washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Truth and Opportunity

By Anne Kim, Adam Solomon, and Jim Kessler
Before rebutting the critique of our strategy document, we’d like to express our thanks. First, a tremendous thanks to The Democratic Strategist for creating an exciting new forum for individuals and organizations to post ideas that challenge orthodoxies to help create a new progressive majority. We especially appreciate your asking Third Way to contribute a piece to your second issue.
We’d also like to thank our critics, Elizabeth Warren, Jacob Hacker, John Halpin, Ruy Teixeira, and Bill Galston, for taking the time to read and take a sledgehammer to our piece. In all seriousness, we appreciate your comments and take them to heart. We are honored that each of you spent the time to discuss and critique our work.
And finally, we want to thank the readers who took it upon themselves to post comments on the discussion page. We were heartened that most of you had very positive things to say about our piece as well as some very interesting ideas and suggestions. We are constantly on the lookout for relevant facts and perspectives, and you can rest assured that we’ll be incorporating these ideas in our future work.
Now to our response…
We’ll begin on common ground. All of us appear to agree on three fundamental points raised in our original piece:

  1. Progressives have a problem with middle-class voters, and that problem includes our economic message;
  2. Progressives need new ideas that speak to the middle class and reflect their concerns and desires; and
  3. The overall economy isn’t headed off a cliff.

Where our critics disagree with us is on the following three points:

  1. The “truth” about the condition of the middle class;
  2. Whether security is more important to voters than opportunity or vice versa; and
  3. Whether the policies briefly outlined in our piece are sufficiently robust to support an enduring message.

We’ll concede the third point up front. Our initial piece was a political strategy document, not a policy memo. In future work by Third Way, we will lay out the policy details.
On the first two points, however, we do not cede ground.
The truth about the middle class
A recurring theme among our critics is that we deny the “truth” about the middle-class condition: that the middle class is beleaguered, fragile and, as a consequence, pessimistic. Though we disagree with these characterizations of the middle-class psyche (more on that below), we don’t deny there’s cause for anxiety.
Men’s wages are stagnant or declining, especially for the less-educated. Long-term male job tenure is down; income inequality is up. Moreover, as Galston points out, massive structural shifts are now unfolding; this is a new era of fierce global competition and rapid technological change. Two billion people have entered the world labor market since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which could potentially depress world wages–particularly at the bottom of the earnings scale–for decades to come. These are truths we accept.
Nevertheless, too many progressives zero in on a handful of negative numbers as if bad news is the whole story and the only story. When progressives warn of the growth in debt, they don’t mention how assets have grown even faster. Real median net worth has risen 35% since 1989. When progressives talk of stagnant male wages, they neglect the phenomenal rise in women’s incomes at all levels of education, which has increased in real terms by 54% since 1979. Why has the bad news about men so greatly overshadowed the good news about women?
We think the current progressive bias toward the negative distorts progressive message and policy. And unless that bias is corrected, progressives will never fully understand the middle class or be able to reach it politically.
For example, it is axiomatic among progressives that the “typical” middle-class American family makes about $44,000–that’s approximately the median income for all households in 2004. But $44,000–while “accurate”–distorts the big picture in at least two significant respects:

  • The very young and the very old drag the median down. In our original piece, we argued that policy makers and politicians should think of the “typical” middle-class income as being $63,300 (not $44,000). This higher figure is the median income for prime-age households, age 26-59, in 2004. From the perspective of a responsible strategist (an oxymoron?) it makes sense to exclude the very young and the very old in understanding the “typical” middle-class family. Young people at the start of their careers are underpaid but upwardly mobile. Their current income does not provide an accurate picture of their economic concerns and opportunities. Likewise, people at or near retirement often no longer draw a paycheck. However, since their costs are often lower (mortgages are paid, no children to support) their standard of living is stable, even with a lower income.
  • Many more people live in upper-income households than in lower-income ones. The Census Bureau divides households into quintiles, but lower income households have fewer people in them. In fact, only 14.4% of the population lives in the bottom quintile, while 25% of Americans live in the top quintile. A family with income of $45,000 ranks only in the 35th percentile among all prime-earner families, and drops to the 16th percentile among married, two-earner households. The median income for prime-age households with two adults and children is $70,420.

