Does the United States Have a Progressive Future?
Spoiler alert: maybe.
The surprising success of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, widespread protests against Trump, and the election of a number of highly progressive candidates in the 2018 midterms all seem to suggest a progressive turning point in American politics. At the very least, the intellectual stranglehold of right-wing economic ideas on our political discourse seems to have been broken. Progressive proposals for Medicare for All, a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the wealthy, free college, child support, and the Green New Deal are all generating enthusiasm among Democrats and getting a more respectful hearing in mainstream political circles than would have seemed possible even 5 years ago.
I agree that greater interest in progressive policy ideas among journalists, political leaders, and the policy elite is an important political development, but it is a common mistake to read too much into short-term swings in public opinion or the results of a single election. So it is useful to step back and ask what we know about the path to a progressive future in the United States.
By progressive, I mean roughly what Lane Kenworthy means by “social democratic capitalism”: “political democracy plus capitalism plus education plus a big welfare state plus high employment”. (This is from his new book, Social Democratic Capitalism, which I recommend.) I take it for granted that moving in this direction is desirable. But are we really witnessing the start of a new, progressive era? It’s certainly possible, and may even be more likely than not. But there are no guarantees, and questions about timing and potential obstacles are important. I am going to focus primarily on public opinion; obviously unpredictable events like recessions or international crises can have a major effect on political outcomes.
Let’s start on the positive side. Political scientists have known since the 1960s that people tend to be liberal in their policy views (see Free and Cantril). Even many self-identified conservatives and Republicans are liberal on economic issues, social issues, or both (Stimson and Ellis; Drutman).
Trends in opinion over time also seem to be encouraging. Young people today are more liberal than their parents and grandparents on many issues. This is true for both social and economic issues, and on some issues for Republicans as well as Democrats (Pew, Pew). Furthermore, opinion is becoming more liberal over time on many moral issues (such as gay marriage and marijuana legalization). Change in moral opinions has been remarkably rapid, and reflects both individual attitude change as well as generational replacement (Baldassarri and Park). Liberalizing moral attitudes may eventually reduce the ability of Republican elites to use culture war issues to keep economic liberals in their electoral coalition.
Finally, the trend towards economic and moral liberalism may reflect a general tendency for gains in economic well-being to increase citizen demand for social insurance and individual self-determination. Kenworthy endorses this view, and partly for this reason he is optimistic about the future of social democratic capitalism.
The upshot of this is that there is a substantial gap between the policy conservatism of the GOP and the opinions of voters, at least on economic issues. This gap seems unlikely to shrink, and may get larger. If this happens, the GOP may either become a permanent minority party, or it may be forced to moderate its positions, as it has on gay rights. In either case, policy in the United States is likely to move in a progressive direction.
This is a reasonable argument, but even if it is right there are important caveats.
First, the wealthy have much more conservative preferences on economic policy than most Americans, and they have a disproportionate influence on policy (Page, Bartels, Seawright).
Second, economic and social conservatives are powerful constituencies in the Republican coalition. Both groups are highly organized and well-funded, and they will strongly resist any effort by Republican politicians to tack to the center. Conservative media may also limit the ability of Republican politicians to moderate their stands on economic and social issues – even when many Republican voters and politicians would prefer moderation.
Third, although public opinion is moving left on many social issues, opinion change is being led by Democrats with Republican voters following, which means that the liberalization process may actually hurt Democrats in the short-run with socially moderate and conservative voters.
Fourth, Trump has shown that Republicans may be able to use racial appeals more aggressively than they have in the past few decades to peel away white Democrats. Race and identity issues may well become more salient as the population becomes more diverse, triggering latent fears and allowing the Republicans to maintain power by emphasizing reactionary positions on race and immigration. In addition, increasing diversity may reduce support for welfare state policies.
Fifth, despite the gap between the GOP and the American public, Republicans currently enjoy an advantage in the electoral college and the Senate. How long this will last is unclear, but if it persists it will be difficult for Democrats to win unified control of the government, and difficult to move a progressive agenda forward without substantial Republican cooperation when Democrats do win majorities in close elections. (For an optimistic view, see NewDealdemocrat here.)
