Politics is not only about competing views on issues. It is also, and often most importantly, about which problems come to the forefront in the public conversation and in the minds of citizens and voters.
The battle over what matters most could determine the outcome of the 2016 election. One set of concerns, related to race, immigration and attitudes toward Islam, divides the country deeply. Another group of issues, involving economic inequities and the difficulties many Americans are having getting ahead, has broad reach across party lines.
Republicans want the first agenda to be paramount. This reflects both the attitudes of their supporters and a rational (if debatable) assessment of how they might win. It also explains the eagerness of Republican politicians to make blocking Syrian refugees from our shores the centerpiece of their initial response to the terrorist attacks in Paris. Casting Democrats as insufficiently mindful of the nation’s security — and charging them with being too responsive to the rights of religious and racial minorities — are among the oldest calls in the GOP political playbook.
Democrats, by contrast, have every interest in an election organized around core economic concerns. Economic growth has not been fairly shared and middle-class and less-affluent families alike need relief on matters ranging from wages to college access to work-family balance. It is no accident that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have largely structured their campaigns around these themes.
The importance of who gets to set the agenda was brought home by a poll released Tuesday by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). The survey, for which I played an advisory role, was conducted in cooperation with the Brookings Institution, before the attacks in Paris.
On the one hand, certain issues divided the country starkly across party lines. By a 66 percent to 26 percent margin, Republicans said that immigrants burdened the country more than they strengthened it. (Among supporters of Donald Trump, 80 percent said they were a burden.) Democrats, on the other hand, said immigrants strengthened the country by a nearly opposite margin, 63 percent to 32 percent.
Among Republicans, 76 percent said the values of Islam were at odds with “American values and way of life”; 43 percent of Democrats said this.
Especially sharp divisions emerged on controversies involving race and police practices: 64 percent of Republicans but only 28 percent of Democrats agreed with the statement that “discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” Among Republicans, 82 percent said the recent killings of African Americans by police were “isolated incidents” rather than “part of a broader pattern.” Only 32 percent of Democrats said they were isolated incidents.
These figures underscore two facts: Republicans are largely united in their views on these questions; and they are potentially disruptive subjects that could give the GOP a chance to pull a minority of Democrats away from their usual party loyalties — the classic definition of “wedge issues.”
On economic questions, by contrast, rank-and-file Republicans take many positions that are usually associated with Democrats. These are the “bridge issues.” Requiring companies to provide sick leave to their employees draws support from 96 percent of Democrats — and 69 percent of Republicans. Requiring leave time for new parents is even more unifying: 89 percent of Democrats endorse it, as do 75 percent of Republicans.
And on a series of questions, many Republicans identified with criticisms of the economic system that have been a hallmark of Sanders’s campaign. Offered the statement “Business corporations do not share enough of their success with their employees,” 92 percent of Democrats agreed or mostly agreed, and so did 76 percent of Republicans.
Democrats agreed more strongly, but the fact that so many Republicans could identify with this view — and with similar criticisms of the exporting of good jobs, the power of big money in elections and the advantages enjoyed by the wealthy — speaks to the potential political power of calls for greater economic justice.
Perhaps it goes too far to say that there is a Social Democratic America waiting to be born. Still, Democratic politicians have every interest in making a desire for a more equitable economy the driving force in the election.
There are equally good reasons for Republican politicians to encourage voters to think about their fears of terrorism, their worries about immigrants and their feelings toward Islam. For the moment, dreadful and genuinely frightening news is making the GOP’s job easier.