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How Historic a Victory?

Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age

by Larry M. Bartels
Russell Sage Foundation/Princeton University Press, 325 pp., $29.95

Red, Blue, and Purple America: The Future of Election Demographics

edited by Ruy Teixeira
Brookings Institution Press, 274 pp., $42.95; $19.95 (paper)

What was the scope of Barack Obama’s victory? His 365 electoral votes (the number so far—Missouri remains too close to call) represent a formidable tally, more than double John McCain’s 162. True, Obama’s electoral-vote total as of this writing is smaller than Bill Clinton’s in either 1992 (370) or 1996 (379). But it is worth remembering that because of Ross Perot’s third-party candidacies in those years, Clinton did not receive 50 percent of the popular vote in either race—he won 43 percent in 1992 and precisely 49.24 percent four years later, whereas Obama took about 52.6 percent, beating McCain by 6.5 percent. Jimmy Carter won just 297 electoral votes in 1976 and defeated Gerald Ford by only 1.7 million votes out of 80 million cast.1

When measuring victory by some combination of electoral and popular votes, then, one must go back to 1964, when Lyndon Johnson won 61 percent of the popular vote and 486 electoral votes to Barry Goldwater’s 52, to find a more impressive Democratic win. Obama turned nine states blue that were red in 2004: three in the Rocky Mountain West (Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada), three in the Midwest (Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa), and three in the South (Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida), totaling 112 electoral votes. Turnout was the highest in at least forty years, meaning that voter participation is back to pre-Vietnam and Watergate levels. Some experts revised initial turnout estimates slightly downward over the course of the days after the election but still reckoned that at least 126 million people voted, roughly two million more than in 2004, representing around 61 percent of all age-eligible voters.

The main reason turnout wasn’t even higher appears to have been that participation declined from 2004 levels in several red states (Utah, South Dakota, West Virginia), suggesting less enthusiasm there for the McCain-Palin ticket than for Bush-Cheney. In blue states and CNN’s seven designated battleground states, of which Obama won at least four pending the final count in Missouri, turnout was generally higher than in 2004,2 suggesting that there was great enthusiasm for the Obama-Biden ticket and that the vaunted Obama get-out-the-vote operation, which should stand as a template for every subsequent Democratic presidential campaign, lived up to expectations.

Think of it this way. Obama’s win was strong enough that he didn’t even need California (55 electoral votes) and New York (31). He could have spotted McCain those 86 navy-blue electoral votes, which he was never in danger of losing, and still finished with 279. It was, to use a nontechnical term on which political scientists and laypersons could surely agree, a wipeout.

But was it, to use a technical term about which political scientists are more persnickety, a realignment? Does Obama’s win herald a new period of dominance for one political party and its values as William McKinley’s did in 1896 or Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1932—or, some would add, though opinions still differ on it, Ronald Reagan’s in 1980? I recently happened across a quote from Heinrich Heine, who wrote in an 1833 work on the German Romantic period that “every epoch is a sphinx which plunges into the abyss as soon as its problem is solved.” Has Obama solved the problem of conservative political supremacy?

On this question, the jury is still out. Writing on the Web site of The New Republic the day after the election, John B. Judis, one of political journalism’s acknowledged experts on such matters, defined the sacred word with slightly more nuance:

There have been two kinds of realignments in American history—hard and soft. The realignments of 1896 and 1932 were hard: They laid the basis for 30 years of party dominance, periods when the same party would win the bulk of national, state, and local elections…. The conservative Republican realignment of 1980, by contrast, was soft: It began in 1968, was interrupted by Watergate, resumed during Carter’s presidency, and climaxed in Reagan’s landslide. Yet, even then, Democrats retained control of the House and got back the Senate in 1986. Republicans did win Congress in 1994, but a Democrat was president and was reelected easily in 1996. [Political scientist Walter Dean] Burnham characterized the ‘90s as a period of “unstable equilibrium” between the parties.3

Judis sees Obama’s win as “the culmination of a Democratic realignment that began in the 1990s, was delayed by September 11, and resumed with the 2006 election.” My own view since spring 2006, when I wrote an essay in The American Prospect touching on these matters,4 has been that the era of conservative dominance is over, thanks to Iraq, the Katrina fiasco, Bush’s failed Social Security privatization effort, and other factors, but that the collapse of conservatism did not perforce imply the rise of a new liberal age. That, I believed—and still believe, even after an Obama victory in which 46 percent voted Republican—would depend on what President Obama and the congressional Democrats did with their power.

