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Monday, November 29, 2021

Biden is exploiting America’s culture war like Trump

That, sadly, indicates how US politicians perceive voters will lap up these partisan attacks. Aside from the White House’s efforts, Democrat-leaning outlets have also claimed that people’s fears about inflation are really being whipped up by co-ordinated propaganda efforts from the Right. Bill Clinton famously thought that his political success hinged on “the economy, stupid”. Today, voters’ economic concerns are dismissed as “Republicans creating fear about the economy, stupid”.

Some argue that it’s wrong to think that deviations on economic sentiment are pure partisanship. These differences in outlook might instead reflect the relative importance different voters with different values attach to issues.

The pandemic has seen the US federal government spend trillions extra on unemployment insurance, children and stimulus cheques, relief that disproportionately boosted incomes for poorer families. Maybe Democrats simply think the measured reductions in child poverty resulting from this redistribution are more important than inflation, whereas Republicans think the opposite?

But, if true, this only serves to highlight the nature of today’s polarisation. In the 1980s and even mid-2006, no such fundamental differences in values were evident. Nor can such a theory explain sentiment through 2020. It was Trump’s Republicans, remember, that first passed the vast relief Bills containing all these measures in spring 2020. Yet after that was delivered, Democratic voters still told pollsters the economy was in the toilet.

Perhaps the smoking gun that confirms what’s really going on here comes from a Gallup analysis of February 2020. It showed Americans’ assessments of economic health tended to deviate along partisan lines much more sharply than when people were asked to evaluate their personal financial situation. The most polarising questions of all by party affiliation? Those asking whether the surveyed or the economy generally were doing better than three years ago – a timeframe overlapping with Trump’s period in office.

Gallup’s former editor-in-chief Frank Newport concluded from that evidence that “Americans’ views of what’s going on around them are often guided by the need to maintain cognitive consistency with their underlying – and highly salient – identities as Republicans or Democrats”. Party affiliation shaping economic views, rather than vice versa, is more evidence that cultural affiliation, not economics, is the dominant cleavage in US politics. Trump sought to harness this. So, increasingly, does Biden.

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