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The census data for 1998 tell essentially the same story. Despite reports of a huge surge in the Hispanic vote that year, again usually based on exit-poll findings, census data indicate modest increases of about a percentage point, both in turnout and in share of active voters, over the numbers for 1994.
In the long run, Hispanics' growing share of the population will substantially increase their share of the active electorate. According to census projections, Hispanic representation in the voting-age population should grow by more than 50 percent over the next two decades -- rising from a little under 10 percent to about 15 percent by 2020. As a very rough estimate, this might increase the Hispanic share of the voting electorate to about eight percent. In the short to medium run, however, the racial composition of the voting population will change but little. As with union members and blacks, then, so with Hispanics. A successful Democratic coalition-building strategy must hold on to Hispanics, but they do not provide a plausible substitute for increased support among the forgotten majority.
O an expansion of the existing Democratic base holds little promise for creating a new Democratic majority. The current Democratic coalition -- most emphatically not a majority -- is already doing a fair job of turning out these voters. It could always do better, of course, but there are limits to the likely effect.
Inescapably, the forgotten majority is the answer. Forgotten-majority voters, excluding those in unions, make up close to half the electorate (45 percent). They voted Democratic for the House at a rate of only 39 percent in 1998, and for President at a rate of 41 percent in 1996. Just as the Republicans made great gains in the 1970s and 1980s by "hunting where the ducks are" (in that case, among the expanding ranks of disaffected whites, particularly in the South), so the Democrats have to go after the biggest flock of ducks -- the unorganized, or non-union, ranks of the new white working class. The Democrats don't actually need a majority of such voters. Just breaking even would bring their House and presidential shares of the two-party vote to 53 percent. Obviously adequate to win the presidency, this level of support would also almost certainly be enough to take back the House and would return popular support for House Democrats to pre-1994 levels (the Democrats averaged 53 percent of the two-party vote throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s). Considering the two sexes separately within this target group, forgotten-majority men are clearly the tougher sell. Making up almost a fifth (19 percent) of the active electorate, they voted Democratic at a rate of only 35 percent for the House in 1998 and 33 percent for the presidency in 1996.
Unorganized forgotten-majority women make up about a quarter of the active electorate and are substantially more supportive of Democrats: 42 percent voted Democratic for the House in 1998 and 46 percent for the presidency in 1996.
Promising as the forgotten-majority women's vote is, reaching parity with the Republicans among the new white working class will require some heavy mobilization among unorganized (and, Democratically speaking, disaffected) forgotten-majority men. Even if support among forgotten-majority women could be increased to more than 50 percent, the Democrats would still need to win over about 45 percent of their male counterparts (an increase of 10 percentage points). This might seem a daunting task -- but it should be remembered that House Democrats regularly attained such levels of support among forgotten-majority voters, men as well as women, until the early 1990s.
F the Democrats can't appeal effectively to the forgotten majority, and if expanding their current base won't be enough to solve their problems, they must increase their support among college-educated whites. Indeed, to hear some orthodox New Democrats, this is the party's major goal. For example, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck, in the Democratic Leadership Council's flagship journal Blueprint (Fall, 1998), argued that since "the New Economy favors a rising Learning Class over a declining working class," and since there is an "educational bias in the electorate" that favors the college-educated, the party must focus on highly educated voters. Setting aside black and Hispanic college-educated voters, who already vote Democratic at extremely high rates, this leaves us with college-educated whites. Simply put, that dog won't hunt.
Substantially more affluent than their working-class counterparts, these voters tend to be less concerned about economic problems and less inclined toward activist approaches to those problems. Moreover, when the very small unionized, Democratic-leaning component of this group is separated out, the remainder makes up just over a fifth of the electorate -- a proportion less than half that of the working class. These college-educated whites voted Democratic for the House at a rate of only 40 percent in 1998, and for President at a rate of 39 percent in 1996.
