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A Democratic Revival?

Ruy Teixeira

Prospects are grim for most working Americans: they live in decaying cities, face deepening inequality, and, for more than two decades, have suffered declining living standards. According to an emerging consensus among American liberals and progressives, reversing these prospects and reestablishing the basis for a prosperous and expanding middle class will require a more affirmative economic role for government -- in labor markets, industrial policy, and international trade. The Republican alternative -- to rein in the state and unleash the market -- promises instead to make things worse for most Americans, destroying what remains of the American dream. But affirmative government economic policies are now confined to the margins of American political debate. With a few exceptions (for example, increasing the minimum wage, and imposing tougher trade standards), they lack the public support needed to enact and implement new policy. Moreover, the principal beneficiaries of such programs are in mass exodus from the Democratic party -- headed not for some more progressive alternative, but for a Republican party defined by its hostility to government. So in the near term, the shortfall of support is likely to remain.

In the longer run, however, these policies may not only be politically feasible, but provide the only reasonable hope for Democratic revival. Their fate depends on which of two stories voters believe about eroding living standards. According to one theory, government bears principal responsibility for that erosion. This is the popular explanation, and if voters continue to accept it, and to think that -- apart from building prisons and organizing invasions -- states are incompetent, then Democrats will continue to start every election with two strikes against them. An alternative view, with strong roots in American populism, assigns blame for current economic decay primarily to irresponsible corporations and politicians who have lost interest in the living standards of average Americans. If Democrats consistently advocate affirmative, progressive policies, and defend the alternative political story to which those policies are intimately linked, they may be able, over time, to shift the political terrain to their own advantage. Democrats would gain the electoral edge they currently lack and a solid political base for implementing progressive economic policies.

To see why now-unpopular policies provide virtually the only long-run hope, we need to understand who deserted the Democrats in 1994 and what their desertion implies about the current political context.

Deserting the Democrats

The 1994 election was disastrous for the Democrats. But their troubles were not uniform across all groups in the population. Compare 1992 and 1994 levels of Democratic support by education. Democratic support dropped 10 points among high school dropouts, 11 among high school graduates, and 12 among those with some college -- all groups hit by serious long-term wage decline. By contrast, Democratic support was rock-steady among voters with a college degree -- the group that has fared best economically (see Figure 1).

The same pattern appears when we compare the results in 1994 with the last off-year election (1990). The fall in Democratic support is again concentrated among those without college degrees: down 9 points for high school graduates, and 11 for those with some college (see Figure 2). The chief difference is that the 1990-1994 comparison shows very little change among high school dropouts. This underscores the "curvilinear" nature of Democratic support: they are doing better at the lower and upper ends of the education distribution, while collapsing in the middle.

Among Whites, where the 1992-94 decline in Democratic support was concentrated (Black Democratic support increased slightly), the shift away from the Democrats among non-college-educated voters was especially pronounced. And among non-college-educated Whites, the anti-Democratic shift was sharpest among men (see Table 1). Democratic support declined 20 percentage points (to 37 percent) among White men with a high school education, and 15 points (to 31 percent) among White men with some college. Once more, the economic background is fundamental: it is precisely men without college degrees who have experienced the largest wage declines over the last two decades(see Table 1).

But the Democrats are not only in trouble with men. Democratic support dropped 10 points among White women with high school diplomas, and an equal amount among those with some college (see the bottom panel of Table 1). To ascribe the fall-off in Democratic support to "angry White guys" is, then, to miss the point. Although there is a gender gap, the big story is that Democrats are having serious problems with non-college educated White men and women.

Faced with all this bad news, some analysts may wish to emphasize Democratic success in maintaining a base among the college-educated -- 43 percent of voters according to the VNS exit poll. Exit polls, however, significantly overstate the numbers of college-graduate voters. More reliable voting data available from the Census Bureau indicate that, in 1994, voters with college degrees constituted only 29 percent of the electorate. So the political implications of the severe drop-off in Democratic support among non-college educated voters are worse than they initially appear: those voters, who are deserting the Democrats in droves, are the overwhelming proportion of the electorate.

What is true of the voting population as a whole is also true of Perot voters, the key swing group in the electorate. Indeed, once adjusted to reflect voting patterns in the Census data, they are even more heavily non-college educated (see table 2). And, consistent with this, they moved massively away from the Democrats in 1994, down 17 percentage points to 32 percent, an astonishingly low level of support -- even lower than the Democrats' poor showing among White non-college educated voters generally (see figure 3). If this erosion of support from swing voters continues, it will effectively cripple the Democrats as a national party.

Moreover, analysis of wage data linked to the VNS polls underlines, once more, the economic roots of Democratic troubles. Perot voters who voted Republican in 1994 were precisely the ones under greatest economic stress. Since 1979, they have suffered wage losses more than double those suffered by Perot voters who voted Democratic. In short, within an economically stressed group, dominated by non-college educated voters, the most economically stressed were also the most likely to vote Republican in 1994.

