Progressive Priorities Are Good for Democrats in Frontline Districts

For decades, any time progressives wanted to push the Democratic Party to go big on social democratic priorities, the most common response was this: we can’t do it because it would be bad for candidates in frontline districts.

It was never entirely clear why this would be the case. There was never any real credible polling indicating that voters in purple districts were significantly more concerned about deficit spending than voters in other districts–and in any case, Republicans never seemed to factor those concerns into their own guns-and-butter policy decisions. There was never any indication that purple districts were significantly more opposed to expansion of healthcare–and in fact, the actual policies of the Affordable Care Act have proven very popular even in red states.

What has always been true is that voters in red states–and conservative voters in purple districts–will reliably turn against whatever seems to be the focus of negative attention on Fox News and in conservative media. But it has also long been clear there is nothing Democrats can do to placate the conservative media bubble, and that right-wing demagogues will paint even the most anodyne policy improvements as the second coming of Josef Stalin. So the best Democrats can do is put forward policy that remains popular with broad majorities on the merits, and know in advance that the Tucker Carlsons of the world will polarize whatever it is–and then just do it, anyway, in the knowledge that it will be immediately popular with most voters up front, and even with many conservative voters once the benefits become clear and the outrage spotlight shifts elsewhere.

It took a long time, but it appears that a combination of outright aggression of Republicans in the Trump era, the increasingly dire policy challenges that conservatives refuse to face, and the almost comical demonization of Joe Biden in right-wing media as some sort of radical leftist, has changed the conversation. Even many purple district moderates (and their consultants) are now increasingly convinced of the need to just do what is right without worrying about the potential fallout that has traditionally frightened them off since the Reagan era:

Across the country, Democrats are uniformly lining up behind the most essential parts of Biden’s policy program, aggressively trying to sell the already-passed American Rescue Plan ― which sent $1,400 checks to most Americans and  which Democrats say will help crush the coronavirus pandemic and reopen schools ― with Biden himself embracing a prediction of 6% economic growth at his press conference last week.

They are eagerly anticipating his next legislative proposal, which Biden is expected to lay out in a speech in Pittsburgh this week. Early reports indicate the more than $3 trillion package will contain hundreds of billions in infrastructure spending, a permanent expansion of the child tax credit, free community college, aid for caregivers, and a package of tax increases on wealthy Americans and corporations.

Driving this party-wide political bet is a conviction that robust economic liberalism can renew Americans’ faith in their government, give them a political advantage on economic issues and stem continued defections among working-class voters of all races to a GOP almost exclusively focused on culture war issues.

This last bit about culture war issues is also key, and it points to frustrating conundrum for the left. It has become increasingly clear that the real animus driving conservative polarization is not really driven by economic insecurity, but almost entirely by bigotry-fueled culture war grievances. Conservatives get elected to office promising to “do something” about Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head, but of course they can do nothing–in fact, their own free-market ideology is fundamentally at odds with interfering with business decisions by corporations. (Even if those corporations increasingly do not want to be associated with the declining culture of toxic conservative hate.) There is also no way for liberals to decrease the salience of culture war issues.

What liberals in elected office can do is work to improve the actual lives of conservative voters, hoping that it will eventually become clear to at least some of them who is actually helping them and who is not. It may or may not work, but it’s what is available. Certainly, the growing popularity of both Joe Biden himself and Congress overall in the wake of COVID relief passage indicates there may be truth in the proposition.

But whether or not good policy can work as a persuasion tactic, at the very least there’s a growing sense that doing the right thing for the country can both mobilize the left’s voters, and it can do little significant political damage among conservatives that the rightwing media apparatus was not going to do in any case.

Many progressives will be frustrated at how late this realization seems to be coming to their more moderate colleagues. But better late than never.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.