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Why Class Warfare Won't Work for Democrats

By Stephen Rose

It is an article of faith among many liberal Democrats that a substantial percentage of people who vote for Republicans are willfully voting against their own class interests. The Republican Party has traditionally been the party of capital, they reason, while the Democratic Party has long identified itself with the interests of workers. Most people are workers. Therefore, a majority of voters should be Democrats. To win elections, this argument holds, Democrats should keep the focus on pocketbook issues and not let Republicans change the subject with disingenuous appeals to blue-collar patriotism or cultural morality, or simplistic calls for a less meddlesome government.

Proponents of this logic -- most notably Thomas Frank, author of What's The Matter With Kansas? -- prescribe for Democrats an approach to politics that might best be called class-interest populism. Reduced to its essence, it mixes an anti-corporate economic message ("They are raking in profits while you are struggling to pay the bills!") with full-throated support for business regulations and expansive government protections for the working class.

Yet the core argument in the liberal case for this sort of class-interest populism is deeply flawed in at least two important respects:

First, it has been well established in studies of voting behavior that people no longer choose candidates primarily on the basis of pocketbook issues, as they did when the New Deal coalition dominated national politics. Instead, now that the industrial-era working class has been subsumed into a broader middle class, voters tend to balance personal experience (such as the party identification of family and friends), a sense of self-interest (however defined), and a concern for society as a whole.

Second, as I demonstrated in an analysis I conducted for the Progressive Policy Institute, even if people did vote primarily on pocketbook issues, the group that could reasonably be categorized as having a clear, class-based interest in supporting the policies most people associate with the Democratic Party would probably comprise less than one-quarter of the electorate.

It is an occupational hazard for those with big hearts to overestimate the share of the population that is teetering near poverty. That is especially easy to do using yearly income data, because annual figures can be deceptive. Graduate students are likely to report very low incomes for a few years while they are in school, for example. But they should not be categorized with those in true economic distress, because their condition is only temporary. Workers who are not in school have fluctuating incomes, too.

Widespread distress? A single-year snapshot of Census data can show almost 40 percent of the U.S. population making less than $40,000. On paper, that amounts to widespread economic distress. It suggests that something close to a majority of Americans may have a very direct personal stake in supporting social safety net programs for the poor -- the programs that the Democratic Party is most commonly identified with in public opinion surveys -- because they themselves might need government assistance at some point in their lives.

But because people's incomes fluctuate from year to year, the more accurate way to measure their economic wellbeing is to look at their average earnings over a longer period, for instance, 15 years. Analyzed that way, the data show that about 23 percent of adults in their prime working years have average family incomes of $40,000 or less. This is the segment of the population with the most direct interest in social safety net programs for people in economic distress. That's because, in a 15-year period, people usually experience several years in which their incomes are 25 percent below or 25 percent above their longer-term averages. People with 15- year average incomes of $40,000 or less will thus typically go through periods where their incomes dip to the $30,000 range -- the income level at which a family of three typically becomes eligible for public assistance programs.

Democrats may protest the suggestion that they only stand for social safety net programs for the poor; they may rightly argue that their whole social and economic platform would benefit most Americans. But the hard truth is that most Americans simply don't perceive themselves to have class interests that strongly align them with one party or the other. That is, they don't believe that the direct pocketbook benefits of either party's policies are so overwhelming as to outweigh all other political considerations.

True, on a wide range of issues, Democratic policies have unquestionably had a direct impact on workers' lives -- the 40-hour workweek, overtime pay, and sick leave, to name a few. But most of those policies have long since become widely accepted. They go largely unchallenged, even in Republican administrations, so the Democratic Party reaps little benefit for having championed them in the first place, even though it is still perceived to be the party of business regulation.

The same is true for America's flagship retirement security programs, Social Security and Medicare. Both were originally Democratic policies, but, like workplace standards, they have become such an integral part of the American social contract that voters do not definitively credit one political party for managing them better than the other.

None of this is meant to suggest that middle-income voters don't have a legitimate beef with Republican economic policies. They certainly do. The Bush tax cuts have been loaded in favor of the wealthy, who have also been reaping a disproportionate share of the economy's growth, while earnings for individuals in the middle have stagnated. Inflation has for the most part been under control, but soaring health care premiums, out-of-pocket health costs, and rising college tuitions are eating up an increasing share of consumers' disposable income. As companies react to fierce global competition by shedding health and pension costs, there has been a very real shift of economic risk to working Americans.

Aspirational outlook. Democrats, of course, must speak to these worries. But they must recognize that today's working Americans have a very different economic outlook from the blue-collar workers of yesteryear. As the occupational structure of the economy has shifted from manual to office and highskilled service jobs, workers seem less likely to feel like victims of the economy and more likely to view themselves as beneficiaries of it. Their outlook appears to have become more aspirational and less infused with class grievance or resentment. Instead of demanding specific workplace protections from government, they tend to put their faith in private-sector economic growth.

Democrats should certainly not conclude from all this that the party ought to abandon the interests of people in economic distress. On the contrary, the Democratic Party should continue to advance its proud tradition of expanding economic opportunity for everyone in society. Nor should Democrats shy away from arguing in the coming election that the Bush administration's economic policies have been stacked in favor of the wealthy at a time when the incomes of wealthy households are already rising substantially faster than the incomes of everyone else. But the party cannot let that critique be all that it offers. It must also modernize its message and agenda based on a sound understanding of American society as it really is.

Easy answers afforded by an outdated view of a blue-collar world inhibit Democrats from developing imaginative new policies that might actually help the party build a new majority coalition for the 21st century. The great question in the post-industrial economy is not how government can restrain business power or insulate workers from the rigors of competition, but how to equip workers with new policy tools for economic success. If Democrats offer the right package of proposals to address that need -- and wrap those proposals in an optimistic economic message -- there's a good chance voters will show their approval.

Stephen Rose, a labor economist, is a visiting fellow at Third Way, a Washington, D.C.-based strategy center for progressives.

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