“So if white college-educated suburbanites really are turning to the left, why might this be?
The simplest and best explanation appears to be partisanship.
In their book Open Versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution, scholars Christopher Johnston, Christopher Federico, and Howard Lavine take a close look at the psychological underpinnings of people’s views on economic policy. What they find is surprising, and more than a little counterintuitive: Economic policy has become, to an extent, an annex of the partisan culture war.
Increasingly, Americans pick their party on the basis of cultural affinity: whether people like them, who share their cultural values on topics like race and immigration, are in one party or the other. This is why college graduates, who tend to be culturally progressive, are an increasingly Democratic bloc, and non-college whites, who have conservative cultural views, are increasingly voting Republican.
In contemporary America, identification with one of the two major parties is an exceptionally powerful psychological force. People who care about being a Democrat or a Republican tend to feel strong psychological pressures to adopt the entire policy slate of their party.
For this reason, Johnston and his co-authors argue that economic policy preferences flow downstream from partisan identity. Democratic partisans who are highly engaged in politics will tend to adjust their economic views leftward to fit more comfortably in the Democratic coalition, perfectly explaining the counterintuitive rise of the progressive white suburbanite.
“Individuals identify with the cultural liberalism of the Democratic party and adopt its approach to economic matters as a package deal,” they write. “Economic preferences [are] an expression of a more basic cultural division in the electorate.”
Open Versus Closed’s thesis fits in with a significant body of political science literature documenting that most ordinary citizens are only weakly attached to their policy preferences, and frequently adjust them based on cues from political elites.
And the core argument that educated voters will hold more down-the-line partisan views as polarization increases is supported by other studies.
A 2008 paper by NYU’s Delia Baldassarri and Columbia’s Andrew Gelman found that between 1972 and 2004, highly educated and politically engaged voters were much more likely than others to have consistently liberal or conservative views on all sorts of issues (social, economic, and foreign policy). A 2020 reanalysis using more recent data has found that voters have only become more ideologically aligned with their parties in the hyperpartisan 21st century — including on economic issues.
Hence “post-material materialism”: Material divides in the classic self-interested sense no longer define the contours of national American politics; people don’t vote their class. They still care about economic policy but come to their opinions for different reasons: They see them as an extension of their partisan identity and moral worldview.
This isn’t to say that white college-educated suburbanites are perfect progressive voters. At the local level, where issues feel more personal and less ideological, these voters often stand in the way of egalitarian policies. Think of the NIMBYs who oppose housing construction in their neighborhoods.
But politics is about working with the kind of supporters you have. And at the national level, the white educated suburbanites who have come over to the Democratic side in recent years are looking like solid supporters of a redistributionist party.”
“While presidential contests have been consistently competitive since 1988, it’s true that not every race has sat on a knife-edge. For instance, there wasn’t much doubt that Bill Clinton was going to win reelection in 1996, and he won by 8.5 points, the largest margin of victory in the nine elections from 1988 to 2020. But before you doubt that a 10-point margin is a helpful barometer of competitiveness, consider that from 1904 to 1984, 12 elections were settled by double-digit margins compared to just nine by single-digit ones. By comparison, not a single election from 1876 to 1900 or from 1988 to 2020 was a blowout.
It’s no coincidence that the late 19th century is the most comparable period to the present. Few people in the 1880s could mistake a Democrat for a Republican because the parties differed sharply in their views — something that is also true today. Case in point: the last time the average Democrat and Republican in Congress were this far apart ideologically was between the 1870s and early 1900s, according to Voteview, which measures the relative liberalism or conservatism of senators and representatives based on their voting records.”
“in 1989, I entered a world where Nebraska straddled the middle of the political spectrum. But since then, the state has drifted so far from the center it’s hard to remember it was ever there. Using DW-NOMINATE data from the congressional vote tallying website Voteview, we can see just how far Nebraska’s political representatives have drifted rightward in the last thirty years. As you can see in the chart below, the average ideology score of Nebraska’s U.S. representatives and senators, as measured by DW-NOMINATE’s first dimension, shifted more than half a point between 1990 and 2020.1 Put in today’s terms, in 1990, the average Nebraskan in Congress was similar in ideology to outgoing Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, a moderate; whereas today she would more closely resemble Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who isn’t the most conservative Republican in Congress (that’s Sen. Mike Lee), but still drifts pretty far to the right on the ideological spectrum.”
“the Electoral College has always favored smaller states like Nebraska. But it is only somewhat recently that these states have heavily favored Republicans.”
“So what’s driving Nebraska’s (and other states’) rightward shift? In part, it has to do with the nationalization of American politics. Since the 1990s, Democratic voters have moved to the left on issues such as health care and immigration, while Republicans have become more likely to identify as conservative as their moderate candidates have dwindled. And in turn, this nationalization and polarization has made it more difficult for local candidates to successfully create their own platforms. For example, as governor and senator, Nelson often broke from his own party in an attempt to attract conservative voters, taking stances like advocating for a “hard barrier” to prevent illegal immigration or supporting various anti-abortion measures. But the days of candidates creating their own platforms are largely over, and the share of registered Democratic voters in Nebraska has also dropped.”
“This trend extends to lower levels of government, too, like the state legislature and city councils. Republican state lawmakers have also tried to eliminate prenatal care and repeal in-state tuition for immigrants, while giving local police the power to question the immigration status of anyone they suspect of living in the country illegally. A few towns have even passed ordinances that formally ban undocumented immigrants from renting property. All this is happening in a state that, until recently, settled a high number of refugees.
