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Amazon is becoming the face of American inequality

Bezos has become a useful foil for Democrats

In the days leading up to the Bessemer union vote, Amazon is throwing punches. They’re just not aimed at workers.

As the Alabama warehouse votes on whether to unionize, Amazon has been facing mounting pressure from progressive lawmakers — and on Friday, the company went on the offensive, calling out Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) for their criticism of the company’s policies. Predictably, tweets provoked more tweets, turning into days of jousting between progressives and a corporate PR account. Over the weekend, Recode broke the news that Bezos had personally encouraged the callout, worrying that his company was being too passive in the face of progressive pressure. Whatever the risks, Bezos clearly sees this fight as a winner.

So do Democrats. It’s rare to see this much national involvement in a union drive, but President Biden jumped in earlier this month, expressing support in hedged but unmistakable terms. Amazon is a useful foil for a party trying to recapture working-class voters, and Amazon’s loose tweets could spark a much bigger fight. As Democrats respond to the economic fallout of the pandemic, Amazon makes an ideal antagonist, making billions while the rest of the economy withers. The pandemic has only intensified that disparity, shutting down in-person retail while Amazon’s e-commerce business thrived. The company is the perfect villain for a party eager to tell a story about economic justice — and while the Bessemer election will be counted and done in a few days, the fight between Amazon and Democrats may not be.

Much of the Bessemer fight so far has come from Biden’s particular commitment to unions as a political force. Biden wants to be seen as enthusiastically pro-labor (a rare quality for a post-Clinton Democrat), and this is the most important labor effort in years for reasons we describe in detail here. So the Bessemer fight lets Biden stick up for the little guy and suggest his labor board will come down hard on any irregularities from Amazon. It casts Biden as a different kind of Democrat with more to offer the working class. It’s not just the right thing to do; it’s also good politics.

But that political calculus extends far beyond the Bessemer fight. Biden wants to be seen as a bold, progressive president taking on entrenched inequality. A public spat with Amazon makes it clear he’s trying, even if more ambitious efforts like the $15 minimum wage (Amazon’s preferred remedy) get lost along the way. And since tossing insults at Amazon is easier than reversing decades of economic damage, the feud gives Biden an easy way to show he’s trying. All he has to do is cast Amazon as the face of the problem — the leading edge of everything that’s wrong with the American economy.

This month, a new book lays out the same story at a grander scale. Written by ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis, Fulfillment is less about Amazon’s business than the social dislocation left in its wake, pairing Amazon’s rise to power with the struggles of a cardboard packer in Dayton or a small office supply store in El Paso. Many of the figures in the book aren’t even officially Amazon employees, instead working for contractors or selling on the company’s marketplace. Still, the overall message is clear: Amazon is growing rich and powerful off of these people’s work, while they scramble just to stay alive.

In the introduction, MacGillis makes the case for Amazon as a poster child of this new style of American business explicitly. As he describes it, the idea for his book emerged when he realized Amazon was “an ideal frame for understanding the country and what the country was becoming.”

[Amazon] served as the ultimate lens on the country’s divides because it was present just about everywhere… It had segmented the country into different sorts of places, each with their assigned rank, income, and purpose. It had not only altered the national landscape itself, but also the landscape of opportunity in America — the options that lay before people, what they could aspire to do with their lives.

Of course, that economic chasm is much older than Amazon. The landscape of American opportunity has always been skewed, and the latest tectonics date back at least 50 years. Amazon has been at the forefront of many of those changes — particularly the shift to e-commerce, exurban fulfillment networks, and vastly scaleable online interactions. But Amazon didn’t cause those shifts; it just positioned itself to benefit from them. MacGillis acknowledges as much in how he describes the company: a lens, rather than the whole picture in itself.

As Democrats scramble to connect with working class and rural voters, that lens can be a powerful political force. For decades, the party has struggled to describe the crushing divide in the American economy that has pushed wealth to major cities and left the rest of the country to decay. Since 2016, many of the voters on the wrong side of that divide have left the party for Trump, a trend that Biden is eager to reverse. Neither party has a meaningful plan to undo the structural damage, but Biden is hoping a surge in federal money will soften the blow, beginning with the trillion-dollar relief package and continuing with trillions more in infrastructure spending planned for this spring.

Democrats are hoping to cast those bills as a contemporary New Deal, rescuing the country from economic ruin while uniting it politically. Portraying Amazon as the face of that ruin — and using a public fight with the company as proof the party is serious about taking it on — is just good messaging.

A feud between Democrats and Amazon would also catch Republicans off balance, splitting the party between its populist rhetoric and pro-business policies. Since Trump, Bezos has been a rhetorical foil for Fox News, but Amazon benefited hugely from Trump’s tax cut and quadrupled in value over Trump’s four years in office. Even now, Republicans weighing in on the feud between Sanders and Amazon have found themselves in the awkward position of defending a company they’ve spent much of the past four years attacking.

Amazon has plenty of resources to defend itself. The company is still wildly profitable, the second largest employer in the United States (after Wal-Mart) and the second largest federal lobbyist (after Facebook). It will have ample chance to soften the blow of any new policies and is better equipped to ride out the changes than nearly any other company on Earth. Congress’ efforts to change Section 230 have been focused on Google and Facebook rather than Amazon’s product liability issues, and Pentagon contract aside, government work is still a relatively small part of the company’s business. After decades of unbelievable growth, there is only so much that can go wrong.

But political pressure will still change Amazon in profound and unpredictable ways. Facebook was in this position in 2016 — suddenly blamed for Trump’s election, Brexit, and the fraying condition of liberal democracy across the world. Five years later, every new project is met with hostility, and ambitious politicians around the world look at the company as a prize waiting to be taken down. Most companies would try to avoid that fate. After this weekend’s dustup, Amazon seems to be leaning into it.

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