And here, for reasons both historical and contemporary, we must consider the question of realignment in light of the current financial crisis and the structural economic problems with which the new president must grapple. We must also consider the Democratic Party’s vexed relationship with the white working-class demographic group that is, or was, the historical backbone of the party and whose renewed allegiance would indeed put the GOP in a difficult spot for the foreseeable future. Judis, in the New Republic essay, takes the view that 2008 does have something very important in common with 1896 and 1932:

What made the 1896 and 1932 realignments hard was that they coincided with steep downturns in the business cycle. The political trends were present in prior elections—in 1928, for instance, Al Smith began to draw urban voters to the Democrats—but the depression of the 1890s and the Great Depression catalyzed and accelerated these trends. McKinley and the Republicans blamed the depression of the 1890s on Democrat Grover Cleveland. Franklin Roosevelt blamed the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent depression on Herbert Hoover. In both cases, the stigma remained for decades. Democrats were still running successfully against Herbert Hoover 20 years after he left office.

Whether Democrats will still be running successfully against George W. Bush in 2028 will depend very directly, it seems to me, on how Obama and the Democrats in Congress respond to the moment. With the current world situation fraught on so many fronts, certainly President Obama will have a singular opportunity to move his party beyond its post-Vietnam image of soft incoherence and show that a less bellicose foreign policy than Bush’s, carried out by a leader who enjoys the world’s respect and even adoration, can yield better results—for America, for Iraq, for the Israelis and the Palestinians, and so on.

But the economy will clearly occupy the center of the stage—first the management of the crisis itself, and, over the longer term, the problems of family and income inequality that have been the hallmark of what Princeton political scientist Larry M. Bartels calls in his subtitle to Unequal Democracy our “New Gilded Age.” (We learn from The New Yorker ‘s George Packer that the President-elect somehow found time to read this rather dense and academic work during the campaign.5) The question now is whether Obama and Congress can deliver both economic progress and greater equality by following through on his major campaign promises—tax increases on the wealthy; tax cuts for the middle class; protections for homeowners; a bold stimulus package that includes broad public investment; and a health-care plan that reduces risk and out-of-pocket expenses for average Americans. If they can do so, then the chances of this realignment becoming a hard one in four years’ time will increase dramatically.

Bartels is the political scientist of the moment. Along with Obama, Bill Clinton also read and recommends Unequal Democracy, according to The Daily Beast, Tina Brown’s new Web site.6 Clinton told The Daily Beast that the book describes “how partisanship has hurt the poor,” and that is as good a succinct summary of the book as any. Bartels argues that political partisanship has exacerbated economic inequality, as Clinton suggests, but he makes an important distinction that Clinton might well have noted since it reflects favorably on his presidency. As a measure of economic inequality, Bartels chooses to compare how wage-earners at the 80th percentile of the income distribution (i.e., those toward but not at the top) and those at the 20th percentile (toward the bottom) fared under recent presidential administrations. His findings are unambiguous:

Indeed, the effect of presidential partisanship on income inequality turns out to have been remarkably consistent since the end of World War II. The 80/20 income ratio increased under each of the six Republican presidents in this period…. In contrast, four of the five Democratic presidents—all except Jimmy Carter—presided over declines in income inequality. If this is a coincidence, it is a very powerful one.

He goes on to assert that the largest differences appear in the second year of each administration, “the first year in which the president’s policies could be expected to have a significant economic effect.” Real income for lower-income people in those years grew 5.7 percent under Democratic presidents and shrank 1.3 percent under Republican ones. (Carter, by the way, started out pretty well in Bartels’s accounting but got socked by the second energy crisis and stagflation.)

These trends may seem obvious and intuitive—you or I or most people on the street could have told Bartels that the working poor fare better under Democrats, even if we couldn’t have put numbers on it. But the importance of these and some other findings in the book—for example, the aggressively negative impact on equality of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts—is that they use scholarly methods to provide political explanations for economic problems. Social scientists don’t usually see things this way. To most economists, income levels, like periods of expansion and contraction, must have explanations rooted in the business cycle.

