Politics & Policy

Obama’s Middle-Class Losers

Promises, promises… (Scott Olson/Getty)
Americans suddenly realize the Democrats’ agenda doesn’t really help the middle class.

In the world of political journalism, this is about as big as it gets: a big-name political theorist and analyst looking back at his signature work and conclusions about the direction of American politics and concluding, “Nope, I think I got it wrong.”

Back in 2002, John B. Judis, senior editor of The New Republic and long-time left-of-center journalist published The Emerging Democratic Majority with political scientist Ruy Teixeira. The much-debated book argued that demographic changes would drive Democrats to bigger and bigger political victories, powered by a “strengthening alliance between minorities, working and single women, the college-educated, and skilled professionals.” In the 2006 and 2008 elections, the book appeared astute and prophetic.

This week, in National Journal, Judis effectively renounced his theory that changing demographics guaranteed a strong wind at the back of Democrats, citing two trends:

The less surprising trend is that Democrats have continued to hemorrhage support among white working-class voters — a group that generally works in blue-collar and lower-income service jobs and that is roughly identifiable in exit polls as those whites who have not graduated from a four-year college. These voters, and particularly those well above the poverty line, began to shift toward the GOP decades ago, but in recent years that shift has become progressively more pronounced.

The more surprising trend is that Republicans are gaining dramatically among a group that had tilted toward Democrats in 2006 and 2008: Call them middle-class Americans. These are voters who generally work in what economist Stephen Rose has called “the office economy.” In exit polling, they can roughly be identified as those who have college — but not postgraduate — degrees and those whose household incomes are between $50,000 and $100,000. (Obviously, the overlap here is imperfect, but there is a broad congruence between these polling categories.)

The defection of these voters — who, unlike the white working class, are a growing part of the electorate — is genuinely bad news for Democrats, and very good news indeed for Republicans. The question, of course, is whether it is going to continue. It’s tough to say for sure, but I think there is a case to be made that it will.

Judis points to 2014 victory of Maryland governor Larry Hogan as the perfect example of the trend. He quotes several middle-class voters who voted in the past for either Barack Obama or Democratic governor Martin O’Malley, but who voted for Larry Hogan last year. These voters cite a sense that their taxes have gone up considerably with no improvement in state services; they laud the idea of “reining in spending” and dismiss the idea that Hogan is an extremist on abortion. One adds, “The number of young people living on entitlement programs is overwhelming to me.”

The political scientists — and admittedly, a big chunk of that demographic — are only now starting to realize that despite Obama’s incessant invocation of the “middle-class economics” catch-phrase, the modern Democratic party doesn’t have that much to offer those $50,000- to $100,000-per-year voters.

When you’re poor, politicians speak about you with great sympathy and set up massive, often-inefficient federal programs to help you. When you’re rich, politicians grovel at your feet during fundraisers. But if you’re in that $50,000 to $100,000 demographic, you have too much money for sympathy but not enough money for influence.

The Obama administration’s recent retreat on 529 college savings accounts is a good example. The plan — eliminating the tax-free withdrawal status of the savings plans in order to finance “free” community-college tuition for all — was initially pitched as a way of closing a loophole allegedly exploited by the rich. Had the White House looked more closely at the figures, they would have found that 70 percent of 529s are owned by households with an income below $150,000 (picture two spouses making around $75,000 each). Those households may not be poor, but they almost certainly don’t think of themselves as rich.

We can argue whether parents with four-year degrees overestimate the value of those degrees (for themselves or for their children whom they wish to send to college); we can debate whether parents underestimate the value of community college. But many parents see Obama’s 529 plan as a way of swiping money from their college fund (in the form of erasing a tax benefit) to help out people who wanted to go to community college — i.e., people who couldn’t afford attending a four-year school.

Democrats will point to Obamacare, or the allegedly Affordable Care Act, as one of their great gifts to the middle class. The problem is that middle-class Americans notice when they’re paying more in premiums, co-pays, and deductibles, and the math suggests that the overall program is a bad deal for the middle class and above:

The ACA does lots of things and one of them is to shift money around so that some people who were previously unable to afford health insurance can now pay for it. Henry Aaron and Gary Burtless estimated the net percentage income gains and losses for Americans as a result of the ACA for each decile of the income distribution. As you see, the ACA reduces the incomes of the top 80 percent and increases those in the bottom 20 percent.

A Gallup poll indicates that poorer Americans are putting off medical treatments because of cost less frequently, but the percentage of middle-class and wealthier Americans who delay care or treatment because of cost is increasing:

The daily life of the $50,000- to $100,000-per-year voter revolves around work — doing it, getting to and from it, looking for more opportunities, looking for promotions, keeping the job in economically shaky times. Recall the Maryland voter’s lament, “The number of young people living on entitlement programs is overwhelming to me.” Those who get up and go to work every morning expect everyone else who is able-bodied to do so as well.

A party that treats “job lock” as a serious problem and that labels states offering “only” 26 weeks of unemployment insurance as inhumane and cruel does not share that work ethic and that central philosophy of productivity.

Note that the Democratic party cannot tear itself away from storylines that cast African Americans, gays and lesbians, and women as victims or heroes, and straight white men — particularly white-collar or business-owning straight white men — as the villains.

This weekend, Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball took to the pages of the Washington Post to urge the Democrats to hold their 2016 Democratic convention in Philadelphia. He sketched out a vision of the themes to discuss:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The four nights of the Democratic convention could highlight these powerful words and phrases of the Declaration of Independence.

An African American could speak proudly of the election of Barack Obama and of the continued struggle against voter suppression.

A gay couple could talk about marriage equality and their right to the pursuit of happiness.

A female delegate could make the case for equal treatment — and pay — in the workplace.

By gathering in iconic Philadelphia, Democrats could lay claim to not just the flag but what it stands for.

Sure, Democrats can find some straight white males who see voter-ID laws as “voter suppression,” who support gay marriage and believe that employers often pay women less just because they’re women. But they’re not that common. (Straight white males whose votes are driven by those particular issues are probably rarer still.) Each one of Matthews’s ideas features a member of a minority group standing in opposition to some unjust, sinister force represented by allegedly racist supporters of voter-ID laws, supposedly homophobic straights who believe in the traditional or Biblical definition of marriage, or male employers relishing their power to treat women employees unfairly.

When Democratic officeholders tell stories to illustrate some key truth about America, the bad guy is usually a white-collar straight white male. Unsurprisingly, white-collar straight white males aren’t inclined to vote for a party that seems to identify them as the root of America’s problems.

This is the Democratic party at the dusk of the Obama presidency: We’ll take away your college savings to give it to community-college students. We’ll make you pay more for health insurance and delay your own care. We’re unconcerned about long-term unemployment and youth under-employment. And our worldview is shaped by a simplistic narrative that casts most business owners and men in general as a malevolent force.

The real emerging majority is voters who are tired of all that.

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.


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