Means Testing Is Inhumane, Divisive, and Very Bad Politics
It’s ‘popularism’ week in the commentariat, as pundits across the ideological spectrum discuss recent remarks by pollster David Shor. This problematic and imprecise term reflects a way of thinking about politics that is poised to reshape the Build Back Better debate, and other debates yet to come. That’s potentially disastrous.
Shor has written and spoken extensively on the need for Democrats to back away from talking about unpopular ideas and listen more to pollsters like… well, like David Shor. Ezra Klein covered his ideas well, but the headline for his piece gets it wrong. Shor isn’t “telling Democrats what they don’t want to hear.” Shor’s words are music to the ears of Democratic centrists.
Shor seems like an engaging, bright guy. His ‘popularism’ concept is interesting, if not very well defined, and his framework makes the most sense when he’s talking about phrases that poll badly in core Democratic demographics. “Defund the police” performs poorly among communities of color, for example, and it’s easy to see why it’s a problem.
The problem arises, as it always does, when Democrats craft tomorrow’s policies on today’s poll readings. That’s like prescribing medication today based on what your temperature was last week. Poll results are transient and reflect the biases of the pollster. Most importantly, they fail to consider the political impact of policies that sound convincing when asked by a pollster, but which are infuriating and unfair once they’re enacted.
Shor emphasized his own leftism in interviews and, to be fair, he doesn’t say politicians should shape their policies on what polls well. He says they should talk about things that poll well and play down the things that don’t. In the real world, however, there’s not much difference between the two. You can’t pass a law in Congress without talking about it. Even if you try, if it’s unpopular you can bet your opponents will.
In the real world, whether intentionally or not, ‘popularism’ becomes an argument for passing only policies that poll well. When seen in that light, ‘popularism’ sounds less like a canny electoral strategy and more like a post-millennial repackaging of a previous generation’s centrism. As the meme goes, “How do you do, fellow kids?”
The Democratic debate over cuts to Biden’s reconciliation bill is already starting to reflect something like ‘popularism.’ Sen. Joe Manchin’s rhetorical attack—that it’s “basically changing our whole society to an entitlement mentality”—reflects the poll-driven Democratic rhetoric of the past three decades. So does his demand that benefits be “needs-based with means-testing guardrails.”
That didn’t come out of nowhere. As Jamelle Bouie writes, “there was a point—in the very recent past—when (Manchin’s) views were the dominant ideological position within the Democratic Party, both a consequence of and a driving force in the neoliberal transformation of the United States.” That reflects another problem with ‘popularism’: the polls may change, but the thinking doesn’t always change with it.
Shor also makes some important points. He recently pointed out that “If you were rank ordering purely on popularity then pharma drug negotiation, anti-usury laws, and adding dental/vision to Medicare would be at the top.” He went on to say that “expanding Social Security and wealth taxes … also do very well.”
Why, then, has popularism already come to be defined as some sort of contrarian, bitter pill Democrats must be forced to swallow? A lot of that has to do with Shor’s own presentation of the data. New York Times reporter Nate Cohn points out Shor’s ideal campaign looks a lot like Obama’s 2012 run. But, as Cohn points out, “The last ten years have had a huge effect on the partisan allegiance of millions of white working-class voters … They don’t default to Democrats anymore. Many are now just Republicans.”
What Cohn doesn’t say, but I will, is that those defections are due in part to Obama’s policies.
When I wrote about the history and ideology of means testing for The American Prospect in 2019, the Democratic Party was in the throes of hashing out broad issues of inclusion and universality in its approach to public policy. The candidates most closely associated with the universalist approach, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, lost. But the ideology itself made enormous gains, aided in part by the pandemic’s role in exposing holes in the social safety net. Now, the Democratic holdouts in the House and Senate are reigniting that debate. As the Build Back Better debate rages on, there will be a strong temptation to fall back on its old posture.
The divisive nature of the ‘popularist’ approach has led to some surprising outcomes. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a New Jersey Democrat whose district went for Trump in 2016, led the House effort to expand access to child care benefits. She didn’t do it because she’s a social democrat (hardly!), but because the divisive nature of the popularist strategy left too many of her middle-class constituents out. “I will not let another federal program pay less to New Jersey taxpayers than it does to all other Americans,” Sherrill said.
That may not be a noble sentiment, but it illustrates another weakness in the popularist approach: it leads politicians toward public policy that divides the public, which weakens support for the policy itself. Social Security and Medicare are popular because they are universal. If they were being considered today, I suspect some people would argue against them from a ‘popularist’ perspective.
To be sure, means testing and other non-universal policies often poll well. “Should we give free stuff to rich people?” is a question that seems to answer itself. In practice, however, it is often inhumane, unjust, and counterproductive. Matt Bruenig’s work on the child tax credit shows that it is unnecessary complex and difficult to apply for the benefit. As a result, 18 percent of the children who qualify for the credit are not receiving it.
But popularism isn’t that popular. As Bruenig also notes, David Shor misunderstands or misrepresents the relative popularity of a universal vs. means-tested tax credit. The means-tested version only scored four points higher than the universal one. And sharper means testing of the kind Shor proposes would, in Bruenig’s words, “massively increase overpayment problems” as well as bureaucratic drag, “which would then make the program less popular.”
This is where it becomes important to read polls in context. First, four points is only slightly larger than the margin of error. Secondly, and more importantly, if Democrats enact a child tax credit that is complicated, time-consuming, and financially risky, it will quickly become unpopular. The small, momentary (and, I believe, mythical) boost they might get from passing a means-tested program now would cost them dearly later.
Shor rightly notes the deep educational and cultural divides between the Republican and Democratic parties. As others (most notably Thomas Frank) have pointed out, the Democrats have gone from being the party of the working class to the party of educated elites. Means testing will make that worse. After all, it’s “educated elites” and not blue-collar workers who do the testing, and who are more likely to complete them successfully.
The problem with Build Back Better isn’t that its vision is too grand. On the contrary. Millions of people in this country are facing eviction. Millions more—with and without health insurance—can’t afford medical care. People are dying, going hungry, and doing without shelter.
To be sure, there are programs that require means testing, like antipoverty programs. If Joe Manchin is determined to focus on “needs-based” programs, there are plenty of proposals in Congress that fit the mold, from eviction moratoriums to rental assistance to canceling utilities debt and more. Or, he could target the 47 million Americans struggling with student debt.
These needs-based programs might not fit the ‘popularist’ mold. But if Democrats don’t act quickly and boldly, well beyond the provisions of Build Back Better, the resulting tsunami of suffering could sweep a demagogue like Trump (maybe Trump himself) into power in 2024.
Shor says that “you want to be five years ahead of history, not 15 years.” Unfortunately, he seems to be ten years behind it. We are on the brink of catastrophe, at a time when only bold ideas and action can save us. Popularism, however well-intentioned, feels less like fresh thinking and more like a road back to the stale centrism of the past.
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