Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
Social democratic capitalism is, to this point in history, the most successful package of institutions and policies we have devised. It features a democratic polity, a mixed but mostly capitalist economy, good primary and secondary education, expansive and generous public insurance programs, an array of employment-promoting public services (childcare, training and retraining, job placement assistance, eldercare), and moderate regulation of product and labor markets. It combines individual freedom with economic security, good living standards for the least well-off, and equality of opportunity. And it does so without sacrificing other elements of a good society, from economic growth to family to community and much more.1
The United States lags behind the leading countries, particularly in the size and scope of its public insurance programs and employment-promoting services. Can we catch up? I suspect we can and will.
- Why the United States will more fully embrace social democratic capitalism
- Potential obstacle 1: Americans don’t like big government
- Potential obstacle 2: America’s welfare state isn’t universalistic
- Potential obstacle 3: The rhetoric of reaction
- Potential obstacle 4: Does America have a progressive political party?
- Potential obstacle 5: Can the left continue to get elected?
- Potential obstacle 6: The balance of organized power has shifted to the right
- Potential obstacle 7: The structure of the US political system impedes progressive policy change
- Potential obstacle 8: Conservative states in a federalist political system
- Potential obstacle 9: Will there be enough money to pay for it?
- Potential obstacle 10: Slower economic growth
- Potential obstacle 11: Racial anxiety and fear
- Political changes that would help
- Progress is probable
WHY THE UNITED STATES WILL MORE FULLY EMBRACE SOCIAL DEMOCRATIC CAPITALISM
I expect the scope and size of America’s public social programs will expand significantly in coming decades. The reasoning is straightforward:
- Experience here and abroad suggests that government social programs can improve well-being, so policy makers will regularly propose new programs and expansion of existing ones.
- On occasion they will succeed in getting their proposals enacted. (The hypothesis doesn’t specify when or why. It’s probabilistic.)
- Those successes will tend to stick.
This is how social policy in the United States has evolved over the past century. It has expanded in fits and starts, with bursts and lulls. Movement has been largely forward. Backsliding has been rare.2
Analyses of social programs in rich democratic nations sometimes treat the difference between the US welfare state and that of the leading social democratic capitalist countries as a categorical one — a difference in type.3 However, the core difference is one of degree, rather than of kind. The United States has fewer public social programs than nations such as Sweden and Denmark, and our programs tend to cover fewer people and to be less generous. Yet we do already have many of the same programs as the leading countries. And while our welfare state lags behind, it has been advancing for most of the past century. Figure 1 shows government expenditures on social programs as a share of GDP in Denmark, Sweden, and the US since the late 1800s. While the two Nordic countries spend significantly more, the difference between these countries and the United States today is much smaller than the difference between the US today and the US a century ago.
The expansion of government social services and insurance that has occurred over the past century in the United States is what we should expect for the future. Further advance won’t necessarily happen right away, and progress almost certainly won’t be steady. But if we think in terms of decades, or better yet half a century, the most reasonable projection is for a significant increase in public social programs. Simple extrapolation suggests that at that point America’s welfare state will look similar to those of Sweden and Denmark today.
Is it sensible to extrapolate? I consider eleven reasons for skepticism. First, Americans don’t like big government. Second, America’s welfare state isn’t very universalistic. Third, opponents of public social programs are effective at deploying the rhetoric of reaction. Fourth, America’s “left” political party, the Democrats, isn’t especially progressive. Fifth, the left might increasingly struggle to get elected. Sixth, the balance of organized power in the United States has shifted to the right. Seventh, the structure of our political system impedes progressive policy change. Eighth, we might not have the money to fund significant expansions of public insurance. Ninth, conservative states can take advantage of our federalist system to weaken government social programs. Tenth and eleventh, a sustained slowdown in economic growth or an increase in racial and ethnic diversity might weaken popular support for government social programs.
While each of these is a potential obstacle to progress, none is likely to derail America’s slow but steady movement toward an expanded government role in improving economic security, enhancing opportunity, and ensuring decent and rising living standards for all.
POTENTIAL OBSTACLE 1: AMERICANS DON’T LIKE BIG GOVERNMENT
A longstanding view holds that the United States lags behind many other rich democracies in the expansiveness and generosity of its government social programs because that’s what Americans want. More than our counterparts in other affluent nations, we tend to believe individual effort, rather than luck, determines success in life, and we therefore see a need for only minimal government assistance.4
Americans are ideologically conservative but programmatically progressive
Public opinion data support the notion that Americans don’t like big government. Surveys conducted since the mid-1970s have asked representative samples of American adults “If you had to choose, would you rather have a smaller government providing fewer services or a bigger government providing more services?” In only a few years has the share choosing “bigger government providing more services” reached 50%; in most years it has hovered between 30% and 45%. Gallup periodically asks “In your opinion, which of the following will be the biggest threat to the country in the future — big business, big labor, or big government?” Since the early 1980s, 50% to 70% of Americans have said “big government” is the largest threat. For more than twenty years, the Pew Research Center has asked Americans whether they agree or disagree that “When something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful.” In each year 55% to 75% have said they completely agree or mostly agree. The American National Election Study (ANES) regularly asks “Do you think that people in government waste a lot of the money we pay in taxes, waste some of it, or don’t waste very much of it?” In most years 60% to 75% have said “a lot.”5
Public opinion data like these buttress the impression that Americans are averse to activist government. Yet they hide a deeper truth: while Americans are ideologically conservative when it comes to the size and scope of government, we’re programmatically progressive. We’re averse to big government in the abstract, but we like a lot of the things government actually does.
The General Social Survey regularly asks a set of questions prefaced by the following statement: “We are faced with many problems in this country, none of which can be solved easily or inexpensively. I’m going to name some of these problems, and for each one I’d like you to tell me whether you think we’re spending too much money on it, too little money, or about the right amount.” Since the late 1970s a large majority, always over 80% and often more than 90%, has said current spending is too little or about right on “assistance to the poor,” on “improving the nation’s education system,” on “improving and protecting the nation’s health,” and on “Social Security.” An irregular series of polls since 1980 has asked “Do you favor or oppose national health insurance, which would be financed by tax money, paying for most forms of health care?” In almost every instance 50% to 65% have said they are in favor, with 25% to 40% opposed. In 2011 the Pew Research Center found 61% of Americans saying “people on Medicare already pay enough of the cost of their health care” versus 31% saying “people on Medicare need to be more responsible for the cost of their health care in order to keep the program financially secure.” In 2007 Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs asked a representative sample of Americans “Would you be willing to pay more taxes in order to provide health coverage for everyone?” Nearly 60% were willing, versus just 40% who were unwilling. They asked the same question about paying more in taxes for “early childhood education in kindergarten and nursery school.” Here 64% were willing, versus 33% unwilling. Page and Jacobs also asked whether the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) should be increased, decreased, or kept about the same. More than 90% wanted it increased or kept the same.6
So yes, many Americans dislike the idea of big government. But when we think about government in terms of actual programs, we’re not at all averse to a government that is medium-sized or even large.7
Public support isn’t required to get social programs enacted
When the American public favors a proposed policy change, it is more likely to be adopted. When the public opposes a change, it is less likely to be adopted. That’s the finding of a study titled “Effects of Public Opinion on Policy” by Benjamin Page and Robert Y. Shapiro, published in 1983.8 Page and Shapiro find considerable congruence between public opinion and policy changes in the United States from 1935 to 1979, and they conclude that public opinion influences policy changes rather than the other way around.
In a book published thirty years later, Martin Gilens looks at patterns between the mid-1960s and the mid-2000s.9 His findings echo those of Page and Shapiro. When only 5% of Americans favored a proposed policy change, as gauged by public opinion surveys, the change was adopted just 10% of the time. When 45% to 55% percent favored the change, it was adopted about 25% to 30% of the time. When 95% were in favor, the proposed change was adopted 60% of the time.
Robert Erikson, Michael MacKuen, and James Stimson conducted a similar test but in a slightly different way.10 Rather than examine the relationship between public opinion and policy change for each specific issue, they constructed an index of public opinion liberalism and an index of policy liberalism and looked at how these two indexes correlate over time. They too find strong indication of an association between public opinion and policy, and they too conclude that the relationship is causal.
What these types of studies can tell us is constrained by the limits of available survey data. For some issues public opinion data don’t exist, and for others the questions don’t effectively tap the issue at stake. Still, these findings suggest a basic harmony between what Americans want and what their policy makers give them.
From the perspective of democracy, that’s a reassuring conclusion. But it raises a question about my expectation that government social policy will expand in coming decades: Do we need strong public support beforehand in order to get new programs enacted or existing ones expanded?
No, we don’t. Consider Martin Gilens’ findings. In his data, if public support for a proposed policy change is in the neighborhood of 45% to 55%, the likelihood that the change will be adopted is about 25% to 30%. In other words, even if public opinion is split, the change has a one in four chance of getting passed. Public support helps, but it isn’t necessary.