Two Stories

The political effects of declining living standards defy traditional expectations. With some exceptions (chiefly Blacks), those suffering most are moving away from the Democratic party, the historic vehicle for affirmative economic initiatives, to a Republican party actively hostile even to modest government initiatives. Why would voters with declining living standards direct anger at the Democrats, supposedly the "party of the common man," rather than Republicans, with their historic commitment to the interests of the wealthiest Americans?

The answer reflects an asymmetry between the political effects of and short- and long-term economic changes. Short-term recession simply hurts the incumbent party -- the party on whose watch the decline takes place (vice versa for short-term growth). But the effects of such longer-term changes as falling living standards depend on voter beliefs about the roots of those changes. The Democrats are being hurt by declining living standards because, in or out of office, they get the blame in the standard public story about long-term economic shifts.

According to that story, long-term decline results from a combination of wasteful government spending (especially on the poor, minorities, and immigrants, who are themselves seen as causes of declining living standards), high taxes, inefficient and obtrusive regulation, selfish behavior by interest groups, and excessive social tolerance. All of this is readily blamed on the Democrats -- the party that has promoted activist government, represented poor people, minorities, and all manner of interest group, and endorsed social liberalism.

That blame is a large burden to carry into every election. Democrats can still win under especially propitious conditions -- Bush was unpopular enough and the overall economy bad enough for them to triumph in 1992. But in more ordinary circumstances, they are likely to lose, and lose badly, even when, as in 1994, economic indicators look good.

The political difference between long-term trends and short-term fluctuations helps explain why conventional election forecasting models were so far off in 1994. Because they focused entirely on the pro-incumbent effects of decent economic growth, while completely ignoring the very strong anti-Democratic effect of declining living standards, those models projected only minor Democratic losses. Clearly, we are in a new political era in which aggregate economic statistics -- and models driven by them -- will be nearly useless in predicting electoral fortunes.

Pointing the Finger

The Democrats are in trouble, then, because so many voters believe the anti-government, anti-Democratic story about living standards. But why do they believe it?

For three reasons. First, in our Lockean political culture, citizens are skeptical of government. When things go wrong, they are easily led to blame the state.

Second, things have been going wrong for several decades. With middle-class incomes stagnating and economic prospects deteriorating, people blame government for causing the problems, and for failing to correct them. More immediately, they conclude that their tax dollars -- dollars they could use to support their families -- are doing little good. Indeed, the general perception is that taxes go out of their pockets and wind up in the (less-deserving) pockets of others. So government is unfair, as well as ineffective.

Finally -- and perhaps most critically -- Republicans and allied political forces have aggressively promoted the anti-government story about declining living standards. These efforts are hardly surprising, given the public's receptiveness to the story and the political benefits that flow from pushing it. What is somewhat more surprising is the weakness of the Democratic counter-story.

This weakness is apparent on several levels. To begin with, the Democratic story is rarely advanced forcefully and, when it is mentioned, tends to focus on the abstract forces of technological change and globalization, rather than such concrete targets as footloose multinationals, uncaring corporations, Wall Street bond traders, foreign economic competitors, politicians who serve the rich, and so on. Moreover, it is less comprehensive than the anti-government story, which links economic problems with increasing crime, deteriorating schools, and declining values: the same government that has wrecked the economy through excessive taxation and regulation is also turning all of us into wards of the Nanny State, destroying individual initiative and the sense of personal responsibility, and, by ruining family, neighborhood, and community, undermining the social foundations of moral tradition and religious commitment. Whereas the anti-government story speaks, coherently and forcefully, to all the different aspects of declining living standards that worry American voters, the Democratic counter-story is fragmented and fugitive.

Making Virtue of Necessity?

An immediate implication of this analysis is that most progressive economic policies will not be feasible until the dominance of the anti-government story is broken. Indeed, to the extent the public believes the anti-government story, supporting those policies is equivalent to throwing good money after bad. Why be so stupid? Why not cut government, reduce taxes, slash the deficit, and balance the federal budget -- the compendium of a 60-year failure. We won't solve all our problems, but we will waste less money and maybe even get a refund (tax cuts) on a defective product (government).

Another implication is that Democratic electoral fortunes are unlikely to revive while the anti-government story is dominant. Since the New Deal, the Democrats have been the party of activist national government. No matter how hard they try to re-position themselves, they cannot shake that label. And as long as it sticks, they will continue to be cast as villains, to be held responsible for declining living standards, and to lose elections.

This is not a good situation either for progressive economic policies or for the Democrats. But it does suggest a confluence of interests that might lead to a happier ending. Perhaps the very thing that motivates progressive economic policies -- the need to raise American living standards -- is central to breaking the hegemony of the anti-government story which is, in turn, central to the Democrats' future electoral fortunes.

