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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

It’s The Economy, Schaller!

by Ezra Klein
Participating in these forums often puts me in mind of the Richard Hofstadter’s impish nickname for the New York Review of Books: He liked to call it The New York Review of Each Other’s Books. Tom is a friend of mine. I think his book is great. You should buy it. Democrats should pay attention to it. I’m fairly convinced by it. But saying so makes for a staggeringly uninteresting 1,500 words. So let’s try the opposite on for size.
Tom’s basic thesis is that demography is destiny. Leaf through the census data, the exit polls, the surveyed preferences, and the historical trends of the South and squint: Like one of those magic eye pictures, a region decidedly hostile to Democratic resurgence will come into focus.
Problem is, I could never get the damn things to work. In fact, I just spent five minutes straining my eyes on this one, and failed yet again. So let me suggest an alternate maxim: Economics is destiny. But Tom, alas, predicts my critique, and notes that poorer whites in the South vote heavily Republican. Explanations abound: Their cultural conservatism, low levels of unionization, racism, tribalism, foreign policy preferences, etc. For Tom, however, those preferences simply exist; a puzzling feature of the political landscape that Democrats must detour around en route to any eventual majority. Better to focus elsewhere. Their mutability lies basically unexplored.
The economic trends of the present moment aren’t pretty though. The corporate welfare state is in sharp decline. Between 2000 and 2006, health premiums shot up 81% for the average family. Wages did not. In fact, since 2000, they’ve slipped. As Jon Chait explained (subscr.) in a recent New Republic article, the old link between productivity increases and wage increases has been severed, puzzling economists and harming family incomes. And the new quarterly numbers suggested productivity increases have stopped altogether, effectively ending the hopes of wage growth in the near future. Housing, gas, energy, and college costs — all up. Inequality? Up. Poverty? Up. Risk? Up. Outsourcing? Up. Savings? Down.
I can do this all day.
These trends simply can’t continue — political correction will kick in before total disintegration. And so it’s time to invoke Stein’s Law: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Such will be the fate of poor, rural support for policies that rip apart the very safety net they depend on, and hasten the very trends that they fear. For these voters, the trends in question cannot go on, and so they will stop — because these voters will stop accepting them.
For that reason, I find Tom’s demographic analysis only moderately helpful from a prescriptive standpoint. It’s obviously correct in the very near-term. As he suggests, we shouldn’t be spending much national money trying to guarantee Al Gore Alabama in 2008. The Republicans don’t contest New York; we needn’t toss good money after stupid by vying for Mississippi. But that’s not something we do now, anyway. There’s an excess of soul-searching over how a party can survive when a particular region keeps picking them last for dodgeball, and, as Paul Waldman aptly points out, it’s time to get over that. But that requires psychology rather than strategy.
That said, I do think the Southernization of the Republican Party is momentous. But because it will push the country left, not right. Evidence for this came with the release of the 2005 Pew Typology Survey, a comprehensive polling project conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Their political typology studies, conducted in 1987, 1994, 1999, and 2005, attempt to provide detailed snapshots of the various electoral coalitions by sorting the electorate into homogenous groups based on values, political beliefs, and party affiliation.
The trends are telling: In 1987 and 1994, the Republican Party relied on two groups, Moralists and Enterprisers, the former emphasizing social conservatism, the latter small government conservatism. But the 1999 study noticed the emergence of a third group: Populist Republicans, low-income and economically insecure Republicans who favor strong government regulation, entitlement liberalism, and traditional morality, are largely centered in the South, and attend church — no pun intended — religiously. By 2005, this group — now called pro-government conservatives — comprised a third of the Republican base and had carved out a critical space of the political landscape.
58 percent of Pro-Government Conservatives identify as Republican. But nearly 90 percent vote Republican. Only two percent identify as Democrats. Almost 40 percent had seen someone in their household unemployed in the last year, only 10 percent had a union member in the house. They go to church, love their guns, hate their gays, and believe in the military. They are, in other words, Southerners. But poor ones: Only 29 percent report that “paying the bills is not generally a problem,” as opposed to 88 percent of the Social Conservatives and Enterprisers.
As a result, their economic opinions verge on the radical. 80 percent of Pro-Government Conservatives believe the government must do more to help the needy, even if it means going into debt. Over 60 percent believe that environmental regulations are worth the cost (tree huggers!), 83 percent fear the power corporations have amassed, and 66 percent believe government regulation is necessary to protect the public interest. 71 percent support “programs to help blacks, women, and other minorities get better jobs and education.” They’re critical of free trade, ready to repeal the tax cuts, and less overwhelmingly pro-Iraq than their fellow Republican subgroups. They are, in sum, obviously unsuitable for the GOP.
As the Republican Party becomes ever more reliant on downwardly mobile whites, the principles, problems, and priorities of that demographic will begin to flow upward, changing the party’s ideology from the bottom-up. For quite some time, the GOP’s base was geographically diverse enough to insulate them from their new constituencies. But, as Tom pointedly notes, that’s no longer the case: Now the party is a Southern Party that elects Southern candidates. The old GOP, a mixture of Northern managerialism, Western individualism, and cosmopolitan corporatism won’t survive the shift.
And, arguably, it’s already in retreat. George W. Bush is the first Southern Republican elected since James Knox Polk. And he displayed some distinct differences from the Republicans who preceded him. Bush’s domestic appeal was “compassionate conservatism.” It was conservatism without the cruelty or, more specifically, the capitalism. There were tax cuts, to be sure. But his two major domestic initiatives were definitionally pro government: No Child Left Behind, the largest expansion of federal control over schools in a generation, and the Medicare prescription drug benefit, a longtime progressive priority. The policies have their trap doors, Trojan horses, and corporate giveaways, but they were carefully constructed to appear indistinguishable from progressive solutions. Political junkies can give you chapter and verse on the failings of the bills, but as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson explained in Off Center, these sorts of misdirection work well on the median voters, who have better — or at least more pressing — things to do than read the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities’ legislative analyses.
So it’s no surprise this group voted overwhelmingly Republican: Republicans are putting overwhelming effort into tricking this group. But trickery is a short-term strategy, particularly when real social ills underlie the deception, and will refuse to disappear in order to better accommodate the GOP’s image manipulation. Sooner or later, the right will either have to deliver the goods or sacrifice the votes, and they simply can’t do the latter.
That’s why I’m skeptical that Tom’s demographic slicing is really the most useful approach to the Democratic Party’s problems. Today’s electoral reality may not be tomorrow’s, and a party that, as he proposes, runs against the South, will not only lose the opportunity to convert these voters when they come online, but may lose many others besides. Meanwhile, macroeconomic forces and trends are enhancing the salience of so-called pocketbook issues and accelerating the public’s abandonment of small-government conservatism. The GOP, with its reliance on corporate funds and roots in libertarian thought, will find it hard, if not impossible, to adapt to this reality. The Democratic Party, which retains its labor-liberal wing, will not.
That’s why, at the end of the day, the arguments over how the Democrats should handle the South are only partially convincing. What the South will look like in a few years, when wage stagnation and a recession and unchecked inequality and increasing corporate power and the transformation to a service sector have all advanced further, is unclear. But if you take seriously the emergence of Pro-Government Conservatives in the typology studies, and the apparent reaction to them in the Republican Party, you see the impact will be momentous. For that reason, I fear running against today’s South will mean abandoning tomorrow’s. And I’m not confident the two will be equally hostile to the Democratic Party. So while I’m with Tom’s near-term spending strategy, and agree that the Interior West is rich with opportunity, I’m less interested in where our party should compete than what it should say.
Ezra Klein is the writing fellow at The American Prospect. His blog is at www.EzraKlein.com.