Additional evidence comes from a study by Katherine Newman and Elisabeth Jacobs.11 Examining public opinion on the major public social policy innovations of the New Deal in the 1930s and the War on Poverty in the 1960s, they find evidence of considerable ambivalence and/or opposition toward the proposed programs among ordinary Americans. The public, according to Newman and Jacobs, had “mixed and contentious attitudes about activist government.”12 Policy advance owed mainly to the efforts of political leaders, particularly presidents Roosevelt and Johnson, who “moved boldly into a policy vacuum or forged on against growing antagonism. They pushed and pulled legislators into creating and then sustaining the progressive history of the 1930s and 1960s that we now — mistakenly — see as a sea change in popular political culture.”13 Here too, the message is that while public support increases the likelihood of policy advance, it isn’t a necessary condition.
Public opinion impedes policy reversal
Often, ordinary Americans aren’t sure what they think about a social program until it has been around for a while. That’s hardly surprising; it’s difficult to know ahead of time how, and how well, a program will function. Once people see a program in action, they are better able to form an opinion. If a program works well and there don’t appear to be any major adverse side effects, they tend to like it.
We can see this clearly for the most recent major public social policy expansion — the Affordable Care Act, enacted in 2010 and implemented beginning in 2014. Nearly every month since 2010 the Kaiser Family Foundation has asked Americans “In general, do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the health reform bill signed into law in 2010, known commonly as the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare?” As figure 2 shows, in the program’s early years public opinion was evenly split between favorable and unfavorable, with 15% to 25% of Americans responding “don’t know.” In 2016 and 2017, the “don’t know” responses began decreasing and the “favorable” responses started rising. By 2023 around 60% of Americans said they had a favorable view of the program and only 1% said “don’t know.”
Since public views about a program tends to be stronger after the program is put in place, we might expect public opinion to have more influence on changes to existing programs than on creation of new programs. And since the public tends to like existing social programs, we might expect public opinion to act as a brake on proposals to cut back or remove such programs. That’s exactly what the historical pattern suggests. For example, Paul Pierson examined changes in social policy in the United Kingdom during the Thatcher years and in the United States during the Reagan years.14 Both administrations were committed to reducing the size and scope of government, including social programs. Both put forward multiple proposals for such cutbacks. Both were in power for a fairly lengthy period. Yet neither Thatcher nor Reagan had much success. A similar story played out in 2005 when the Bush administration proposed to partially privatize Social Security and in recent years when Republicans attempted to overturn the Affordable Care Act.
Popularity doesn’t make a program invulnerable to retrenchment or removal. But it reduces the likelihood of that happening. This is a key reason why the trajectory of American social policy has been forward, and why we might reasonably expect that to continue.
POTENTIAL OBSTACLE 2: AMERICA’S WELFARE STATE ISN’T UNIVERSALISTIC
“Targeted” government programs are directed (sometimes disproportionately, sometimes exclusively) to persons with low income and assets, whereas “universal” programs are available to those with low, middle, or high income. The Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicaid are examples of targeted programs; only people or households with limited income are eligible. Social Security and Medicare are examples of universal programs; they go to persons of retirement age regardless of their income.
Targeted programs are more efficient at helping the least well-off, since each dollar transferred or spent on service provision is more likely to go a person with low income. But targeted programs tend to have political constituencies that are smaller and less cohesive, engaged, and influential. This may make weaken their prospects for expansion and increase their vulnerability to cutbacks.15
Compared to the norm among rich democratic nations, America’s welfare state features few universal programs. In the eyes of some, that makes it harder to expand in moments of opportunity and more difficult to defend when conservatives have the political upper hand.
The reasoning here is sensible. But what do we see in practice? One piece of evidence is the pattern across countries. In the 1980s, the affluent democratic nations with greater universalism in their public transfer programs did indeed tend to spend more on their welfare states than countries with more targeting.16 However, over the ensuing decades that pattern eroded, and by the mid-2000s it had disappeared.17
What if we look over time within countries? All of the rich democratic countries have faced pressure to reduce social policy generosity over the past several decades, due to economic globalization and to changes in the balance of power between unions and left parties on one side and employers and right parties on the other. If universalism is less politically vulnerable, nations with more universal social policy should have fared better in resisting this pressure for cutbacks. However, Kenneth Nelson’s examination of eighteen rich countries finds little difference between the trajectories of means-tested benefits (mainly social assistance) and social insurance benefits (old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, and sickness insurance) during the 1990s and early 2000s.18 And my own analysis yields a similar conclusion: nations with greater targeting haven’t experienced larger declines (or smaller increases) in redistribution in recent decades.19
The same is true if we compare developments in targeted programs versus universal programs in the United States. Robert Greenstein and Paul Pierson examined the pattern of attempted cuts and successful cuts to targeted programs by the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Both concluded that these programs fared surprisingly well.20 Christopher Howard has updated the US story through the mid-2000s, and his conclusion echoes those of Greenstein and Pierson.21 Subsequent developments have continued in this vein. Social program expansions in 2009 and 2010 were mainly for targeted programs such as Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the failed Republican attempt to roll back Medicaid in 2017 was the least popular major legislative proposal in recent decades.22
The hypothesis that targeting in social policy weakens political support and thereby reduces the size and generosity of public social programs is compelling in its logic. Yet that’s not how things have played out in the rich democratic nations in recent decades. Countries with more universalistic social policy don’t (any longer) tend to be more redistributive. Nor do we observe a tendency for universal programs to grow and targeted programs to shrink over time.
POTENTIAL OBSTACLE 3: THE RHETORIC OF REACTION
Opponents of government efforts to enhance well-being and fairness tend to deploy three types of arguments.23 “Futility” arguments hold that government programs fail to have any impact. For instance, public schools fail to educate, because they face little or no competition. “Perversity” arguments contend that government programs worsen the problem they aim to address. Here an example is the notion that generous government benefits discourage work and thereby increase poverty instead of reducing it. “Jeopardy” arguments claim that government programs threaten some other desirable outcome. For instance, if we increase government spending, we’ll get less economic growth.
Will these types of arguments — what Albert Hirschman calls the “rhetoric of reaction” — block future progress in American social policy? I suspect not.
Futility, perversity, and jeopardy arguments seem compelling. That’s what makes them rhetorically effective. Sometimes they are empirically true, but often they aren’t. Hirschman points out that in centuries past these types of claims were made in opposition to the introduction of democracy. It was suggested, for instance, that if voting rights were extended to the “ignorant masses” they would elect a tyrant, who would subsequently abolish democracy (futility). Or democracy would result in expropriation and redistribution of property, thereby wrecking the economy and making everyone poorer (jeopardy).
In principle, such claims are testable. But prior to democracy’s introduction, there was no evidence. The absence of evidence underpins the effectiveness of the rhetoric of reaction. An incorrect hypothesis can hold sway for a long time if it’s plausible and scientists don’t have the evidence needed to show it’s wrong.
Until recently we’ve lacked data to subject claims about the futility, perversity, or jeopardy of government social programs to empirical scrutiny. But this is changing. We’re now in a much better position to evaluate these hypotheses, and our ability to do so will improve even more going forward. Hardly anyone today argues that nations should avoid democracy on the grounds that it leads to tyranny. That argument doesn’t square with the facts. For the same reason, half a century from now few will claim that government taxing and spending at 45% or 50% of GDP will damage the American economy.
At a moment when Donald Trump remains prominent in American politics and many Republican lawmakers still claim that we don’t know whether greenhouse gas emissions cause climate change, the notion that evidence will win out may seem naive. But historical experience suggests that this, too, will pass. Denialism and Trump-style dishonesty can find an audience, but in the long run they’re unlikely to carry the day.24
POTENTIAL OBSTACLE 4: DOES AMERICA HAVE A PROGRESSIVE POLITICAL PARTY?
Unlike most other rich democratic nations, the United States doesn’t have an avowedly “labor” or “social democratic” political party. The Democratic Party has tended to be more centrist than its counterparts abroad.25 This is partly a function of America’s winner-take-all electoral system, which makes it difficult for a third party to compete successfully. In a two-party context, each party has an incentive to position itself as close to the center as possible in order to maximize its vote share. In addition, for much of the twentieth century conservative southerners were a core component of the Democratic Party, due to the legacy of the Civil War.
Even so, most major advances in American social policy have occurred when Democrats held the presidency and one or both bodies of Congress. And those advances have been significant, even if they haven’t matched those of Denmark, Sweden, and other welfare state leaders.
A common refrain among leftist activists and pundits holds that the Democrats have shifted even further toward the political center in recent decades. That would be surprising, given that conservative southerners have been steadily moving from the Democratic Party to the Republicans during this time. But perhaps the growing need for large campaign contributions coupled with the rising concentration of income and wealth has forced Democrats to cater more and more to the preferences of America’s rich.26 Or maybe Democrats have been seduced by neoliberal ideology in this “age of Reagan.”27
The data suggest that Democrats haven’t shifted to the center. Figure 3 shows trends in voting behavior on economic issues by Democrats in the House and Senate. What we see is a slow but steady movement to the left.28
Focusing on voting could be misleading. After all, much of the important decision making by policy makers occurs before proposals come to a final vote. If we could measure this, it’s conceivable we would find there has in fact been a move toward the center by Democrats. But if that shift has happened, it has yet to be documented.
