Democratic leaders, activists and strategists spend a lot of time discussing — and arguing about — policy under the assumption that the policies the party prioritizes affect whether they will win the next election. It’s been a big part of President Biden’s governing strategy so far, and one need look no further than Democrats blaming talk of defunding the police for losses in the House in 2020 or, conversely, citing health care in the 2018 midterm elections as the reason they did so well to understand the role they think policy plays in their electoral success.
But the research on whether choosing the right policy actually helps parties win elections is far less clear. How Democrats talk in 2021 and 2022 and what they prioritize may — or may not — help them win the 2022 midterm elections, but it will shape the policy and political landscape for the future in potentially profound ways. And that, perhaps, is what Democrats should be more worried about.
In political science, there’s a large body of research that examines how policy shapes politics. The broad takeaway is that policy matters — a lot — but not in the ways that political pundits often think it does. Rather than helping parties win the next election, research suggests that major policies remake the political landscape in ways that reverberate far into the future — including changing expectations of government and creating new voter constituencies. This, in turn, can shape future elections.
Although controversial when they were first enacted, social programs like Social Security and Medicare are classic examples of this phenomenon; they’ve become so popular and entrenched in our politics that parties perpetually campaign to protect and strengthen them. These programs have also essentially created a new political coalition of retired beneficiaries that actively mobilizes against any threats to them. The survival of those programs is further aided by the fact that retired seniors are largely viewed as a group “deserving” of social welfare benefits.
Truly transformative policy has been rarer in recent decades, as partisan gridlock has stymied ambitious legislation. But with Democrats advancing investments in social spending at levels not seen since former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society in the 1960s, the potential long-term consequences of major policy changes are once again a key consideration. Those ramifications will almost certainly be more significant than any short-term electoral impacts.
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On this, the Affordable Care Act is instructive. As the most consequential expansion of the social safety net in the 21st century (thus far), it did reshape our politics, but its complicated design and highly partisan implementation mostly just reinforced existing political divides, making it harder for new voter constituencies to emerge. Moreover, the government’s role in providing health care benefits was obscured through its patchwork of insurance exchanges. As political scientist Suzanne Mettler has documented in “The Submerged State,” this is a major design flaw of many government programs: Indirect benefits are very commonplace, which can make it hard for voters to understand the role government plays in the benefits they receive. Policies that feel invisible don’t transform politics.
Additionally, because the Affordable Care Act, with its health exchanges and subsidies and limited sign-up windows, is very complicated, Democrats had a hard time explaining its benefits, while Republicans had an easy time attacking it. This reflects a broader point political scientist Jamila Michener has argued in “Fragmented Democracy”: Many government benefits are made intentionally difficult to obtain, in a process that’s both bureaucratic and demeaning to those seeking the benefits. That’s especially true for means-tested programs aimed at helping lower-income voters and communities of color, run by Republican-controlled state governments. The consequences, Michener writes, are that recipients think less of the government and become less engaged in politics. Thus, rather than creating new constituencies and clear benefits, many government programs disappear into the ether of anonymity or bolster alienation from the government.
In an earlier, more bipartisan era, such policy design choices were arguably the price of political compromise, with Democrats generally more supportive of social spending and Republicans more inclined to change the tax code rather than provide direct subsidies that would require new government agencies. The ACA is illustrative of that. In 2009, when Democrats wrote the bill, they had every intention of getting Republican support and designed a policy around market exchanges to win bipartisan blessing. Twelve years later, leaders in Congress are far less likely to pursue bipartisanship.
Democrats’ ambitions for social spending — though scaled back over the last several weeks — are still far larger than they have been since the 1960s, largely because they are now liberated from trying to find Republican support. And what’s key here is that many of these programs could create constituencies with beneficiaries, who will become mobilized to sustain the program.
For example, if implemented, government-funded child care is a benefit that many working parents will come to depend on. It is unlikely to break through in time for the 2022 midterm elections, but over time, it is a benefit that Democrats may be able to campaign on protecting. This would also have been true of free college tuition for community college, another program Democrats contemplated but did not include in the latest round of negotiations. Policies like these — if designed to be clear, easy to access and visibly associated with government — stand a real chance of assembling durable, supportive coalitions.
Of course, the shorter-term risk is that any new government program yields an immediate backlash. It’s far easier for opponents to play up the costs and demonize the program when no voters have come to rely on the benefits. Moreover, since many social spending programs are likely to benefit communities of color, Republican opposition is likely to play on racial tropes, as it did with the ACA and other social programs before that.
The potential electoral risk is why some Democrats and Democratic strategists want the party to focus more on bread-and-butter issues, like economic policy. The concern is that if Democrats make race and racial justice too much of their agenda, they risk alienating voters, especially white voters without a college degree, who are geographically important. But what this misses is that Republican messaging is going to focus on contentious conflicts over race and identity regardless of what Democrats do. So if the Biden administration and Democratic Party leaders think they can duck having these conversations, they are mistaken, especially given that a few outlets exercise a stranglehold over the media ecosystem on the political right. Moreover, spending on expanded social programs might actually help Democrats win over some of these voters in the long run, especially since they tend to be lower-income and are also more likely to be women, who would benefit most directly from free child care.
But even adopting such programs doesn’t mean Democrats will win the messaging wars of 2022 — or even 2024. Midterm elections generally go against the party in power. And arguably, for at least the next two election cycles, the basic rules of who can vote and how votes are counted will be far, far more consequential. Social spending policy, by contrast, is unlikely to have a huge effect on 2022 — even if Democrats do pass popular programs.
Some backlash is inevitable; even policies that eventually poll well take time to become popular because voters must experience them and actually value them. Partisanship is also sticky and slow to change. Most voters evaluate policy and programs through partisan media and judge programs by whether the programs are Democratic programs or Republican programs. But on the margins — and especially over time — policies shape both identities and party coalitions. Citizens recognize the policies they support or oppose as part of who they are, and the policies and issues that different parties “own” in the present can shape the terrain of future elections.
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