Sixth, the GOP may be able to maintain power with an unpopular policy agenda. The Republican “starve the beast” strategy first cuts taxes on the wealthy, and then uses the resulting deficits to portray spending cuts as responsible and essential, rather than as a conservative policy choice. Trump successfully used a bait-and-switch on voters in 2016, winning the Republican nomination contest in part by claiming to be liberal on social insurance and taxes, then maintaining this liberal stance through the general election, but endorsing massive health program cuts and regressive tax cuts once in office. A critical question is whether Republicans (not to mention Trump himself) will be able to repeat this tactic. If large numbers of economically liberal but socially conservative voters remain in the GOP coalition, our progressive future may end up greatly delayed. We will see if Democrats can call Trump’s bluff in 2020.
Seventh, Americans are deeply suspicious of the competence and fairness of government. For many people, doubts about the ability of government to solve problems is a strong reason to oppose new or expanded government programs. Doubts about the competence and fairness of government are a powerful force holding some economically liberal voters in the Republican coalition and preventing Democrats from moving too far to the left. (This is probably one reason that Free and Cantril find that people are “philosophical conservatives” as well as “operational liberals”.) Conservatives are well aware of this and take every opportunity to reinforce these beliefs. (Lerman provides a good general discussion of these issues.) A related point is that parties that propose more aggressive policy change are viewed as less competent by voters, which may have been a factor in the recent Labour defeat in Britain (Johns and Kolln).
Eighth, people tend to get somewhat more conservative as they age (Peltzman). Exactly what this means is unclear (because the meanings of “conservative” and “liberal” change over time, a conservative today may be much more liberal than a conservative 25 years ago; because the trends may differ for different subgroups, etc). But it is reasonable to think that this will slow the movement of opinion in a liberal direction below a simple model of generational replacement would predict.
Finally, even if the country is at the start of a long-run shift in a progressive direction, it is a mistake to think that 2018 marked a progressive watershed. Public opinion regularly moves against the party in power, acting as a thermostat that prevents large movements in the ideological valence of policy. See the discussion and graph in this article by Bartels. Policy mood has become much more liberal under Trump, which is not shown in Bartels’ graph, but this is entirely consistent with the thermostat theory.
Quite likely, the movement of opinion in a liberal direction and the Democratic gains in the 2018 mid-terms were mostly a standard thermostatic reaction to Trump, to the effort by congressional Republicans to slash Medicaid, and to the large and highly unpopular Republican tax cuts of 2017. But the longer-term factors pushing the United States in a liberal direction will probably continue to operate.
I will discuss some political implications of this in subsequent posts.
First, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, last …
Every one of these can be empowered and executed from start to finish by executing the REAL FIRST:
Nothing could be easier to sell — especially to our “fallen away” Obama voters in the “battleground states.”
Need I say more? I should because I know nobody here or anywhere else apparently will (ever apparently) give the REAL ROAD to renewal a second thought.
You’re dreaming (if in a good way).
The only chance of such legislation being passed is for their to be 60 Dem Senators, Dem Controlled House, and a Dem President.
As Eric made clear, that would be a political miracle.
But there’s more!
It would have to get past the Supreme Court. And Roberts would be dead set against it. As clearly shown by his approval of the ACA when his ruling concerned the Commerce Clause. He will not allow the Feds to do anything like what you are dreaming.
Unless of course it is that Rep plan that would set elections whenever the employer decided to. That abortion he would sign off on.
The Supreme Court is something that has to be accounted for in terms of any progressive legislation.
They are the gorilla in the room. And we have the most RW, politically motivated Supreme Court in my lifetime.
I think you are right. Th Roberts court will be bad, as bad as the Chase court from which emerged the Slaughter-House decision which rendered the 14th Amendment useless. Laurence Tribe wrote: “‘The Slaughter-House Cases incorrectly gutted the Privileges or Immunities Clause.’ Similarly, Yale Law School professor Akhil Amar wrote, ‘Virtually no serious modern scholar—left, right, and center—thinks that Slaughter-House is a plausible reading of the Fourteenth Amendment.'”