Indeed, analysis of party platforms suggests a sharp turn to the left by the Democrats since 2008.29
One reason to expect the Democrats’ movement to the left to continue, and perhaps accelerate, is the growing prominence of women in top positions in the party. Hillary Clinton’s success in becoming the first-ever female major-party presidential nominee in 2016 was just the tip of the iceberg. More important is the sharp rise in women running for congress in the Democratic Party, shown in figure 4. Female legislators are more likely than their male counterparts to support and vote for women-friendly and child-friendly policies.30 A Democratic congressional bloc that is half or more female will quicken the push for affordable early education, paid parental leave, paid sickness insurance, and a more generous child tax credit (or allowance).
POTENTIAL OBSTACLE 5: CAN THE LEFT CONTINUE TO GET ELECTED?
Most major advances in American social policy have occurred when Democrats held the presidency and one or both bodies of Congress, and that’s likely to continue. As figure 5 shows, Democrats dominated the House of Representatives and the Senate from 1930 to 1980, though the presidency swung back and forth. Since 1980, control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress has been split fairly evenly between the two parties. To achieve social policy advances in coming decades, the Democrats need to avoid a lengthy period of sustained minority status of the kind suffered by the Republicans during the New Deal era.
Two hypotheses predict this worst-case scenario may well come to pass. The first says Democrats will struggle because working-class whites, the party’s traditional base, now are guided in their party preference by social and cultural issues rather than economic ones, and that leads them to vote for Republicans. The second says we are entering a period when enormous quantities of private money will flow into election campaigns, with Republicans the chief beneficiaries.
Do the Democrats lack an electoral base?
Working-class whites have moved away from the Democrats. In the mid-1970s, about 60% of white Americans who self-identified as working class said they preferred the Democratic Party. That fell steadily from the late 1970s, bottoming out at 40% in the early 1990s, where it has remained since.31 The same trend is evident among whites with less than a college degree and among whites in the lower third of the income distribution.32 In the five presidential elections since 2004, whites with less than a four-year college degree favored the Republican candidate over the Democratic one by 20 percentage points or more.33
Why has this happened? As a society gets wealthy, issues other than those connected to material self-interest become more important to people.34 There is no clear working-class interest in being either pro-choice or pro-life on abortion or in favoring or opposing equal rights for homosexuals. Hence, as material issues fade in centrality, working-class identification with the party that better serves its material interests is likely to decline. White working-class voters may perceive themselves to be closer to Republicans on issues such as crime, immigration, family, religion, racial diversity, LGBTQ rights, abortion, guns, or others, and they are more likely now than in the past to let those issues determine their vote choice.35
Will this consign the Democrats to regular electoral defeat? That seems unlikely. The Democratic Party has a new electoral base centered on women, the college-educated, urban professionals, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, singles (nonmarried), seculars, and the young.36 These groups are large and most are growing.
The most important of these groups may be the young — millennials and gen Zers. These cohorts tend to be considerably more progressive on social and cultural issues than preceding generations.37 As we see in figure 6, they are more likely than their predecessors to identify as Democrats and much more likely to vote for Democrats. This could change, but if it doesn’t Democrats will enjoy a significant electoral advantage as these cohorts come to account for a larger and larger share of voters.38
None of this guarantees presidential victories or congressional majorities, but it does suggest that forecasts of impending electoral disaster for the Democrats probably are wrong.
Does Citizens United spell electoral doom for the Democrats?
The second hypothesis predicting electoral struggles for the American left suggests that the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision will allow private money to flood into Republican campaign coffers. That ruling prohibited restrictions on political campaign spending by organizations such as firms and unions, opening the door to unlimited expenditures by outside groups on behalf of their preferred candidate or party.
It’s probably too soon to be able to render a judgment on the Citizens United decision’s impact, but the degree to which it altered the legal landscape is sometimes overstated. Before the super PACs and 501(c)(4)s that sprang up after Citizens United, individuals and corporations already could make unlimited donations to 527s. The difference is that the new organizations are less constrained in naming candidates they favor or oppose in advertisements running during the two months prior to the election.39
Figure 7 shows campaign expenditures for Democrats and Republicans in presidential-year elections and in off-year elections since 1998 (the earliest for which data are available). In 2010, 2012, and 2014, Republican candidates had a money advantage, just as pessimists predicted.40 But that advantage was small, and beginning in 2016 Democrats regained the upper hand. This back-and-forth is consistent with the pattern of campaign finance in national elections over the past four decades, with each party and its backers seeking new ways to raise and spend large amounts of money in spite of existing regulations. In the 1970s, the Democrats had the advantage. By the end of the 1980s the Republicans had the upper hand. Toward the end of the 1990s it shifted back to the Democrats, then back to Republicans in the first half of the 2000s. This history suggests Democrats and their supporters will figure out ways to offset the advantage Republicans gain from Citizens United, or at least to mitigate its impact.41
Moreover, even if money totals favor Republicans going forward, it’s unclear what the effect will be. Money clearly matters in American elections,42 but there are diminishing returns to money in influencing election outcomes. When a lot already is being spent, additional amounts have limited impact.43
The health of the economy is the chief determinant of the outcome of national elections
Presidential election outcomes can be predicted remarkably well with just a single measure of economic performance — per capita income growth — as Douglas Hibbs and Larry Bartels have pointed out.44 This is displayed in figure 8. On the vertical axis is the incumbent-party candidate’s vote margin. On the horizontal axis is the growth rate of per capita real disposable personal income in the middle two quarters (April to September) of the election year, adjusted for how long the incumbent party has been in office. This simple model does a good job in predicting the vote outcome. Other models can predict even more accurately by including additional factors, but in all of them, measures of economic performance play a central role.45
What about Congress? House and Senate elections are more idiosyncratic than presidential elections. Yet the condition of the national economy has consistently been a good predictor of the outcome, and congressional elections increasingly are influenced by the popularity of the current president, which in turn hinges on the economy.46
The implication is clear: if the Democrats do reasonably well (or Republicans fare poorly) at managing the economy, they’ll remain competitive in elections.
The left can continue to get elected
Since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, a significant portion of the American left has despaired about the electoral future of the Democratic Party. The party had drifted too far to the left, according to some. It had moved too far to the right, said others. It was incapable of nominating effective candidates. It couldn’t keep up with the Republicans’ fund-raising. It had lost touch with ordinary Americans. It was disorganized. It was too liberal on social issues. It was too dependent on big finance for campaign funding.
Each of these concerns is understandable. But the Democratic Party and its candidates have, at least to this point, proven more resilient than pessimists expected. The Democratic candidate has won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, and in the past eight congresses Democrats have held a majority in the House three times and in the Senate five times. The recent past isn’t automatically a useful guide to the future. It’s conceivable that American politics is on the verge of a sea change, with the Democrats’ electoral fortunes dwindling. But that doesn’t seem especially likely.
POTENTIAL OBSTACLE 6: THE BALANCE OF ORGANIZED POWER HAS SHIFTED TO THE RIGHT
According to a distinguished line of political analysis, from E.E. Schattschneider to Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers to Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, the scope and generosity of government social policy in the United States is determined less by election outcomes than by the relative strength of organized interest groups.47 Since the mid-1970s, American businesses and America’s rich have mobilized, while the groups on the left have fragmented and weakened.48 Will this altered balance of power inhibit further progress in social policy?
There are two versions of this line of thinking. Figure 9 displays a stylized depiction of each. According to the first, the change was a one-off shift in the level of organizational strength. It happened in the late 1970s and/or the early 1980s, and since then there has been no change. According to the second, the shift is a trend. It began in the late 1970s, has been ongoing since then, and will continue into the future.
If the change in the balance of interest group strength was a one-off shift, its impact on social policy advance should already be apparent, given that the shift occurred quite a while ago. Has progress in social policy stopped?
No. It has slowed, but it hasn’t ceased.49 Advances since the 1970s include:
- Healthcare: Increases in Medicaid benefits and expansion of access (1984-88, S-CHIP 1998, ACA 2010). COBRA policy allowing people who lose their job to continue with employer-provided health insurance (1986). Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act requiring most hospitals to provide emergency treatment to anyone who needs it, even if they don’t have health insurance (1986). Free immunization of children in low-income families (Vaccines for Children 1993). Expansion of Medicare to include prescription drugs (2004). Subsidies, creation of healthcare exchanges, and regulation of private insurers aimed at expanding access (2010).
- Childcare, preschool, after-care: Subsidy for low-income families’ childcare expenses (Child Care and Development Fund 1990, 2009). Expansions of Head Start (1984, 1990, 1995, 2009). Expansion of public kindergarten to full day in most states and establishment of age-four and age-three pre-kindergarten in some states and cities. Public funding of after-school activities in schools in low-income communities (21st Century Community Learning Centers program 1998).
