As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly
The Suburban Century Begins
THE United States is a nation of suburbs. The 1990 census makes it official. Nearly half the country's population now lives in suburbs, up from a quarter in 1950 and a third in 1960. This year will see the first presidential election in which a majority of the voters will in all likelihood be suburbanites--the first election of the suburban century.
That explains the obsessive focus on the middle class in the 1992 campaign. The middle class is who lives in the suburbs. The word that best describes the political identity of the middle class is "taxpayers." Democrats have been talking about "the forgotten middle class," and for good reason. For the past twenty-five years the Democrats have forgotten the middle class. And they have paid dearly.
They can't afford to do that anymore. The third century of American history is shaping up as the suburban century. Until 1920 most Americans lived in rural areas. By 1960 the country was a third urban, a third rural, and a third suburban. That balance didn't last long, however. By 1990 the urban population had slipped to 31 percent and the rural population was down to less than a quarter. We are now a suburban nation with an urban fringe and a rural fringe.
The first century of American life was dominated by the rural myth: the sturdy and self-reliant Jeffersonian farmer. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, Americans were getting off the farms as fast as they could, to escape the hardship and brutality of rural life. How could you keep them down on the farm after they'd seen Kansas City?
Most of the twentieth century has been dominated by the urban myth: the melting pot; New York, New York; the cities as the nation's great engines of prosperity and culture. All the while, however, Americans have been getting out of the cities as soon as they can afford to buy a house and a car. They want to escape the crowding and dangers of urban life. But there is more to it than escape. As Kenneth T. Jackson argues in Crabgrass Frontier, a history of suburbanization in the United States, the pull factors (cheap housing and the ideal of a suburban "dream house") have been as important as the push factors (population growth and racial prejudice).
The 1990 Census tells the story of the explosive growth of suburbs. That year fourteen states had a majority suburban population, including six of the ten most populous states (California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, and New Jersey).
Five of the nation's ten fastest-growing counties were majority suburban; two others had considerable suburban development. Three were outside Atlanta. Nineteen of the nation's twenty-five fastest-growing "cities" were really suburbs. They included the Los Angeles-area suburbs of Moreno Valley, Rancho Cucamonga, and Irvine; the Phoenix suburbs of Mesa, Scottsdale, and Glendale; and the Dallas suburbs of Arlington, Mesquite, and Plano.
Suburban growth is not likely to end anytime soon. According to the polls, 43 percent of Boston residents, 48 percent of people who live in Los Angeles, and 60 percent of those who live in New York City say they would leave the city if they could. When the Gallup Poll asked Americans in 1989 what kind of place they would like to live in, only 19 percent said a city.
Is there a suburban myth? Sure there is. It has been a staple of American popular culture since the 1950s, from television shows like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver to movies like E.T. The suburban myth was challenged in highbrow culture as soon as it emerged, however, in books like David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (which criticized suburbia's "other-directedness") and William H. Whyte Jr.'s The Organization Man (which called it "group-mindedness"). The debunking of the suburban myth has now reached American popular culture, where television comedies like Roseanne and The Simpsons portray the harsh realities of suburban life--unemployment, dysfunctional families, and, above all, stress.
Suburban stress has not produced any large-scale countermovement back to the cities or out to the countryside, however. Instead, the larger suburbs have become what the author Joel Garreau calls "edge cities"--places where jobs have migrated to follow the population. These, in turn, have spawned more-distant suburbs of their own--"exurbs." The prevailing life-style in all these places remains distinctively suburban, meaning home-owning, homogeneous, and largely white.
The prevailing imperative of suburban life is security--both economic and physical. When I interviewed Dan Walters, a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and one of the keenest observers of California politics, he explained to me how the culture and life-style of the suburbs work to undermine political consensus.
"The theory of California," Walters explained, "is, 'I bought this house. It's mine. This is my little preserve.' The first thing the homeowner would do was put up a six-foot fence around his entire house. Then the developers started putting in the fences themselves.
"The next step after that was to put a fence around the entire development and put a guard at the gate. The development became a walled community. These walled communities created their own governmental structures. They might be private structures, like homeowners' associations, that exercised government-like powers. But in some cases they actually created public entities that served as private guardians."
Walters offered the following theory: "Personal security in a time of economic and social uncertainty is a very salable commodity. Developers are not selling security but a sense of security." The result, in his view, was "the loss of a sense of common purpose" in California. "We don't have a social consensus," he said, "so we cannot achieve a political consensus. All politics does is implement the social consensus."
IN the 1890s the social consensus broke down in this country when declining rural areas rose up in rebellion against urban America. The Populists spoke for the old rural America that was being displaced economically and culturally by immigration and the rise of great cities. The countryside was driven to radical extremes by economic pressure and the loss of political influence. In the election of 1896 the Democrats fused with the Populists and nominated William Jennings Bryan, shutting themselves out of presidential politics for most of the next thirty-six years.
The social consensus is breaking down again in the 1990s. Urban America is facing extreme economic pressure and the loss of political influence. The cities feel neglected, and with good reason: they are the declining sector of American life. Just as the Populists of the 1890s exalted the rural myth, urban leaders of the 1990s are trying to glorify the urban myth.
