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RealClearPolitics - Articles - Stephen Rose

Last Build Date: Sat, 05 Aug 2006 00:49:38 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

Why Class Warfare Won't Work for Democrats

Sat, 05 Aug 2006 00:49:38 -0600

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[...]