- K-12 and college education: Reduction of funding inequality across elementary and secondary schools in most states. Increases in college student loan funding (Pell Grant, Lifetime Learning Credit, Hope Credit).
- Employment assistance: Expansions of retraining, job placement assistance, access to healthcare, and income support for people who lose a job due to international trade (1997, 2002, 2009).
- Parental-family leave: Right to unpaid family leave (1993). Introduction of paid leave in some states (2004ff).
- Unemployment insurance: Expansion of eligibility in 38 states (2009).
- Disability: Expansion of eligibility to include musculoskeletal (e.g. back pain) and mental health conditions (1984). Antidiscrimination protection for persons with disabilities (1990). Increase in disability benefits and expansion of access over the ensuing decades. For instance, expansion of children’s access to SSI (1990); Medicaid provision of services extended beyond institutions to include disabled persons’ homes and communities (1991); a broad continuum of community-based prevention, early intervention, and other services for residents with severe mental illnesses established in California (2005); money for states to expand services and access to healthcare for disabled persons provided by the Affordable Care Act (2010).
- Earned Income Tax Credit: Increases in benefit level and expansion of access (1984, 1986, 1990, 1993, 2009).
- Child Tax Credit: Created and expanded (1997, 2003, 2017).
- Housing: Increase in subsidy for construction of low-income housing (Low-Income Housing Tax Credit 1987).
- Energy assistance: Established and increased (Low-Income Energy Assistance 1981, 2009).
- Social assistance: Reversal of earlier tightening of AFDC eligibility criteria (1984). Expansion of AFDC eligibility to two-parent families (1988). Increases in Food Stamp access and benefit level (1985, 1987, 1993, 2002, 2008, 2009).
Cuts during this period include the following:
- Social assistance: Continuation of the 1970s reduction of AFDC benefit levels in inflation-adjusted terms. Reduction In AFDC eligibility (1981). Establishment of time limits on benefit receipt (1996). Reductions in Food Stamp eligibility and/or benefit level (1981, 1982, 1996).
- Disability assistance: Tightening of eligibility criteria for disability insurance (1980s).
- Employment assistance: Elimination of Public Service Employment (1983).
- Social Security: Increase in retirement age, payroll tax, and taxation of benefits (1983).
- Immigrant access to benefits: Reduction in Food Stamp and SSI benefits (1996).
Of these cutbacks, the biggest was to social assistance. But AFDC was a uniquely unpopular social program. As noted earlier, “welfare” is the lone public social program consistently disliked by a majority of Americans.50
Other indicators also tell a story of expansion. The generosity of public insurance programs aimed at risks during childhood, working age, and old age increased between 1980 and 2010, according to calculations by researchers at the Swedish Institute for Social Research.51 Net government transfers (transfers received minus taxes paid, adjusted for inflation) to households in the bottom fifth of incomes increased from an average of $7,300 in the 1980s to $9,400 in the 2010s.52 And government expenditures on social programs increased from 13% of GDP in 1980 to 19% in 2019.53
Alongside this expansion in the scope and generosity of American social policy in recent decades, there have been some noteworthy qualitative shifts. One is a turn from cash payments to tax expenditures.54 The Earned Income Tax Credit is illustrative. Instead of providing a check (or bank transfer) to a low-income household, it reduces the household’s federal income tax payment (though it does pay the household if the EITC is larger than the taxes the household owes). This shift has consequences. Tax expenditures that are not refundable aren’t very helpful to those who pay little or no income tax. And as Suzanne Mettler points out, tax expenditures are less visible to Americans, which contributes to people’s impression that government does little to help them.55 Despite their drawbacks, however, tax expenditures such as the EITC do represent expansions of US public insurance.
Another shift has been toward boosting supports for working-age Americans who are employed and reducing them for persons who aren’t — e.g., the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit alongside the reduction in AFDC-TANF.56 This mimics Nordic social democrats’ turn from the 1970s pursuit of decommodification toward an embrace of employment,57 though in the US context this change has had a less benign impact because the overall safety net is less robust.58
If the shift in organized interest group power was a one-off, the fact that public social policy has continued to advance despite the shift implies that we are likely to see further advance in the future.
The second version of the shift-in-the-balance-of-organized-power hypothesis, depicted in the second chart in figure 9, posits that the shift is a trend. It began in the late 1970s and has been ongoing since then, with the strength of the right relative to that of the left steadily increasing. This paints a worrisome picture, in that it suggests we haven’t yet reached the point of maximum strength in the organized power of the right.
If this hypothesis is correct, what might the impact be on advances in social policy? We can glean some information by comparing policy change in the two decades between 1980 and 2000 with change in the two decades since 2000. If the “continuing trend” hypothesis is correct, there should have been less social policy advance in the latter period than in the former. But the above list of changes in the size and scope of social programs suggests that isn’t the case.
Here too, then, the most reasonable conclusion is that the past century’s pattern of progress in social policy is likely to continue.
POTENTIAL OBSTACLE 7: THE STRUCTURE OF THE US POLITICAL SYSTEM IMPEDES PROGRESSIVE POLICY CHANGE
Even if the obstacles I’ve considered so far can be overcome, progress toward more expansive and generous social policy might be impeded by our political system’s abundance of “veto points”: a legislature and executive each elected directly by the people, two coequal legislative bodies, and the filibuster in the Senate.59 These offer a determined minority multiple ways to block proposed policy changes.
On the one hand, these features of America’s political system have been in place for some time, and while they surely have slowed the pace of social policy advance in the United States, they haven’t prevented it. On the other hand, recent years have seen an increase in the cohesiveness, discipline, and confrontational posture of Republicans in Congress, making it more difficult for Democrats to get legislation passed unless they hold the presidency, a majority in the House, and 60 seats in the Senate. Does this spell the end of social policy advance?
Cohesive parties in a veto-point-heavy political system
The extensiveness of veto points has taken on new importance in American politics because the Democratic and Republican parties have become much more cohesive. Until recently, both were loose collections of individuals with varying orientations and policy preferences. This was largely a legacy of the Civil War and the New Deal. Many southerners viewed the Civil War as a military invasion engineered by the Republican Party. So for the better part of the following century, few southerners would vote for Republicans and political competition in the south occurred entirely within the Democratic Party rather than between Democrats and Republicans. With the New Deal legislation in the 1930s, the Democrats became the party in favor of government intervention to enhance security and opportunity. Although this conflicted with the conservative orientation of many southern Democrats, they remained in the party until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 aligned the national Democratic Party with equal rights for African Americans.
While conservative southerners have been moving to the Republican Party, liberals in the rest of the country have been switching to the Democrats.60 The ideological purification of the two parties is now complete: in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the leftmost Republican is to the right of the rightmost Democrat.61
In prior eras, proponents of policy change often succeeded by fashioning a coalition across party lines. While this was seldom an easy task, it is now an extremely difficult one.62
From the perspective of democracy, there is a benefit to party cohesiveness: it provides voters with clear information about how a candidate will behave in office. But in a political system with multiple veto points, party cohesiveness increases the likelihood of gridlock. As long as the minority party controls one of the three lawmaking bodies — the presidency, the House, or the Senate — it can veto virtually any proposed policy change. Given the filibuster rule in the Senate, the minority doesn’t actually need to control any of the three; it simply needs 41 of the 100 seats in the Senate. The majority can circumvent the filibuster via a procedure known as “reconciliation,” but this can be used only for a narrow range of bills and only once or twice per year.
The polarization of America’s two political parties has been asymmetrical: the Republicans have moved farther to the right than the Democrats have moved to the left. Figure 10 shows the average voting position on economic issues (broadly defined) among members of each party in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Both parties have shifted away from the center as they’ve become more cohesive. But Republicans have moved farther from the center than have Democrats.
Republicans have become more unified in voting as well. Keith Poole has measured the share of party members who follow their party on votes in which a majority in one party votes opposite to a majority in the other party (in other words, leaving out votes on which there is significant bipartisan support). The share has risen from 75% in 1970 to 90-95% percent in recent years.63
In the Senate, both parties have made more frequent use of the filibuster to block legislative proposals. The best indicator of filibuster use is the number of cloture motions — motions to cut off filibuster attempts — that are filed. As figure 11 shows, the rise in filibustering began in the 1970s. Large jumps occurred in 1971, 1991, and 2007, with the latter being especially pronounced. In each instance, Republicans initiated the rise.
Have these developments made it more difficult to pass legislation? The number of laws passed by congress has decreased steadily since the 1970s.64 However, there’s been no decline in the number of “major” laws passed, as we see in figure 12.
Even if we don’t see a clear effect of the new Republican obstructionism, it could have an impact going forward unless the party moves back toward the center. In the long run, such a turn is likely. Republicans likely will abandon the staunch antigovernment orientation that has dominated their approach of late, and the center of gravity in the party probably will be similar to that of center-right parties in western Europe, most of which tolerate a generous welfare state and relatively high taxes.
