By Ruy Teixeira
I can’t say I consider the Kim, Solomon and Kessler (KSK) reply to be very responsive to the various criticisms that have been made of their argument. Indeed, KSK’s response to being taken to task for being one-sided and caricaturing their opponents is to offer more of the same. I note the somewhat exasperated tones of the titles of Bill Galston’s (“A Focus on Insecurity Is Not a Catalogue of Woes“) and Jacob Hacker’s (“Focusing on Security Need Not Be Pessimistic“) Round 2 comments. I share their exasperation. Evidently, the challenge to walk down the street and chew gum at the same time has proved too daunting for KSK.
Let me illustrate my pessimistic (that word again!) assessment of KSK’s reply by considering how their reply matches up with points I made in my Round 1 critique.
- I argued that some of their statistics obscure more than they clarify about who is in the middle class and the nature of their economic experience.
KSK here are content to reiterate the data from their initial piece, along with a few additional factoids in the same vein. But they do not really answer the point I raised: if exhibit “A” on the Democrats’ middle class problem is their terrible performance among white middle class voters–which they appear to define as having between $30,000 and $75,000 in household income–doesn’t their focus on married, prime-age households comport poorly with their own definition of the problem? This is both because the majority of white voters within the $30,000-$75,000 range are either not married or not prime-age or both and because, given that the median income of married, prime-age households is $70,000 (presumably higher among whites), around half of white married, prime-age voters are probably above the $75,000 cutoff.
Starting from these observations, let’s break this down a little further.
A. One implication is that KSK appear to want to push up the income cutoff above $75,000 to include more of these married, prime-age households. Fine. But let’s keep in mind that only one-third of white voters have incomes above $75,000 (data here and below from the 2004 NEP exit poll).
B. Let’s say we do include those white voters with $75,000-$100,000 within the white middle class. Given what KSK say has been the Democrats’ gloomy, security-obsessed, turn-off-those-doing-relatively-well e conomic message, you would think the Democrats would do much worse among this segment of the white middle class than among the poorer segments of this group. Not really. Kerry lost whites between $75,000 and $100,000 by 59-40. But he lost whites between $30,000 and $50,000 by a very similar 58-41.
C. KSK are at pains to focus our attention away from the $44,000 overall median income figure onto higher figures for various subgroups. But there are some very important subgroups for whom this is a reasonable approximation. For example, 53 percent of white non-college-educated voters have household incomes under $50,000, from which I infer that the median income of this group is somewhere close to…..$44,000. (Of course, KSK would point out that this group contains many people who are not married and/or not prime-age. True–but, by definition, they all vote!)
This is important because Democrats have been doing particularly badly among white non-college educated voters with some purchase on the middle class-voters who live modestly and whose skill set might reasonably make them feel a bit insecure in today’s economic environment. For example, among whites between $30,000 and $50,000, Democrats lost the non-college educated by a whopping 62-38, while splitting the college-educated evenly.
D. KSK can reasonably claim that $44,000 is not a good figure to use when thinking about some parts of a broadly-defined middle class. I would never argue otherwise. But it is less reasonable to conclude that, because some white middle-class voters live in households that pull down, say, $70,000 a year, they are the “real” white middle class. Nor is it reasonable to claim that these voters, by dint of their income level, are not particularly affected by problems-dare I say insecurity?– around health care, retirement, education and childcare expenses, work-family stress, income instability and generally keeping their middle-class lifestyle afloat in choppy economic seas. A household income of $70,000 does not strike me as a sufficient economic cushion to ward off all these worries, especially when you’re attempting to raise a family with all the attendant expenses.
In light of these data, the sensible thing is to view the middle class, including the white middle class, as quite diverse. Some are married. Some are not. Some are prime-age. Some are not. Some make $40,000 a year. Some make considerably more. The Democrats are doing poorly among white middle-class voters both at lower levels, where economic vulnerability is most obvious, and at higher levels. This is a big problem, whose dimensions are not well-defined by dwelling on the fact that married, prime-age households have a median income of $70,000.
- I argued that they incorrectly represent the economic views of the middle class by focusing only on their sense of personal optimism.
I do not believe KSK attempted to refute this point, so my characterization of middle class economic views stands as initially made:
Americans, including white middle class Americans, are optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. That is, they are optimistic about their personal economic situation and believe they will be able to get ahead, even as they pessimistically recognize that the workings of today’s economy make their struggle, and that of people like them, much more difficult than it should be.
- I argued that they incorrectly counterpose the concepts of security and opportunity and in doing so come up with an economic message that won’t make a great deal of sense to the middle class.
KSK did not do a satisfactory job of replying to this point, as Galston and Hacker forcefully argued. And, as both Galston and Hacker noted, the close connection between some measure of economic security and taking advantage of economic opportunity continues to elude them or, at any rate, not to interest them much. I’d say “providing security to expand opportunity”, to use the capsule characterization offered by Hacker and myself, stands as a superior alternative to KSK’s one-sided approach.
- I argued that the policies they propose seem poorly suited to the actual economic situation and the actual economic views of the middle class.
On this point, KSK punted but assured us that Third Way is hard at work on a set of policies that really are appropriate to the situation of the middle class. Good. There is room for plenty of toilers in that particular vineyard. But I worry that their one-sided conception of the middle class’s economic situation and the appropriate approach to reaching middle-class voters will lead them toward, not away from, the grab-bag of tax breaks offered in their initial contribution to this discussion. We shall see.
Let me close by saying that, if I have seemed a bit hard on KSK, it is because I agree so strongly that opportunity is a central part of the Democrats’ message. Put bluntly, people want to get ahead. But the one-sided argument KSK present runs the risk of making it harder, not easier, to incorporate opportunity and optimism into the Democrats’ message by making the whole idea sound kind of goofy. Goofy because, as they articulate the idea, it so clearly departs from many aspects of the middle class’s current economic situation and views. Goofy because they are proffering their only-opportunity-and-optimism-please approach in a context where Democrats are the out party trying to oust the incumbents in a time of considerable economic discontent. Goofy because, as John Halpin points out, the Democrat in the recent past who most successfully reached the middle class with an economic message–Bill Clinton–wasn’t afraid to talk about the economic insecurity and problems of the middle class, even as he put forward an optimistic vision of how these problems could be addressed and middle-class opportunity enhanced.
Now there was someone who could definitely walk down the street and chew gum at the same time! I suggest we emulate him.
Ruy Teixeira is a joint fellow at the Center for American Progress and the Century Foundation. He is the author of five books – including The Emerging Democratic Majority (with John Judis) – and over 100 articles – including the recent series, “The Politics of Definition”, with John Halpin.