back all the way to Alexander Hamilton’s “American System” in the nation’s early years. In Hamilton’s time, the United States pursued such infrastructure and industrial policies as incentives for building roads and canals and tariffs to protect nascent industries. Later in the 19th century and in the early 20th century, the United States encouraged the construction of the transcontinental railroads, the development of scientific farming through the agricultural extension service, and the provision of vocational and technical training. And post-World War II, the U.S. government encouraged the massive expansion of higher education, the spread of cars and suburbs through the interstate highway system, and the rise of Silicon Valley through research funded by the Department of Defense.

Another curious feature of the partisan war over infrastructure is that industrial policy proposals have been advanced by key Republicans, including not just Donald Trump, but also Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton. In fact, Rubio has explicitly used the term “industrial policy” to characterize his own proposals for economic development. Given this, how do Democratic and Republican proposals for infrastructure and industrial policy principally differ and what are the political implications of those differences?

Kevin Dougherty, Professor of Higher Education and Education Policy. (Photo: TC Archives) 

Why Is Infrastructure and Industrial Policy Needed?

Both the left and right versions of industrial policy point to crumbling infrastructure, the widespread loss of well-paying jobs, the resultant increase in income inequality, a huge trade deficit, our dependence on foreign manufacturers for a host of industrial and consumer products (including personal protective equipment), and China’s economic challenge to the United States. Where the left version is distinctive is in its major emphasis on climate change as a central rationale for industrial policy, with President Biden calling for “opportunities to create well-paying union jobs to build a modern and sustainable infrastructure, deliver an equitable, clean energy future, and put the United States on a path to achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050.”

The conservative vision of industrial policy also carries distinctive premises of its own. While the left views the Chinese challenge as primarily economic, right-wing advocates of industrial policy see an equal or greater military threat, and therefore advocate an industrial policy oriented toward increasing not just our economic capacity but also our military prowess. In fact, Senator Tom Cotton has even called for a second Cold War, this time against China. The conservative version of industrial policy also argues that it is a solution to community breakdown stemming from causes such as the spread of opioid addiction and a loss of meaningful work.

Which Policies Should Be Pursued?

Both the left and right advocates of infrastructure and industrial policy have called for more many of the same policy initiatives: more research and development that will produce jobs in the United States; more sub-baccalaureate training opportunities such as industrial apprenticeships; more government procurement of goods that are “Made in the USA;” trade agreements that really guard against domestic job losses; assisting firms to modernize their production processes in order to drive down costs and better compete internationally; and helping small businesses in emerging industries with business advice, financing and access to research.

Despite these similarities, climate change again emerges as a great left-right divide. Central to the left vision of industrial policy is fostering more research and development on clean energy, more clean energy production (e.g. solar and wind power), greater use of public transportation and electric vehicles, and massive efforts to improve energy efficiency through building weatherization and more efficient appliances. Such green policies are almost entirely absent from the conservative version of industrial policy.

The Politics of Infrastructure and Industrial Policy

The Democratic infrastructure and industrial policy proposals are clearly popular, as evidenced by several public opinion polls and much editorial commentary. For example, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll in April 2021 found that 56 percent of registered voters supported Biden’s infrastructure bill, characterized by the poll as “intended to address infrastructure, climate change, and job creation.” On the other hand, elements of the Republican arguments for industrial policy are also popular. For example, in a February 2021 poll by the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of adult respondents reported that they thought the United States should get tougher with China on economic issues. Moreover, 52 percent stated that China’s growing military power would be a very serious problem for the United States. Quite aware of this, Senators Cotton, Hawley and Rubio have greeted Biden’s infrastructure proposal by raising new alarms about China, with the implication that the Biden Administration is “soft” on China.

The Biden Administration’s success in presenting infrastructure and industrial policy in economically, ecologically, and culturally compelling ways may be critical to constructing a political coalition that appeals both to the new left and to the working class voters whom Republicans wish to permanently induct into a neo-Trumpist populist party coalition. Effectively addressing the themes of economic security, supportive community and meaningful work will be important to securing the support of working class voters for whom these values are important sources of identity.

For more, see our report analyzing the positions taken by Democratic and Republican advocates of infrastructure and industrial policy and the political implications of those positions.