How will this come about? One push toward Republican moderation could come from the growing importance of working-class whites as a constituency for the party. Some thoughtful and prominent voices on America’s right — David Brooks, Ross Douthat, David Frum, Charles Murray, Ramesh Ponnuru, Reihan Salam — have noted that this group is struggling economically and could benefit from government help.65 Donald Trump’s populist pledges to focus on job creation and to keep Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid intact appealed to this group, and were part of what helped him win the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, even if he abandoned those pledges upon entering office.
In addition, clear thinkers on the right eventually will realize that the key question isn’t how much government should intervene but how it should do so.66 An expansion of social programs doesn’t necessarily mean more government interference in markets and weaker competition. If Americans want protection and support and the choice is between social insurance and regulation, the former usually is preferable.
Another potential cause of a return to the center among Republican elites is a series of Democratic election wins. Since the turn of the century, the United States has been close to a “50-50” nation, with Democrats and Republicans each supported by about half of the population. Democrats have an advantage in party affiliation, but this is neutralized by the fact that Republican supporters are more likely to vote. Even so, Democratic candidates have won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections.
Veto points impede backsliding
In the race to the good society, America is a tortoise.67 We advance slowly, but we do advance. The long-run trend in American social policy has been one of slow but steady ratcheting upward. Part of the reason for this advance, ironically, is our veto-point-heavy political system. While our large number of veto points impedes progressive change, it also makes it difficult for opponents of government social programs to dilute or do away with them. This is a key reason why social policy advances tend to endure.
POTENTIAL OBSTACLE 8: CONSERVATIVE STATES IN A FEDERALIST POLITICAL SYSTEM
In the US political system, state and local governments have considerable discretion in policy enactment and implementation. For some types of social policy, this is of little relevance. Social Security, for example, operates uniformly throughout the country; state governments aren’t involved in setting eligibility conditions, benefit levels, or the actual implementation. But for some programs — Medicaid, unemployment insurance, SNAP (food stamps), TANF, and more — state governments make a big difference.68
Will this matter going forward? In recent decades we’ve seen growing variation in state rules, benefit levels, and on-the-ground implementation of programs over which states have decision-making authority, with conservative states tending to be less generous than progressive ones. A notable recent example is conservative states refusing the Medicaid expansion offered by the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Even though the federal government provides nearly all of the money to pay for an expansion of health insurance to low-income households, Republican legislatures and/or governors in these states decided to forgo this opportunity. Given the growing distance between Democratic and Republican policy makers, we’re likely to see more of this going forward.
But while federalism means less generous social policy for Americans who live in conservative states, it also allows governments in progressive states to jump ahead of the federal government. For instance, since 1999 California has enacted paid sick leave, paid parental leave, an automatic-enrollment pension system for people whose employer doesn’t offer a plan, a large Medicaid expansion (it now covers one in three Californians), an expansion of TANF eligibility, a phased-in $15 per hour minimum wage indexed to inflation, a state Earned Income Tax Credit to supplement the federal EITC, increased money for K-12 schooling funded by two tax increases on high-income households, an array of services for residents with severe mental illnesses, low-cost public auto insurance for persons with low income, new funds for roads and high-speed rail, a significant reduction in incarceration, and more.69
It isn’t only California. The state of New York has adopted zero-tuition public college for in-state students from middle- and lower-income households and a $15 minimum wage, and its largest city now has universal preschool for 4-year-olds and is on track to expand that to 3-year-olds. Washington, Oregon, and Massachusetts have been moving in a similar direction. Nearly 80 million people, one in four Americans, live in these five states.
POTENTIAL OBSTACLE 9: WILL THERE BE ENOUGH MONEY TO PAY FOR IT?
In the past 20 years a great deal of ink has been spilled pondering the implications of population aging for the welfare state in the US and other rich democratic countries. As the baby boom generation retires, the cost of public pensions (Social Security) and public health insurance (Medicare) will rise. Will that crowd out any possibility for spending on new and expanded programs?
Not likely. The best projections suggest that the total increase in cost for these programs will be about 3.5% of GDP — 1% for Social Security and 2.5% for Medicare — as we see in figures 13 and 14. While that’s a large amount, it’s smaller than the increase in these two programs between 1970 and today.
What about Americans’ (alleged) hatred of taxes? To what extent does that threaten our ability to pay for expanded public insurance programs? There was some truth to this axiom in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when revolts against local property taxes were spreading across the country and Ronald Reagan was elected president on a tax-cutting agenda. Yet that moment has long since passed. Public opinion surveys now frequently find support for higher taxes, particularly on rich Americans.70 The 2017 Republican tax cut was the second least popular major legislative proposal since 1990.71 And state and local referendums proposing tax hikes have grown steadily more popular since the 1980s. They now are as likely to pass as those proposing cuts.72
Most Republican legislators and presidents remain committed to opposing tax increases, as they have since the early 1980s. This owes partly to their overall small-government orientation, partly to the preferences of their wealthy individual and corporate donors, and partly to tax cuts’ usefulness as a goody Republicans can offer voters to counter Democrats’ promise of new and expanded government programs.73 But political culture is probably the most important cause. The tax-cutting success of Reagan and the local property tax revolts have shaped the thinking of generations of Republican leaders, advisors, and voters, creating an image of the modern Republican Party as the party of tax cuts. Just as generations of Democrats identified theirs as the party of the New Deal following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s success and popularity in the 1930s and early 1940s, tax reductions became the core element of the political culture of post-1980 Republicans. Fox News, conservative talk radio, and anti-tax organizations such as Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform have helped to keep this at the center of the party’s ideology.
Eventually, however, ideologies lose their grip and organizational priorities change. This will happen to the Republicans at some point, as it did to the Democrats by the late 1980s.
POTENTIAL OBSTACLE 10: SLOWER ECONOMIC GROWTH
Over the past century, America’s GDP per capita has grown at an average rate of 1.9% per year. But between 2000 and 2007 the rate dipped to 1.6%, and from 2007 to 2019 it fell further, to an average of just 0.9%.74 The great recession is the chief culprit: its arrival in 2008 cut short the economic expansion of the early-mid 2000s, and its depth dug a big hole from which it took a long time for the US economy to emerge. Yet some analysts believe the United States has entered not a moment but an era of slow growth.
One version of this story points to weak demand, perhaps due to the rising share of income that goes to the rich, who tend to spend a smaller fraction of their earnings than do ordinary households.75 Others contend that the problem is a decline in competition in important sectors, such as high tech, or a slowdown in the formation of new businesses.76 The most pessimistic assessment suggests that inventions such as electricity, railroads, and the assembly line boosted productivity and growth in earlier eras to a degree that more recent innovations simply can’t match.77
Economic growth facilitates the expansion of public social programs. For one thing, it makes them more affordable; as the economy grows, so do tax revenues. Economic growth also increases public support for the welfare state.78 Most people are loss-averse and altruistic, so as they get richer, they tend to want more protections for themselves and more fairness in their society. If the United States suffers years of slow growth, Americans’ embrace of generous public insurance programs might wane. One potentially worrisome sign: perceptions of economic trouble, including slow recovery from the 2008-09 economic crisis, may have fueled the rise of right-wing populists across the rich democracies.79 Although many populists support the safety net itself, nativism could undermine the public’s commitments to the kinds of fairness and inclusivity on which social democratic policies depend.
Still, the most likely scenario is that growth will return to a higher rate in coming decades. There have been previous periods, such as the 1930s, when the economy slowed down before returning to the long-run trend. And the productivity benefits of new technologies such as the internet may take years to appear; after all, the period of strongest productivity growth stemming from electricity and other nineteenth-century innovations occurred decades later, between the mid-1940s and the mid-1970s.
Moreover, even if the slowdown in the rate of economic growth persists, the United States will still become far richer in coming decades. Over the past 70 years, per capita GDP in the US, adjusted for inflation, has increased by about $40,000. The country is now wealthy enough that securing a $40,000 increase over the next 70 years requires a yearly growth rate of only 0.8%.
POTENTIAL OBSTACLE 11: RACIAL ANXIETY AND FEAR
Racial and ethnic diversity can be an obstacle to social progress, including to the expansion of government social programs.80 One reason is that people are less likely to empathize with those they see as different. While skin color is in principle an unimportant difference, some view it as a marker of distinct norms, behaviors, and values. Members of a racial or ethnic group may therefore feel threatened by members of other groups. That can be particularly true when one group historically has held a dominant position vis-à-vis another, as with whites and African Americans in the United States, or where racial/ethnic difference is coupled with a sharp difference in religion, as with native populations in rich countries and Muslim immigrants. Difference can prompt not just uncertainty and discomfort but fear.
