Thursday, October 23, 2003

Some (Long) Thoughts on Class and the Democratic Party

Peter Beinart's typically insightful take on recent moves by Howard Dean in pursuit of the Democratic nomination, and the way Dick Gephardt, of all people, is slowly emerging (to the DLC's great surprise) as a genuine alternative to Dean in the continuing struggle for the Democratic party's demographic soul, should be required reading. It smartly puts together the recent history of such intra-party fights (Hart vs. Mondale, Tsongas vs. Clinton, Bradley vs. Gore), rightly puts the cultural as well as the economic dynamics of this struggle into the mix, and comes out with an insightful, succinct conclusion: "Dean, who learned fiscal conservatism from his investment-banker, Republican father, embodies today's Democratic Party better than Gephardt, the son of a Teamster from working-class St. Louis. Perhaps nothing explains the fight for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination better than that." I'm not going to be nearly as succinct as Beinart, but I'm going to cover some of the same territory, because the more important story behind this particular struggle is, to me, the question of class--or more specifically, what is going to happen to it, and therefore to political concern for the economically and culturally marginalized, when and if the Democratic party completes its current transition.

In 1969, Kevin Phillips wrote a book called The Emerging Republican Majority. In it, he argued that the Democratic party of the 1960s, by pursuing a national collectivist approach to fulfilling its traditional (since FDR at least) mandate for economic, racial, gender and education equality, as well as by tolerating the antiwar counterculture, was successfully alienating not only long-time white southern Democrats (something which Lyndon Johnson had predicted would happen immediately after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act), but also long-time white working-class Democrats in the northern cities. Put this alienation together with demographic shifts to the suburbs and to the West, Phillips wrote, and you have a winning strategy for Republicans. The Republicans took it, and it worked. Through the 1970s, you saw white flight from the cities across the country, the "Sagebrush" and anti-tax rebellions in the western states, the rise of a popular California politician and the emergence of "Reagan Democrats," and an explicit Republican effort to cultivate the "Solid (conservative, evangelical, white) South." The result was a more or less general shift rightward in our national politics, serious tax cutting and reform, 12 years of a Republican White House, and a slow but indisputable change in (or at least the rise of a serious challenge to) the dominant ideology of our judicial system.

Of course, Phillips's book didn't tell the whole story--there was a Cold War going on at the time too--but he told enough of it that his strategy was taken to be true story of American national politics, from the early 70s to the early 90s. And thus, Phillips's story also provided the key component of the bitter liberal backlash during the 1980s: race. Sure, that wasn't the only theme (there were also the "Republicans hate women" and the "Republicans hate the poor" mantras), but race dominated or at least colored all domestic politics for more than a generation. The Republicans were "playing the race card," they were winning because of bigoted rednecks in the south, paranoid surbanites in the north and midwest, and wetback-fearing racists in the southwest. Conservative white Americans can't handle affirmative action, can't handle busing, can't handle integrated neighborhoods, can't handle immigration, can't handle racial justice, can't handle progress, and Republicans were providing them with a political home. True or not (and there's a fair amount of truth to the charge), this was national politics in the United States, until Bill Clinton and the 1990s began to rewrite the rules.

Now we have a new book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira. Their argument is that, just as seeds of the Republican majority were planted in the mid-1960s and came to fruition by the late 1970s, so has a new Democratic majority--a post-New Deal, post-Great Society, "progressive centrist" Democratic majority--been slowly hatching ever since the mid-1990s, and demographic and policy trends make its eventual emergence basically inevitable. Their thesis rests on three pillars:

1) Women. With every election cycle, not only do more women relative to men turn out to vote, but also single working women increasingly tend to dominate that female vote, and Republicans continue to fail to win anything like a majority it. By being so strenuously opposed (in rhetoric, if not in practice) to abortion rights and the expansion of day care and other "family friendly" laws, Republicans have put themselves in a gender hole that they won't be able to climb out of for decades to come.

2) Minorities. Of course, African-Americans have been largely voting Democratic since the 1960s--they remember who it was who fought to get them registered. But Judis and Teixeira also maintain that Hispanics and Asians are also, with the end of the Cold War increasingly Democratic. But this second pillar isn't nearly as important as the third...

