Democrats are hoping that President Donald Trump’s low approval ratings will bring big gains in the midterm congressional elections next year. But the barrage of negative coverage of the Trump presidency masks several important points.
First, Trump’s approval ratings remain about 15 percentage points higher than those of Congress.
Second, approval for Republicans and Democrats in general remains virtually tied.
Third, and most important, Democrats have lost every congressional special election since Trump’s election.
There are many convincing explanations for the Democrats’ predicament. I’ll offer one more and suggest a way out.
The current Democratic agenda is identity politics. It’s a contest to see who can qualify as the most oppressed. It’s a tight race in which new entrants quickly can upset the standings — except for the cardinal rule that straight, white, Christian males must remain at the bottom.
It’s an entertaining political agenda, and swearing allegiance to it might help us feel good about ourselves, but it’s not a path to electoral success.
There is good news, however. Democrats need not abandon the quest for fairness and justice to improve their electoral outcomes. They do need to undertake a challenging educational campaign and make courageous modifications in their agenda — in ways that may take the party’s prosperous constituencies out of their comfort zones.
Rather than focusing on subgroup identities, Democrats must focus on public policies — and explain to the American people that there are two types of policies with important implications for fairness.
First, there are policies that advantage people who already are doing fine. The most prevalent and expensive policies of this type are tax deductions.
Whenever you have a progressive income tax that puts richer people in higher tax brackets than poorer people — and you make the purchase of things like health insurance and home mortgages tax-deductible — those deductions will be worth more to richer people in higher tax brackets than to the poorer people paying lower tax rates.
Tax deductions result in lost government revenue and are called “tax expenditures.” Tax-deductible health insurance premiums are the largest tax expenditure in both the federal budget ($216 billion in 2016) and Minnesota’s state budget ($1.2 billion in 2016).
The problem of regressive tax expenditures can be addressed by limiting the deductions or converting them into tax “credits” that either are flat — unaffected by a person’s income — or means-tested so as to offer greater help to people who most need help.
Other tax policies that need attention include the lower tax rates on capital gains vs. ordinary income, the favorable taxation of executive compensation in the form of stock options and closer scrutiny of expenditures by not-for-profit organizations.
To understand the second type of policy that affects fairness, pick up a copy of the Bible. Turn to the book of Amos, written 2,800 years ago. Amos is reading the Israelites the riot act. Why? Because too many of them were wealthy? Not really. Because the wealthy were not sharing their wealth with the poor — for example, through higher tax rates? Not really.
It was because the wealthy were installing policies purposely designed to enrich themselves and ensure that the poor remained poor.
But surely we, mesmerized by our conspicuous self-righteousness, would never maintain such policies?
Consider Social Security and unemployment benefits. The net effect of those programs is to take money from poorer people and give it to richer people.
In the case of Social Security, the better off live longer, use more spousal benefits (as they’re more likely to be married) and begin work later, because they spend more time in school.
While contributions to unemployment benefits often are equalized with respect to income, benefits are proportional to income, again favoring those with higher incomes.
Such regressive entitlements also contribute to the nation’s $20 trillion debt, which will be passed on to future generations. Is our unwillingness to pay for our own consumption impoverishing our children and grandchildren? What if future generations are not as well-off as we are?
Reforming these programs is technically easy, but requires political courage. The resulting savings, by the way, would go a long way toward funding help for people who really need help.
What about zoning laws that preserve the “character” of neighborhoods but inhibit (regrettably, of course) the construction of affordable housing?
What about the affluent who send their own children to private schools but oppose vouchers that would allow poor families to do the same?
What about mandatory, complete coverage of preventive care like mammography? With complete coverage (no coinsurance or deductibles), everyone pays for the coverage through higher premiums, but some groups are more likely to get preventive care than others. The nonusers subsidize the users. Care to guess which women are more likely to get regular mammograms?
The list of regressive policies that could be reversed overnight goes on and on.
Could the Democratic Party become an authentic voice for fairness and justice by requiring its comfortable supporters to go beyond costless “virtue signaling” (the sign in your front yard; your abstract admission of “privilege”) and back concrete reforms that would cut into their real economic privileges?
It may seem ironic, but if they did, Democrats would find a wealth of support from conservative scholars who have been calling for these reforms for decades.
Bryan Dowd is a professor in the Division of Health Policy and Management in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.