4.10—Ideology & Social Policy

This section is about how our political ideologies shape our policies and debates around social issues. Should the government treat drug use and addiction as a criminal matter or a healthcare issue? Liberals may be comfortable with the government regulating the economy, but what about marriage & abortion? Conservatives may be uncomfortable with heavy-handed regulations of corporations & the economy, but may support the government taking an active tough-on-crime approach to criminal justice.

What you need to learn

How do political ideologies shape policy debates on social issues?

Ideology & Social Issues

-libertarian ideology on social issues

-liberal ideology on social issues

-conservative ideology on social issues

Social issue areas

-marriage equality




Ideology and Social Policy

Many people believe the goals of the Constitution are best served when the government plays a key role in providing social welfare-support for disadvantaged people to meet their basic needs. The nation’s social welfare policy has tried to provide that support, especially the New Deal programs of the 1930s and the Great Society programs of the 1960s. More recently, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law a national health care law, although it has been under attack by a Republican-dominated Congress and the Trump administration.

Social Issues and Ideology

Just as political ideologies vary on the issue of government involvement in the economy, so do they vary on the extent to which the government should address social issues. The Preamble to the Constitution declares that the government will “promote the general welfare” of its citizens. Yet opinions vary widely on the best way to accomplish that goal.

A Social Safety Net

In the liberal view of social policy, the government should provide a safety net for people in need and pay for it with higher taxes. This safety net takes the form of entitlements-government services Congress has promised by law to citizens-that are major contributors to both annual deficits and the overall debt. (See Topics 2.2 and 2.14.) Congress frequently defines criteria that will award cash to individuals, groups, and state or local governments. Congress must cover this mandatory spending, paying those who are legally “entitled” to these funds. Entitlements include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, block grants, financial aid, food stamps, money owed on bonds, and the government’s many contractual obligations.

Social Security The largest entitlement program is Social Security. Congress passed the Social Security Act amid the Great Depression (1929- 1939) to create a federal safety net for the elderly and those out of work. This program greatly expanded the role of government, creating what some call the welfare state. The economic disaster had bankrupted local charities and state treasuries, forcing the national government to act. The law created an insurance program that required the employed to pay a small contribution via a payroll tax into an insurance fund designed to assist the unemployed and to help financially strapped retirees.

Officially called Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI), Social Security requires most employed citizens to pay 12.4 percent (the employer pays 6.2 percent and the employee pays 6.2 percent) into a trust fund that is kept separate from the general treasury as an independent agency to

protect it. The Social Security Administration handles the fund and distributes the checks. It is a large agency composed of almost 60,000 employees and more than 1,400 offices nationwide. This mandatory government-run retirement plan constitutes more than 20 percent of the budget.

Compared to the 1930s, however, Americans are living much longer, extending the time they will collect Social Security benefits. Some predict the Social Security trust fund-an account set aside and protected to help maintain the system-will become exhausted in 2042. At that time, the annual revenue for the program is projected to drop by 25 percent.

Politicians began realizing the potential hazards within this program years ago. Political daredevils have discussed privatizing the program or raising the retirement age. However, people who have paid into the system for most of their lives become upset when they hear politicians’ plans to tamper with Social Security or to suddenly change the rules. These factors have made Social Security the “third rail” of politics. Nobody wants to touch the third rail of a train track because it carries the electrical charge, and no politician wants to touch Social Security because of the shockwave in constituent disapproval that might hurt a candidate politically.

Medicare and Medicaid Combined, Medicare and Medicaid make up nearly 20 percent of the federal budget. Medicare is a government-run health insurance program for citizens over 65 years old. Medicaid is a health care program for the impoverished who cannot afford necessary medical expenses.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s plan to pay for the elderly’s medical care was tabled until Congress passed the Medicare law in 1965 during the Democratic administration of President Lyndon Johnson. It is administered by an agency in the Department of Health and Human Services and is funded by a payroll tax of 1.45 percent paid by both employer and employee. For those earning more than $200,000 per year, the rate has recently increased to 3.8 percent. The law, which has since been amended, is broken into four parts that cover hospitalization, physicians’ services, a public-private partnership known as Medicare Advantage that allows companies to provide Medicare benefits, and a prescription drug benefit. For those over age 65 who qualify, Medicare can cover up to 80 percent of their health care costs. Many retires carry a supplemental private insurance as well. Medical expenses in the golden years can get expensive.

