Sunday, May 15, 2005

Class and party

David Brooks offers a very useful and perspicacious piece on the confusing confluence of class position and party affiliation, especially at the lower end of the income spectrum. Money:

People at the top of the income scale are divided into stable, polar camps. There are the educated-class liberals - antiwar, pro-choice, anti-tax cuts - who make up about 19 percent of the electorate, according to Pew. And there are business-class conservatives - pro-war, pro-life, pro-tax cut - who make up 11 percent of voters.

These affluent people are pretty well represented by their parties, are not internally conflicted and are pretty much stuck in their ways.

This is a striking statistic, one that helps explain why even among rich folks who mix willingly (some might say promiscuously) with people from across the political spectrum (like myself), the Republicans' level of support still seems amazing: among people in my own social class, two thirds vote Democratic and find themselves unconflicted about that possibility. Brooks continues:

But poorer voters are not like that. They're much more internally conflicted and not represented well by any party. You've got poor Republicans (over 10 percent of voters) who are hawkish on foreign policy and socially conservative, but like government programs and oppose tax cuts. You've got poor Democrats who oppose the war and tax cuts, but are socially conservative and hate immigration. These less-educated voters are more cross-pressured and more independent than educated voters. If you're looking for creative tension, for instability, for a new political movement, the lower middle class is probably where it's going to emerge.

I think Brooks' taxonomy is largely correct, and that he's right that it is among these conflicted sorts that the primary political battle for the soul of the country is being waged. And Democrats would do well to heed the need to meet these folks' requirements. But Brooks is I think also right in explaining what separates working-class Republicans from working-class Democrats:

The big difference between poor Republicans and poor Democrats is that the former believe that individuals can make it on their own with hard work and good character.

According to the Pew study, 76 percent of poor Republicans believe most people can get ahead with hard work. Only 14 percent of poor Democrats believe that. Poor Republicans haven't made it yet, but they embrace what they take to be the Republican economic vision - that it is in their power to do so. Poor Democrats are more likely to believe they are in the grip of forces beyond their control.

I'm not sure I agree with Brooks that this division gives the Republicans a natural advantage since they are seen as "the party of optimistic individualism." This attitude is only a natural advantage insofar as the majority of people believe that this optimistic stance corresponds with reality. If that opinion changes, that same optimism can come to seem naive or out of touch. Just recollect what happened to Bush's dad in 1992. But there's little doubt that those who support the Republicans do instinctively have this optimism. But Brooks has an intellectually honest moment as he discusses the limits of the "optimistic individualism" even among Republican supporters:

[Republicans] are good at responding to business-class types and social conservatives, but bad at responding to poor Republicans.

That's because on important issues, the poor Republicans differ from their richer brethren. Poor Republicans aspire to middle-class respectability, but they are suspicious of the rich and of big business. About 83 percent of poor Republicans say big business has too much power, according to Pew, compared with 26 percent of affluent Republicans. If the Ownership Society means owning a home, they're for it. If it means putting their retirement in the hands of Wall Street, they become queasy.

Remember, these Republicans are disproportionately young women with children. Nearly 70 percent have trouble paying their bills every month. They are optimistic about the future, but their fear of their lives falling apart stalks them at night.

Poorer Republicans support government programs that offer security, so long as they don't undermine the work ethic. Eighty percent believe government should do more to help the needy, even if it means going deeper into debt. Only 19 percent of affluent Republicans believe that.

Brooks does an admirable service here in terms of explaining the exact division within the Republican ranks that the Democrats should exploit in terms of their economic policy. Not coincidentally, it's one that Bill Clinton exploited with wonderful adroitness. Maybe that's why Brooks ends his column with the observation that, "if Republicans can't pass programs [to] help poor families build assets for education or retirement, then Hillary Clinton, who is surprisingly popular with poor Republicans, will take their place."

Then again, I can't help but also think that this column, with its pointed conclusion, is part of the Republican punditocracy's coordinated campaign to get the Democrats to nominate Hillary in 2008. And that's a smart move on the part of the party hacks.

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