Progressive economic policies–good idea!
Standard-issue progressive rhetoric–not so good idea!
Evidence continues to pile up that most of the Democrats’ progressive economic ideas sell well with the American public.
The question, however, is how do you talk about them so you win over the maximum number of voters. That’s not so obvious.
Robb Willer and Jan Voelkel described their intriguing research on just this question in the New York Times on Sunday. The results are food for thought. The authors take off from the Christopher Ellis/James Stimson research on how Americans tend to be operational liberals at the same time as they are symbolic conservatives (research I have frequently cited here).
Here’s what they did:
“An influential analysis of national polling data by Professors Ellis and Stimson suggests that the most effective candidate in a national election would combine the most popular feature of the Democratic Party, progressive economic policies, with the most popular feature of the Republican Party: the invocation of conservative ideology and values like patriotism, family and the “American dream.”
But are candidates free to mix and match their policies with their symbolic politics? If a Democratic candidate pursued such a mixed strategy, would it work? Or would it make him or her seem hypocritical or incoherent?
To investigate these questions we conducted two experiments, one using a nationally representative sample of Americans, in which we looked at Americans’ support for “Scott Miller,” a hypothetical 2020 Democratic nominee. The participants in our studies were presented with excerpts from Scott Miller’s speeches — but we systematically varied the content of the speeches to analyze the effects of policy platform and symbolic politics.
We found that the most effective Democratic candidate would speak in terms of conservative values while proposing progressive economic policies — with some of our evidence suggesting that endorsing highly progressive policies would be best….
What mattered [the most] was how Scott Miller talked about those [progressive] policies. We found that when he spoke of his platform in terms of conservative values like patriotism, family and the American dream, he consistently drew more support than did the Scott Miller who couched those same policies in more liberal values like economic justice and compassion.
Interestingly, most of the increase in support for the Scott Miller with conservative values came from participants who identified as moderate as well as those who identified as conservative. Notably, liberals were inclined to support the candidate regardless of which rhetorical approach he took.
These results suggest that the most effective Democratic challenger to President Trump in 2020 would invoke conservative values while offering progressive economic policies….
Some progressives may bristle at the prospect of a Democratic candidate who employs rhetoric associated with conservatism. But there are reasons that even stalwart progressives might soften on this point. For one thing, Democrats typically tack to the center after winning the nomination, often compromising or abandoning their most progressive policies. Wouldn’t it be preferable to stick to those popular progressive policies, making the case for them using language that would appeal to more Americans?
But the issue is not just rhetorical. There is nothing that inherently binds valuing family, security and the American dream to conservative economic policies. Perhaps these values are served just as well — or even better — by progressive economic policies. If so, Democrats should do more to stress that fact, emphasizing more strongly how their policies can address the concerns of a wider range of Americans.”
Granted, this kind of an experimental study is not definitive proof of how things might work in the real world. But it’s certainly worth considering.