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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Poles Apart?

By Ralph Whitehead, Jr.
[CORRECTION: Stephen Rose has found an important error in my originalpost. In the following passage, the assertion in the second sentence is wrong: “Granted, $44K is not the midpoint in the income distribution for prime age households. But it isn’t too far below the midpoint of the earnings distribution for prime-age white households of a particular type: those with at least two adults, neither of whom holds a four-year college degree.” The assertion holds for ALL prime-age households in this universe, but does NOT hold for white households only. Using Steve’s methodology and age range for prime-age adults, the median earnings figure for the white households only is roughly $55,000 and the median income figure for them is $61,500. The median income figure is very close to Third Way’s median income figure for prime-age households of all races and is significantly higher than $44,000. This error obviously weakens my case for the validity of the $44K figure. The post has been edited in order to omit the passage that was affected by the error.] The topic of this roundtable is well-chosen. As all of the contributors to it have agreed, the economic posture of our party is crucial, but is now at odds with both economic reality and electoral necessity. The topic is also well-timed. If November goes well, the party can begin to shift onto offense. Then, the good news might be that our economic message will be heard. But the bad news might be that it won’t be much worth hearing.
In the borderless universe of cyberspace, this debate has spread across several websites, and the roundtable is now part of a broader discussion. So this post touches on posts elsewhere, as well as the posts so far on TDS.
Third Way’s position, as it now stands, is roughly this:
Within the party, there is an incumbent definition of the middle class: households whose incomes are close to the median for all of the country’s roughly 115 million households, $44,000. But this definition should be challenged. It underestimates the affluence of the middle class. It makes its economic circumstances seem gloomier than they are. It prompts the party to hold a view of the economic standing and outlook of the middle class that is more pessimistic than the reality. The party’s expressions of this view cause the members of the middle class to wonder what economic planet the party is living on. To solve the problem, the party should adopt a different definition of the middle class, and thus a different conception of it. Using this conception, the party will offer apter descriptions of the economic life of the middle class and apter prescriptions for improving it.
FtdsLet me begin with a note on nomenclature: “Middle class” is a charged term. The country has long viewed itself as a middle-class nation, and this implies that “middle class” is synonymous with “The majority” or “The mainstream.” So a party that is out of touch with the middle class must be out of touch with the majority. In a two-party system, this is a bad place for a party to be. Because of what “middle class” implies, and because there are divergent definitions of the term (some of them have appeared in this debate)–a country that can’t agree on a definition of “class” can’t agree on a definition of “middle class”–I’ll try to use “middle class” sparingly, in favor of blandly clinical terms that are low on connotation.
To add a little perspective to this discussion, it is useful to recognize one of the effects of economic polarization. Here, I refer not to the division between the top one percent and the other 99–a division highlighted by Paul Krugman, and with good reason–but to the divisions that now exist within the 99 percent. As Democrats, we worry about this polarization, study it, talk about it, try to make sure it gets the media attention that we think it deserves, and search for ways to lessen it. Nevertheless, we don’t always get a chance to pause and note that economic polarization has been occurring for many decades now, and has advanced to a point where the distribution is now pretty divergent. It isn’t our father’s economic ladder–wide and short, hammered into shape by The Great Compression. This has consequences for our efforts to discern the shape of the playing field. For example:
To make its case for the affluence of prime-age households, Third Way mentions a particular type of household, the household with two earners, and notes its current median income of nearly $80,000. Even after we apply Professor Hacker’s point (over 10 years, $80K will average $74K) and Professor Warren’s (on the balance sheet of a two-adult household, a topline of $74K doesn’t necessarily lead to a strong bottom line), Third Way’s two-earner households are still flusher than the prime-age households whose incomes are closer to $44,000. To put it a little differently: If you have to be on an economic rollercoaster, it’s better to take its periodic plunges from a height of $74K than $44K. Thus, what we might have here–and this suggestion is made less implicitly in Stephen Rose’s post over at The American Prospect–are voters who seem to be holding a relatively good economic hand, and don’t necessarily think it has been dealt to them by the Democratic Party.
In my view, this suggestion should be viewed as a hypothesis, not an assertion, and subjected to empirical inquiry and possibly trial-and-error, not to reflexive scorn. But, even as this particular set of households is put beneath the microscope, there are a couple of other things to bear in mind at the same time:

  1. Let’s define a two-earner household as one with two adults who both work full-time and year-round, and then briefly note a bit of its history. In 1960, at roughly the midpoint of the era of the Social Contract, TV wives like June Cleaver and Wilma Flintstone weren’t doing paid work on a full-time/full-year basis, and neither were their real-life analogues. The share of prime age households who fit our definition then was just nine percent.1
    Since then, of course, the percentage of partnered women who do paid work full-time and full-year has grown. So the two-earner household makes up a larger share of prime-age households today. But this doesn’t mean that it makes up a majority of them. Its share is roughly 30 percent. This is not a majority of prime-age households, nor does it contain a majority of the prime-age adults.

  2. During those years, as it happens, another type of household has also increased its share to 30 percent. It is a household of a different kind: It has no more than one adult earner for the simple reason that it has no more than one adult. In 1960, it was 14 percent of prime-age households.

Its share of the prime-age electorate, of course, is smaller than 30 percent, just as the two-earner share is larger than 30 percent. Still, it forms the prime-age segment of the men and women who make up what has been called Unmarried America. The adults in these households are an important–and also a growing–constituency for the Democratic Party. Their median income: roughly $30K.
Thus, a 60-percent majority of prime-age households now consists of two very different household types. The income gap between them is nearly $50,000. It’s a big and economically diverse country.
Consequently, for those who will shape the economic posture of the party, the task is not only to deal with economic polarization. It is also to deal with it in light of the distribution that is marked by this polarization. This is a hard thing to do. Recognizing the nature and degree of the difficulty is one step toward making it possible for the party to do it.
Finally, on optimism and pessimism: As Third Way says, we don’t want to be seen as the party of economic gloom and doom. Also, if we want to avoid this, we have to consider the relationship between how we describe the economy and how the electorate experiences it. (Here, Teixeira’s post offers evidence and advice.) But another relationship matters, too: the relationship between diagnosis and prescription. This is because the goal shouldn’t be to express economic optimism. If it were, George W. Bush would be our model, and Herbert Hoover our ideal. The goal should be to instill optimism. Thus, I would echo the spirit of John Halpin’s post: In describing the economic experience of a particular region or particular group, and if the evidence warrants, we should feel free to diagnose like lions. This by itself won’t brand us as Doctor Gloom-and-Doom. What will do it, however, is if we diagnose like lions, but only as a prelude to prescribing like mere lambs. The worse conditions are, and the franker we are in describing them, the more pressure we put on our policy designers to come up with high-protein solutions and on our leaders to build support for them.

Ralph Whitehead, Jr., a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts, is completing a book on the new distribution of earnings, how it hurts the Democrats, and how they can offset the damage.

1The data on non-college two-adult households, two-earner households, and one-adult households are for a definition of prime-age households that is slightly broader than the one used by Third Way: households whose heads are ages 25 through 62. All income and household composition data cited are from the March 2005 Current Population Survey.

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