Image Credits: Camille Fine.
Conservatives consistently argue that the media has a left-wing bias, but Steve M. argues that they’re missing something important.
We’re all supposed to believe that Democrats must practice “popularism”— they should talk about popular Democratic ideas and only popular Democratic ideas; none of this woke “defund the police” or “Latinx” nonsense. Most Democratic politicians actually do just that, but word gets around that every Democrat is excessively woke because the right-wing media says so. But Republicans practice “unpopularism” — they oppose even modest gun control measures even after horrific massacres, they oppose abortion even in cases of rape and incest, they block increased taxation of the rich, they prevent increases in the federal minimum wage, they reject state Medicaid expansion under Obamacare — and none of this is ever described as carrying “real political risk,” presumably because they do it so defiantly that voters just shrug and accept it as inevitable.
In addition, of course, they benefit tremendously from the work of reporters and pundits like [Margeret] Talev who assume that there’s political peril in everything Democrats do and nothing Republicans do. And these journalists don’t even notice that they’re doing it.
I have no quarrel with the validity of this observation. But what if the presumption that Republicans’ defiance gives them immunity is correct?
Let’s start with the fact that most Republicans are representing safe districts where they face a bigger risk of losing to a primary challenge from their right than a general election from the center or left. It’s true that many Democrats are in a similar position, but their majority is clearly made on suburban seats that can shift if the party doesn’t perform or gets too ideological. In fairness, this is what happened to the Republicans and it explains why they lost their majority, but maybe the key is these competitive districts are prone to punishing the party in power rather than enforcing some kind of theoretical centrism. If this is true, it’s not a strict Democrat/Republican distinction, but a matter of the Republicans having the advantage of currently not holding the key majority-winning seats. The Republicans won’t be judged on results, but the Democrats will.
In other words, the Republicans lost their majorities in Congress in 2006 and again in 2018/2020 not because they were too extreme (although that didn’t help) but because they massively screwed up running the war in Iraq and the fight against COVID-19.
That’s one theory. Another is that the things the Republicans complain about have more power than the things the Democrats complain about. The Republicans complain about abortion but until recently it was possible to get an abortion in every state in the country. They want to change the laws but how does that compare to actually changing the laws, for example, by overhauling the whole health insurance industry? Failing to raise the minimum wage isn’t the same as actively lowering it. Denying people Medicaid that they don’t have is not the same as taking that coverage away. Limiting people’s gun rights is different than leaving things exactly as they are. And so on.
There is no symmetry here. When the Republicans actually try to do unpopular things, like privatizing Social Security or eliminating Obamacare, they find out there are serious costs. But they don’t pay much of a penalty for merely talking about doing these things.
When it comes to the whole Wokeism angle, people lose their jobs for saying the racist, anti-gay, or sexist things, but not often for being too stridently leftist. The culture war is imbalanced in terms of how much motivation it provides to the respective sides.
I don’t think the Republicans’ defiance is precisely the right explanation for why the Democrats suffer more risk when they do unpopular things. It’s probably a better fit for an anti-incumbency message than the posture adopted by Democrats when they’re in the minority, and it’s definitely harder to defend than attack when times are hard. But if I think the real imbalance comes simply from the fact you get more problems from taking things away than you get credit for providing new things.
If the Democrats pass the Build Back Better bill, they might expect a reward from the people who benefit. But the way things actually work, they’ll probably have to wait a bit to get that reward, and it will come only when the Republicans get back in power and try to yank those things away.
In other words, the Republicans don’t pay much of a price for advocating no rape/incest exception bans on abortion, but if they succeed in enacting those proscriptions (and they take effect) they will take a beating. Likewise, opposing Medicaid expansion didn’t hurt the GOP, but eliminating Medicaid expansion where it already exists would do real political damage to them.
This isn’t a perfectly packaged analysis. Gun control advocates seem to heavily motivate Republicans even though they’ve so far been spectacular failures in taking guns away from anyone. But in a way this shows another asymmetry. The public sides heavily with the gun restrictionists but the issue still helps the Republicans because they’re on the side of protecting what people already have. This is also how they initially won the political battle over Obamacare. People lost the insurance they had, which angered them even when it was replaced by better or more affordable coverage.
So, being in power carries higher risk and there’s always more risk in taking things away than benefit in providing. Things can be popular or unpopular but mere talk doesn’t amount to much when compared to actually making changes.
The lesson for the Democrats is probably that they won’t get much mileage from talking about their accomplishments and they will do better by talking about protecting people’s stuff. But it’s only when people actually start losing their stuff that they’ll win again.