Polling measure shows Americans are more liberal than ever
There has been a lot of big news this summer, so it is understandable if you missed James Stimson’s release of his updated measure of public policy mood. This update revealed that Americans' support for government action is at its highest point since the index began in 1952. This underlying fact helps explain the legislative agenda and 2020 strategy for both parties.
As explained in (among other places) Public Opinion In America and Tides of Consent, public policy mood combines polling responses across a wide range of policy issues to measure the American public’s collective appetite for more or less government, liberal or conservative policies. Even if we think citizens are not fully informed about stock market regulation, health care insurance, and the dozens of other specific policies pollsters ask them about, Stimson’s mood measures their underlying preference for government activism.
The mood index helps us understand previous shifts in American politics. Before 2018, the mood index peaked in the 1960s, coinciding with landmark civil rights laws, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society social welfare policies, and the expansion of civil liberties by Supreme Court decisions. During this period there was a dramatic increase in the number of issues addressed by government actors. Public appetite for more government reached a nadir around 1980, inspiring the Republican Party to embrace a starkly conservative presidential candidate and a range of policies that would have seemed unthinkable a decade earlier.
The updated mood index shows public policy mood is at its peak. This manifests itself in public support for more government action across a range of issues: gun control, health care (e.g. a public option), college tuition, paid parental leave, minimum wage policy, etc. NPR/Marist, for example, polled on a range of Democratic proposals (plus Obamacare repeal) last month. While there are some unpopular items, Democrats have broad support for many of the policies approved by the House or advocated by Democratic presidential candidates.
The unprecedented (in modern times) public support for more progressive policies helps to explain three strategic choices by political party leaders.
1. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s reluctance to pursue impeachment.
Let us stipulate that there are several grounds for pursuing impeachment—obstruction of justice, collaboration with the Russian government, violation of the emoluments clause and multiple ethics violations, and generally using the bully pulpit to bully people. Even if it seems unlikely that enough Senate Republicans would support impeachment to actually remove the President, many Democrats and observers believe the U.S. House has a constitutional duty to pursue impeachment. Not Pelosi, however.
Her logic (reportedly) is that the best path for removing Trump—and advancing the electoral interests of the Democratic party—is to focus on policy issues. Every day the news media focuses on the popular, progressive legislation moving through the House is a win for the Democrats because it highlights their positive agenda—the Democratic plan to move the country in the direction it wants to go. Every news cycle about the President’s incendiary comments, or about Congressional investigation into malfeasance and ethical violations, reinforces the impression among skeptical voters that Democrats are playing political games—even if the President is shattering public norms, the investigations are warranted, and the House is passing major legislation while it investigates.
2. The progressive-trending public mood helps explain why the Republicans label the Democratic agenda “socialism.”
It is a longstanding pattern that Americans may have ideological labels (“liberal” or “conservative”) that differ from their clusters of policy views, so a voter may say she is a “conservative” but also prefer access to abortion, gun control, and taxing the wealthy to provide health care to the poor. Historically, the “conservative” brand has been more popular than conservative policy positions, while liberal policy positions have been less popular than the “liberal” or “progressive” brand.
It is not surprising, then, that the Republican strategy for the 2020 elections (after test-marketing in 2018) includes labeling the Democrats and their policy agenda “socialism.” Republican strategists believe (presumably with the aid of private polling) that Republican voters who find Democratic proposals appealing (such as Tucker Carlson) will recoil when these proposals are linked to an extreme ideological label.
3. The progressive tilt on policy issues explains the Senate Republicans’ limited legislative agenda.
It is not surprising in this partisan environment that the 116th Congress has not—and probably will not—passed much legislation beyond the bare minimum. The House Democratic majority has treated this session as a time to develop and pass major elements of the Democratic agenda (gun purchase background checks, a DREAM act, $15 minimum wage) to provide a campaign agenda for 2020 and, perhaps, a down payment on the 2021 legislative agenda.
What is surprising is that the Senate Republican majority has not done the same: develop a set of conservative legislative proposals and schedule them for floor debate. For example, Republicans could write legislation to improve the health care system, expand and extend the 2017 tax cuts, and align the nation’s immigration policy with the President’s rhetoric, such as a bill to authorize a WALL along the southern border. The fact that they could be filibustered is immaterial; without Democratic support they would die in the House anyway. The Republicans would (presumably) still benefit by investing in their 2021 legislative agenda, and by getting Senate Democrats on the record voting against the Republicans’ agenda.
The Senate Republicans’ lack of legislative action makes more sense, however, if they simply do not think the American public wants what they are selling. When the public mood is highly progressive, there is little to be gained by highlighting the party’s opposition to public opinion. Instead, Senate majority leader seeks to make a virtue of inaction by highlighting his role as a “firewall” against socialism.
The history of public mood and American politics suggests the stage is set for progressive policy change after the 2020 election, but this is not guaranteed. It is not clear how well parties will take advantage (Democrats) or deflect (Republicans) public support for more active government. Nor is it clear how well our electoral system—from its campaign financing system to the small-state bias of the Senate and Electoral College—will translate public opinion into government action.
If Democrats do succeed in the 2020 elections and enact a range of progressive policies, there is a final lesson from previous cycles of policy mood. Once politicians are elected who are responsive to the public’s overall preference, public mood shifts away from them. The Great Society period gave way to Richard Nixon and a resurgent conservative movement, while the Reagan Revolution quickly satisfied the public appetite for less government, leading to a resurgence of pro-government sentiment. If the Democrats gain unified control of the federal government in 2021, the real question is how well they use their window of opportunity to create durable policy programs and systemic political change.