Indeed, given the cross-class nature of Democratic party elites, perhaps only the threat of electoral meltdown can succeed in altering the party's reticence about policies that challenge business prerogatives and priorities. Given a choice, the party will opt for policies that do not challenge these prerogatives and priorities. But, from an electoral standpoint, there may no longer be a choice.

The Alternative Story

Discrediting the anti-government story about declining living standards is central, then, to reviving Democratic electoral fortunes and advancing progressive economic policies. But how can this discrediting proceed in the current political climate?

A beginning can be made by pushing a subset of progressive economic policies that already have some political viability -- for example, raising the minimum wage, getting tough on trade, taxing the foreign profits of U.S. companies, cutting corporate subsidies, and defending, perhaps extending, education and training programs. These policies and programs all have consistently high support in public opinion polls; if adopted, they would have positive, if limited, impact; and together, they would allow Democrats and progressives to open a beachhead in a fight against current priorities. The possibility of opening such a beachhead is the most important reason for pushing this limited set of politically viable programs. Voters who see successful government economic initiatives will be more willing to listen to the alternative story -- the key to shifting the political terrain and developing the political base for more extensive activist policies.

That alternative should begin by placing responsibility for declining living standards at the door of irresponsible corporations, politicians who have lost interest in the living standards of the average American, and economic and political elites who identify the national interest with maximum freedom to pursue their own profits and power. It is not a complete picture, but it gets at the fundamentals, and there is little evidence that voters want a story with multiple qualifications and sub-villains. They want a basic, clear story -- and if they do not get it from the Democrats, they will get it somewhere else.

Moreover, the alternative story continues, corporations and politicians have chosen an economic course for the country. The current path does not follow inexorably from economic constraints -- globalization, microelectronics, the shift to services -- but reflects decisions made by its primary beneficiaries. It is therefore possible to choose another path -- though the behavior of corporate and political elites disqualifies them from leading this redirection.

Finally, the alternative must match the breadth of the anti-government story -- its coverage of both economic and social aspects of declining living standards. Voters are concerned about the deterioration of daily life as well as (perhaps more than) declining wages and incomes. So the link between the eroding material base for family and community institutions and the decline in the quality of these institutions must be made explicit.

For example, when economic pressures force both spouses to work and work longer hours, less time is available for children and community. Moreover, job insecurity and downsizing have taken a toll, from uprooting individuals and entire communities to increasing the level of everyday stress. Indeed, a host of material changes -- changes promoted by irresponsible corporations and politicians -- now deny ordinary Americans the resources (jobs, incomes, time, stability) to support the good schools, safe streets, and pleasant communities currently enjoyed by the elite. Put another way, the same selfish interests that are indifferent to ordinary Americans' wages and incomes are equally indifferent to ensuring the resources necessary to improve their schools, streets, and communities.

All this suggests a simple, three-sentence summary of a view that can be effectively contrasted with the Republican outlook. The anti-government forces say:

The crisis is the deficit.

The cause is big government.

The solution is cutting government.

The Democrats should insist that:

The crisis is declining living standards.

The cause is corporations and politicians who don't care about living standards.

The solution is getting government on your side.

Everyone in America can learn this by heart. But promoting it will require Democrats to challenge the Republican's first premise: that the budget deficit is the real crisis. The Republicans love this claim because it makes the causal connection between crisis and big government so clear. So long as it is accepted, however, Republicans win the main argument, and political debate focuses on subsidiary differences about how best to rein in government. To move the perception of crisis in a different direction, the Democrats must insist that the real crisis is declining living standards.

That insistence will require a break from the "New Democrat" strategy, still viewed in elite political circles as the best hope for Democratic revival. Because New Democrats focus so obsessively on the (valid) insight that Democrats need to improve the image of big government, they implicitly accept that big government is the problem. The result is a softer version of the Republican anti-government story: balance the budget in ten years, not in seven. Even if it improves party image, this strategy leaves the Democrats with the same two strikes against them at election time -- witness the 1994 election results.

All this suggests that arguments for progressive economic policies that highlight the need for affirmative state action can make an important contribution to current political debate -- even if the policies themselves are not yet feasible. Arguments about the true salience of the deficit, its relationship to health care costs, and its lack of relationship to declining living standards can play a key role in debunking the "Crisis is the deficit" premise. And specific policy ideas will help to move claims about increasing living standards and "getting government on your side" from slogans to serious proposals.

But will the alternative story ever be advanced? Perhaps not: it is certainly not on the current Democratic agenda. Without it, however, the Democrats and progressive economic policies face a bleak future. The hope is that those concerned with either will acknowledge their common fate, appreciate just how dim current prospects are, and understand that they need to change voters' minds before they can win their hearts.

Originally published in the October/November 1995 issue of Boston Review

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