Are the Democrats too liberal?

The Obama administration’s struggles over health care have raised again the question of whether the Democrats are out of touch with public opinion. This is a challenge for American liberals. In recent years they have tended to argue for the existence of a natural left majority on economic issues which they admit can be undercut by conservative appeals on non-economic issues. This is despite evidence that public opinion is largely unidimensional. This model is encapsulated in the concept of ‘wedging’. In Australia ‘wedging’ became a dominant trope in much left commentary after the re-election of the Howard government in 2001: 20.8K Google hits for ‘John Howard” + ‘wedge politics’. The re-election of the Howard government with an increased majority in 2004 called the theory into doubt, but the general climate of despair and gloom on the left lifted with the ascension of Kevin Rudd to the ALP leadership and the unpopularity of the Howard government’s radical labour market reforms Workchoices. The Howard’s government’s election in 2007 could be interpreted within the wedging paradigm as as a revival of natural class politics aided by Rudd’s own careful triangulation on cultural issues, to which the left acquiesced with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Much more can be written about the intellectual left’s odd engagement with cultural conservatism. The problem with the wedging hypothesis is that the Obama administration has steered clear of cultural politics as demonstrated by its silence on the rights of gay Americans to military service. The current political storm is over health care, and to a lesser extent public finance, precisely the ‘popuslt’ economic issues that were supposed to deliver a natural majority to the left. A recent Gallup poll finds a statistically significant increase in the portion of voters who see the Democrats as too liberal and self-described conservatives maintain a clear lead over liberals in voter identification. Conservatives could retrace the steps of the left and see Obama’s victory as an aberration soon to be corrected. Yet the problems with this are the continued poor esteem in which Republicans are held and the fact that many self-defined ‘conservatives’  hold largely ‘liberal’ views on public policy and this includes social-cultural questions as well as economic ones. It seems to me that voter self-identification as ‘conservative’ means something in politics, but it doesn’t mean policy identification with the ‘conservative movement’. There is a clear pattern that higher income voters are more likely to be Republicans but there is only a slight tendency for lower-income voters to be more liberal and much of this is accounted for by over-representation of ‘very liberal’ among the lowest income earners. Andrew Gelman notes: ‘There must be a lot of low-income moderate Democrats and high-income moderate Republicans out there’. This is a major gap in political science research, after all ‘moderate to conservative’ Democrats are a major force in Congress, what relation is there between the strength of this group and the portion of non-liberal Democrats in the electorate? Generally the American left before Obama’s election tended to see ‘Blue Dog’ conservative Democrats as responding to the alleged ‘God, guns and gays’ concerns of their southern and rural electors, the left was willing to cut them slack on this, but in recent months the left has found the economic conservatism of Ben Nelson et. al. very frustrating. In part however the Democrats’ problems are self-inflicted and their response to the financial crisis has played a role. Unlike some on the left I don’t see the nationalisation of bankrupt financial institutions as some kind of step towards socialism (interesting left critque of nationalisation here). The economic rationale for public ownership rests on balancing externalities against the difficulties of public management (although the behaviour of the private sector has put these difficulties in perspective). But at the political level ‘bail-outs’ of private institutions have in the public mind become tangled up with the case for an expansionary fiscal policy. Thus public opinion on the stimulus has become increasingly unfavourable and this has made further stimulus impracticable despite the strong macroeconomic case for this (and endemic Republican bad faith), the resultant negative economic impact drags the Democrats down.  ‘Pragmatic’ liberals such as Isaac Choitner complain that public opinion is confused:

Krugman is displaying sympathy for voters who are completely clueless (i.e. voters who think the stimulus and the bank bailouts are the same thing). On health care, or Iraq, or tax cuts, there is no way that Krugman would show such understanding. When people are completely uninformed about policy, following their lead is probably not the wisest course.

But is it that surprising that voters are confused? The historical problem for American liberalism, as argued by Theda Skocpol and Margaret Weir, is the dysfunctional nature of the American state makes effective reform difficult, the half-way solutions then implemented are then vulnerable to criticism, and this further discredits the state.  Overall the political left is confused on its response to populist conservatism; too often either an excess of empathy or enraged bafflement.

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