Medicaid provides health insurance coverage for the poorest Americans.

To be eligible for Medicaid services, the applicant must meet minimum-income thresholds, have a disability, or be pregnant. Medicare and Medicaid are largely

administered by the states while the federal government pays the bill.

Liberals supported other measures in President Johnson’s Great Society initiative, including programs in a War on Poverty that provided additional aid for the poor, subsidized housing, and job retraining programs, with the total increasing from nearly $10 billion in 1960 to about $30 billion in 1968. The percentage of people living in poverty fell dramatically, especially among African Americans.

Conservative Opposition

Conservatives and libertarians, however, had long opposed these expensive government programs. As early as 1964, Ronald Reagan clearly articulated the conservative view in a speech in supporting the candidacy of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Reagan said, ((the Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose:’

When Reagan became president in 1981, he built on efforts he made while governor of California to cut back on government social spending. ((Reaganomics;’ as the economic programs of Reagan have come to be called, stressed lowering taxes and supporting free market activity. With lower taxes, welfare programs, such as the food stamp program and construction of public housing, were cut back.

Health Care

American citizens purchase health insurance coverage either through their employer or on their own. Health insurance eases the cost of doctor visits, prescription medicines, operations, and other medical costs. Many politicians and several presidents have favored the idea of a government­ based health care system for decades. Some health insurance regulations have existed for years, sometimes differing from state to state. Recently, with the continual increases in insurance prices and the diminishing level of coverage, more people have bought into the idea of expanding government regulation of health insurance and making the service more affordable.

This idea finally became law with the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010. Sometimes referred to as “Obamacare” because of President Obama’s initiative for the law, the comprehensive Affordable Care Act (ACA) became a divisive issue in party politics, with opponents concerned about the overreach of government. Conservative legislators, many of them backed by wealthy campaign donors with libertarian leanings, objected to the government’s involvement in health care and fought the bill fiercely. Conservatives tend to believe that private companies can do a better job providing social services, including health care, than the government. They push for privatization of Medicare and Medicaid as a way to reduce mandatory spending and to energize the private sector. In their view, privatizing health care would increase competition among providers, which in turn will lead to generally lower health care costs. Popularity of this law and program has increased gradually since its passage. A range of polls on whether Americans favor or oppose the ACA as of late 2019 show a noticeable favorability, ranging from 2- to 9-point differential.


As an economic issue, conservatives tend to view labor as an element of the free market that should not be regulated by the government. Wages, according to this view, should be determined by supply and demand. Liberals, in contrast, view labor as a unique element in the marketplace because of the complexities of human behavior. For example, workers with higher wages tend to be more motivated to do a good job and remain with an employer longer than workers with lower wages, factors not considered in the supply-and-demand model.

Conservatives tend to view organized labor as a negative influence. In some states at some places of business, whether they want to join a union or not, workers are required to pay union dues. Many people believe that such requirements are an infringement of their individual liberties, especially since labor unions actively campaign for candidates and not all workers support the candidates the unions endorse. Liberals have a much more positive view of organized labor as a force that has lifted workers into a position of some power through collective bargaining, which has resulted in the 40-hour work week, employer-provided health care, and many other benefits.

Corporations and workers struggled as the labor union movement developed from the late 1800s into the Great Depression. During periods of liberal or progressive domination of the federal government, Congress passed various laws that prevented collusion by corporations, price fixing, trusts, and yellow dog contracts (forcing newly hired employees into a promise not to join a labor union). As part of the New Deal program, Congress passed the Wagner Act (1935) which created a federal executive branch commission that regulates labor organizations and rules on alleged unfair labor practices. A second law established minimum wage, defined the 40-hour work week, and required companies to pay employees overtime pay.
After World War II, Republicans gained control of Congress in the 1946 mid-term elections and passed the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), generally favored by business and partly counteracting the labor movement. It enabled states to outlaw the closed shop-a company policy or labor contract that requires all employees to join the local union. States could now pass ”right to work” laws and, by 2020, 28 states have.
During the conservative presidency of Ronald Reagan, however, organized labor received a blow that has been hard to overcome. Reagan spoke out against the August 1981 strike by air traffic controllers. He declared the strike illegal because the controllers were public employees, and he fired them. Their union was later decertified. Reagan was in general a supporter of workers’ rights to collective bargaining, but his firm stand against the air traffic controllers, according to labor expert Joseph A. Mccartin, “shaped the world of the modern workplace;’ which has seen dramatically fewer participants in labor walkouts.