Meanwhile, on the education front, Republican lawmakers have leaned into national Republicans’ growing aversion toward public education, trying to eliminate Nebraska’s democratically elected board of education, while perpetual tax cuts and exemptions have led to two-thirds of Nebraska’s school districts receiving no general financial assistance from the state, which has contributed to public schools in rural Nebraska having “the most inequitable [state aid] distribution in the nation,” according to a nationwide study by the think tank, The Rural School and Community Trust. This is all in a state where Republicans once implemented income and sales taxes to increase K-12 schools’ funding, among a host of other progressive legislation.
But lest one think the effects of nationalization have completely remade states like Nebraska, many Nebraskans disagree with the GOP’s positions. Through ballot initiatives, for instance, Nebraska voters have approved a higher minimum wage, Medicaid expansion and casino gambling, even though Republicans officials, who continue to cruise to statewide victories, have opposed these measures.”
““If you ask people to vote for things that might be in their own interest, and you explain the issue to them in one paragraph on the ballot, they will vote for the thing that is good for them,” said Ari Kohen, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “But you can’t ask them to give up their party affiliation.”
People are reluctant to switch parties, but they can be swayed to change their mind about a specific cause, particularly when an issue is presented outside of a partisan context. State Sen. Tony Vargas, a Democrat in Omaha, told me that he thought Medicaid expansion passed — even though Nelson encountered a brouhaha over a similar issue just eight years prior— because it wasn’t tied to a particular politician or party. “If our ballot said ‘expanding Obamacare,’ I feel like people would have voted against it,” Vargas said. “Instead, we said ‘expanding Medicaid and addressing the gap.’ … It’s a lot harder to attack the issue. It’s much easier to attack the person.””
“The 52-47 vote, which was intended to demonstrate Republican unity and support for the stimulus while putting pressure on Democrats, was only mildly successful in that aim, with 52 Republicans supporting the bill and Sen. Rand Paul voting against it. No Democratic senators, who’ve long pushed for a more expansive stimulus package, voted in favor of it. As a result, the bill was unable to meet the 60-vote threshold it needed to advance.
Republicans’ legislation contained roughly $650 billion in aid, according to the Wall Street Journal, including funding for school reopenings, the US Postal Service, and a weekly $300 supplement to unemployment insurance. Democrats’ more expansive HEROES Act, meanwhile, contained $3 trillion in aid including money for a $600 weekly unemployment supplement, another round of $1,200 stimulus payments, and support for state and local governments, in addition to funding for schools and USPS.
Since Thursday’s vote was a strategic maneuver aimed more at sending a message than producing actual policy, it wasn’t expected to pass to begin with. Instead, it was intended to give vulnerable Republican senators something to point toward as evidence they’ve backed more aid going into the election this fall.
The vote was also a way to get Democrats “on the record” opposing stimulus, according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — a framing that could be used to cast blame in the coming months, though it ignores the fact that the Democrat-led House passed its own stimulus package months ago.”
“America’s system of checks and balances requires unusual and even extraordinary levels of consensus to pass legislation. First, you need the agreement of the House, the Senate, the White House, and, increasingly, the Supreme Court.
More granularly, congressional power is diffused across committees. The Senate has built in a supermajority requirement, known as the filibuster, which effectively raises the threshold for passage from 51 votes to 60 votes.
This raises the question: If the problem is embedded in the structure of the US government, how did the US ever do anything big? The short answer is that for most of our political history, two unusual conditions held. First, the parties were ideologically mixed, which made compromise easier. Second, one party was usually electorally dominant, which gave the party in the minority a reason to compromise: If you can’t win, you may as well deal.
Both those conditions have dissolved. America’s political parties are more ideologically — and demographically — polarized than ever before. We’re also in the most competitive period American politics has ever seen. In a system like that, both sides utilize the system’s bias toward inaction to foil their opponents. You can see this in the rise of the filibuster over time. The rule has been around almost as long as America, but it’s only been deployed as an omnipresent veto in recent decades”
“The result is a system biased toward inaction.”
” This is representative democracy at its worst: A democracy that only represents those who know to show up at meetings most people never hear about, and so ends up handing power to special interests and aggrieved NIMBYs.”
“some of Andreessen’s examples really can’t be blamed on the government, at least not in a traditional sense.
America doesn’t have more ICU beds because hospitals have budgets to balance. You can’t both run a profitable hospital and maintain enough spare capacity for a once-in-a-century pandemic.
Similarly, the companies that make ventilators are private companies. They didn’t make more ventilators because there wasn’t demand for more ventilators. Same goes for surgical masks, eye shields, hospital gowns. Now, you can argue the government should’ve been stockpiling more of this stuff all along — and definitely should have been ramping up production in January and February — but a capitalist logic of efficiency prevails both inside and outside the market.
Take, for instance, the wildly successful Obama administration program to loan money to renewable energy companies that became infamous because one of those companies, Solyndra, was a bust. That program led to a slew of successes (including Tesla) and turned a profit to taxpayers. As Michael Lewis argues at length in his book The Fifth Risk, the problem, if anything, was that it was too cautious — so afraid of a Solyndra-like story that it wasn’t funding sufficiently risky investments. But they proved right to be afraid.
If even the government is forced to turn a constant profit on its programs and to avoid anything that might look like a boondoggle, you can imagine the pressure actual private companies are under.”
“Measured as a share of the entire U.S. economy, the national debt has doubled in just 12 years and is on pace to grow to historical highs within the next decade. The federal government’s budget deficit—the gap between how much revenue it raises and how much money it spends—is expected to exceed $1 trillion this year.”
“Lawmakers from both major parties have worked together in recent years to pass budgets that exploded annual deficits and added to the debt. Democrats running for president are promising to hike federal spending by trillions of dollars to pay for free college, government-run health care, and the fight against climate change—and even though they are also promising to raise taxes, the math doesn’t add up. That means deficits will continue to grow. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has abandoned any pretense of fiscal conservatism, and most of his party has followed suit.”