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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Does the Middle Class Know Its Interests?

Here is the beginning of an article I just published in The American Prospect‘s excellent special report on “Bush’s War on the Middle Class”. You can read the entire article here and access other articles from the special report here.
It’s getting harder and harder to be middle class. As a result of the Bush administration’s relentless tax-cutting agenda — designed to limit the ability of government to deliver services — the lives of middle-class Americans are becoming more difficult and less secure, in areas from health care to pensions to public schools. But, in the immortal words of Bob Dole, “Where’s the outrage?” Why have these attacks not provoked a greater political reaction? And what chance is there for a progressive middle-class response to these attacks in the future?
This lack of outrage seems particularly odd because the middle class is aware of the attacks upon it. People in general, and the middle class in particular, believe that Bush-administration policies have favored the interests of large corporations and the rich over those of ordinary people and the middle class. An early January CBS News poll found that, by huge margins, the public thought that Bush administration policies favor the rich (57 percent) rather than the middle class (11 percent), the poor (1 percent), or all groups the same (25 percent). By a nearly 2-to-1 margin (58 percent to 30 percent), the public said that George W. Bush is more interested in protecting the interests of large corporations than those of ordinary Americans. And by almost 3 to 1 (64 percent to 23 percent), the public thought big business has too much influence, rather than the right amount, on the Bush administration.
Research repeatedly shows that middle-class views track those of the general public very closely, both because of the middle class’ large size and its political positioning (between the poor and the rich). But we don’t have to merely assume that the middle class shares these jaundiced views of the Bush administration’s policy bias. Where available, data for middle-class subgroups within surveys confirm this. In an April 2003 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 57 percent overall said that Bush’s proposals on cutting taxes favored the rich, while 11 percent said that they favored the middle class. These figures are almost exactly the average of the two income breaks that best capture the middle class ($30,000 to $50,000 and $50,000 to $75,000). In the same poll, 61 percent thought that large business corporations had too much influence on the Bush administration, compared with just 8 percent who thought that they had too little — again, almost exactly the average of the two middle-class income brackets. And in a March 2004 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 67 percent overall thought that Bush cared more about protecting the interests of large business corporations, compared with 26 percent who thought that he cared more about protecting the interests of ordinary working people — almost exactly the result for the middling education category of “some college.”
Is it possible, though, that the middle class recognizes that the Bush plan doesn’t serve it well but still believes, on balance, that the policy’s relative priorities are the right ones? That is most emphatically not the case, either. The middle class consistently and overwhelmingly rejects the prioritizing of tax cuts over social investment. In the April 2003 ABC News poll, the two middle-class income brackets averaged 70-percent support for spending more on domestic programs — like education, health care, and Social Security — and 28-percent support for cutting taxes. These respondents also said, by 64 percent to 27 percent, that cutting taxes is more important to Bush than providing services, while, by 68 percent to 30 percent, they said that providing services is more important for them personally than cutting taxes. Indeed, no matter how the general trade-off between tax cuts and social investment is framed, middle-class priorities seem consistently skewed toward investment and away from tax cuts.

17 comments on “Does the Middle Class Know Its Interests?

  1. shaister on

    I have bad news. People don’t respond to polls with the truth–they give what they think the right answer should be.
    Chris Rock joked that people say they’ll vote for a black president, but won’t actually do it.
    I used to work for an environmental company, and we’d get great data about people saying they were willing to pay a tiny bit more for environmentally friendly products, but when most people go to the store, they buy what’s cheapest.
    Polls that say Americans favor investment over tax cuts show that Americans know what’s better for the country. But when we have to pick between our present and our future, a lot of people go for instant gratification.

  2. Pudentilla on

    Perhaps national elections are not about class consciousness. Perhaps they are cultural rituals about the vision of community identity the different parties/politicians offer. Thus, members of the middle class who feel alienated from the vision offered by one party will vote for the other, regardless of the economic and fiscal consequences. (Or, maybe the problem is that economists can’t quantify and thus can’t measure the value a citizen puts on his/her sense of belonging to and sharing in a communal identity. If they could, we wouldn’t talk about voting against economic interests.)
    There are individuals who will surely never vote for Democrats because democratic ideology shapes the vision the party offers in a fundamental way. I am a citizen who would rarely vote for a Republican because of this limiting effect ideology has on a general social vision. There are, however, a significant number of people (indeed the majority) who would prefer not walk off Mr. Bush’s cliff and who are not yellow dog Democrats.
    Democrats need to articulate a social vision (consistent with their ideological principles) that is attractive to those whose economic interests would be best served by a Democratic administration.