But Bartels now joins Paul Krugman and others—Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson come notably to mind7—in the growing number of liberal social scientists who acknowledge the power of the conservative political apparatus aimed at achieving ideological goals such as minimally regulated markets and low taxes for the well-to-do. That such goals could not be justified as socially fair or economically effective did not matter. In his book The Conscience of a Liberal,8 Krugman announced his conversion to the view that political decisions by Republicans, not the vagaries of the economic cycle, were the cause of inequality, and he pressed the need for a major political challenge to the conservative forces responsible. Now, writes Bartels, “the most important lesson of this book is a very simple one: politics matters.”

I would imagine that President-elect Obama knew this already. But it’s still an interesting and hopeful sign that he read Unequal Democracy. One suspects that Obama—intellectual, empiricist, progressive, and by all evidence a believer in his own power to transform society—very much wants to undo the legacy of inequality that has been with us since at least Reagan’s time. One also suspects that Obama the politician wants to do all this while expanding his mandate in 2012. To accomplish that, many analysts say he will have to deepen his reach into one voting bloc—the white working class—to which Bartels and others have paid special attention.

How did Obama fare among white working-class voters? The answer depends on how one defines the term—a problem that has been a matter of contention in recent years.

The basic divide among scholars and analysts is how to define the working class—by income, by education level, or by some other measure. CNN’s exit polls, which were conducted in every state, give results in both the income and education categories, while taking account of the race of respondents.9 So, for example, among whites making less than $50,000 (25 percent of the electorate), Obama ran respectably, losing to McCain by just 51 to 47 percent nationally. However, among “whites—no college” (39 percent of the electorate), McCain won by 58 to 40 percent.

The results varied state by state, reflecting regional attitudes and the amount of resources Obama put into a given state. In Ohio, Obama won whites earning less than $50,000 (51 to 47 percent) and lost whites without college educations by ten points (54 to 44 percent). In Wisconsin, whose urban and rural districts were more pro-Obama than any of the states outside New England, Obama won non-college whites by 52 to 47 percent and whites earning under $50,000 by 60 to 39 percent. In New York, a blue state where Obama did not actively campaign, he did better than he did in Ohio but worse than in Wisconsin among those groups.

Predictably, the results in the South were starkly different. In Alabama, where Obama spent virtually no time or resources, he lost whites making under $50,000 by 87 to 11 percent and non-college whites by 90 to 9 percent. Even in North Carolina, a Southern state he visited frequently and in which he invested enormous resources, he lost non-college whites by 67 to 33 percent and whites under $50,000 by 57 to 42 percent. And in Virginia, where Obama both began and ended his election campaign, he lost non-college whites by 66 to 32 percent and whites earning less than $50,000 by the same 57 to 42 percent as he did in North Carolina.

The question raised by the recent debates over white working-class voters may thus be put as follows: Are all these voters, save Wisconsin’s, victims of “false consciousness,” or of “voting against their own self-interest”? If you are even casually familiar with this debate, these phrases will call to mind the author Thomas Frank, who argued exactly this in his 2004 best-seller What’s the Matter with Kansas?10 Frank evoked what he called “the Great Backlash” of working-class people against liberal elites. He described the takeover of the Chamber-of-Commerce, gin-and-tonic Republican Party in his home state of Kansas by religious working-class whites concerned passionately and almost exclusively with the repeal of Roe v. Wade. He asserted that Republican politicians and conservative proselytizers had, by insistent emphasis on alleged liberal turpitude and what he memorably called “the systematic erasure of the economic,” duped these voters into neglecting their own pocketbook concerns. A more concerted and populist effort on the Democrats’ part to appeal to these voters, Frank argued, would yield results and change our politics.

Even as the book was getting attention from many thousands of rank-and-file progressives, detractors both conservative and liberal attacked it. The general critique, which I partly shared, was that these folks may indeed have understood that they were voting against their own economic interests; they simply cared more deeply about cultural matters than economic ones. Maybe a country in which abortion was legal and homosexuality accepted was more distasteful to them than a country in which millionaires received most of the tax breaks. Rather than voting against their own economic self-interest, they were voting for their cultural self-interest, well aware that doing so would cost them economically.

