Commentary: US policy is not (yet) broken



As President Biden heads for yet another legislative victory – namely, the $ 550 billion infrastructure bill – it’s worth wondering what his success says about US policy. This is mostly good news whether or not you agree with the policies of the Biden administration.

Usually they know what they are doing. Gordon Chibroski / Personal photographer, file

The most enduring truth is that the Median Voter Theorem, as sociologists call it, continues to explain many political outcomes. In an era allegedly marked by traffic jams and polarization, a centrist infrastructure bill is about to be passed.

Put simply, the Median Voter Theorem suggests that politicians will try to woo the voter at the center of the ideological distribution – not necessarily because they want to, but because they are forced to do so by political competition. . In any case, the system as a whole tends to behave this way, even if this or that elected official does not.

Former President Donald Trump has deviated quite severely from voter preferences in some critical ways, especially with his style and rhetoric. The result was that he lost the 2020 election. Yet even a politician as idiosyncratic as Trump reflects some aspects of the Median Voter Theorem. For example, unlike many Republicans who came before him, Trump has boldly declared that he is not going to cut Medicare or Social Security. These were popular positions, and they contributed to Trump’s ascendancy.

As for Biden, the infrastructure bill has the backing of a number of Republicans (the danger Biden faces is from the left of his own party), and the bill consists mostly of easy elements. to understand and not radical: repairing roads and bridges, spreading broadband, strengthening Amtrak and so on. The bill also does everything it can to avoid raising taxes for most Americans.

More generally, it is striking how many of the policies of the Biden administration reflect ideas or proposals of the Trump administration. Biden’s “Buy America” plan could be a protectionist move by the Trump administration. The Trump administration has spent $ 2 trillion on coronavirus relief; the Biden administration proposed and spent $ 1.9 trillion. Trump wanted to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan; Biden did. Biden left many of Trump’s anti-China policies in place, such as tariffs. Biden also pursued rapid deportation programs for immigrants.

All of these policies are largely aimed at the center. It is no coincidence that Biden, even as his “honeymoon” period ends, has remained widely popular in the polls.

There are still areas where Republicans and Democrats differ considerably, of course. On COVID-19, they have divergent security attitudes and practices. Still, the Biden administration has not seriously considered either a nationwide vaccination mandate or government vaccine passports, as neither would be particularly popular with voters.

Then there are the cultural issues, where the median voter theorem absolutely does not hold. What seems to have happened is that Americans have chosen an area in which they can let off steam and express their mutual distrust – and this has allowed some sort of consensus to form on many government policies. What the Mid-Voter Theorem perhaps omits is that individuals have a deeply irrational side and must treat certain political debates more as a mixed martial arts competition than a forum to get things done.

The Median Voter Theorem tends to be unpopular in an increasingly left-oriented university environment. It has a decidedly anti-utopian quality, as it insists that politics are not going to stray too far from the views of the ordinary American. This implies that many projects of left progressives are pipe dreams, at least until major shifts in public opinion take hold. stare at opposing special interest groups.

To be clear, there is no presumption that the median voter actually wants the right thing. As an economist, I am particularly frustrated by how often American voters fail to appreciate the benefits of international trade and migration, or by the way they tend to believe that government programs funded by the ‘loan represent a free meal. They also place a disproportionate weight on low gasoline prices, to cite another example among a long list of flawed views.

Yet in practice, the middle voter probably represents some sort of protection against the worst excesses and arrogances of the human spirit. Failed politicians tend to get fired. Crazy opinions, no matter how popular, tend to be sandblasted by the political process.

The result, at least for the United States, is that the reality of American life is very different from what experts regularly describe.

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