  3. Steve Cohen on

    Social programs, schmocial programs.
    The first step for Democrats who want to get right on this issue is to see the world squarely as it is:
    The regime of “Free trade” now defines as legitimate the importation of people to perform jobs at a lower wage rate than those currently doing the job. So even if your job cannot be moved to India, they may be able to bring in someone from overseas to perform it at a lower wage than you earn. “Jobs Americans don’t want” is in many instances a cover for “Jobs Americans don’t want at the rates we want to pay.” I’m not anti-immigration per se. There are some jobs that Americans don’t want. There are sometimes real labor shortages. But what we’re seeing now is the enshrining of a regime to lower American wages that dares in fact to trumpet this as a good thing – regardless of unemployment levels – while enriching the regime itself beyond its former wildest dreams.
    Until you see through this self-serving bullshit, for which the high-tech and other corporations importing labor have a large PR budget, you will be lapping around the edges of the problem, not solving it.
    Now, you may say, “the middle class needs to fall off their high perch, they still have too many SUV’s and wide-screen TVs, etc.” Perhaps so. Perhaps the leveling of world-wide wages is ultimately a good thing. But Democrats should not be talking this kind of talk while the multinational corporate elite is enriching themselves on the backs of the poor and middle class. One day, the leaner, meaner Indian managerial elite will eat their American cousins for lunch. If American salaries really must fall, shared sacrifice should be the order of the day.
    Over and over we see people with no skills other than the ability to look at a balance sheet putting x’s through the names of the high-salary employees, firing them, and then seeing how the company will run. This is mindlessness, not savvy business. All too often the corporation winds up hiring the same people back as consultants.
    Democrats who want to call the middle class stupid for not seeing the realities should look first at the blinders they’re wearing.

  4. Ken on

    First, thank you Steve and Eldon for the compliments. I’m just a political obsessive, and armchair strategist, but if the DNC wants to pay me to do this I won’t object. Here’s another idea, no doubt much more controversial than the first three, but worth mulling I think.
    Nationalize or heavily tax all natural resouce extraction on public lands, whether we’re talking about oil and natural gas, mining, timber, whatever (all of these are heavily Republican interests, by the way). As it stands now, you and I are in many cases *SUBSIDIZING* corporations to plunder our public lands. At the very least, they should be paying us for the oppurtunity, and perhaps we should consider socializing it altogether, but in either case the American people would enjoy billions in revenues every year as a result, which could be used to for health care, education, or (along the lines of the Alaska model) a check (perhaps several hundred dollars or more) mailed out to every American taxpayer. Nationalization of any industry where there is a strong creative and qualitative dimension (read: consumer goods) is usually a bad idea, because there is little incentive for innovation, but oil is oil and timber is timber, so there’s really no need for innovation. I can think of nothing that would make the GOP more ballistic than this idea, which is reason enough to consider it, but Americans only object to socialism when it doesn’t benefit them. Who would object to receiving a nice little check from the government every year? “Libertarian” Alaskans certainly don’t.

  5. Heckraiser on

    I refuse to believe that stupidity is the cause of Bush’s 50%. It’s the cause of his 25% percent, of course, but no more.
    Saying that people are stupid is spreading hopelessness and defeatism, as well as just plain giving people an excuse to sit on the couch when we should be volunteering.
    The reason that we only have 50% is indeed our own stupid fault, and we should be coming up with solutions. Someday I’ll make a full list of the stupidest things done by liberals, but here’s a small off the top of my head:
    1. Handing over religion to the republicans
    2. Handing over nationalism to the enemy
    3. Attacking each other (Yes, I’m guilty of this)
    4. Defeatism
    5. Spectating and talking to each other as if we’re in some cafe, rather than a battlefield
    Talking about #5, Kerry isn’t reading us so let’s not give him advice, let’s think of ways we, the activists, can be more effective.

  6. Alan on

    Things aren’t bad enough yet for the middle class. As long as they get their big-screen TVs, MP3 players, SUVs they don’t pay attention enough to realize what Bush is doing to them. On every issue. If they did, it is hard to see how Bush would have a 10% approval.
    Instead, they are primed for the crap that Fox News shoves at them — and particularly when it comes at them from sources other than Fox News.
    55% STILL think Saddam had WMDs and provided substantial support to 9/11 terrorists? Until you can explain that all your polls about Bush’s approval or elect numbers are meaningless.

  7. megapotamus on

    Or could it be that when people are asked about support for “social programs” they know they are “supposed” to support them, otherwise they are evil, vicious, mean-spirited, fascistic… dare we say, Republicans; but when they see their tax bill and what the government manages to provide even under conditions of budget surplus… well, it just doesn’t seem like fair exchange? Nope, couldn’t be that. 😉

  8. Paul C on

    Part of any program to help the middle class has to include increased aid to state and local governments for police, fire and, most importantly, education. The middle class is being hammered at the local level, where their taxes are going up and they are having to cut basic services, taking police off the beat, firemen off of shifts and teachers out of classrooms. I am a town meeting member in an affluent suburb (i.e. full of swing voters), and we are being forced to do all of this. All this while W.’s only foray into this area is the unfunded No Billionaire Left Behind Act. If Kerry can start to articulate this problem and tie it into Bush’s tax cuts, his message will resound with the middle class.

