//  12/13/18  //  In-Depth Analysis

Take Care and Protect Democracy are pleased to present this symposium on building a truly inclusive and multi-racial American democracy. 

By Johanna Kalb and Didi Kuo

It’s a scary moment in American democracy.  Partisan polarization is at historic highs and gridlock threatens even the most basic functions of government.  Norms of bipartisan cooperation have been eroding for decades, and there is little consensus over efforts to constrain a president whose conduct, both personal and political, routinely threatens the rule of law.  Even shared reality is under attack, as partisan affiliation increasingly becomes a lens through which Americans filter facts and information. 

This isn't the first time that political division has threatened American democracy.  As we have previously written, over the course of our history each major movement towards a more fully representative participatory democracy has prompted this kind of increased and hardened partisanship. However, we should draw caution, not comfort, from the ways that these conflicts were resolved.

The instinct in these historical moments has been to look for opportunities to compromise and bridge the rifts between the parties.  At first blush this strategy seems both plausible and reasonable, but as Professors Chatelain and Krochmal describe in their essays, these attempts at bipartisanship have often translated into policies that build consensus around excluding communities of color from full democratic participation. The violent partisanship of the Civil War was resolved only after Southern Democrats were given free rein to institute racial segregation, and Congress tabled issues of racial equality.  The intense polarization of the Progressive Era dropped dramatically as the Great Depression laid the foundation for FDR’s New Deal coalition, but African-Americans were excluded or marginalized from many of the New Deal’s most important social programs. Finally, the racial realignment of the parties triggered by the Civil Rights era was temporarily disrupted in 1990s by the Democrats’ embrace of welfare “reform” and the expansion of the carceral state. 

In each of these moments, the adoption of consensus policies was somewhat successful in producing bipartisanship and policy coalitions.  However, as we now understand, these policy choices deeply undermined true progress towards a fully inclusive democracy.  The long history of excluding black Americans from participation in society continues to shape the landscape of politics today. There is a persistent racial wealth gap, and recent studies show that black Americans face higher levels of downward mobility than white Americans. They earn consistently lower wages than whites who work the same jobs, and face ongoing discrimination in hiring. Rates of home ownership by black Americans are the same today as they were prior to the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, when racial discrimination was legal.

These disparities have direct impacts on democratic participation and representation. As Robert Dahl wrote, “in order to exercise the fundamental rights to which citizens in a democratic order are entitled . . . citizens must also possess the minimal resources that are necessary in order to take advantage of the opportunities and to exercise their rights.”  In the United States, low-income citizens are far less likely than the wealthy to vote, due in large part to the high cost of voting. They are also less likely than the wealthy to engage in other forms of political participation, including donating to political campaigns and contacting representatives. While white people represent the largest group of poor Americans, Black and Hispanic Americans are nearly three times more likely than white Americans to be poor. White voters are also more likely to turn out to vote than minority voters.

Thus, the challenge we face today is finding ways to break down partisan animus and rebuild a shared cultural identity without doing so at the expense of non-white Americans.  Once again, Democrats are being pushed to make “reasonable” compromises—for example, on reducing public benefits, stiffening immigration enforcement, and imposing restrictions to prevent the non-existent problem of voter fraud.  Even setting aside evidence that these attempts at consensus would be futile (given the intransigence of the current Republican leadership), our history indicates that this strategy is a mistake, at least if our goal is building a sustainable and inclusive democracy.  We cannot fix our democracy with policies that undermine it. 

Instead we should recognize that the social programs that are under threat might themselves offer a better path towards stabilizing our democracy.  Research shows that when properly designed and implemented, social welfare programs can increase voter engagement and build faith in and commitment to government.

An obvious opportunity in the present moment is the continued expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Art. In last month’s election, three very red states—Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah—voted for Medicaid expansion, while three others replaced Republican governors who opposed Medicaid expansion with Democrats who support it.  This continued growth in the Medicaid population could have significant democratic implications.

Some studies have shown that enrolling in Medicaid has a positive impact on voting behavior, at least in the short-run.  Given that political polarization seems to be associated with low turnout (because the most motivated voters tend to be the most ideological), bringing thousands of new participants into the system could help to soften our partisan divide and build a larger constituency invested in effective government.  Democracy advocates should continue to ensure that states are complying with the federal National Voter Registration Act requirement to make voter registration forms available in state offices where the Medicaid program is administered, and to engage in joint advocacy campaigns with health services organizations to promote simultaneous enrollment and voter registration.

The promise of Medicaid expansion may, however, be undermined by one of the compromise policies currently being in advanced in some states. With the blessing and encouragement of the Trump Administration, a handful of states, particularly in the South, have begun to adopt work requirements for Medicaid.  Given that Medicaid work requirements generally poll well with the American public, some Democrats, like Governor John Bel Edward of Louisiana, have acceded to or even endorsed them.  Some experts have suggested that work requirements may be included as a condition of expansion going forward.[1]

This is a dangerous development for many reasons. While well-designed social welfare programs can improve democratic participation, poorly designed ones can have the opposite effect. Means-tested benefits that are administered in a discretionary way, i.e. through caseworkers, lead citizens to be wary of government, to feel less political efficacy, and to participate in politics at lower rates.  Cash welfare, which stigmatizes recipients, is associated with less turnout.  In the Medicaid context specifically, Jamila Michener has demonstrated that state-level variations in the way the program is administered is strongly related to levels of political action among beneficiaries. In particular, benefits expansion increases the likelihood that beneficiaries will register, vote, and engage in other forms of political participation like attending rallies or joining groups.  Benefit reductions have the opposite effect.

Imposing work requirements may have the effect of turning a popular social welfare into a stigmatized one, alienating beneficiaries from government rather than engaging them.  Moreover, our experience with welfare work requirements indicates that these new restrictions on Medicaid are likely to fall most heavily on Black and Latino Americans, due to discrimination both in the employment and the awarding of benefits. The echoes of our historical experience seem obvious.

One way or the other, social policy will be a key tool in saving our democracy.  The question we face now is what kind of democracy we are trying to save.  In the past, we have been too quick to accept compromises of exclusion that stabilized our democracy at the expense of the full citizenship of people of color. We should not do so again.

Johanna Kalb is the Edward J. Womac Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. She is also a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

Didi Kuo is a Research Scholar at the Stanford University Center on Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law and a Fellow at New America.

[1] As we were finalizing this essay, Democrats in Congress blocked proposed new work requirements for food stamps in this year’s Farm Bill. See Jeff Stein, Deal to pass farm bill scraps House GOP plan for new food stamp work requirements, Washington Post (Nov. 29, 2018).


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