While party infighting could still derail upcoming votes in the U.S. Congress on two massive bills, the Democratic Party is poised to pass sprawling proposals that could reshape American government. The $1.2-trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, already approved by the Senate, would repair the country’s roads and bridges, and extend broadband internet into rural areas. The second draft law, known as the reconciliation bill, calls for $3.5 trillion in spending over 10 years to support childcare, pre-kindergarten daycare and education, and healthcare, and to address climate change—although the final price tag is likely to be smaller if the measure passes. Democrats believe the policies in the legislation are popular with voters and would substantially improve their party’s chances of winning the 2022 midterms. Are they right?

Julia Azari is a professor of political science at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Democratic Party, Azari says, is clearly moving to the left on policy, and while national data on public opinion is difficult to parse, the country is definitely not moving to the right. In her view, a change in the beliefs of just 30 percent of one party’s voters can lead to significant changes in public policy. Most Americans say they’re in favor of increased government spending on individual programs, such as helping the poor, the elderly, or the environment. As Azari sees it, a broader shift is underway in how people feel: Many feel insecure; they don’t feel that the system is working for them; and the Democrats are responding with policies that aim to create a sense of stability. The pandemic is accelerating this swing in the public’s mood, Azari thinks, as more people realize how much government actions affect their own personal well-being.

Michael Bluhm: What’s at stake with these bills?

Julia Azari: One of the things at stake is the sense that these kinds of deals can happen, that there can be bipartisan priorities. It’s a question of, Can we do anything?

In that sense, the stakes are very high. Can the U.S. government solve problems? That is even more fundamental than these questions about what the government should do. Can it provide roads? Can it fix bridges and provide broadband internet to rural areas? If you’re pro-business, this is the kind of thing you want the government to provide—things that make it easier to do business and have commercial transactions. That’s the infrastructure bill.

The reconciliation bill gets much more into core Democratic priorities. That one poses the question, Can a majority party do anything?

Some fundamental questions about American democracy are hanging in the balance. So much is in the balance that it gives these legislators every incentive to try to get as much as they can out of the process. As usual in American politics, we have these huge questions and these mundane bargaining things.

Bluhm: Why would the Democratic Party think that enacting these policies is going to be popular with voters?

Azari: There’s evidence suggesting that a lot of these items are either popular broadly or popular in the districts that these members of Congress represent. They’ve also seen, as Ezra Klein refers to it, a broken feedback loop, in that passing popular policy doesn’t make you popular, and passing unpopular policy doesn’t make you less popular.

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