Republicans just released a policy agenda for the fall elections.
Calling it the “Commitment to America,” the Grand Old Party is trying to frame their agenda in popular and positive terms. They advocate broad ideas like “an economy that’s strong,” “a nation that’s safe,” “a future that’s built on freedom” and “a government that’s accountable.” There are some allusions to the controversial policy ideas, but they largely seek to avoid controversy by focusing on issues like fighting crime, promoting national defense, and siding with families in public schools.
It is clearly modeled after the “Contract with America” that Republicans unveiled in the election of 1994. Led by Newt Gingrich, the Republicans listed about 10 policies that were supported by at least 60% of Americans. Political scientists debate the precise electoral impact of the Contract, but in 1994, the Republicans gained 52 seats and took control of Congress for the first time in nearly half a century.
Where is the Democrats “Commitment to America?”
The party of FDR and LBJ has great potential to proclaim a list of policy ideas that could resonate all across America – especially in red states in which they have been losing. In August, the voters of Kansas overwhelmingly rejected an anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution. In 2020, the voters of Florida passed a ballot initiative to increase the minimum wage to $15. In 2018, the voters of Missouri decisively rejected a right-to-work law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. In referenda in these increasingly red states, voters supported policies strongly rejected by Republican leaders they have elected. In red America, Democratic policies seem more popular then Democratic candidates.
Why are the red states getting redder? The most common explanation is that voters are diverted by other issues like immigration, transgender rights, and critical race theory. In the clamor of the culture wars, why cannot Democrats affirm their pro-choice, pro-family, and pro-labor views? Much is at stake as working class Americans – at least among whites – are deserting the Democratic Party. Republicans have convinced the voters in red states that they are on their side.
Looking in the not too distant past, today’s red states used to elect lots of Democrats – many of them liberal. The list includes George McGovern and Tom Dashle in South Dakota, Fred Harris in Oklahoma, Ernest Hollings in South Carolina, Dale Bumpers in Arkansas, Frank Church in Idaho. Byron Dorgan in North Dakota, Mike Mansfield in Montana, and Al Gore in Tennessee. There are more names on the list, yet in recent years, geographic polarization is one of the most significant trends. Rural voters are increasingly Republican; urban and – to a lesser degree – suburban voters are increasingly Democratic. That’s enough to win popular votes for president, but not enough to win the Electoral College and Senate elections that overweight small largely rural states.
In the heart of bright-red rural America, Democrats could proclaim that voters are not getting anything from Republicans. Does a half-built border wall help them? Do tax cuts for the rich help them? Why can’t they push policies that could help the working families in largely rural red states – and working families of all races in all of America?
Democrats need their own “Commitment to America,” a set of policies designed to help working families. With more specific policies than Republicans, the agenda could include policies like daycare assistance, paid family leave, an increased minimum wage, free community college (or two years at any college), reproductive rights, and child tax credits. These are popular policies that would help working men and women and their families.
Have Democrats done enough for Americans who are struggling to make ends meet? Democrats have produced some policy victories, but is there enough to help anxious Americans. It seems disgraceful that the federal minimum wage is $7.25. How did daycare assistance get dropped from the Build Back Better bill? The enhanced child tax credit also disappeared. Reproductive choice has not been codified in a Congress controlled – albeit narrowly – by Democrats. Struggling Americans in both red and blue states used to look to Democrats to help them. Will Democrats fight to get them back?
Dan Hofrenning is a professor of political science and environmental studies at St. Olaf College. This fall he is leading a group of students to three continents as he teaches a course entitled “Viewing America through Global Eyes.”