Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a big advocate of two robust political parties, because it’s been my experience that the worst laws pass with little or no debate. Since Schiavo, it’s also become increasingly apparent that the Republicans aren’t using their power in Washington as it should be used, even though their stand on Iraq and the larger war on terror is substantially correct. So we’re on the lookout for signs of a Democratic rebirth for all it could mean for the country.
So I eyeballed the recent critiques of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? with great interest. These are The Politics of Polarization and What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?, analyzed by Mark Schmitt and Kevin Drum.
Frank argues that the US electorate, especially the lower middle class, has shifted to the right in recent years because the Right has placed wedge issues like Gay Marriage in the center of the debate. This viewpoint is compelling to the Moveon.org/Air Hysteria/Michael Moore crowd because it reinforces a couple of ideas that are very important to them: the myth that the Left is more tolerant and diverse, and the myth that the average voter is easily confused by the political masterminds of the Right, a Machiavellian crowd with unmatched powers of persuasion.
This was all fine until somebody went to the trouble of analyzing voting patterns to see if the theory was correct. That’s what Bartels did, and this is what he found:
• Has the white working class abandoned the Democratic Party? No. White voters in the bottom third of the income distribution have actually become more reliably Democratic in presidential elections over the past half-century, while middle- and upper-income white voters have trended Republican. Low-income whites have become less Democratic in their partisan identifications, but at a slower rate than more affluent whites – and that trend is entirely confined to the South, where Democratic identification was artificially inflated by the one-party system of the Jim Crow era.
• Has the white working class become more conservative? No. The average views of low-income whites have remained virtually unchanged over the past 30 years. (A pro-choice shift on abortion in the 1970s and ‘80s has been partially reversed since the early 1990s.) Their positions relative to more affluent white voters – generally less liberal on social issues and less conservative on economic issues – have also remained virtually unchanged.
• Do working class “moral values” trump economics? No. Social issues (including abortion) are less strongly related to party identification and presidential votes than economic issues are, and that is even more true for whites in the bottom third of the income distribution than for more affluent whites. Moreover, while social issue preferences have become more strongly related to presidential votes among middle- and high-income whites, there is no evidence of a corresponding trend among low-income whites.
• Are religious voters distracted from economic issues? No. The partisan attachments and presidential votes of frequent church-goers and people who say religion provides “a great deal” of guidance in their lives are much more strongly related to their views about economic issues than to their views about social issues. For church-goers as for non-church-goers, partisanship and voting behavior are primarily shaped by economic issues, not cultural issues.
So why has the Democratic Party lost the ability to win Congressional and national elections? The white middle class has become increasingly close to the Republican Party:
On the other hand, if the idea is to appeal to a large class of white voters who have become noticeably less Democratic over the past half-century, the place to find them is in the middle and upper reaches of the income distribution. These affluent whites are more liberal on social issues than working-class whites are, and if anything they have become increasingly liberal on social issues over the past 30 years. Moreover, their views about social issues are more closely connected to partisanship and voting behavior than those of working-class whites – and they have become much more closely connected since the 1980s. Those facts suggest that “recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues” may not be such a “criminally stupid strategy” on the part of Democratic leaders (Frank 2004, 243). Indeed, it may be a testament to the success of that strategy that affluent white voters have not become even more markedly Republican, despite the fact that they (still) attach at least as much weight to economic issues as to social issues.
And to this I would add that the traditional base of the Democratic Party, industrial workers, is an increasingly small group in the US, and the tactic of replacing them with teachers’ unions aggravates the Democrats’ problem with the middle class.
In The Politics of Polarization, Galston & Kamarck argue that voters are more partisan that in the past:
It is not news that our political elites are more polarized than they were a generation ago. Less well known is a dramatic new development—a Great Sorting-Out of the electorate—that has occurred along many dimensions. Self-described liberals are much more likely to vote Democratic, and self-described conservatives for Republicans, than in the past. Party affiliation is a far greater predictor of voting behavior, as is religious observance. Blue states are bluer, red states redder, and swing states fewer than in previous cycles. Even individual counties have become increasingly polar, with far more conferring a vote of 60 percent or greater for a presidential candidate than in the past.
The initial reaction to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina vividly illustrates this new politics of polarization. Under normal circumstances, a natural disaster brings people together. Not this time. According to a Washington Post poll released September 7, 2005, 74 percent of Republicans but only 17 percent of Democrats approved of President Bush’s handling of the crisis; about two in three Republicans rated the federal government’s response as good or excellent, compared to only one in three Democrats. (Independents were more evenly divided.)
What is equally striking about the politics of polarization is that a strong plurality of Americans continue to associate themselves with the moderate center of the political spectrum. In fact, the politics of polarization is occurring against a backdrop of sustained ideological stability. In 2004, the electorate was 21 percent liberal, 34 percent conservative and 45 percent moderate. That is practically a carbon copy of the average over the past thirty years — 20 percent liberal, 33 percent conservative, and
47 percent moderate—with remarkably little variation from election to election.
And they also point out that liberal Democrats are vastly outnumbered:
With three conservatives for every two liberals, the sheer arithmetic truth is that in a polarized electorate effectively mobilized by both major parties, Democratic candidates must capture upwards of 60 percent of the moderate vote — a target only Bill Clinton has reached in recent times — to win a national election.
So why is it that the leadership of the Democratic Party wants to react to these dynamics (a shrinking Democratic base and an increasingly polarized electorate) by retreating ever more deeply into an ideological ghetto that’s hostile to the interests of the average voter?
Why indeed? We’ll address that tomorrow.