When this happens, people’s thinking can turn, or return, to a scarcity orientation. Findings by Ronald Inglehart, Christian Welzel, and others suggest that this means less sentiment for fairness, personal freedom, and government programs that insure against loss. Instead, people tend to focus on protecting what they have, including the cultural norms and values that they see as integral to their way of life. If they perceive these norms and values to be threatened by another group that is growing in size or newly prominent or assertive, they turn to protective mode.81 Sometimes difference has nothing to do with race; American Protestants reacted the same way against white Catholics and Jews in the early twentieth century, and middle-aged and elderly Americans reacted this way against white hippies and teenagers in the late 1960s and 1970s.
When threats to existing patterns of life are coupled with a perceived threat to economic well-being and/or physical safety, the reaction may be even more intense. When large numbers of African Americans migrated to the northern parts of the United States during the twentieth century, they encountered hostility that sometimes was fiercer than what they had experienced in the south. This was partly due to white worry that migrating blacks might compete for their jobs. The same is true of the wave of migrants, many from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, that arrived in the United States following the 1965 immigration law reform. The increase in violent crime in American cities in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s compounded the anxiety of suburban and rural whites. Terrorist acts by radical Islamists have had a similar effect in recent decades.
In the short term, diversity therefore militates against an expansion of social policy in the United States. What about the long run? Here our most informative guide may be California’s experience. California has long been seen as America’s bellwether state, and as Peter Leyden, Ruy Teixeira, and Manuel Pastor have suggested, it’s likely to prove exactly that for politics and policy in coming decades.82
In the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, California’s economy grew rapidly — propelled by natural resources, heavy investment in public goods (water, roads, ports, education), population inflow from other states, and emerging manufacturing industries. In the 1970s, however, the state struggled, like the nation as a whole, with rising unemployment and inflation. A decade later the decline of manufacturing jobs, also a nationwide phenomenon, began to bite, and in the 1990s California’s defense-oriented manufacturing sector was hit hard by the end of the cold war. During this period the state also experienced an enormous rise in immigration. In 1960, California was home to 9% of America’s population and 13% of its immigrants. By 1990, California had 12% of the country’s population and 32% of its immigrants.83
These changes created, in Pastor’s words, “a perfect stew of racial anxiety and economic drift.”84 In concert with other developments — the 1960s counterculture and antiwar movement, urban riots, surging crime, and rapidly rising property taxes — they sparked a popular backlash.85 In the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, Californians elected law-and-order, tough-on-immigration Republicans to the governorship and to prominent mayoral positions, and they voted in favor of a series of referendums to reduce taxes and limit supports for immigrants and minorities. In 1978, Californians passed Proposition 13, which reduced property tax revenues and limited future property tax increases, putting a crimp in funding for K-12 schools. It also hampered the state government’s ability to raise general tax revenues by requiring that any proposed revenue increase get a two-thirds majority, rather than a simple majority, in both legislative bodies. Other referendums affirmed by California voters banned school busing and reversed other school desegregation mechanisms (1972, later ruled unconstitutional by the state’s Supreme Court); banned affirmative action by the state government and other public entities, including in university admissions (1996); restricted bilingual education in schools (1998); prohibited unauthorized immigrants from having access to public services (1994, also later ruled unconstitutional); mandated a minimum sentence of 25 years for persons with a third felony conviction (1994); required juveniles accused of certain crimes to be treated as adults (2000); and imposed term limits on state legislators (1990).
By the mid-2000s, however, California’s economy had found a new footing, led by the success of digital tech firms in Palo Alto and San Francisco. And while the state’s population had become even more diverse, its white inhabitants had had more time to come to terms with this reality. The last gasp of the conservative backlash came in 2005, when Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special election aimed at passing a set of propositions limiting state spending, labor union power, and teacher tenure. All of his initiatives were voted down.
Over the past two decades Californians have turned away from a politics of traditionalism and fear. And the state’s Republican Party, which mirrors national Republicans in hewing to small-government orthodoxy and to traditional views on many social issues, has steadily lost electoral ground, giving Democrats more opportunity to shape state policy. As noted earlier, since the early 2000s California has enacted an array of public social programs that put it well ahead of the federal government.
Will the rest of the country follow suit? There is no guarantee it will, but one of the biggest potential obstacles, whites’ discomfort with growing diversity, is certain to diminish. As figure 15 shows, the nation’s demographic mix is following California’s. As it does so, whites’ electoral influence will decrease, and so too will the degree to which racial anxiety shapes their political orientation.
POLITICAL CHANGES THAT WOULD HELP
What these various considerations suggest is that despite the significant political obstacles that exist in the United States, progress toward a social democratic capitalist future is likely. A few upgrades to our democracy’s rules and practices would make it even more likely.86
We should make it easier to vote. Voter registration should be automatic. Elections should be on a weekend day. Voting by mail should be available everywhere. Efforts to suppress voter eligibility should be thwarted. And people with criminal convictions should be permitted to vote.
We should reform campaign finance. Many who rightly decry the influence of private money from interest groups and wealthy individuals in our elections focus on ways to restrict the flow of this money. A better strategy is to increase transparency, allowing everyone to know what interests are supporting which parties and candidates, and to offset the impact of private money with public money.
We should end gerrymandering of House of Representatives districts. Each decade, following the census, these districts are redrawn to reflect population shifts. To ensure that this process doesn’t intentionally tilt the playing field toward one of the two parties, it should be handled by independent commissions rather than by state governments.
The Senate should pare back the filibuster. As noted earlier, the filibuster rule helps to safeguard America’s public social programs in periods when conservatives hold the presidency and a majority in both houses of Congress. However, requiring a supermajority to pass most legislation is fundamentally anti-democratic.
PROGRESS IS PROBABLE
The notion of a social democratic capitalist America will strike some observers of US politics as a pipe dream. But in the realm of public social policy, the distance between the United States today and Denmark or Sweden today is smaller than the distance between the US a century ago and the US today. In the past 100 years we’ve put in place a host of government programs that contribute to economic security, decent living standards for the least well-off, and equality of opportunity. Getting closer to the good society doesn’t require a radical break from our historical path. It simply requires continuing along that path. In all likelihood, that is exactly what we’ll do.
- Lane Kenworthy, Social Democratic Capitalism, Oxford University Press, 2020; Kenworthy, Would Democratic Socialism Be Better?, Oxford University Press, 2022; Kenworthy, “Social Democratic Capitalism,” The Good Society. ↩
- John F. Cogan, The High Cost of Good Intentions: A History of U.S. Federal Entitlement Programs, Stanford University Press, 2017. ↩
- Gøsta Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Princeton University Press, 1990. ↩
- One of the best expositions of this view is by Seymour Martin Lipset, who helped to popularize the notion of American exceptionalism. Lipset argues that Americans’ belief in individualism and liberty and their hostility to government are the source of many differences between the United States and other rich countries. Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism, W.W. Norton, 1996. In the early 2000s, John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge, a British editor and writer for The Economist magazine, took a close look at the peculiarities of American politics and political culture. In their book The Right Nation, they conclude that “The United States has always been a conservative country, marinated in religion, in love with business, and hostile to the state…. Americans are exceptionally keen on limiting the size of the state and the scope of what it does.” John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Right Nation, Penguin, 2004, pp. 382, 303. A more recent statement of this view comes from Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser, who argue that differences in the generosity of government social programs across the world’s rich nations stem from differing popular views of the causes of poverty. Alesina and Glaeser find that in countries in which a larger share of the population believes people’s effort is the key determinant of their income, government spending on social programs tends to be lower. In nations where people deem luck more important, social program expenditures tend to be higher. The United States is among the former. Only about 35% of Americans in the survey feel luck is more important than effort, compared to 60% of Danes. Alberto Alesina and Edward L. Glaeser, Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe, Oxford University Press, 2004. See also Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza, Why Welfare States Persist: The Importance of Public Opinion in Democracies, University of Chicago Press, 2007. ↩