  9. Steve Cohen on

    I too, will take my hat off to Ken.
    Most of the middle class people I interact with who are independents, neither Democrats, nor Republicans, generally think that neither party represents them. They think the Republicans represent the superrich and the corporations and the Democrats represent the poor. No one, they think, represents them.
    And you know something? In an economic sense, they’re right. As a 51-year old computer programmer hanging onto employment by the slenderest thread, it’s pretty clear that the corporations are taking aim at the middle class. Outsourcing is the sexy issue now, but just as bad if not worse is the importation of people from lower wage countries to do our jobs for less, something they haven’t tried (at least not yet) in unionized industries. One recent report mentions not only the computer professions but also nursing and teaching. The Republicans accept this wholeheartedly and the Democrats are still too tied to corporate campaign contributions to offer any but the weakest remedies. Job training won’t cut it. Futzing with the tax code is nipping around the edges. Corporations always find a way to evade taxes.
    So the only appeals the Dems can make to the middle class are on social issues or foreign policy issues. On the economic front they’re fighting with one hand tied behind their back.

  10. Alan on

    Let’s face it folks. The reason Bush has 50% support is because there are a lot of STUPID people in America. They vote on racial resentments,think they are going to be rich so that they identify with people who are trying to hurt them. They believe that people who are rich must be better people than they are. They think all rich people worked hard for their money instead of using crony connections to make it. The sooner we realize this the better we can understand why a certified incompetent is President of the U.S.

  11. Eldon on

    Ken, who are you? You should immediately take the place of much-too-long-in-place Terry McAuliffe, Mr. anti-bold himself.

  12. Ken on

    I know this is my third post on this thread, but now I feel as though I have some sort of responsibility to suggest how Kerry might err on the side of vision, rather than caution.
    1)Portable, basic health insurance for all, to be paid for in part with massive cuts in the federal bureacracy. A least a part of the reason jobs are moving offshore, and not being created at the rate they ought to be, is the onerous burden of providing health care coverage for employees here in the US. There’s a great deal to say about this issue that has already been said more eloquently elsewhere, but the point is that Kerry should aim for a home run on this one, selling it as a “jobs creation” issue, and promising that there will be huge cuts in the federal government to help pay for it, cuts which I might add are extremely popular. Tony Blair has promised to cut 50k jobs in Whitehall, and the Lib Dems (despite being the true liberal party in Britian) have talked about going even further, eliminating whole ministries. There are many, many thousands of unecessary workers in the federal government, and the American people know it. Kerry should be so bold as to take on both of these issues simultaneously. He’s probably too in bed with the unions to take the risk, but it would demonstrate enormous political courage, would be extremely, and make great economic sense.
    2) A Manhattan Project on alternative energies, and energy independence. Kerry has proposed significant increases for funding of R&D in this area, but the American people understand the geopolitical relationship between our dependence on oil and the mess in the Middle East, and are ready to see their taxes increased to pay for energy independence by (say) the year 2012. The technologies we develop will be (at least for a time) proprietary, leased to other countries, and the initiative will ultimately pay for itself.
    3)Significant research in funding for basic science and technology. This will not wholly compensate for the loss of high-wage, high-skill tech jobs overseas, but it will help to provide the basis for the next generation of good paying technology jobs. The fact is (as a NY Times story pointed out yesterday) America is falling behind in both basic science, and technological development, and industry doesn’t have the cash or the will to do the kind of bold, risky science that needs to be done in order for us to move ahead again. Kerry should point out Bush’s gross neglect in this area, and his relentless politicization of science, and propose largescale increases in funding.
    I have other ideas, but these strike me as a pretty darn good place to start.

  13. Ken on

    I would add to my last comment that I have sympathy for Kerry and Kerry’s people. The economic situation is so opaque, and the fiscal situation so smells of impending doom, I suspect it seems best to them to err on the side of caution in terms of advancing any major proposals. Unfortunately, that’s not likely to help bring anxious, struggling middle class people on board the good ship Kerry. Perhaps it’s time for Kerry to err on the side of vision, rather than caution, even if that vision turns out to be the wrong won (that strategy seems to be working out quite well for Bush).

  14. Ken on

    It’s not that they don’t know that Bush co’s policies are adversely affecting their own household bottom line, but rather that Democrats have yet to offer a compelling, realistic alternative. Middle class Americans *are* concerned about seeing their jobs offshored, for instance, but they recognize all the blather about “retraining” to be mostly just that, blather. What exactly do you tell the 55yo software developer with an MS from MIT to retrain for, nursing? What do Democrats *really* intend to do about the spiraling inflation in health care and education costs without hitting the middle class with huge tax increases? What do Democrats intend to do about the spiraling cost of housing, particularly on the two coasts? Middle class people have little trouble with the idea of rolling back Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, but they’re generally smart enough to recognize that it will hardly begin to pay down the debt, let alone pay for any ambitious new initiatives. It’s not so much a lack of outrage but a lack of clear alternatives, and that’s not their fault.

  15. zeke on

    In partial answer to the question, I’d say Bush is getting 50% because Kerry has not hammered him on this issue. And he should. I have a simple slogan for Mr. Kerry — Restore Tax Fairness. The simple rhetorical trick of putting himself on the side of fairness and working families will make the Republicans apoplectic.


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