Ideological Differences on Government and Privacy

Other social issues besides government spending and labor also divide liberals and conservatives. These concern matters related to personal choice and individual freedoms. Liberals tend to think that the government should not regulate private, personal matters, while many modern social conservatives believe the government needs to protect core values even if doing so intrudes on some individual freedoms.

Privacy and Intimacy

Many of the issues that divide liberals and conservatives on privacy relate to intimate decisions. With the 1965 ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut (see Topic 3.9), the Court established a precedent for a right to privacy on intimate matters. That decision found that a Connecticut state law forbidding married persons from using contraception and forbidding people such as health care professionals from helping or advising someone else to use contraception was unconstitutional. The decision enshrined a right to privacy in the Bill of Rights that led to later decisions that prevented states from outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage.

Conservatives tend to believe that if the states pass laws in these areas of

personal privacy, the federal government does not have authority to overrule them since the right to privacy is not explicit in the Constitution. A number of recent cases highlight the difference between liberal and conservative views on privacy. For example, does the federal government through the Supreme Court have a right to overrule a state law that requires transgender people to use public bathrooms that match their birth sex rather than their gender identity? Conservatives argue that the state law should stand. Some students argue that being forced to use a school bathroom with people of the opposite physical sex violates their right to privacy. Conservatives have pushed for the so-called bathroom bills, sometimes with dubious constitutionality that could violate rights to privacy.

Informational Privacy

Liberals and conservatives often disagree on issues of informational privacy as well. Though both perspectives value the privacy of an individual’s personal data, they sometimes disagree on where the balance between individual liberty and national security lies. Conservatives tend to be more supportive of government surveillance efforts, especially when the nation may be under threat. Liberals tend to favor stricter limits on government surveillance.

However, over the years, as technology has made sweeping data collection simple, liberals and conservatives have joined in opposing the National Security Agency’s collection of bulk data. Both ideologies support the requirement that requests for information need to be approved by the court authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (PISA), but both liberals and conservatives worry about the easy access the government may have to personal information. (For a full discussion of informational privacy and the Fourth Amendment, see Topic 3.6.)

Education and Religion

On some matters related to education and religion, conservatives want less government intrusion than liberals. For example, many parents choose to send their children to private schools, which are often associated with a religious denomination. However, they still must pay local taxes that support the public schools. A number of states provide vouchers-diversions of public funds-to these families to defray the costs of these private schools.

Conservatives argue that the freedom to choose the educational environment and curriculum of their children is fundamental. They also argue that private schools create competition for public schools which provides an incentive for public schools to improve to keep their students.

This free market approach to education is very different from the free public education value cherished by liberals, who worry that funds diverted from public schools will weaken an already challenged system. Conservatives are likewise more opposed to government interference in the practice of their religious beliefs, even when that practice may clash with federal nondiscrimination law. For example, some businesses that provide services for weddings, such as caterers and bakeries, have refused to work with same-sex couples on the grounds that doing so violates their religious beliefs. They do not deny service to same-sex couples on non-wedding related items-only those that support same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court narrowly ruled in Masterpiece Cake Shop v. Colorado Rights Commission (2017) on First Amendment grounds that the state could not compel a merchant to serve homosexual customers preparing for a same-sex wedding. In 2023, the Supreme Court again decided a case where same-sex marriage and religious protections collided. In a 6:3 decision, the Court ruled that rights of a web designer, who chose not to create content for same-sex wedding based on her religious beliefs, were protected.

Public policy at any time is a reflection of the success of liberal or conservative perspectives in political parties. When Republicans are in power, conservative policies on marketplace regulation, social services, and privacy are often voted or adjudicated into law. When Democrats are in power, they tend to promote liberal social, economic, and privacy policies.