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Economic Interests and the Democratic Party

Now, if we could just get people to vote their economic interests, rather than cultural convictions, all our problems would be solved. That's an article of faith among many Democrats. According to Stephen Rose, an innovative economist whose work is always worth paying close attention to, that's not a warranted assumption. In reality, the relationship between economic interests and inclination to vote Democratic, even when you take cultural and values issues out of the equation, is far more complicated than many on the center-left are willing to admit. As Rose puts it in the introduction of his new paper, "Talking about Social Class: Are the Economic Interests of the Majority of Americans with the Democratic Party?":

In all [the post-election] discussion, it is tacitly assumed that the majority of people have a natural home in the non-Republican party. The failure of the Democrats to capitalize on this advantage is explained in several ways. First, they are accused of having sold their souls in order to attract campaign contributions. Second, the press is biased and does not report the true effect of Republican policies. Third, the inside-the-Beltway mentality of Democratic campaign consultants has blinded them to obvious appeal of a populist approach.

Perhaps, we need to consider the alternative that the majority of people do not have basic economic interests to vote Democratic. While there have been many presentations on how people vote by education, income, and occupation, few have made careful arguments about what each division means in terms of tying interests to politics. For example, some have defined those without a four-year college degree as being working class and presumably with interests to support Democrats. To date, the discussion about defining economic interests is similar to the one defining pornography—hard to put into words but you know it when you see it. With respect to pornography, the courts have turned to community standards in deciding specific cases. We need to do at least as much in defining interests in order to make good strategic decisions.

It is an occupational hazard of those with big hearts to overestimate the share of the population that is economically distressed. In their desire to generate public attention and support to expand public policies, they argue that the system is “broken” and needs repair (e.g., candidate Edwards’ speeches about the two Americas). But, it makes a big difference whether the share of the population in need is 15, 35, or 50 percent. If it is at the high end of the range, then one would expect lots of pressure from below to meet their needs. But if it is at the low end of the range, then poor people will need allies among those who think it is morally right to take care of others in need.

Rose poses the issue sharply and, to his credit, does not flinch from the implications of the data he presents in his paper. He summarizes his conclusions thusly:

This article has been directed at looking at economic interests, trying to define them and trying to estimate the share of the population with economic interests aligned with the Democrats. If the number is as small as is indicated here, then one can’t argue that the majority have a natural home in the Democrat Party. Once this premise is dropped, another series of propositions lose much of their cogency:

* People are ill-informed;
* The media has obfuscated the truth;
* Politicians are willing to lose votes in order to satisfy their donors; and
* Political consultants (only Democratic ones) have led candidates to take losing positions.

Abandoning these premises would actually be very good for liberals. Many of them are arrogant, off-putting sentiments that have been successfully ridiculed by conservatives for their elitism. In addition, these easy answers inhibit creative analyses and the search for policies that will be support by the majority of the population. Without the crutch that the majority starts out on our side, we will be forced to face hard choices....

Liberals have a dilemma that no amount of parsing is going to help them avoid. Rightly, they are associated with public policies that support those that are less well-off, those that have faced discrimination, and those who feel the current system needs to be changed. While this is admirable, it has had the unexpected consequence of making the party seem a group of interest groups.

Liberals have relied on its identification with the “little guy” to be a unifying force based on a common self-interest. The data that are presented in this article would suggest that the number of people that directly benefit from activist state welfare policies is less than one quarter of the population. Other sectors of the population (e.g, college educated and young) have sympathies for redistributive and other progressive policies on the basis of moral values. But the support of many of these people for Democrats is not strong, and they can be swayed by fiscal and security concerns as well as various social issues. This is particularly true in light of the Republican’s four decade ideological assault on big government (‘wastes your money’), individualism (‘keep your money’), and covert racism (‘even if you want to help the poor in general, you don’t want to help welfare cheats of color’)....

In western European countries, social democratic parties are rooted in 100 years of activism and have a reservoir of support. The positive feelings towards the FDR Democratic Party are much weaker, and this is going to have to change if American liberalism is going to gain strength. It will not be an easy road and will need some very talented politicians to articulate a vision that resonates widely. It will also require some painful compromises that will alienate powerful constituencies. But we will not know how to make these arguments and compromises if we begin thinking the majority is already on our side.

A provocative conclusion indeed! I urge you to read and digest Rose's argument in full. I think it's highly unlikely that you will agree with everything Rose says, but I guarantee that it will make you think. And that's a good thing.