2 comments on “It’s The Economy, Schaller!

  1. Cugel on

    As always with the critics of Schaller’s thesis, everything is presented as a “either/or” proposition.
    The entire question is merely one of emphasis. The Democratic party lacks identity, because it hasn’t identified itself. Voters have a pretty good idea what “Republican” means.
    They might be empirically wrong about that, but they think they know what it means to be a Republican.
    Not so with Democrats. Partly because the word “liberal” has been so stigmatized since Reagan that no Democrat wants to use it (liberals have had to re-invent themselves as “progressives” merely in order to avoid the fixed stereotyping of the word liberal).
    That needs to change. Democrats need to embrace an identity in opposition to the Republicans if they are ever to seize control of the country and steer it in the direction they want.
    Otherwise all they can accomplish is to say what they’re not: not Bush, not supporting the Iraq war, not in favor of social security privatization, etc.
    But, what identity should the Democratic party have? Here’s where Schaller’s thesis comes in.
    He suggests that efforts to redefine Democrats into an evangelical friendly party that’s willing to “compromise” (read abandon) women’s rights and seek to accomodate the right-wing on a host of issues in order to appear “bi-partisan” are doomed to failure and shouldn’t be undertaken in the first place.
    Because, all those views are merely catering to southern exceptionalism. Democrats need to stand forthrightly for progressive values because that is the way to sew up the rest of the country.
    But, what the critics always seem to miss is that this doesn’t mean abandoning the south! The Democratic party isn’t run by Ayatollahs like the Republicans. There’s room in the party for an anti-abortion, gay-hating redneck from Georgia. If he can get elected and votes for Nancy Pelosi, fine.
    We shouldn’t accept such views anywhere outside the south (and increasingly don’t need to accept them within the south either).
    But, it would be foolish to demand that dixie Democrats doom themselves in advance by coming out for gay marriage in Alabama.
    As to where to put the resources, the victories of Colorado and Montana Democrats shows the way. There are more electoral votes in Colorado and Nevada and other mountain states than will ever be gotten in Dixie.
    Notice that (D) John Barrow and Jim Marshall each won re-election to their Georgia seats by less than 2,000 votes despite the huge Democratic wave sweeping the country. In an ordinary election year, they would certainly have lost — and for no other reason than that they are Democrats in an increasingly red state.
    I’t not too much to realize that southern Democrats are doomed, just as northeastern Republicans are doomed. Those incumbants are going to lose or be defeated someday soon, and then it will be a cold day in hell when those seats are retaken.
    The party shouldn’t give up on the south, but it should expressly appeal to the rest of the country without compromising futilely with southern exceptionalism.

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  2. David Stinson on

    The problem with these “big goverment conservatives” is that they are, in fact, pro-government. Democrats are supposed to be for small government on the social issues, and Republicans on the economic issues. The only reason you don’t hear much about them from the left is that we’ve gotten intimidated about talking about them.
    These economic issues are generally the Republicans’ strong point. When the Republicans trip up, like they have recently, these voters will switch and go Democratic, but then waiting for the opponent to make a mistake is not a strategy. The Democrats have to establish their credibility out in the libertarian west based on these social issues (which are, in fact, the most important issues) and then the economic votes in the South will always be there.

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