- For details and sources, see Lane Kenworthy, “How Much Public Insurance Do Americans Want?,” The Good Society. Also, since the early 1970s, the General Social Survey (GSS) has asked Americans if they have “a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all” in various organizations and institutions. For Congress and the president, the share responding “a great deal of confidence” has been below 30% in every year. ↩
- For details and sources, see Kenworthy, “How Much Public Insurance Do Americans Want?.” The only exception to the popularity of existing public social programs in America is “welfare.” In the GSS surveys, between 40% and 60% of Americans say we spend too much on welfare. Though the question doesn’t specify the particular program, it’s likely that most respondents have in mind Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which was replaced in the mid-1990s by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). AFDC was a uniquely unpopular program with the American public. This owes to a variety of factors, prominent among them race and media portrayals. Martin Gilens, Martin, Why Americans Hate Welfare, University of Chicago Press, 1999. ↩
- See also Christopher Ellis and James A. Stimson, Ideology in America, Cambridge University Press, 2012. These views about government effectiveness and about how much we should be spending on particular policies have changed very little in recent decades. See Jeff Manza, Jennifer A. Heerwig, and Brian J. McCabe, “Public Opinion in the ‘Age of Reagan’,” in Social Trends in American Life, edited by Peter V. Marsden, Princeton University Press, 2012; Kenworthy, “How Much Public Insurance Do Americans Want?” This includes “welfare.” Despite the pronounced changes introduced by the 1996 welfare reform — strict time limits on benefit receipt, reduced benefit levels, stronger employment requirements — the General Social Survey responses suggest little, if any, shift in public opinion about “welfare” since then. ↩
- Benjamin I. Page and Robert Y. Shapiro, “Effects of Public Opinion on Policy,” American Political Science Review, 1983. ↩
- Martin Gilens, Martin, Affluence and Influence, Princeton University Press, 2012. ↩
- Robert S. Erikson, Michael B. MacKuen, and James A. Stimson, The Macro Polity, Cambridge University Press, 2002. ↩
- Katherine S. Newman and Elisabeth S. Jacobs, Who Cares? Public Ambivalence and Government Activism from the New Deal to the Second Gilded Age, Princeton University Press, 2010. ↩
- Newman and Jacobs, Who Cares? Public Ambivalence and Government Activism from the New Deal to the Second Gilded Age, p. 7. ↩
- Newman and Jacobs, Who Cares? Public Ambivalence and Government Activism from the New Deal to the Second Gilded Age, p. 5. ↩
- Paul Pierson, Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagan, Thatcher, and the Politics of Retrenchment, Cambridge University Press, 1994 ↩
- Walter Korpi, “Approaches to the Study of Poverty in the United States: Critical Notes from a European Perspective,” in Poverty and Public Policy, edited by V.T. Covello, Schenkman, 1980; Lee Rainwater, “Stigma in Income-Tested Programs,” in Income-Tested Transfer Programs, edited by Irwin Garfinkel, Academic Press, 1982; Stein Ringen, Stein, The Possibility of Politics: A Study in the Political Economy of the Welfare State, Clarendon Press, 1987; Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism; Theda Skocpol, “Targeting within Universalism: Politically Viable Policies to Combat Poverty in the United States,” in The Urban Underclass, edited by Christopher Jencks and Paul E. Peterson, Brookings Institution, 1991; Jonah B. Gelbach and Lant H. Pritchett, “Does More for the Poor Mean Less for the Poor?,” Working Paper 1523, Policy Research Department, Poverty and Human Resources Division, World Bank, 1995; Walter Korpi and Joakim Palme, “The Paradox of Redistribution and Strategies of Equality: Welfare State Institutions, Inequality, and Poverty in the Western Countries,” American Sociological Review, 1998; Bo Rothstein, Just Institutions Matter: The Moral and Political Logic of the Universal Welfare State, Cambridge University Press, 1998; Karl Ove Moene and Michael Wallerstein, “Targeting and Political Support for Welfare Spending,” Economics of Governance, 2001; Wim Van Oorschot, “Targeting Welfare: On the Functions and Dysfunctions of Means Testing in Social Policy,” in World Poverty, edited by Peter Townsend and David Gordon, Policy Press, 2002; Harold L. Wilensky, Rich Democracies, University of California Press, 2002; Jonas Pontusson, Jonas, Inequality and Prosperity, Cornell University Press, 2005; Andrea Louise Campbell, “Universalism, Targeting, and Participation,” in Remaking America: Democracy and Public Policy in an Age of Inequality, edited by Joe Soss, Jacob S. Hacker, and Suzanne Mettler, Russell Sage Foundation, 2007; Christian Albrekt Larsen, “The Institutional Logic of Welfare Attitudes: How Welfare Regimes Influence Public Support,” Comparative Political Studies, 2008. ↩
- Korpi and Palme, “The Paradox of Redistribution.” ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, Progress for the Poor, Oxford University Press, 2011, ch. 6; Ive Marx, Lina Salanauskaite, and Gerlinde Verbist, “For the Poor, but Not Only the Poor: On Optimal Pro-Poorness in Redistributive Policies,” Social Forces, 2016. ↩
- Kenneth Nelson, “Universalism versus Targeting: The Vulnerability of Social Insurance and Means-Tested Minimum Income Protection in 18 Countries, 1990-2002,” International Social Security Review, 2007, figure 1. ↩
- Kenworthy, Progress for the Poor, ch. 6. ↩
- Robert Greenstein, “Universal and Targeted Approaches to Relieving Poverty: An Alternative View,” in The Urban Underclass, edited by Christopher Jencks and Paul E. Peterson, Brookings Institution, 1991; Paul Pierson, Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagan, Thatcher, and the Politics of Retrenchment, Cambridge University Press, 1994. ↩
- Christopher Howard, The Welfare State Nobody Knows, Princeton University Press, 2007, p. 106. ↩
- John Sides, “Here’s the Incredibly Unpopular GOP Tax Reform Plan — in One Graph,” Washington Post: Wonkblog, 2017. ↩
- Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction, Harvard University Press, 1991. ↩
- Adam Gopnik, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism, Basic Books, 2019. ↩
- Dave Brady, Evelyne Huber, and John D. Stephens, “Comparative Welfare States Data Set,” version 2014, Luxembourg Income Study, 2016. ↩
- Russ Feingold, “Building a Permanent Majority for Reform,” Democracy, 2013; Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens, Democracy in America?, University of Chicago Press, 2017. ↩
- Robert B. Reich, “We Are All Third-Wayers Now,” The American Prospect, 1999; Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan, Harper, 2008; Robert Kuttner, Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, W.W. Norton, 2018; Gerstle, Gary, The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order, Oxford University Press, 2022. ↩
- This is partly because Democratic senators and representatives from the south, who tended to be the most conservative Democrats in Congress, have been disappearing. But even among non-southern Democratic lawmakers, there is no sign of a move to the center. See Keith Poole, “Party Polarization: 1879-2010,” polarizedamerica.com/Polarized_America.htm. A measure of the views of Democratic Party nominees for House of Representatives seats based on the ideological preferences of donors also suggests a movement to the left from 1980 to 2018. See “The Centre Can Hold,” The Economist, 2018. ↩
- Sahil Chinoy, “What Happened to America’s Political Center of Gravity?,” New York Times, 2019, using Manifesto Project data. ↩
- Michele L. Swers, Women in the Club, University of Chicago Press, 2013; Tali Mendelberg, Christopher F. Karpowitz, and Nicholas Goedert, “Does Descriptive Representation Facilitate Women’s Distinctive Voice? How Gender Composition and Decision Rules Affect Deliberation,” American Journal of Political Science, 2014. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, Sondra Barringer, Daniel Duerr, and Garrett Andrew Schneider, “The Democrats and Working-Class Whites,” 2007. ↩
- Larry Bartels finds no decline in the share of whites in the bottom income third that voted Democratic in presidential elections between 1952 and 2004. But in eight of those fourteen elections a majority of this group voted for the Republican candidate, so it can’t really be considered to have been the electoral base of the Democrats. Larry Bartels, Unequal Democracy, Russell Sage Foundation and Princeton University Press, 2008. ↩
- Ruy Teixeira, The Optimistic Leftist, St. Martin’s Press, 2017. ↩
- Christian Welzel, Freedom Rising: Human Empowerment and the Quest for Emancipation, Cambridge University Press, 2013; Ronald F. Inglehart, Cultural Evolution, Cambridge University Press, 2018; Lane Kenworthy, “Affluence and Progress,” The Good Society. ↩
- Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Metropolitan Books, 2004. ↩
- John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, The Emerging Democratic Majority, Scribner, 2002; Matt Browne, John Halpin, and Ruy Teixeira, “Building a Progressive Center: Political Strategy and Demographic Change in America,” Center for American Progress, 2011; Teixeira, The Optimistic Leftist; Pew Research Center, “White Millennial Voters Are More Democratic Than White Voters in Older Generations,” 2018; Lane Kenworthy, “Voters, Groups, Parties, and Elections,” The Good Society. ↩
