Current Affairs

brief presidential observations

I’ve been meaning to comment on this Brookings Institute working paper by Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowiz that I picked up from Richard Florida’s Creative Class blog. Essentially the paper observes a shift in the nature of the working class and a related shift in voting habits in presidential elections since FDR.

The Brookings Institute piece maps the significant decline of working class democratic voters, especially in the South, starting in the sixties. As I understand the argument, from FDR through JFK, there were many working class southerners with conservative ideological values that associated themselves with the Democratic party. Maybe b/c of the Civil War but also b/c Democrats represented the material interests of white working class people.

Obviously after the 60s that changed.

Democrats became aligned with the Civil Rights movement and became more generally aligned with liberal ideological values, as we all now know. Part of this lies in working class baby boomers becoming first-time college grads and gaining liberal values in the process. But the white working class remained fundamentally conservative.

The odd thing in America is that there’s clearly no reason why policies of corporate interest regarding tax laws, financial oversight, globalization, government regulation and so on should be connected to conservative social policies like gun ownership, anti-immigration, pro-life, religious schooling. In fact, as Richard Florida’s argument would tend to suggest, corporate interests might be better served by attachment to liberal social policies.

  • Florida’s research indicates a strong correlation between economic innovation and social tolerance (just name the centers of US economic innovation: are they liberal or conservative places?)
  • Corporate interests are better served by looser immigration policies allowing them to employ the best global talent
  • Since human capital is largely a function of education, it would seem that corporate interests would be best served by strong educational institutions.
  • Even things like the green movement could drive innovation (witness people racing to buy hybrids).

The only problem is the people who hold liberal social values see themselves as opposed to corporate interests, so those with corporate interests cannot possibly align themselves with liberals. On the flip side the average working class conservative would rather vote against their economic interests than against their social values.

The interesting question for me is why isn’t there a party in the US that articulates social conservative values while seeking to advance the economic interests of the working class? Why can’t you do both? It’s what the Dems did in the mid-20th century. Interestingly, there are some Republican pundits who argue this is what their party needs to do: develop economic-social programs to support the working class that still reflect conservative values.

On a more optimistic note, for Dems, Teixeria and Abramowitz suggest that

The GOP, for its part, has been more successful in connecting to white working class aspirations than to its very real economic difficulties.  There has been a tendency to deny these difficulties on the one hand and on the other to insist that the magic of the market, spurred on by tax cuts, will solve whatever minor difficulties there might be.  This reflexively anti-government approach may have reached its limits at the current time, as a restless white working class finds more and more to like in the Democrats’ economic approach.

To continue this approach going forward could create severe electoral problems for the Republicans.  Currently, they are dependent on a super-majority of the white working class to cobble together a majority coalition.  And the magnitude of the super-majority the GOP needs will only increase in the future as the white working class continues to shrink.  Moreover, as it shrinks, it is likely to become more socially liberal, as younger cohorts of the white working class replace older ones.  This makes a reliance on social issues as a counterweight to economic ones, already a faltering strategy, seem very suspect over the long run.

In short they argue that as economic conditions worsen (and children die in foreign wars), the working class will start voting pocketbooks over values. Teixeria and Abramowitz (I’d refer to them as "T & A," but you know) also note a shift in upper middle class households (earning six figures) with an increasing number of professionals with graduate education who tend toward more liberal politics (e.g. academics). This creates a new split in a traditional Republican voter base.

That said, I could very easily see Republicans developing a few conservative-based social programs to hold on to conservative working class voters. The question is how will Republican big business moderates respond to this.

In my mind the more challenging political task is to carry out this divide rather than heal it. Divide the Republicans into big business moderates and social conservatives. Divide the Dems into liberals and white, working-class advocates. Social conservatives and working class protectionists will clearly find they have a lot in common, though they might disagree on the size of government.

The liberals comprise educated professionals, non-whites, and various cultural minorities who see themselves outside of the white working class. Is it possible this group might share more with more open-minded, educated big business moderates than with the white working class?

Obviously that kind of political realignment doesn’t happen overnight. But we are in the midst of a changing economy and political landscape. There’s a reason Marx wasn’t too concerned with farmers and the peasant class. He focused on the power of the emerging working class of farmers coming to the city, right? Well, which is the emerging economic class today? Who is their party?