3) "Professionals." This isn't exactly the best term for what they mean to describe; what they're getting at is "idea workers" in, I think, Robert Reich's phrase, or what Nicholas Lemann called "Mandarins." They are lawyers, actors and other media folk, doctors, computer jockeys, academics and teachers, insurance agents and money managers, internet gurus, architects, engineers and scientists, nurses, social workers, therapists and counselors and inspirational speakers, fashion designers, interior decorators, artists, editors and free-lance writers. These people--as opposed to their corporate and bureaucratic managers and employers--are all voting Democratic. Why? First, because they aren't as profit-minded as their bosses; they do what they do, according to Judis and Teixeira, because of they love ideas, providing a service, etc. And second, related to the first, because their vision of ideas and service is open-ended: tolerant and experimental and sympathetic. They are "liberation-minded," and are fundamentally at peace--indeed, are the greatest coverts to--the ethos of liberation which found a home in American universities in the 1950s and 1960s. Unsurprisingly, they--more often than not--live in or near urban areas (not the old blue-color industrial cities, but progressive, happening, "Ideopolises"), are into "soft technology" (i.e., private gizmos) and don't go to church; they are socially liberal and fiscally moderate; they don't really like unions or big government but they dislike heartless corporations and moral busy-bodies most of all. As Judis and Teixeira put it, "the Bush administration can scour the coal pits of West Virginia or the boarded up steel mills of Youngstown for converts, but America's future lies in places like Silicon Valley and North Carolina's Research Triangle."

This seems pretty plausible, especially in light of the "continental divide" which Beinart (and many others) have described. Hispanic and Asian immigration, and the long-awaited emergence of a real, solid African-American middle class, have diluted and transformed the old intensity of the black-white divide; while racial politics remain very visible in many regions of the country and many facets of our society, I think one of the real consequences of the Clinton administration--a man who completely sewed up the black vote while simultaneously giving Jesse Jackson the cold shoulder--is that the "race card," to whatever extent it ever existed, has been altered. Welfare reform has made it possible to talk about "the underclass" without tip-toeing through a racially charged minefield. At the same time, the "feminization"--or "domestication"--of American politics has continued to soldier on; maybe 9/11 has returned us permanently to foreign-policy orientation, maybe it hasn't, but either way, you can't deny the fact that when today's politicians aren't talking about Iraq or al-Qeada, they're talking about prescription drugs, after-school programs, child care, abortion rights and so forth. The "anti-woman religious right" has been pretty firmly entrenched in the popular imagination, at least for a big slice of the electorate. And finally, who can deny that the high-tech boom of the 1990s, and the promise of yet further leaps in marketable technologies, combined with globalization and--perhaps most important of all--the efficient exporting of as many industry-heavy, unglamorous, low-wage jobs overseas as possible, has given the highly-educated, tech-savvy, university-accredited, upper-middle-class white-color professional the cat-bird seat in American culture? Just turn on the TV: a good 70% of our fantasies seem to be about upper-middle-class professionals hanging out in coffee shops.

So maybe we have gotten to the point where the Democrats can put forward a new kind of "progressive centrist" platform, one which doesn't necessarily present the Republicans with an obvious alternative strategy. But what really bothers me is the deep class bias present in this thesis. Judis and Teixeira put forward some (I think weak) arguments suggesting that some of the American working class will, in certain situations, absorb the professional, centrist liberalism of their better-off cultural superiors, enough to supplement the women, minorities and professionals in putting Democrats over the top. But that won't happen because of any government action or promises of action; it'll just happen naturally. And in the meantime, the actual economic and social needs and desires of the working class won't be present in the new "progressive" politics of the new Democratic majority. Indeed, they will want to avoid anything that smacks of reaching out to the (usually still church-going) working poor and lower-middle-class (unionization, anti-free trade policies, vouchers, faith-based initiatives, etc.), because that will turn off their new "progressive" upscale electoral base.

As long as we have capitalism, we will have a working class--until robots replace labor, there will be laborers, farmers, and factory workers. That means there will a class of people left out of most of the benefits and trends of society, both economic and cultural. The Democratic party, from FDR all the way up to Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, built policies which included the working class in its calculations; whether they served the working poor well or not, they certainly thought about them. Paradoxically, in their own way (limited but entirely insignificant way) so did the Republicans through the 1970s and 1980s: while their tax-cut fetishes certainly did not serve the needs of poor people well (particularly poor minorities), for better or worse the Republicans did at least take seriously the traditional cultural and social worldview of the "Silent Majority," the rural church-goer, the lower-middle-class and working class "Angry White Male." If Judis and Teixeira have their way, the Democratic party will sign on to a politics which is (socially, at least) cost-free, which simply talks about how to move around money and opportunity and respect at the top, or the near-top, rather than from the near-top to the bottom (or the middle). I hope it doesn't happen, because as long as there are only these two major parties, old-style Democratic rhetoric remains one of the few things which, in my view, prevents the Republicans from falling entirely into the hands of their old reliable friends, the corporate barons who have never deserted them. If the Democrats stop talking about class, can we count on the Republicans (who arguably turned to class and regional issues in the first place only because they saw a political opportunity back in the mid-1960s) to do so? Was Bush's compassionate conservatism for real? Will the Republican religious right start worrying about health care as well as gay marriage? (Given recent events in Alabama, it's unlikely.) Or may we be entering an era of American national politics in which, for the first time in nearly a century, poverty and cultural marginalization really is truly off the radar screen?