Episode Summary

Contrary to the predictions of political consultants and commentators, both of America’s two major parties have continued to be politically relevant since the GOP broke a decades-long congressional losing streak in the 1994 midterm elections. The American government has been closely divided, with each party taking trifecta control of the government only a very few number of times. But even when they did have the trifecta– that is control of the presidency Senate and the House of Representatives– neither party passed much significant domestic policy legislation, aside from some tax cuts by Republicans and the Affordable Care by Democrats.

Fast-forward to the current moment, President Joe Biden has seen his approval rating among fellow Democrats fall recently, as some of his own voters have become dissatisfied. Biden’s more left-wing critics have faulted him recently for not delivering on promises, and they’ve cited polls showing that the public supports their ideas like free college education or universal health care coverage, but they haven’t been able to enact these policy ideas.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the partisan divide, the Republican party has many of its own internal divisions. And they’re not just about Donald Trump, either. Polls have consistently shown that GOP voters don’t really like any other Republican politicians besides Donald Trump, But Trump himself seems to have few actual policies beyond restrictions on immigration. In 2020, he refused to even create an official party platform for the Republican party. And more recently, the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, refused to say what sorts of policies that he would pursue if the GOP controlled the Senate.

It’s a confusing situation. Republicans won’t talk about policy, and Democrats can’t enact it.

So what’s going on here? In this episode, I was joined by Daniel Cox, director of the Survey Center on American Life, which is a non-partisan project of the American Enterprise Institute that focuses on original research and polling about cultural, political, and technological change in American society. And before that he co-founded the Public Religion Research Institute.

The video of our conversation is below. A lightly edited transcript of the audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here today, Dan.

DANIEL COX: Glad to be here.

SHEFFIELD: All right. So, there is a lot to talk about here today. Let’s maybe first start off, you wrote an essay for the data site FiveThirtyEight talking about how Republicans, they don’t seem to be concerned with majority support for their ideas. And they don’t really talk about it much anymore. What do you mean in terms of policy ideas?

COX: Yeah, so I think if you look, and you mentioned this in your intro, at the Republican agenda, I think a lot of Republicans, independents, and Democrats would wonder just what Republicans are going to do if they win the House, and maybe the Senate in 2022, which seems at this point very likely. And you mentioned that Donald Trump, there was no platform in 2020. And I think that was by design. Trump didn’t feel like he needed it. He, Trump, is the farthest thing from a technocrat as you could get, very little interest in the nuances of public policy.

And the only thing that the party seem to agree on, other than trying to overturn Obamacare is enacting tax cuts and which they did. But there’s only so much, so many times you can do that. So, what else is the sort of far-reaching goal of the party? And I think that’s a big question.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and at the same time though, the activists who form the core of the Republican party in terms of the people who run the campaigns, who write the materials, who knock on the doors, they do have ideas. But they don’t seem to be rather popular, whether it’s healthcare or some of the other areas, that’s something you’ve written about recently in that piece.

COX: Yeah. Well, I think if you look at what animates the GOP now, it’s not policy debates, it’s certainly not things around Social Security or Medicare, healthcare, really, right? It’s cultural stuff. During the Trump administration, all the outrage around Colin Kaepernick, not standing for the pledge of allegiance, now it’s “critical race theory.”

These cultural wedge issues have really come to dominate what the activists are concerned about and talking about. And I think that it’s really asymmetric in terms of what liberals and the Democrats are talking about and the things that they’re interested in, and you think about climate change racial inequality, economic inequality, whatever they, there’s a whole laundry list of stuff.

And Republicans, aren’t not engaged on that for the most part. I mean, I think there’s a couple exceptions. So like abortion is going to be huge this year with the Supreme Court ruling on it which could be seismic in its political effects, let alone the effects on the healthcare system, and decisions for many women.

And one of the things that we’ve seen in the past whether you’re talking about abortion or same-sex marriage, is that it has pretty consistently animated conservatives a lot more than liberals. So if you ask about how much you care about this issue, right? The saliency question. We don’t honestly ask it enough in polling.

We ask about where you stand on these issues and we, we get people to, to, share how they feel about these things, but we don’t even ask them to actually care about it, or at least we don’t do it enough. And conservatives consistently, rate these things as more important. They’re more animated, their activists care about it.

SHEFFIELD: And that’s true with guns as well. Guns is another big issue for that. But at the same time, the people, there are tons of organizations primarily in DC, but not just in DC that are out there, they want to privatize Social Security. They want to eliminate the Department of Education. And they have conferences and they get millions and millions of dollars to push these ideas. The Republican party doesn’t want to campaign on them, it seems like. And people sometimes ask me why does that happen?

And I guess I’ll ask you that. Why does the Republican party seem to focus on more cultural controversies than policies, would you say?

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