President Joe Biden’s budget plan received a sharply critical response from Republicans this week, which is hardly surprising: The two parties have very different visions for the proper role of government. What is surprising, however, is how wide this ideological divide has remained even though voters’ partisan identities no longer reflect their economic class the way they once did.
US politics can often seem like it’s dominated by the culture wars, but most of what the government actually does — taxing, spending, regulating — remains firmly planted in the economic realm. And conflicts between politicians remain strongly polarized on matters of dollars and cents. With the Republican majority in the House of Representatives vowing to use the upcoming appropriations process and federal debt-ceiling increase to force spending cuts or entitlement reforms, Biden’s budget proposal is the opening shot in what will likely be a fierce battle.
There’s nothing new about a big partisan fight over the federal budget. But for nearly a century, the post-New Deal party system rested on an apparently logical relationship between the policies advocated by political leaders and the economic interests of their supporters. As the party of active and redistributive government, Democrats drew most of their votes from those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Republican champions of free-market entrepreneurialism, meanwhile, found their greatest appeal among the relatively affluent.
As late as the 2004 election, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry bested Republican incumbent George W. Bush by 59% to 40% among voters in households with annual incomes of less than $30,000, according to national exit polls, while Bush led Kerry by a comparable margin (58%-41%) among voters making $100,000 or more.
But the rising salience of cultural divisions — which often divide relatively progressive white-collar professionals from more traditionalist blue-collar workers — has diluted the once-predictable correlation between economic status and partisanship. By 2020, most citizens with incomes of at least $100,000 had migrated toward the Democrats; Biden won 51% of their votes according to one survey, and 56% according to another. This performance was roughly equal to Biden’s showing among voters making less than $50,000 (53%) and exceeded his popularity among citizens with incomes between $50,000 and $100,000, who narrowly favored Donald Trump.
The simultaneous movement of wealthy citizens into the Democratic Party and lower-income voters toward Republicans might have been expected to push both sides closer to the ideological center on economic matters. But the decline of pocketbook voting has not had a depolarizing effect on either party. Instead, Democrats and Republicans have instigated a new set of cultural disagreements without resolving their existing battles over economic policy — a trend that the political scientists Geoffrey Layman and Thomas Carsey have labeled “conflict extension.”
This means that Democratic leaders still promote their party as defenders of the disadvantaged even though their cultural liberalism attracts an increasingly well-heeled set of constituents. Biden’s proposed 2024 budget, which he announced at a Philadelphia union hall, contains billions in additional spending on programs intended to benefit less prosperous Americans, including housing assistance, expanded health and child-care coverage, and free community college and pre-K programs. His plan would also raise taxes on the wealthy while claiming to target corporate “special interests.”
Republicans have likewise declined to revise their traditional economic approach despite a recent influx of support among citizens of more modest means. Even the “populist” Trump administration enacted tax legislation that allocated most of its relief to top earners, and attempted to repeal an Affordable Care Act that delivered most of its benefits to the lower and middle classes. Republican congressional leaders have signaled that their demands in the upcoming appropriations and debt ceiling negotiations are likely to include significant cuts to domestic spending programs and, potentially, Medicaid.
Of course, neither party has enough power to enact its entire policy agenda. If history is a reliable guide, whatever bipartisan resolution awaits on the far side of any government shutdown or debt default crisis will leave the status quo mostly intact. But the fact that both Democrats and Republicans are still sounding their traditional economic messages as they charge into the upcoming battle proves that a weakening class divide out in the country hasn’t done much to tame the ideological combat raging inside the Beltway.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• $31 Trillion Is Not the Scariest Number in the Debt-Ceiling Fight: Karl Smith
• Republicans Can’t Stop a New Wave of Government Spending: Conor Sen
• A Debate Over the Deficit Is Just What America Needs: Matthew Yglesias
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David A. Hopkins is an associate professor of political science at Boston College and the author of “Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics.”
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