The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s Democrats want to roll back the Reagan era. Are the party and the country ready?

Democrats have been moving to the left since well before the pandemic, our research finds

President Biden speaks about the implementation of the American Rescue Plan at the White House on March 15. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Last week, after a strict party-line vote in Congress, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill. Republicans criticized the sweeping legislation as “haphazard” and “unrelated” to the pandemic. Democrats appeared to lean into this critique, promoting the new law’s far-reaching scope with a confidence not seen in decades.

Biden emphasized that the new law “begins to change the paradigm” — leaving behind Ronald Reagan’s “trickle-down” theory, in which cutting wealthy people’s taxes was supposed to deliver more jobs and a better economic climate. The new approach, Biden said, “puts working people in this nation first.” The law includes one-time stimulus payments, elevated unemployment benefits and expanded child tax credits, which are expected to significantly reduce poverty, especially child poverty. Democrats and other observers have claimed that these provisions will be “transformative” and one of the most significant social welfare efforts since the New Deal.

Is this simply a response to the pandemic, or does it grow from a more durable shift in the Democratic Party’s policy agenda? Our research suggests the latter. Democrats have been moving to the left since well before the pandemic. And although the pandemic’s economic crisis and Biden’s leadership may have prompted the scope of the policy, the larger story is gradual party transformation.

How we did our research

To assess Democratic policy change, we collected and analyzed data from the party’s national platforms. As official statements of beliefs, values and positions, platforms are, as political scientist Jennifer Victor has put it, “the party written on paper.” Moreover, political scientists have consistently found them to largely predict the party’s governing agenda.

We focused on collecting data about policies that promote economic equality and redistribute resources from the wealthy to the poor and middle class. We specifically looked at four major categories of distributive policy: social insurance programs, such as Social Security; social assistance programs, such as Medicaid; taxation; and labor market regulations, such as minimum wage laws.

We recorded the frequency of statements relating to these categories in every platform going back to 1984, the early days of Reagan’s trickle-down economic paradigm. We coded them as positive or negative in tone (to avoid miscategorizing criticism as endorsement). We then generated a net policy score for each broad category, measuring the sum of positive statements and negative statements about each issue. For example, a score of 10 means that the platform mentioned the issue in a positive tone 10 times more than in a negative tone. This gave us a sense of the party’s attitude toward each policy or program under examination. We then looked at how these policy scores varied over time.

Democrats’ support for redistribution fell through the Clinton years, but since then has risen

We found that Democrats’ support for economic equality has varied in complex ways over the past 35 years, displaying different patterns of support depending on which precise policy we’re looking at. Overall, the patterns divide into two periods: declining support from 1984 to 1996, and increasing support since 2000.

For instance, Democratic platforms’ support for social assistance and social insurance programs dropped significantly in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Net policy scores for social insurance dropped by more than 60 percent between 1984 and 1992, from 26 to 10. Scores for social assistance — known disparagingly as “welfare” — plummeted into negative territory, from 18 to -8, in the years that the Clinton administration joined with Republicans to “end welfare as we know it.”

However, by the turn of the millennium, party support for social insurance programs rebounded from 10 to 43, reaching levels higher than in 1984 — and then kept climbing through 2020, when it scored 47.

More surprising, support levels for social assistance climbed back into positive territory by 2004 and have continued inching upward. By 2020, the year of the coronavirus pandemic, the Democratic platform’s support for social assistance reached a high of 9. Notably, Democrats avoided the term “welfare” altogether.

Support for labor market regulations have also mostly climbed upward since 1984, from 5 to 24. Support for progressive taxation — taxing the rich more than the middle class — has remained relatively stable at about 5.

In sum, the Democrats’ support for egalitarian policies has grown over time, despite the temporary decline in support from the late 1980s through the 1990s.

But there’s one lingering effect of the Democrats’ rhetoric during the Reagan and Clinton years. Democratic platforms still justify such measures by talking about “hard-working Americans” and the like. For instance, the 2012 Obama platform justified strengthening Medicare by claiming that “America’s seniors have earned their Medicare … through a lifetime of hard work and personal responsibility.”

The pandemic, like the Depression, eliminated “deserving” and “undeserving”

At first glance, it may appear odd that a centrist Washington insider like Biden is pushing the most “bold” and “progressive” agenda in over a generation. Yet, in light of our research, it makes sense.

First, the party has been moving in a progressive direction on economic and social policy for several decades — well before the pandemic struck, and even before Sen. Bernie Sanders’s primary campaigns, although those probably had an influence.

Second, the pandemic has had devastating economic consequences for most Americans. Given this, lawmakers designed relief policy that doesn’t distinguish between personally responsible and irresponsible Americans. Biden has insisted that millions of Americans are suffering “through no fault of their own.” That broadens the idea of who deserves government help. The law is expected to concentrate its benefits on approximately 70 percent of the nation’s families. It targets those disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s economic effects, especially low-income single mothers and people of color, whom policymakers for the past 40 years have treated as “undeserving” or “irresponsible.”

Still, the American Rescue Plan’s relief measures are temporary. Efforts to make them permanent will run into procedural obstacles like the Senate filibuster and objections from conservative Democrats like Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) or Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.).

While Democrats have been moving in a progressive direction for years, the pandemic crisis has created the conditions for a new Democratic-led paradigm shift in policy. Will that last?

Adam Hilton (@adhilt) is assistant professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College, and author of “True Blues: The Contentious Transformation of the Democratic Party,” from the University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021.

Amelia Malpas, class of 2022, is a politics major at Mount Holyoke College.