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.