The Strange Case of Biden's Issue Polling
So far, all of the key initiatives of the Biden administration have received clear majority – if not super majority - public support. Opinion polls have consistently shown two thirds or more of American’s approve of the administration’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Their first major legislation, the relief bill, has likewise polled surprisingly given a polarized electorate with upwards of 70% public support.
While details of the infrastructure bill – the next major initiative – are still emerging, early signs are it will also prove popular. Even on the main polling weak spot for Biden – immigration – his low numbers are generally driven by progressives frustrated he is not moving fast enough, and the issue, at least for now, remains a low priority for the broader electorate.
If then, almost all democrats, most independents, and around half of republicans, approve of the principle things Biden has done – or plans to do – why has his approval rating stayed, very consistently, at 53-54%?
To be clear, this is by no means a horrible place for an incumbent president to be in, given the sharp divisions in American politics. You would certainly rather be stuck in the mid 50’s than the mid 40’s as Trump was – even with the bias of the electoral college. A net positive approval of 10-15% (50-55% approve vs 40% disapprove) is also about the threshold democrats need to make retaining control of congress in 2022 feasible (though still very uncertain.)
It is however puzzling: a significant portion of the electorate – perhaps as much as 20% - seems to approve of everything Biden has done, but not of him, and almost certainly will not vote for him. Conversely, they do not agree with the position of the Republican Party on these issues, yet plan to vote for them regardless.
The most obvious explanation for this, high polarization (usually a reasonable guess for any question about modern US politics) doesn’t quite cut it: what we are witnessing is a clear break from how partisan divisions have usually manifested themselves in issues based polling. For most of recent US history support for a particular issue or policy has tended to follow partisan commitments, what seems to be happening now is that policy has become untethered from partisanship entirely.
The first pattern, while perhaps dispiriting, is clear enough: most American’s supported reforms to expand access to healthcare, but when a specific proposal (even one based on conservative ideas) was put forward by Obama republican opinion shifted to firmly against it. Republican’s views of Putin’s Russia changed drastically when Trump gained the Presidency. Democrats where evenly divided on Impeaching Trump until their party’s leadership pulled the trigger on it, then, within a couple of weeks, they were uniformly for it.
Such a process is easy enough to explain: an idea might sound good in theory, but once it becomes associated with a hated political opponent it starts to seem dangerous and radical (and conversely people will adjust their views to bring them into alignment with a trusted figure). Further, as ideas start to become debated politically, partisans of both sides will be exposed to messaging from their preferred media outlets which will bring their views into conformity with the party line. Finally, there’s the simple, but powerful, effect of group loyalty; ‘being a member of this team involves endorsing these things, you’re not a sell-out are you?’ This is, to be sure, not the enlightened debate of Plato’s republic, or the deliberative weighing of interests in Mill’s representative government, or even the messy contestation of classes in Machiavelli’s popular republic, but it is comprehensible enough - an explicable, predictable process that’s remained stable over time. And it is impossible to understate the extent to which it simply isn’t happening right now. Rather than policy views conforming to partisanship, they are now operating wholly independent of it.
Perhaps this is simply a temporary aberration – driven by weak, incoherent, and ineffective, republican opposition. But perhaps not.
After, all when asked directly in focus groups or polling, policy is increasingly not cited as the main motivation for their partisanship – it’s ‘protecting our way of life as we know it.’ A staggering 83% of republicans believe the American way of life is under threat, far higher than among democrats who, following a violent attempt to overturn an election, one might assume have more reasons to fear their political opponents.
This is often framed as republican’s choosing identity over policy. While true in a general sense this can be misleading as it implies conservative voters are being led by emotion over reason. In fact they are behaving quite rationally given what they believe to be true about the world.
Unlike many on the left, I’ve spent considerable time talking to republican primary voters one on one as part of campaigns to lobby their state representatives. From both polling and personal experience I can tell you the belief that White people are now being racially discriminated against, and are in danger of some sort of reverse Jim Crow, is commonplace, strongly held, and utterly sincere within this electorate (however wrong).
Fears of persecution are far from limited to race. Conservative Evangelical churches in America have long been warning that Christianity may soon be outlawed – that increasing tolerance for LQBTQ people and changing gender roles are simply the first act of a play that concludes with Christians facing ancient Roman era style oppression. Many men, and some women, see in the Me Too movement the removal of all due process claims for men and the ushering in of an age of radical feminist domination. Anti-Semitic conspiracies about world government continue to circulate. The list goes on.
The point is not that these are reasonable things to think. Rather, that if you genuinely believe in any – much less all – of them it becomes quite rational to prioritize them over a better economic policy. Yes, Biden’s infrastructure bill might be a good one, but he won’t protect us from the people working to put Christians in camps. Trump will. Given that perceived reality, Trump’s bad behaviour, or Biden’s good policies, become almost completely irrelevant. It is not surprising that many backed him no matter what. Nor is it surprising that many feel that political violence may be necessary to protect themselves and their way of life – a position endorsed by more than half of republican voters.
All of these narratives have a long history in American politics, and the Republican Party perpetuating them to sure up its base is nothing new. What does seem to have changed is that the Trump era has cemented them as the central organizing principle for half of the political spectrum. Four years of a paranoid president telling his followers that they are under attack was bound to leave lasting damage, and we may be starting to see what it looks like. The conspiracies are more widespread, for many the danger has gone from theoretical to imminent. The ‘flight 93’ logic which rationalized support for Trump in 2016 has been reinforced time and time again throughout his presidency, to the point where it has become the animating principle for much of the right. Everything else has fallen away.
None of this should make us feel hopeless. In many ways the American left is currently in a stronger position than at any point during my lifetime. Biden’s election and the progressive shift in the Democratic Party’s agenda are all good things that we should celebrate. They are however occurring in a political environment shaped by the - short but highly corrosive - Trump era. We must be honest about what this new reality is, and, for all the good news, remind ourselves of how precarious the future of American democracy still is.