By Jacob S. Hacker
Having just finished a book entitled The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families, Health Care, and Retirement-And How You Can Fight Back, I would guess that Anne Kim, Adam Solomon, and Jim Kessler (hereafter “KSK”) will accuse me of peddling a “message of misery.” My defense is the same one offered by Elizabeth Warren and John Halpin: I think political candidates and leaders should offer a message of truth. And the truth is that, after a generation in which more and more economic risks have been shifted onto the shoulders of hardworking middle-class Americans, the middle class is perilously insecure and palpably in need of a real agenda for economic change.
KSK don’t really dispute this reality–though they do make the common mistake of underplaying the risks inherent in the dynamism of our economy. They write, for example, that the median income is “nearly $80,000 for two-earner prime age households”–which is indeed what the data show. But that data, like all of the economic statistics they cite, are directly at odds with their own emphasis on the dynamic experience and forward-looking expectations of the middle class. That’s because these data are based on simple cross-sectional analyses of family income at a single point in time. If we instead look at family incomes using over-time studies, what we find is that middle-class Americans today are increasingly riding the economic roller coaster once reserved for the working poor, their pre-tax incomes rising and falling fully three times more violently than did middle-class incomes in the early 1970s. To take just one simple statistic, over a ten year period, families on average can expect their income in their worst year to be less than a quarter of their income in their best year–a dramatic shift toward instability since the 1970s. That means that a family with $80,000 in its richest year will, on average, have less than $20,000 in its poorest. It is surely a mistake to forget that Americans aspire to climb the economic ladder, and often do climb it. But it is just as much of a mistake to forget that Americans also fear falling from the economic ladder, and often do fall from it. Indeed, behavioral economics suggests that aversion to loss is often a more potent predictor of attitudes and behavior than attraction to gain.
All that said, I am completely in agreement on KSK’s first two points: Democrats have a middle-class problem, and it’s not just due to any disadvantages they have on cultural or national security issues. Among white middle-class voters, Democrats have been getting creamed. At the same time, class stratification in voting–with lower-income voters siding with the Democrats, and higher-income voters siding with Republicans–is stronger than in the past, not weaker. And there’s some evidence that voters are more motivated by economic issues in their voting decisions than they were in the past, too. Whatever the exact reasons for the Democrats’ middle-class deficit, it’s not a reflection of a new electoral world in which class no longer matters and cultural and security issues always trump economic concerns. As Ruy Teixeira and I put it in a piece we’re writing for the American Prospect, Democrats are, quite simply, losing on home court.
It’s when KSK move to their prescriptions that I find myself unmoved. They present their ideas as a bold break with Democratic orthodoxy, but to my mind, their message and its policy recommendations are utterly conventional. I am tempted to say that if a message of middle-class opportunity based on a bevy of targeted tax cuts for tuition and the like were an effective strategy, John Kerry would currently be sitting in the White House.
In truth, criticizing the economic program of the Democrats is like criticizing the plot of Cats–there’s no there there. In typically incoherent fashion, the Party has oscillated between defense of existing programs, which are increasingly threadbare, and embrace of fiscal probity über ales, which, whatever its economic merits, is a losing political strategy. Sometimes we hear about inequality, a problem that, frankly, resonates deeply with few middle-class voters. Sometimes we hear about Wal-Mart and the minimum wage, which aren’t bad subjects for a larger conversation but hardly substitute for an economic program. Amid all the hand-wringing and strategizing about messages and narratives, the fundamental problem consistently gets missed: Democrats need to articulate an underlying economic philosophy that not only motivates and clarifies what they say, but drives what they do in office. You can’t build a frame without a foundation.
As a starting point for such a philosophy, KSK’s emphasis on opportunity is appealing. But standing alone, it simply cannot bear the weight that they put on it. Yes, Americans have a deep faith in opportunity, but they are also deeply fearful about losing their economic security. (When opportunity-loving Americans were asked in 2005 whether they were “more concerned with the opportunity to make money in the future, or the stability of knowing that your present sources of income are protected,” 62 percent favored stability and just 29 percent favored opportunity.) And the folks who are most worried about their economic security are precisely those who have climbed up the ladder, not those stuck at the bottom–the folks who have chips to lose, not those who are trying to break into the game. More important, to treat the ends of security and opportunity as somehow in conflict is to miss the boat entirely. Economic security is the foundation of economic opportunity, and the erosion of the middle-class security is the greatest barrier today between American families and the American Dream.
In short, Democrats need to speak to both the fears and the hopes of the middle class. And here I agree with KSK’s critique. When Democrats talk about security they tend to focus on the amelioration of financial disaster. But a much more positive way to talk about security is as a means for families to get ahead. Just as businesses and entrepreneurs are encouraged to invest in economic growth by basic protections against financial risk (like limited liability for corporations and bankruptcy protections), so adequate insurance encourages workers and families to invest in their future. The worker who fears being laid off at any moment may be more productive in the short run. But in the long run, insecure workers tend to underinvest in specialized training; they are more reluctant to change jobs; they try to minimize their sense of job commitment to protect themselves against psychological loss. Similarly, the family barely scraping by may work more hours; but in the long run, insecure families are not going to be able to make the investments in education and other keys to their future that they should. Security enhances opportunity, and one of the things that government does best–or at least once did best, with Social Security, Medicare, the GI Bill, and a whole host of other measures that created and secured the middle class–is provide basic financial security.
It is notable, on this score, that KSK do not use the word “government” once in their manifesto, except in detailing the Republican attack. But any successful economic agenda will have to articulate a positive role for government. I don’t mean by this that Democrats should talk about government in general, which is never a wise course, just as talking about the economy is never as effective as talking about actual people who experience its ups and downs. I mean that Democrats should talk about the concrete things that government can do to provide security and enhance opportunity. I have outlined my own preferred roster of concrete steps in my book. But the point is that Democrats have to think beyond the next election and begin to articulate the rationale for enduring policies that help Americans deal with the new economic insecurity while anchoring the positive identity of the Democratic Party for decades to come.
With this approach, the Democrats’ position will be simple: providing security to expand opportunity. The Republicans, in contrast, will be offering only more of the same–more risk, more attacks on existing sources of security, more promises that the free-market and tax cuts will magically right all ills. Given the choice, most Americans will embrace an “insurance and opportunity society” in which they have the security to reach for the future over an “ownership society” in which they are ever more at risk. And with the home court advantage back, the Democrats’ electoral prospects will brighten considerably, whatever the state of play on cultural and national security issues.
Jacob S. Hacker is Professor of Political Science at Yale and a Fellow at the New America Foundation. His most recent book is The Great Risk Shift: The Assault on American Jobs, Families, Health Care, and Retirement-And How You Can Fight Back. His 2005 book with Paul Pierson, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, is now available in paperback with a new afterword.
By Jacob S. Hacker