m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Go to this issue's Table of Contents.

J U N E  2 0 0 0 

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part three.)

These people are the real swing voters in American politics. Their loyalties shift the most from election to election and, in so doing, determine the winners in American politics. They are also the majority -- about 55 percent of voters and of the adult population. But they don't receive much attention these days; they are invisible to the journalists and commentators who define our national discourse. To bring them into focus more sharply, we will review some basic information about them. As we proceed, it will become clear that the new white working class is quite at variance with dated stereotypes from the 1970s and 1980s.

The days of high school dropouts are long gone. More than four fifths of the forgotten majority have at least a high school diploma. Almost two fifths have some education beyond high school, and about one in ten has achieved an associate's degree.

Members of the forgotten majority earn a moderate income. Their median household income is about $42,000 -- on the low side of what is generally considered a middle-class income. About two thirds have household incomes between $15,000 and $75,000. About a seventh are below that range, about a fifth above it.

They tend to be low-level white-collar and service workers, not unskilled blue-collar workers. More than 80 percent of forgotten-majority workers hold jobs that are not professional or managerial. And even those who do professional or managerial work tend to hold relatively low-level, poorly paid jobs. The few blue-collar jobs that remain are likely to be skilled: only 17 percent of forgotten-majority workers currently hold unskilled blue-collar jobs (even among forgotten-majority men the figure is less than a quarter). They are less and less likely to work in factory jobs. Today only a relatively small proportion (17 percent) of the forgotten majority works in manufacturing (even among men the proportion is still less than a quarter).

They live in and dominate the suburbs. The forgotten majority is under-represented in our urban areas (making up just over a third of adults) and over-represented in our rural ones (making up almost three quarters of adults). But in the growing suburbs, generally viewed as the current battleground of American politics, the forgotten majority is represented fairly accurately, making up almost three fifths of adults. In contrast, college-educated whites compose barely more than a fifth of suburban adults.

The conventional view of the suburban electorate -- affluent soccer moms, executive dads -- is drawn from a few relatively wealthy towns like Bethesda, Maryland, and Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and it doesn't come close to reflecting reality. The suburban electorate is in fact composed mostly of members of the forgotten majority: two-earner families of low to moderate education and income, generally working in low-level white-collar, service, and skilled blue-collar jobs.

In sum, the white working class remains numerically dominant, even if its form has changed. Sure, many of its members qualify as wired, in the narrow sense that they work with computers and information technology. Many also qualify as soccer moms, in the narrow sense that they have to juggle job and family, including driving their kids to and from athletic contests. And certainly many qualify as suburban independents, in the narrow sense that they live in the suburbs and lack a strong identification with either party. Nonetheless, they are members of a white working class whose economic interests and experience diverge fundamentally -- in terms of culture, class, and history -- from those of soccer moms in Bethesda, suburban independents in Fair Lawn, and wired cyberprofessionals in Silicon Valley.

The Forgotten Majority's Values

It's clear that the economic interests and experience of the forgotten majority set it apart from more highly educated and affluent citizens. But what about values? It's a truism in politics that values matter; some even agree with Ben Wattenberg, the author of Values Matter Most (1995).

Undeniably, people vote on the basis of more than economic issues and experience. And even with respect to economic issues, people's values inevitably affect how they assess policy ideas. But this doesn't mean that voting is therefore all about values. It means that values are always a part of voting, and that separating values from economics in political decisions is an intrinsically difficult and arbitrary exercise. In other words, "values always matter" is closer to the truth than "values matter most."

So, rather than emphasize an artificial distinction between values voting and economic voting, let's focus on the relationship between values and economics in voting. A disjunction between economic experience and values has fundamentally shaped the political behavior of the forgotten majority. The economic experience has already been described. The values we have in mind are deeply held and broadly shared: opportunity, fair reward for effort, the centrality of hard work and individual achievement, and social commitment. As we have argued, over the past quarter century these values have repeatedly been contradicted or called into question by the tremendous slowdown -- and reversal of direction for some -- on that escalator to the middle class. The failure of activist government to get that escalator moving again, together with its apparent concentration on the problems or rights of others (minorities, the poor, gays, even criminals), has persuaded forgotten-majority voters that government is more a part of this values-experience disjunction than the solution to it. The direct and long-lasting result is the sour and skeptical attitude toward government that has become so common today.

The Political Opening

THE role of the forgotten majority is crucial to understanding the potential of the strategies being pursued by both major parties, in this election cycle as in recent ones. The ideal strategy, in our view, is one that recognizes the centrality of forgotten-majority voters and seeks to reunite their values with their economic experience -- in other words, to heal the disjunction that has marked the years since the early 1970s. The party that does this should be able to command the long-term loyalty of these voters and thus to grasp and keep political dominance.

This is a favorable time to pursue the project of reuniting the values of forgotten-majority voters with their economic experience. The fast economic growth, low unemployment, and rapidly rising real wages of recent years mean that work is being rewarded in a way that hasn't been seen for a generation or so, taking the edge off the forgotten majority's suspicion of government and the political parties.

With that in mind, how are the major parties doing? Democratic Party strategy suffers from a refusal to recognize the forgotten majority as fundamental to a new popular majority. The Democrats prefer to target various fashionable voter groups as supplements to their base in unions and minority groups and hope that they manage to outpoll the Republicans, as they have in the past two presidential elections. The Democrats also lack a program for uniting the values and economic experience of the forgotten majority; they simply hope that the current economic expansion will last forever, a scenario that cannot happen. And even now the expansion is doing little to solve long-term problems such as health security, retirement security, and education reform, which are crucial to the forgotten majority's economic future. These problems demand bold policy interventions -- interventions that the Democrats are reluctant to propose, given their born-again commitment to fiscal prudence and modest government.

