Yesterday I wrote a post griping about the supposed mystery of why so many working and middle class voters (WMC for short) have drifted into the Republican Party over the past few decades. It’s hardly a mystery, I said, and it’s not an example of people voting against their own economic interest. The problem is simple: Democrats haven’t really done much for the WMC lately, so fewer and fewer of them view Democrats as their champions. That being the case, they might as well vote for the party that promises to cut their taxes and supports traditional values.
Scott Lemieux agrees with many of the specific points I made, but nonetheless thinks I went too far with my “general framing.” His post is worth a read, and it also gives me a handy excuse to write a follow-up. This is partly to expand on some things, partly to defend myself, and partly to concede an issue or two. So in no special order, here goes:
First off, you’re really talking about the white WMC, right?
Yeah, that’s usually how this stuff is framed. As it happens, I’d argue that although the black and Hispanic WMC still firmly supports Democrats, they largely do it for noneconomic reasons these days. But that’s a subject for a different day. What we’re talking about here is mostly about the white WMC.
But has this drift toward the Republican Party even happened? Haven’t you written before that it’s a myth?
Yes I have, based on the work of Larry Bartels, who says this is solely a Southern phenomenon. However, I’ve been persuaded by Lane Kenworthy’s work that the drift is both real and national. It’s not a myth.
Lemieux says that relative to Republicans, Democrats are better than I give them credit for. What about that?
No argument there. I don’t think anyone could read this site for more than five minutes and not know what I think of the modern Republican Party.
Plus he says that Obamacare has been a big plus for the WMC. And a bunch of folks on Twitter said the same thing.
That’s a point I’ll concede. I was thinking of a few things here. First, most WMC voters already get health coverage at work, so Obamacare’s impact on them is limited. Beyond that, the Medicaid expansion was targeted at the poor, and the exchange subsidies get pretty small by the time you reach a middle-class income. But my memory was faulty on that score. A middle-class family with an income of, say, $50-60,000 still gets a pretty hefty subsidy. And of course there are other features of Obamacare that help the middle class too. I was a little too dismissive of this.
On the other hand, this is also a pretty good example of Democrats snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They stuck together unanimously to pass the bill, which was great. But ideological ambivalence had already watered it down significantly by then, and ever since Obama signed it, it seems like half the party has been running for cover lest anyone know they voted for it. If Democrats themselves can’t loudly sell their own bill as a middle class boon, it’s hardly any surprise that lots of middle-class voters don’t see it that way either.
But Democrats have done a lot of things beyond just Obamacare.
Sure, and I’ve listed them myself from time to time. But here’s the thing: folks like Lemieux and me can look at this stuff and make a case that Democrats are helping the middle class. Unfortunately, it’s mostly too abstract to register with average voters. Did the stimulus bill help the WMC? Probably, but it’s not concrete enough for anyone to feel like it helped them personally. How about the CFPB, which Lemieux mentions? I think it’s great. But if you stopped a dozen average folks on the street, not one would have the slightest inkling of what it is or whether they benefited from it. These things are just too small, too watered-down, and too sporadic to have much impact. What’s more, whatever small impact they do have gets wiped out whenever Democrats support things like the 2005 bankruptcy bill or get cold feet about repealing something like the carried interest loophole.
OK, but why did you “yadda yadda” all the genuinely big things Democrats have done for the poor?
I didn’t. I explicitly mentioned them. And this isn’t some kind of shell game over definitions of “poor” and “working class.” After all, no one ever asks why the poor have drifted away from the Democratic Party, even though they presumably have social views that are similar to the WMC. You know why? Because they haven’t drifted away. And why is that? Because Democrats have done stuff for them.
That’s the whole point here. The WMC feels like Democrats do stuff for the poor, but not for them. And there’s a lot of truth to that.
But what can Democrats do? Republicans block every proposal they ever make.
I’m not blaming them for that. Politics is politics. And I’m not ignoring the fact that Dems stand up against Republicans all the time. They do. Nor is this an exercise in “both sides do it.” Obviously Republicans are far more slavishly devoted to the interests of corporations and the rich than Democrats.
Hell, I don’t even personally oppose every manifestation of the neoliberal policy evolution of the post-70s Democratic Party. Some of it I support. I’m a fairly moderate, neoliberalish squish myself most of the time. If you care about evidence in the policymaking process, the evidence is pretty strong that some lefty dreams just don’t make sense.
Nonetheless, the corporate drift of the Democratic Party since the 80s is simply a matter of record. Lemieux and I can toss out lists of small-ball Democratic accomplishments all day long, but the vast majority of low-information voters have never heard of them or don’t think they really do them any good. Maybe they’re mistaken or misguided, but that’s the way it is.
If Democrats want to regain the support of the WMC, they have to consistently unite behind stuff that benefits the WMC in very simple, concrete ways. Democrats do that on abortion, for example, and everyone knows where they stand even if they don’t win all their battles. It’s the same way with economic policy. Even if they don’t win all or most of their battles, they need to unite behind real programs for the middle class; they need to talk about them loudly; they need to stop diluting their message by taking the side of the plutocrats whenever it’s convenient; and they have to keep it up for decades.
Maybe the reality of modern politics prevents this. But if that’s the case, then it’s time to stop navel-gazing about why the WMC has drifted away from the Democrats. The answer is staring us all in the face.