‘The Left-Right Divide in U.S. Politics’

Dean Baker:

Krugman Misrepresents the Left-Right Divide in U.S. Politics: In his contribution to the debate over whether there is a group of open-minded “reformed” conservatives, Paul Krugman misrepresents the central focus of the left-right divide in national politics. He tells readers:

“Start with the proposition that there is a legitimate left-right divide in U.S. politics, built around a real issue: how extensive should be make our social safety net, and (hence) how much do we need to raise in taxes? This is ultimately a values issue, with no right answer.”

This is not an accurate characterization of the left-right divide in U.S. politics since there is actually little difference between Republicans and Democrats or self-described conservatives and liberals in their support of the key components of the social safety net: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and even unemployment insurance. Polls consistently show that the overwhelming majority of people across the political spectrum strongly support keeping these programs at their current level or even expanding them. The main impulse for cutting back these programs comes from elites of both political parties who would like to pay less in taxes….

I think there is a distinction here after all. Republicans who support these programs do so because (often based upon a misunderstanding of how these programs are funded) they believe it is their money. Each month they contribute to Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment Compensation, the government keeps it safe for them somewhere, and then at some future date they will spend the money they contributed. It’s their money. They don’t want the programs eliminated, but they do want to stop the “underserving” from spending the money they contributed. Democrats, on the other hand, are much more likely to support these programs as a means of lifting the unfortunate — i.e. as a social insurance transfer from those who had good luck with where they were born, family wealth, education, health, and so on to those who had bad luck of one type or another. To put this another way, I don’t think the elites in the Democratic Party mind paying higher taxes to support these programs even if it means that there are transfers from the fortunate to the not so fortunate (but they are naive with their “we need to save the programs through cuts now to avoid cuts later” arguments). Republicans mind quite a bit.

We can see this distinction more clearly through another point Dean makes:

There are much smaller programs that are designed primarily to help the poor or near poor where there is a clearer partisan divide (e.g. TANF, SSI, WIC). While it may be more accurate to describe the debate over these programs as a values issue (with a strong racial component), they amount to a relatively small portion of government budgets. These programs may be important to the people directly affected, but they are not central to debates over the budget.

It is plausible to argue that these anti-poverty programs have taken an outsize role in national debates, but this is largely because the electorate is poorly informed about their size. In that case the debate is not over values (I would be for cutting back TANF too if I thought it was one-third of the federal budget), but simple an issue of misinformation.

Another way to say this is that as soon as many conservatives think their money might go to someone else, the underserving poor in particular, they object.

I don’t mean to imply that there are no Republicans using the ideological issue of smaller, less intrusive government as a cover for policies that serve special interests (businesses, the wealthy). Many do. I just don’t think the statement that “there is actually little difference between Republicans and Democrats or self-described conservatives and liberals in their support of the key components of the social safety net: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and even unemployment insurance” is fully accurate. There’s an important distinction that underlies the concept of social insurance, the distinction between a society where risks that individuals cannot control are shared broadly or felt individually, and it’s important to recognize this difference between the two political parties.

This piece is cross-posted from Economist’s View with permission.

5 Responses to "‘The Left-Right Divide in U.S. Politics’"

  1. WJHalverson   May 29, 2013 at 8:45 am

    Krugman starts with a false premise: that there are no right nor wrong positions on 'value issues', or at least this particular value issue. But four thousand years of human history proves him wrong. The human tragedy is people like Krugman gain the pulpit and willing minds follow them into their dysfunctional versions of utopia. This time won't be different, regardless of what Krugman says.

    • zzz05   June 1, 2013 at 11:12 am

      " But four thousand years of human history proves him wrong. "
      Not a big fan of your major religions, I take it.

  2. windriven   May 29, 2013 at 9:56 am

    "Democrats, on the other hand, are much more likely to support these programs as a means of lifting the unfortunate…"

    Here the author comes closer to the actual divide. Liberals tend to believe that wealth redistribution can 'lift the unfortunate' to a higher economic status while conservatives tend to believe that providing opportunities is a better means of achieving that goal.

    An old adage holds: give a man a fish and he will be fed for a day; teach a man to fish and he'll never be hungry. Unfortunately, conservatives tend to honor this notion more in word than deed.

    • falk burger   May 29, 2013 at 1:57 pm

      teach a man to fish and he'll get rich selling the fish until there's no more.

  3. gzuckier   June 1, 2013 at 11:13 am

    Teach a man to fish, and his work attendance record will get very spotty.