No one challenged Frank quite as directly as Bartels. Sifting through the highly detailed National Election Studies (NES) data since the 1950s, he tested Frank’s arguments and prepared a paper for the meeting of the American Political Science Association in September 2005 called “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas ?” Naturally, the title, showing as it did a flash of wit to which we are unaccustomed in our social scientists, attracted a lot of attention. Bartels opened his paper by asking four questions:

• Has the white working class abandoned the Democratic Party?

• Has the white working class become more conservative?

• Do working class “moral values” trump economics?

• Are religious voters distracted from economic issues?

To each question, he answered: No.

Bartels has pressed these arguments since the publication of his paper. Frank has pressed back, with a stinging riposte he wrote and put on his Web site in late 2005, which read in part:

To begin with, consider the barren landscape of American politics as Bartels describes it—a featureless tundra swept of history, ideology, and any hint of the raw emotional resonance that everyone knows politics possesses. His NES America is not a place that I recognize. It might as well be the moon….11

Everyone knows….” Social scientists don’t like that sort of talk. But Frank was describing a passion that he witnessed firsthand in a state he knew well. Passion is not always reducible to data points, and some of the phenomena Frank emphasized—the entry into working-class politics of legions of Christian conservatives, for one—are not reflected or precisely caught in voter surveys.

But Bartels’s conclusions have attracted wide attention and drawn a number of adherents. Here’s how he states them in Chapter 3 of Unequal Democracy, the chapter devoted to the white working-class question:

My analysis suggests that economic issues remain centrally important in contemporary American electoral politics, especially among “the people on the losing end” of the free-market system. Moreover, the political views of those people have changed rather little over the past few decades, while their support for Democratic presidential candidates has actually increased. If Republican electoral success is indeed a puzzle, the solution seems to have little to do with the cultural conservatism of the white working class.

He shows, for example, that since 1948, support for Democratic presidential candidates has decreased among upper- income whites but has actually increased among those in the lower brackets. Additionally, he shows that while Democratic party identification among lower-income whites has decreased since 1952, it’s decreased more sharply among whites with higher incomes.

But this is where Bartels’s definition of “working class” is open to question. It is based strictly on income and includes only those families at the bottom third of the income scale—those with incomes below $35,000. But the average family income in the United States in 2007, according to the Census Bureau, was $62,359.12 Surely many Americans of average income or slightly lower are working-class people. Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz, writing in Red, Blue, and Purple America, edited by Teixeira, offer a convincing critique. First of all, they assert, many low-income whites are not workers at all, but include those who are “retired, disabled, homemakers, or students.” Furthermore, they note, Bartels’s definition excludes “the very kind of workers who traditionally are most associated with that group,” i.e., are identified as workers. The average unionized blue-collar worker, they write, made $22.74 an hour in 2003, or about $45,000. Many augment that considerably with overtime. It’s pretty difficult to talk about a “working class” that doesn’t include the average auto worker, coal miner, or Teamster.

Class is a function of many considerations. Income is one, but so are educational attainment, type of occupation, and what we might call subjective self-definition (and the sets of cultural values, likes, and dislikes that follow from that). If we look back at the total numbers of the Obama vote I have mentioned—in Ohio and Wisconsin, for example—we find that in each case, Obama did better, usually far better, among whites with low income than among whites with low education. The reason for this would seem to be, as Teixeira and Abramowitz suggest, that the low-income category includes some groups that were pro-Obama, like students and entry-level workers in certain lower-wage sectors that tend to be liberal—schoolteachers and employees of nonprofit organizations, for example. By contrast, those with lower education levels tend to be more culturally conservative, more Republican—and, let’s face it, less open to the idea of a black president. This suggests, I would think, that education is a better guide to class than income.

Teixeira and Abramowitz completed their chapter earlier this year and made it public in the spring, right around the time that the question “Can Obama win working-class whites?” was all the rage. They used a combination of income and occupation data that seems a more reliable basis for a definition of working-class whites. Doing so, they noted that Bill Clinton won these voters by 1 percent in both of his races, Al Gore lost them by seventeen points, and John Kerry lost them by twenty-three points. They argued that to win the White House, the Democrats would have to get the Kerry deficit “down to around 10–12 points to achieve a solid popular vote victory.”