These facts alone should radically change the mental image that most progressives hold about the middle class, and it should change the way that progressives think about how to target the middle class effectively. Believing that the “typical” middle-class family earns $44,000 leads to a different place from where the middle class actually is, and this could in fact be one reason why some progressives think populism works. But that extra $20,000 to $30,000 likely makes a huge difference, for example, as to whether people find high gas prices annoying or oppressive–and whether they find oil companies distasteful or puppeteers.
We will never reach the middle class unless we fully understand it.
The politics of opportunity and the trap of security
The second broad set of criticisms leveled at our piece argues that security, not opportunity, is the real concern of most Americans and that security should therefore occupy center stage when progressives talk about the economy.
Again, we don’t deny that security should be an important component of the progressive message and policy agenda. In The Politics of Opportunity, on which our discussion piece was based, we in fact put economic security as one of three pillars for creating opportunity.
But we don’t think security should be the linchpin of the progressive message. If security is the central building block of an economic policy agenda and message, it’s inevitable that policy analysts and politicians will spend a lot of time cataloging all of the anxieties and catastrophes that justify that effort. Such an exercise is inherently pessimistic; and the truth about pessimistic candidates is that they lose.
In 1990, two leading psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman and Harold Zullow, conducted groundbreaking research on the effect of optimism in politics. They found that in 18 out of the 22 presidential elections from 1900 to 1984, the more optimistic candidate won. Since 1948, the only pessimist who’s won is Richard Nixon.
The second problem with a message based on insecurity is that it fails the test of leadership. A catalogue of woes is not a path forward; it is simply telling folks what they already know: a lot of them have debt and everyone worries about paying their bills (especially those involving education, health and retirement).
Americans like to aim high and want to succeed. And they want leaders who can show them the way. Presidents Clinton, Kennedy and Roosevelt challenged and inspired Americans to be greater than they were and to aim for something higher and better for themselves. They stood for confronting a changing world with hope and optimism–even if that involved taking risks. This is the reason they are the greatest politicians of the last century. They promised people more than security and the comforting bosom of the state.
Sure, as Warren points out, 800,000 people might watch the populist tirades of Lou Dobbs at night. But let’s put that in perspective: 35 million people tune in to American Idol, a show that for all its faults epitomizes the aspirational spirit of America.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter warned Americans that, “For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western World.”
If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is. For the last 35 years progressives have carried the same message of angst; the one exception is President Clinton, the only Democrat in recent history to win the White House. As a political strategy, this message of misery has generally failed. We see no reason why–given the relatively strong state of the economy and the actual state of the “typical” middle class family–a new, updated catalogue of woes would work today.
A politically winning message is not about where people are but where they want to go. It’s time for something new.
The way forward
Progressives have poured tremendous intellectual energy into describing the decline of the middle class when that energy would be better spent in developing new ideas for re-engaging the middle class and helping it to prosper. That is what we aim to do.
As Third Way continues its work on economic messaging and policy, we envision a new role for government–reinvigorated, ambitious and in tune with modern times. In our view, the business world and the American people are already adapting to the changing realities of the modern era. Why else are American companies still dominating the global economy, and why else are so many Americans making college an imperative for their children? They already know what it takes to succeed in today’s world.
Government policies and institutions, however, have failed to evolve in step with changing times, and these failures are a drag on America’s continued prosperity. Worse, the Republican administration and Republican Congress have moved the nation backward, to the detriment of the middle class. They’ve squandered opportunities to ready the nation for its future by wasting Clinton’s surplus on tax cuts for people who don’t need them instead of on tax cuts for middle-class people so they can send their kids to college. Their active mismanagement of government has degraded faith in government as an active force for good in people’s lives.
As Governor Tom Vilsack noted in David Broder’s recent column, Americans feel isolated from government and have the sense that they are navigating the crosscurrents of change on their own. It will take a lot to undo the damage and restore people’s faith in government.
We began our opening piece reciting the number $23,700 and noted that in 2004, this was the household income level at which a white voter was more likely to vote Republican than Democratic in congressional races. Of course, national security and cultural issues come in to play with these voters as they do to a certain degree with all voters. But this extremely low tipping point is a bright-red neon sign message to Democrats.
Middle-class voters do not find our policies at all relevant to their economic situation. They do not believe that what we offer will make an appreciably positive difference in their lives. And when an economic message and agenda have little relevancy, the other issues–abortion, gay marriage, and national security–will take primacy.
To all progressives, we ask that each of us do a better job of really understanding who the middle class is and how it lives, otherwise we will find that our message is not only tone deaf, it is just plain wrong.

One comment on “Truth and Opportunity

  1. William Neuhauser on

    In my mind, you are absolutely right that the message needs to be positive. America is fundamentally an optimistic country. But in order for that message to have meaning, you have to connect to people where they are.
    The Third Way talks about the nature and existence of the problems as if they are not relevant, that you can just skip to the solutions. The problem with the people the Third Way complains about is spot on: there are groups that spend all their time talking about the problems … and that is depressing and not productive.
    It may be helpful to look at presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, the ultimate optimist. He confronted this with two parts, in the first part he identified with voters by asking “are you better off today than four years ago?” (acknowleding the situation without necessarily describing the litany of woes) and then in the second part his “morning in America” rhetoric showed an optimistic view of the future … while also invoking the woes (dark night, but being left behind by the warm glow of morning).
    I’m not saying it is a word-smithing problem, but rather that you have to connect with people about what they experience and validate it to have credibility for the future plans that you aren’t just a polyanna — optimistic but unrealistic with solutions to the wrong problems.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.