The Republicans are similarly reluctant to recognize the centrality of the forgotten majority, even though their recent electoral successes have depended on support from this group. They have had similar difficulty articulating a program that could reunite forgotten-majority values and economic experience. They remain committed to an anti-tax and anti-government rhetoric that is out of step with the forgotten majority and provides no compelling vision for its economic future. Of course, there has recently been some softening of this rhetorical position (Bush's "compassionate conservatism"), and it is at least possible that anti-tax politics might regain some traction in the event of an economic downturn. But for now the real swing voters in politics are waiting for someone who understands both their values and their economic experience, and the Republicans do not appear to qualify.

The Democratic Base

PERHAPS the Democrats can move forward without the forgotten majority. They start with about a third of all voters in their base:the combined strength of union-household members, blacks, and Hispanics. If this base can be expanded by getting more members of these groups into the voting pool (either because the groups themselves become larger or because members of the groups turn out to vote in greater numbers), then maybe the Democrats can get along without the forgotten majority. Analysis suggests, however, that this strategy has only limited potential. Take union-household voters. Given the huge difficulties the AFL-CIO has been having in trying to increase the level of unionization in the country, the obvious way for the Democrats to get more of these voters is to increase turnout rates among them. The problem with this strategy is that these voters already turn out at high rates. In 1998, according to the Census Bureau, union members turned out at a rate of 53 percent, as compared with 40 percent among the voting-age population as a whole and 37 percent among non-union voters. Even after education, income, race, and other characteristics are controlled for, union voters simply participate more.

Although this is good news for the Democratic Party, there are clearly limits to how much bigger a payoff the party can get from this group. Could union-household participation be driven to 75 or 80 percent? Possibly, but it would mean that these voters would have to increase their already high turnout rates by 20 to 25 percentage points -- a very tough proposition indeed. That doesn't mean that union turnout rates can't be bumped up in particular elections -- or that union voters can't play a very important role, especially if the election is a close one. But it seems unlikely that a dramatically increased union turnout will provide a way around the challenge of mobilizing the forgotten majority.

Black voters offer a similarly limited resource for the Democrats. Their staunch support for the Democratic Party is one of the political givens of our time. In election after election, for offices high and low, black voters overwhelmingly support Democrats, by 80 to 90 percent or more. Thus it would be pure electoral gold for the Democrats to increase the turnout rate among blacks. But how feasible is this on a regular basis?

A perennial source of Democratic hope, the black turnout is also perennially misunderstood. After the 1996 presidential election, for example, some argued that the black-male turnout had taken a huge jump -- underscoring possibilities for a base-expansion strategy. But this argument, which derived from exit polls, was contradicted by more-reliable census data. (The census survey data contain 90,000 to 100,000 adults per election year and are generally a better source for looking at the demographics of the electorate than exit polls, which have a much smaller sample size and suffer from sampling bias and poor question wording.) These data showed that the turnout among black men had actually declined by four percentage points (and the rate among black women had declined by three points). Black men continue to make up just four percent of the active electorate.

Similarly, 1998 was generally considered to be an exceptionally good year for the black turnout, as African-Americans sought to oppose the Republican Congress and to support President Bill Clinton. But the overall increase in turnout among blacks was only about three percentage points over the rate in 1994, and the increase in the proportion of all voters who were black was about half that. In a year in which the overall turnout dropped, that was still an impressive performance, but it illustrates the difficulty of producing a large national increase in black turnout, even in a favorable situation in which get-out-the-vote efforts are deemed successful. (Large increases in particular state or local races are a different issue.)

Thus it is unlikely that average participation rates among blacks can be increased dramatically. And in any event, blacks remain a relatively small part of the U.S. electorate -- just over a tenth. They are clearly central to the Democratic base, and it's essential that the Democrats retain them. But they cannot substitute for the forgotten majority in the Democrats' quest for a new coalition.

Though Hispanic support for Democrats has been considerably less staunch than black support, and is in fact quite weak in some places (among them Florida), Hispanics overall support Democrats at rates of 60 to 70 percent. Increasing the Hispanic turnout would be a clear boon to the Democrats. But, again, how much and how fast could current levels of participation grow?

An optimistic answer to this question was suggested by reports of a dramatically increased Hispanic turnout in the 1996 election. According to widely cited data from exit polls, Hispanic representation among voters almost doubled (from 2.3 percent in 1992 to 4.5 percent in 1996). This implied an increase of seven percent in the Hispanic turnout (in an election in which turnout overall went down six points) and an overall increase in the Hispanic vote of almost two million. But -- as with the black vote -- census data suggest that the change in the Hispanic vote was much less dramatic. According to those data, the Hispanic turnout actually dropped by a couple of percentage points.

However, because Hispanics grew as a proportion of the population from 1992 to 1996, and because their turnout declined less than did that of the rest of the population in an abysmally low turnout year, their share of the electorate still increased, from just under four to just under five percent: an increase of about 700,000 votes.

Continued...

(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one or part three.)


Joel Rogers is a professor of sociology, law, and political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he also directs the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. Ruy Teixeira is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and the author of The Disappearing American Voter (1992). Their article in this issue of The Atlantic will appear, in somewhat different form, in their book, America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, to be published by Basic Books this month.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 2000; America's Forgotten Majority - 00.06 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 6; page 66-75.