To explain the Democrats’ poor performance in state and local elections Tuesday, various commentators have made very specific claims: It was mostly about critical race theory, or mostly about Terry McAuliffe’s flaws as a candidate for Virginia governor, or mostly about suburban white women voting like it’s 2012 again.
But none of these explanations is fully satisfying. The turn against Democrats wasn’t limited to parents, or Virginia, or white women. Compared with the 2020 election, support for Democrats decayed across states, genders, ethnicities, and counties. Democrats lost because of something bigger than any demographic or issue. They lost a vibes war. Despite many positive economic trends, Americans are feeling rotten about the state of things—and, understandably, they’re blaming the party in power.
How are vibes any different from what we’ve historically called economic fundamentals? Can President Joe Biden mount a comeback after losing the first decisive battle of the vibes war? And why do we always have to name stuff?
The U.S. economy is booming. Kind of. Consumer demand is on a rocket ship upward, and Americans collectively are spending more money than ever on hard goods. The unemployment rate is lower today than it was for most of the 2010s. Having banked stimulus checks, unemployment insurance, student-loan-interest forgiveness, and other savings, Americans say that their finances are in excellent shape.
Yet supply-chain snarls have made shopping harder, and incipient inflation has made what we can buy more expensive. Independents say they’re as despondent about the economy as they were during several months of the Great Recession. One measure of consumer confidence—buying conditions for household durables—has fallen to its lowest rate in about 40 years. Gas prices are salient, not only because people buy a lot of it, but also because they’re the only prices printed in 3,000-point type across the country—and they’ve gone way up under Biden. Meanwhile, the Delta variant obliterated promises of a hot vax summer, and the president’s approval rating has tanked.
These days it’s good to be a savings account, or a nominal-gross-domestic-income graph. But bank accounts don’t vote, and nominal-GDI graphs currently lack Senate representation. Consumers vote, and hiring managers vote, and overworked service-economy employees dealing with rude customers vote, and right now it stinks to be any of those people. An economist can tell you that, technically, things are looking up. But vibes eat technicalities for breakfast. The vibes are bad, and Democrats are suffering for it.
For now! But we may have reached a vibe inflection point.
The U.S. economy added 531,000 jobs in October. This is a good sign that Delta fears (like Delta cases) are waning, and the service economy is going back to normal. As pandemic savings are drawn down, more people will likely join the labor force, which will ease the worker shortage and help companies fill out their staff. The supply-chain meshugas is not going to end before Christmas, but nobody I’ve spoken with expects it to last a full year.
Vaccine approval for kids should allay the fears of parents and help schools go back to normal, if schools and parents choose to do so. Young people are at much lower risk of severe illness than the elderly, but the mass vaccination of kids will help the U.S. avoid a repeat of what’s happening in the U.K., where cases are surging among unvaccinated children. New antiviral drugs from Pfizer and Merck will bring even more artillery into the fight against COVID in 2022.
Meanwhile, Biden’s new de facto vaccination mandate is a quiet economic-stimulus policy that, despite the controversy around it, really will make life feel more normal for millions of Americans. This week, the White House announced that companies with 100 or more employees have to fully vaccinate their workforce or test unvaccinated employees for COVID on a weekly basis. The Department of Health and Human Services also requires health-care facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid to make sure all their employees get shots. Despite threats of mass resignations in response to these mandates, the reality hasn’t matched the headlines. In fact, vaccination requirements could result in more hirings, rather than more quits, as Americans fearful of infection feel more comfortable returning to fully vaccinated workplaces.
Wagner’s music, as the saying goes, was better than it sounds. Today’s economy is better than it feels. If 2021 was the year of negative shocks—Delta, labor shortages, supply-chain madness, and general shopping woes—2022 could be the year of pleasant surprises, when the economy’s statistical recovery becomes a bona fide vibes recovery.
Joe Biden promised normality, Americans got abnormality, and Democrats got punished at the polls for it. The path toward a more successful midterm election for Democrats in 2022 flows through the converse of this strategy. First, make things feel better. Then talk about it.