A Better Explanation for the Future of Liberal Disappointment

There’s no need to argue that conservatives have been duped: new research offers better explanations for the GOP’s success.

By Nathan Pippenger

Before Tuesday’s elections, the GOP was already (in the words of this journal) “trouncing” liberals in the states. After the elections, the situation is even worse: among other things, the Democrats lost Kentucky’s gubernatorial election (as well as most of its down-ballot races), bringing to power a Republican who may act to repeal the state’s Medicaid expansion—stripping healthcare away from 400,000 Kentuckians. Last month, I argued that for the next several years, liberalism’s agenda is likely to be stalled in Congress. This week’s results in Kentucky and elsewhere show that the situation is bleak at the state level too.

Just how bad could things get? Lee Drutman suggests that they could get very bad indeed. Citing new research on voter information and inequality, Drutman argues that the U.S. could be stuck in a negative reinforcing feedback loop: with relatively unequal educational opportunities and weak unionization, low-income Americans are less likely to be involved in the networks that encourage political engagement, making them worse-informed. “Because those who are less well-off lack information to properly locate their economic interests,” Drutman writes, “politics trends rightward, and inequality increases as a result of further de-investment in education and declining union bargaining power, which further reduces political information. And so on.” There are lots of ways for this agenda to advance at the state level—think, for instance, of recent efforts by conservative state governments to gut public education and attack unions through right-to-work laws.

How does this argument stack up as an explanation (and grim prediction) of conservative success? It’s appealing for at least a few reasons. In recent years, liberal writers have offered a range of theories to explain conservative victories, including the idea that working-class voters have been seduced, or perhaps duped, by the distraction of culture-war issues to vote against their economic interests. The theory Drutman’s offering doesn’t rely on this argument, with its overtones of false consciousness (and its assumption that the role of analysts is to judge for citizens whether material interests are more important than cultural or moral concerns). Instead, its explanation is rooted in a description of the mechanisms through which information is communicated and engagement is encouraged—showing that where those mechanisms are stronger, low-income voters are more informed, more engaged, and more reliably left-wing.

Moreover, the theory may help explain some of the odd dynamics which combine to stifle liberalism’s goals—and in this way, hopefully prevent a lot of bad punditry which lays every future liberal disappointment at the feet of the next Democratic president. Yes, the national electorate is growing more diverse, and public opinion is moving leftward on a range of issues. But at the same time, conservatives are aggressively using the powers of state governments to counteract these trends and enact policies which weaken the left’s institutional bases (especially unions). In future years, this may help explain why progressives, despite enjoying a demographic advantage that helps clinch the White House, nonetheless have trouble enacting their agenda. The specific factors which boost Democrats in presidential elections may be creating the misleading impression that the party enjoys a decisive political advantage. In truth, the power of this advantage may be severely limited—not because of false consciousness among working-class voters, but because conservatives’ state-level policies helped to undermine the paths through which those voters might become more involved in the political process.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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