The group is divided about equally between men and women. Once again, the men are substantially more conservative. Only 31 percent voted Democratic for the presidency in 1996, and 36 percent for the House in 1998. Moreover, other public-opinion data show that men in this group have far more strongly conservative views on everything from the budget and taxes to education, trade, and health care than either working-class white men or college-educated white women. They are unlikely candidates for Democratic conversion.
The Democrats are doing substantially better among the college-educated white women in this group. About 44 percent supported the Democrats for the House in 1998, and 48 percent supported Clinton for President in 1996. These relatively encouraging numbers have strengthened the Democrats' belief that they should target college-educated voters, especially women, rather than working-class men.
This belief is misguided, for two reasons. First, this is a small target group. There are nearly twice as many unorganized forgotten-majority men as there are college-educated women. Simply breaking even among these forgotten-majority men would be equivalent to achieving landslides among these college-educated white women of about two thirds for the House and three quarters for the presidency. Such landslides are beyond the bounds of plausibility.
The second reason is that support for the Democrats among this group is overwhelmingly driven by women with postgraduate education. Fifty-three percent of these women voted Democratic for the House in 1998 and 56 percent voted Democratic for the presidency in 1996, whereas women with just four-year college degrees supported Democrats at corresponding rates of only 40 percent and 43 percent. But women with postgraduate degrees account for only about three percent of the electorate, making them a slender reed to support a strategy.
Of course, the Democrats could focus both on the forgotten majority and on college-educated white women, particularly those with postgraduate degrees. The latter cannot substitute for the former, however. If the Democrats could improve their support among the forgotten majority, additional support from highly educated white women would be icing on the cake. But without the forgotten-majority voters there will be no cake to ice.
O the Democrats must appeal to the forgotten majority. What of the Republicans? Their position is basically a mirror image of the Democrats': they do very poorly among union-household voters, blacks, and Hispanics; they do relatively well among unorganized forgotten-majority voters and among more-affluent, college-educated voters. In general they do particularly well among men. This presents the Republicans with two basic options: cut into the Democratic base among union households and minorities, or increase their support among unorganized whites, particularly women.
Can the Republicans crack the Democratic base of union-household members and minorities? Possibly, but only with great difficulty. Given its size, the bloc of union-household voters is the most inviting target. But at least for the purposes of national politics, unions are now better organized than they have been in some time, and they are more resolutely Democratic than ever.
Blacks seem, to put it mildly, an even less likely target. These voters have shown no signs whatsoever of straying from the Democratic fold in recent elections, and Republican overtures toward them are likely to be a wasted effort. The Republicans should probably announce, again and again and again, that their party is not racist. But persuading black voters won't be easy.
Perhaps the best bet for cracking the Democratic base lies in the Hispanic vote. Hispanics not in unions voted 39 percent Republican for the House in 1998. In some state elections, including the most recent Texas gubernatorial election, Hispanic support for the Republicans was much higher (that election, notably, involved George W. Bush, the certain Republican presidential nominee). Although it would be a mistake to read these figures as a harbinger of sizable defections from the Democratic camp, they do suggest an openness to Republican appeals among the rapidly changing and diverse Hispanic population. So Hispanics are worth pursuing, to be sure, but the fact remains that their electoral weight nationwide will remain relatively slight for many years (though in state elections they will be important in the Southwest and in California).
Breaking into the Democratic base, therefore, seems an unpromising strategy for the Republicans -- at least as a primary focus. Instead they will have to concentrate on strengthening their advantage among unorganized whites, returning their levels of support among those voters to those of the Reagan-Bush years and of the congressional election of 1994. The most effective way for the Republicans to increase their congressional support is to improve their support among unorganized white women. In the 1998 election Republicans received almost two thirds of the votes of unorganized white men. It is probably unrealistic for them to aim for a still higher share, though they must maintain the share they have; forgotten-majority men provided about 30 percent of all Republican votes in 1998. It would be more realistic to gain votes among their female counterparts, whose support levels were seven to nine points lower. If the support of forgotten-majority women alone could be increased to match that of their male counterparts, the Republicans would have their new majority. For the support of college-educated white women to have the same effect, the Republicans would have to receive an overwhelming three quarters of their votes. It seems highly implausible that they will be able to do so.