Hard to take Sanders a success in 2016 when he struggled winning contests against a unpopular candidate to boot.
The Republicans have cleared the constitutional footpath (assuming it need be cleared) by legislating, first, mandatory recertification elections at government workplaces in Wisconsin and Iowa — and then, preparing to pass a national labor law that would require mandatory recert-decert elections at every private workplace where union membership had rolled over more than 50% since the union was formed!
No constitutional bar to mandating union elections anyway. No difference constitutionally from the union certification prescribed by law at present.
The way we to 60 senators and the White House is to propose an issue every bit as big as the desegregation issue (matter of fact the issue that will finally fill out King’s dream*) and an issue that everybody (almost) will get behind.
*After describing the American labor market to my late, more articulate brother John, he came back with: “Martin Luther King got his people on the up escalator just in time for it to start going down for everybody.”
Time to invite everybody to get on the up escalator together.
The notion that the 2018 midterms signalled a progressive move in the electorate is wrong. 40 seats were flipped by pragmatic candidates, not progressives. The progressives who won in 4 or 5 seats, like AOC, won in deep blue districts. Those who ran in red or purple districts lost decisively.
As Nancy Pelosi remarked after the election, “they’re four or five votes.”
Many people who know more about this than I do believe that weak unions have contributed to rising inequality. Even if this is true, it’s far from clear that labor law reform is a promising route to a more equitable future, at least in the short to medium run. For one thing, labor law reform is highly controversial. It’s not clear that a strong bill could get through the Senate, or even the house. With a modest reform – like card check – it would take decades to rebuild union density. We don’t have decades. Anything more aggressive would very likely run into a buzz saw at the Supreme Court. And progressives have not rallied around a single more aggressive proposal, although there are interesting proposals, e.g., for wage boards, industry bargaining, etc.
Once again you use this absolutely horrible GOP bill to argue that the GOP is amenable to such legislation.
Read the damn thing. It is as anti-union a piece of legislation that has ever been proposed. It would put such elections totally in the hands of the employers, meaning there would not be any of them.
WTF do you think this means?
“Whenever any certified or voluntarily recognized bargaining unit existing on or after the date of enactment of the Employee Rights Act experiences turnover, expansion, or alteration by merger of unit represented employees exceeding 50 percent of the bargaining unit”
well, it all depends on what you mean by progressive:
you could be progressive simply by “saving Social Security” forever by raising the payroll tex one tenth percent per year, or even by raising it about 3/4 percent all at once this year (for each the worker and the employer).
or you could be “progressive” by demanding “the rich” pay for all of it.
the first option preserves the Roosevelt idea of insurance for workers paid for by workers, guaranteed by the government. the second option is what they call “Socialism.”
the first option is doable once people understand it. the second assures “the rich” will fight it to the death… the death of Social Security, or at least preserve the forever war of Republican “conservatives” vs Democratic “liberalism.” Which the Republicans are on the point of winning forever because they control the high ground… with sufficient help from military-industrial Democrats.
Reminds me of the Left congratulating themselves a few years back when demographic projections predicted the Unites States would become a minority majority country in just a few years. As if the white right was going to sit still for that. Or, for that matter, as if the new “diverse” majority would behave any better when it had power than the old majority did.
To the last paragraph, that comment was made in 2006 by Joel Garreau in his article “300 Million and Counting” and the time table for the shift to occur is 2040. Furthermore, there are already more “minority” children in todays schools than “white” children. It will occur.
I need a title for your post, email it. Also, please wander over to the “other Immigration Issue Here” post. There is a comment there you are more knowledgeable on a particular topic than I.
I have no doubt the demographic changes will occur. I have extreme doubt the Republicans will let it change the power structure.
I also have extreme doubt that any new minority majority will behave any better with power than rich old white men behave.
I suspect the Danes can make progressive policies work because with their cultural homogeneity they think of themselves as all one family, and it is harder for politicians of ill intent to play them off against one another.
i emailed title this morning.
i also “wandered over” to the “other immigration” thread. didn’t see what I am supposed to know more about. hope the comment i left can further conversation even if only by way of disagreeing with me.