Mind the Gap

What politicians cook up isn't necessarily what people want. This "representation gap" is threatening American democracy.

Despite Donald Trump’s incompetence, corruption and constant lying, he received over 47% of the votes. The Democratic Party did not win the Senate, lost ground in the House, and underperformed at the state level. Moderates blamed progressives’ attempts to move left; progressives blamed moderates’ desire to tack to the center. But both missed the underlying problem.

A disconnect exists between the preferences of voters and the stances of the Democratic Party on social and cultural issues, while an equivalent chasm exists for Republicans on economic matters. Both are facing what political scientists call a “representation gap.”

A majority of voters, including many Republicans, support Democratic, even progressive, positions on economic issues including tax policy, healthcare, education, the minimum wage and more. But on crucial non-economic issues, voters are moderate, and the Democratic Party’s stances—in particular those of its progressive activists regarding illegal immigration and border security, police reform, “political correctness,” gender identity, sexual harassment and affirmative action—are unpopular, even among many Democratic voters.

There are four common responses to a representation gap:

1) Avoidance. Here, the political party doesn’t change positions, but avoids focusing on issues where there is a gap. Instead, it diverts attention to other matters. This strategy has long been employed by the Republican Party, and was put into hyperdrive by Trump.

Republicans have consistently worked to cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy, even though 60% of voters and 53% of Republicans reject tax cuts for the corporations, and 70% of voters and 54% of Republicans favor higher taxes on the wealthy. Republican tax policies are so unpopular that when pollsters have explained GOP tax bills to voters, they simply “refused to believe that they were describing the bills accurately” because they were so extreme. The same is true on healthcare: When pollsters told voters what Trump and the GOP were trying to do to the Affordable Care Act, they simply did not believe it. As one voter put it, “Nobody would actually vote” for a politician advocating such policies. 

Since key GOP economic policies are so unpopular, Republican politicians change the subject, whipping up fears about immigrants, fanning resentment against minorities and liberal elites, and exploiting concerns about changing cultural norms. 

As the Republican Party has shown, an avoidance strategy can work. But it carries downsides. The party must keep voters from recognizing that it is implementing policies at odds with their interests and preferences. This creates incentives to engage in ever more extreme distraction.

The avoidance strategy can also undermine faith in democracy itself since politicians and governments are supposed to be broadly responsive to “the will of the people.” When they are not, anger at unrepresentative elites, “the establishment,” and government in general often result—a corrosive dynamic already prevalent in the United States.

2) Intransigence. Here, the political party openly focuses on its unpopular policies, casting them in moral-absolutist terms. This is based on a Manichean view of politics where voters are either friends or foes, and compromise is anathema.

Intransigence keeps an already committed base riled up and mobilized, but it carries significant downsides. Most obviously, it does not prioritize constructing majorities or winning elections. It also undermines democracy since, rather than openly grappling with the unpopularity of policies, it views this unpopularity as a sign of the majority’s ignorance or immorality—a stance that can easily lead to denigration of “the people” or of democracy itself.

3) Concession. In this strategy, the political party abandons unpopular positions, and replaces them with ones closer to voters’ preferences. This follows the view that the party needs to appeal to voters where they are, not where politicians wish them to be.

The attractiveness of this strategy lies in its pragmatism: It prioritizes winning elections. The downside is that it limits the politically possible, assuming that politicians and parties cannot change voters’ minds. For those who believe in the need for significant change, this strategy is dispiriting.

4) Persuasion. Here, the party attempts to close the representation gap by trying to move voters closer to its policies. Changing people’s preferences requires openly grappling with the unpopularity of particular policies, and engaging with those who disagree, rather than disparaging or ignoring them.

Successful engagement means avoiding language and behavior that can be easily misunderstood or trigger fears in voters, and can be exploited by opponents. Progressive activists erred by ignoring this, with some describing themselves as “socialists,” embracing the slogan “defund the police,” and failing to denounce looting and violence that accompanied some protests—behavior that scared some voters away from the Democratic Party. Above all, the persuasion strategy requires patience since shifting voters’ preferences and priorities takes time.

One disadvantage of the persuasion strategy is obvious: It is the most difficult. But its advantages are great. It is the only strategy that reconciles idealism with realism, joining a commitment to currently unpopular but prized policies with a recognition that realizing such policies first requires winning elections.

Those dedicated to nullifying the threat of Trumpism to American society must look beyond this past presidential election. They must win presidential, congressional and state-level elections for years to come. To do this, Democrats—and those Republicans with the courage to disassociate themselves from Trump—need to move past current debates at the extremes of each party, and deal with the underlying problem of the representation gap.

Dissident Republicans face the daunting challenge of convincing their party that its current avoidance strategy, using divisive cultural and racial appeals to distract from unpopular economic policies, is weakening democracy. It is also politically unnecessary since they can win elections without adopting extreme positions on these issues. 

Within the Democratic Party, moderates have dealt with the representation gap through the concession strategy, while progressives favored intransigence. But intransigence deepens political divides, while concession leaves moderates unable to attract disenchanted citizens longing for inspiration from their representatives. 

The persuasion strategy, on the other hand, offers a way of reconciling progressives and moderates, and strengthening democracy in the process. To progressives, it offers an opportunity to shift the party to the left on issues they care about—but only if they convince a majority of voters, thereby satisfying the moderates’ insistence on winning elections.

For America itself, ensuring that voters actually favor the policies that the two major parties pursue has a major and meaningful benefit: Resentment of “the establishment” will decline, and satisfaction in democracy will grow.

Sheri Berman, a member of the Persuasion advisory board, is a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her most recent book is Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day.