HE political arithmetic of the American electorate is unforgiving. Whether the major parties like it or not, the road to the next successful political coalition runs straight through the forgotten majority. The Democrats have to reach toward the break-even point among these voters, especially by strengthening their performance among men (while continuing to turn out their current base). The Republicans have to intensify their dominance of this group -- especially by enhancing their performance among women -- or break into the Democrats' base. These are daunting challenges for both parties, with no obvious or risk-free solutions.
What would it actually take to mobilize -- and keep -- forgotten-majority voters? As we have said, the core values of the forgotten majority must be reunited with their economic experience. Consider the following possibilities.
• If a criminal has a right to a lawyer, you have a right to a doctor. This was a great line from Harris Wofford's successful Senate campaign of 1991, and it sounds the right note for the forgotten majority. Hardworking, law-abiding citizens should be provided with access to health care. They should not be left out in the cold just because they're unlucky enough to lose their jobs or to work for companies that don't provide affordable health insurance.
• People who work hard all their lives should have an adequate income after retirement. It is not fair to punish those who earned too little to save much for their retirement or who worked for employers that didn't provide pensions.
• Americans have a right to the best education their tax dollars can buy. In this rapidly changing economy the children of American workers must have access to quality education -- elementary, secondary, college, and beyond. The more quality education a person has, the better he or she will do economically.
• People willing to work hard should be able to get the training they want for the jobs they need. In the new economy people frequently have to or want to change jobs. They should not be penalized because they can't get access to training they would be perfectly willing and able to go through.
• In today's global economy everybody has a right to a decent wage and everybody has a right to speak out and organize. American workers shouldn't be competing with workers in other countries whose wages are artificially depressed by the absence of even minimal standards and democratic freedoms. That's not fair to workers abroad or at home.
• People who work hard should also be able to spend enough time with their families. Hard work shouldn't destroy family life and parents' relationships with their children. That's not the American Dream. We have to find ways to give workers more time to spend as parents, instead of the other way around.
• Parents who work outside the home should have access to affordable, quality child care. Nobody who wants or needs to work in today's society should have to sacrifice the welfare of his or her children to do so.
• We should make whatever investments are necessary to keep the economy growing. Solid economic growth benefits all Americans who are willing to work. It's a good use of tax money to spend whatever is necessary to maintain and safeguard this growth.
These goals build on the core values of the forgotten majority -- opportunity, fair reward for effort, the centrality of hard work and achievement, and social commitment. And they would give everybody in the forgotten majority a fair shot at an upstanding, reasonably prosperous and secure life -- that is, a middle-class life as it was once understood.
It is important to emphasize that the list above is a set of goals, not policies. And since they are goals, they could -- and should -- be adopted by Republicans, although policies to meet these goals are currently more closely associated with Democrats. Indeed, we would argue that the Republicans have, rather than a seeming ideological hostility to government, a great interest in embracing these goals and in highlighting their commitment to education and other social issues (in budget negotiations last year Republicans actually proposed more funding for education than was requested by President Clinton).
Of course, Republicans and Democrats will have different ideas about how to use government to achieve these goals. But each party must try to achieve them if it means to build a durable majority. The insecurities of the new economy cannot be remedied without effort; the need to confront them politically is inescapable. Whichever party acknowledges this first, together with the need to overcome the new austerity (the bipartisan consensus that paying down the national debt is far more important than spending money on new programs), will reap the electoral rewards.
Until then, neither party is capable of implementing a serious program to address America's problems at scale, since the opposing party can effectively veto it. We are left instead with a politics of small gestures and incremental changes, fueled by intense partisan conflict. This makes for profoundly ineffective governance, especially when measured against the challenges of a new century. With the support of the forgotten majority, however, we can do better. We can revive active, strong government and build a twenty-first-century prosperity that includes all Americans.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 2000; America's Forgotten Majority - 00.06 (Part Three); Volume 286, No. 6; page 66-75.