- Kim Parker, Nikki Graf, and Ruth Igielnik, “Generation Z Looks a Lot Like Millennials on Key Social and Political Issues,” Pew Research Center, 2019. ↩
- See also Adam Bonica, “What’s Good for Democracy Is Also Good for Democrats,” New York Times, 2018. ↩
- Nathaniel Persily, “The Floodgates Were Already Open,” Slate, 2010. ↩
- Center for Responsive Politics, “Outside Spending,” opensecrets.org. ↩
- See, for example, Alexander Burns, “With $30 Million, an Obscure Democratic Group Blitzes House Races,” New York Times, 2018. ↩
- Lawrence R. Jacobs et al., “American Democracy in an Age of Rising Inequality,” Perspectives on Politics, 2004; Lee Drutman, “Why Money Still Matters,” The Monkey Cage, 2012. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Capitalism, Inequality, and Democracy,” The Good Society. ↩
- Douglas Hibbs, “The Bread and Peace Model Applied to the 2008 US Presidential Election,” 2009; Larry Bartels, “Obama Toes the Line,” The Monkey Cage, 2013; Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists, Princeton University Press, 2016. ↩
- Larry Bartels and John Zaller, “Presidential Vote Models: A Recount,” 2000; Ray Fair, Predicting Presidential Elections and Other Things, 2nd edition, Stanford University Press, 2012; Nate Silver, “Measuring the Effect of the Economy on Elections,” FiveThirtyEight, 2012; John Sides and Lynn Vavreck, The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election, Princeton University Press, 2013. ↩
- Douglas Hibbs, “The Partisan Division of House Seats in 2012: Implications of the ‘Bread and Incumbency’ Model,” 2012; Eric McGhee, “Forecasting House Elections,” The Monkey Cage, 2012; Seth Masket, “A House Forecast Holds Good News for Democrats,” Vox, 2018; Gary C. Jacobsen, “Extreme Referendum: Donald Trump and the 2018 Midterm Elections,” Political Science Quarterly, 2019. ↩
- E.E. Schattschneider, The Semisovereign People, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960; Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers, Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics, Hill and Wang, 1986; Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics, Simon and Schuster, 2010. ↩
- Ferguson and Rogers, Right Turn; David Vogel, Fluctuating Fortunes: The Political Power of Business in America, Basic Books, 1989; Hacker and Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics. ↩
- Rebecca M. Blank, It Takes a Nation: A New Agenda for Fighting Poverty, Russell Sage Foundation and Princeton University Press, 1997; Irwin Garfinkel, Lee Rainwater, and Timothy Smeeding, Wealth and Welfare States, Oxford University Press, 2010; Yonatan Ben-Shalom, Robert A. Moffitt, and John Karl Scholz, “An Assessment of Anti- Poverty Programs in the United States,” Working Paper 17042, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2011; Christopher Howard, “Party Politics and the American Welfare State,” in What’s Left of the Left?, edited by James Cronin, George Ross, and James Shoch, Duke University Press, 2011; Peter Edelman, So Rich, So Poor, New Press, 2012; Bruce D. Meyer and James X. Sullivan, “Dimensions of Progress: Poverty from the Great Society to the Great Recession,” presented at the Fall 2012 Brookings Panel on Economic Activity, 2012; Lane Kenworthy, “Social Programs,” The Good Society. ↩
- Martin Gilens, Why Americans Hate Welfare, University of Chicago Press, 1999; Lane Kenworthy, “How Much Public Insurance Do Americans Want?,” The Good Society. ↩
- Simon Birnbaum, Tommy Ferrarini, Kenneth Nelson, and Joakim Palme,The Generational Welfare Contract, Edward Elgar, 2017, using data from the Social Policy Indicators (SPIN) database. See also Kenworthy, “Social Programs.” ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “A Decent and Rising Income Floor,” The Good Society, using Luxembourg Income Study data. ↩
- OECD, Social Expenditures database. See also Kenworthy, “Social Programs.” ↩
- Howard, The Welfare State Nobody Knows; Howard, “Party Politics and the American Welfare State”; Suzanne Mettler, The Submerged State, University of Chicago Press, 2011. ↩
- Mettler, The Submerged State. ↩
- Howard, The Welfare State Nobody Knows; Robert A. Moffitt, “The Deserving Poor, the Family, and the U.S. Welfare System,” Demography, 2015. ↩
- Kenworthy, Social Democratic Capitalism; Kenworthy, Would Democratic Socialism Be Better?; Kenworthy, “Social Democratic Capitalism”. ↩
- Kathryn J. Edin and Luke K. Shaefer. $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, Houghton Mifflin, 2015. ↩
- Evelyne Huber, Charles Ragin, and John D. Stephens, “Social Democracy, Christian Democracy, Constitutional Structure and the Welfare State,” American Journal of Sociology, 1993; George Tsebelis, “Decision Making in Political Systems,” British Journal of Political Science, 1995; Edwin Amenta, Bold Relief: Institutional Politics and the Origins of Modern American Social Policy, Princeton University Press, 1998. There is the additional possibility of veto by the judicial branch. Lobbying, too, plays a role in minimizing policy change; see Frank R. Baumgartner, Jeffrey M. Berry, Marie Hojnacki, David C. Kimball, and Beth L. Leech, Lobbying and Policy Change, University of Chicago Press, 2009. ↩
- Delia Baldassarri and Andrew Gelman, “Partisans Without Constraint: Political Polarization and Trends in American Public Opinion,” American Journal of Sociology, 2008; Bartels, Unequal Democracy. ↩
- Keith T. Poole and Christopher Hare, “An Update on Political Polarization (through 2011),” Voteview, 2012. ↩
- On top of ideological purification, the leadership in both parties has taken to using an array of rewards and punishments — from allocation of committee positions to backing of reelection campaigns — to get backbenchers to vote the party line. ↩
- Keith Poole, “Party Unity Votes,” polarizedamerica.com. ↩
- Lane Kenworthy, “Democracy,” The Good Society. ↩
- Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, Grand New Party, Doubleday, 2008; David Frum, “The Vanishing Republican Voter,” New York Times, 2008; David Brooks, “The Party of Work,” New York Times, 2012; Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Crown Forum, 2012; Ramesh Ponnuru, “Reaganism after Reagan,” New York Times, 2013. ↩
- Brink Lindsey, Will Wilkinson, Steven M. Teles, and Samuel Hammond, “The Center Can Hold: Public Policy for an Age of Extremes,” Niskanen Center, 2018. ↩
- See “The Tortoise and the Hare,” one of Aesop’s fables. ↩
- Zachary Parolin, “The Sum of Its Parts? Assessing Variation and Trends in Family Income Support Across the 48 Contiguous United States,” Working Paper 16-05, Herman Deleeck Centre for Social Policy, University of Antwerp, 2016; Eric Bjorklund, “Out of Many, One? U.S. Sub-National Political Economies in the Post- Welfare Reform Era.” Socio-Economic Review, 2017. ↩
- Ian Perry, “The Effects of California’s Public Policy on Jobs and the Economy Since 2011,” Working Paper 108-17, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, 2017; Manuel Pastor, State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future, New Press, 2018 ↩
- Hannah Fingerhut, “More Americans Favor Raising Than Lowering Tax Rates on Corporations, High Household Incomes,” Pew Research Center, 2017; Gallup, “Taxes,” In Depth: Topics A to Z. ↩
- Sides, “Here’s the Incredibly Unpopular GOP Tax Reform Plan — in One Graph.” ↩
- Vanessa S. Williamson, Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes, Princeton University Press, 2017. ↩
- Monica Prasad, Starving the Beast: Ronald Reagan and the Tax Cut Revolution, Russell Sage Foundation, 2018. ↩
- My calculations using Maddison Project data. ↩
- Lawrence H. Summers, “The Age of Secular Stagnation,” Foreign Affairs, 2016; J. Bradford DeLong, “The Scary Debate over Secular Stagnation,” Milken Institute Review, 2015. ↩
- Joseph E. Stiglitz et al, Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy, Roosevelt Institute, 2015. ↩
- Tyler Cowen, The Great Stagnation, Penguin, 2011; Robert G. Gordon, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Princeton University Press, 2016 ↩
- Benjamin M. Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, Knopf, 2005; Teixeira, The Optimistic Leftist. ↩
- Jed Kolko, “Trump Was Stronger Where the Economy Is Weaker,” FiveThirtyEight, 2016; Luigi Guiso, Helios Herrera, Massimo Morelli, and Tommaso Sonno, “Demand and Supply of Populism,” Einaudi Institute for Economics and Finance, 2017; Italo Colantone and Piero Stanig, “The Trade Origins of Economic Nationalism: Import Competition and Voting Behavior in Western Europe,” American Journal of Political Science, 2018; Inglehart, Cultural Evolution, ch. 9. ↩
- Alesina and Glaeser, Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe; Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, New Press, 2016. ↩
- Welzel, Freedom Rising; Inglehart, Cultural Evolution. See also Marisa Abrajano and Zoltan L. Hajnal, White Backlash: Immigration, Race, and American Politics, Princeton University Press, 2015; Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land; Sasha Polakow-Suransky, Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy, PublicAffairs, 2017; Diane C. Mutz, “Status Threat, Not Economic Hardship, Explains the 2016 Presidential Vote,” PNAS, 2018. ↩
- Peter Leyden and Ruy Teixeira, “California Is the Future of American Politics,” Medium, 2017; Pastor, State of Resistance. ↩
- Pastor, State of Resistance, p. 51, using data from the US Census Bureau. ↩
- Pastor, State of Resistance, p. 59. ↩
- Isaac William Martin, The Permanent Tax Revolt, Stanford University Press, 2008; Abrajano and Hajnal, White Backlash; Pastor, State of Resistance. ↩
- Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, American Amnesia, Simon and Schuster, 2016; Phil Keisling, “Vote from Home, Save Your Country,” Washington Monthly, 2016; Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens, Democracy in America?, University of Chicago Press, 2017; Sam Wang and Brian Remlinger, “Slaying the Partisan Gerrymander,” The American Prospect, 2017; Brennan Center, “Automatic Voter Registration”; Brennan Center, “Money in Politics”; Brennan Center, “Redistricting.” ↩