Obama did not do this. After the election, Teixeira e-mailed me the following information. By his definition, using the “whites—no college” category, not the income category, as his baseline, Obama lost the white working class nationally by eighteen points. Obama’s performances among whites with and without college educations were very similar to Michael Dukakis’s in 1988. The key difference, though, is that the size of the white working-class vote—as defined by “no college”—is down 15 percent from 1988, while the size of the white college-educated vote is up 4 percent. Teixeira and his coauthor’s prediction was wrong, he told me, because of their too-cautious assumptions about white college-graduate support for Obama and the size of the minority turnout.

This, finally, suggests the crucial lesson: for all the attention lavished on white working-class voters, we now have reached the point where they don’t matter as much anymore. The white population, around 68 percent today, is expected to be 61 percent by 2020 and 50 percent by 2050. In his chapter on race and immigration William Frey of the Brookings Institution shows significant differences in the “purple” states—those in which one or the other party won by less than 10 percent in 2004. The fast-growing purple states, such as Colorado and Nevada, have smaller white populations and considerably larger Latino populations than slow-growing purple states, such as Florida, which are older and whiter. Indeed, to read through the seven informative essays in Red, Blue, and Purple America—devoted to such subjects as changes in family structure, the growth of new types of suburbs, the “clustering” by which demographic groups tend more and more to live together, and the rise of the more liberal “Millennial” generation (twenty-five and younger)—is to see that almost every major demographic trend favors the Democratic Party over the long term.

The challenges to the Republican Party, in these trends and in this year’s results, are obvious. The party has to seek votes in the categories that are growing. To do that it has to moderate its views on immigration, race, and certain cultural issues. As David Frum and other conservatives have argued, it also needs to take economic equality at least a little more seriously. But institutionally, it is hard pressed to do any of these things. Its most loyal rank-and-file adherents are its shock troops of the religious right. At the same time economic royalists, to use Franklin Roosevelt’s term for the wealthy supporters of tax cuts and unregulated markets, run the party in Congress and Washington. If the Republicans can’t shake their vestigial Reaganism, then President Obama and the Democrats, as the political analyst Ed Kilgore put it, “may have a large window of opportunity to build a majority against an opposition party that’s drunk on the locusts and wild honey of the political wilderness they inhabit.”13

Obama, of course, has to deal with his own rambunctious supporters while facing a drastic economic situation. The Onion, the satirical newspaper, captured the situation well, as it often does, with its November 5 headline: “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.” But if the campaign taught us anything, it should have taught us that he has the wisdom and the patience to exceed expectations. A realignment may not yet be upon us, but 365 electoral votes against a war hero have bled some of a liberal’s natural pessimism out of me.

—November 18, 2008

  1. 1

    To amuse yourself, go to www.270to win.com, an interactive electoral-map Web site, and look at the states Carter won, and lost, thirty-two years ago. In important respects a mirror image of our politics today, the 1976 election saw Carter win all the states of the deep South but lose California, Michigan, Illinois, Washington, Oregon, and four of the six New England states.

  2. 2

    The seven states were Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, and North Dakota. Only in Ohio was turnout lower than in 2004.

  3. 3

    America the Liberal,” November 5, 2008.

  4. 4

    Party in Search of a Notion,” The American Prospect, May 2006.

  5. 5

    See “The New Liberalism,” The New Yorker, November 17, 2008. Top Obama strategist David Axelrod tells Packer that Obama has read the book (p. 87).

  6. 6

    See www.thedailybeast.com/beast-board/member/william-j-clinton.

  7. 7

    I refer to the coauthors of Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy (Yale University Press, 2005).

  8. 8

    Norton, 2007. See my review in these pages, November 22, 2007.

  9. 9

    Go to www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/results/polls, and click around for full results and exit polls nationwide and by state. CNN did not break down exit-poll results in the income and education categories by race in 2004, making it difficult to compare Obama’s performance among these groups against Kerry’s.

  10. 10

    See Jason Epstein’s review in these pages, October 7, 2004.

  11. 11

    Frank’s response, which I read at the time, seems to have disappeared from his Web site, www.tcfrank.com. This quote is taken from a short excerpt that appears on the site of the History News Network at hnn.us/roundup/entries/19729.html.

  12. 12

    See Table 1 on page 7 of the Census Bureau report at www.census.gov/prod/2008pubs/p60-235.pdf.

  13. 13

    See Ed Kilgore, “The Anatomy of Conservative Self-Deception,” The Democratic Strategist, November 13, 2008.

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