In 1990 the mayors of thirty-five of the nation's big cities held an "urban summit" in New York City. They published a position paper pleading the case that their urban agenda was, as the title suggested, "In the National Interest." "Urban centers are the focus of national vitality in trade, manufacturing, finance, law and communications," the mayors insisted. "American culture is profoundly affected by the artistic and intellectual communities that thrive in the compressed space of cities." Mayor Tom Bradley, of Los Angeles, warned, "If we do not save our cities, we shall not save this nation."
The mayors wanted to designate the 1990s "The Decade of the City." They called for "a public education campaign around the theme of why cities are essential." Finally, however, they gave in. They said "city" needs to be redefined "to include the entire urban region as a community." If you can't beat the suburbs, join them.
Like the Populists before them, today's urban activists react with rage and frustration to the neglect of their agenda. Jesse Jackson grumbles that the Democratic Party is turning away from its base. Last year he complained about "an unholy alliance between the two parties--leaving the electorate with two names but one party, one set of assumptions, and no options."
Jackson's mission in 1984 and 1988 was to rally the declining urban sector in a populist protest movement. But this year Jackson decided not to run--much to the relief of Democratic strategists, who dreaded the spectacle of Jackson's again extorting concessions from the party's nominee. They fear that Jackson is as out of step with suburban America today as Bryan was with urban America in the 1890s.
When the U.S. Conference of Mayors met in Washington, last January, the Democratic mayors decided not to rally around a presidential candidate. Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, of Boston, the conference president, complained that none of the major contenders performed strongly enough on the urban agenda. "I want a little fire in the belly here for America's cities," Flynn told The New York Times. "There's still this hesitancy among the candidates. . . . We want somebody who's really going to have a feeling of commitment to problems like homelessness and AIDS."
Actually, one Democratic candidate did draw a positive response from the mayors--Larry Agran, the former mayor of Irvine, California. Agran was regarded, of course, as a long shot for the nomination. The mayors' conference was one of the few candidate forums that included him. What he promised was $25 billion in direct, no-strings-attached aid to cities, paid for by a gigantic cut in military spending. Delighted, the mayors said he was the only candidate who understood the needs of urban America.
The mayors and other liberal activists worry that the Democrats are moving toward a suburban agenda. They are right. The mayors know that problems like poverty, homelessness, and AIDS can't be solved with middle-class tax cuts and entitlement programs. Even robust economic growth doesn't do the cities much good, as the country discovered in the 1980s. What the cities need is targeted resources. But that's exactly what Democrats are afraid of--redistributive programs that take resources from the suburbs to pay for the problems of the cities. That sounds like the Great Society programs that got the Democrats in trouble with the suburban middle class in the 1960s. But isn't it "in the national interest" to bail out the cities? The suburbs have given their answer: walled communities.
Nowhere has the gap between city and suburb been more dramatically demonstrated than in the notorious not-guilty verdict in the trial of four Los Angeles police officers last April. The trial, which took place in Simi Valley, an overwhelmingly white suburb, produced an incomprehensible verdict. The reaction in the inner city of Los Angeles was one of incomprehensible violence.
PRESIDENTIAL politics these days is a race between Democratic cities and Republican suburbs to see who can produce bigger margins. The suburbs are winning.
In 1960 urban areas cast 33 percent of the national vote, 20 percent Democratic and 13 percent Republican. So the Democrats came out of the cities with a seven-point lead. In 1988 the urban vote was down to 29 percent of the total. It split 18 percent for the Democrats and 11 percent for the Republicans. That's still a seven-point lead. Thus, from 1960 to 1988 two things happened to the urban vote: it became smaller, and it became more Democratic. As a result, the Democrats' lead coming out of the cities held constant.
Over the same period the rural vote became smaller and more Republican. So the Republican lead coming out of the countryside also stayed about the same (a two-point lead in 1960, a three-point lead in 1988).
What happened to the suburban vote from 1960 to 1988 was quite different. While the suburbs grew larger, they also became more Republican. In l960 the suburbs generated a third of the national vote. The suburban third divided 18 percent for the Republicans and 15 percent for the Democrats. So the Republican Party came out of the suburbs that year with a three-point lead. In 1988 the suburbs accounted for 48 percent of the vote. And that vote split 28-20 for the Republicans. Thus they came out of the suburbs with an eight-point lead in 1988--enough to cancel out the Democrats' lead in the cities. The suburbs had arrived, politically.
The suburbs are growing larger faster than the cities are becoming more Democratic. That has tipped the balance to the Republicans in presidential elections in a number of key states.
Illinois is a case in point. In 1960 Chicago cast 35 percent of the Illinois presidential vote. With a little help from Richard J. Daley's machine, the city voted 63 percent Democratic that year. In 1988 Chicago's vote was down to 23 percent of the Illinois total. With no apparent help from the Daley machine, the city voted 69 percent Democratic.
At the same time, the suburban vote outside Chicago became slightly more Republican, moving from 60 percent for Nixon in 1960 to 62 percent for Bush in 1988. The number of voters in the suburbs grew enormously, however. The suburbs accounted for 26 percent of the Illinois vote in 1960--a quarter less than Chicago. They cast 38 percent of the Illinois vote in 1988--two thirds more than Chicago.
In 1960 the Democrats came out of Chicago with a 456,000-vote lead for President. The Republicans came out of the suburbs 254,000 votes ahead. Illinois went Democratic. In 1988 the Democrats came out of a smaller but more Democratic Chicago with a 420,000-vote lead. But the Republican margin was 423,000 votes in the suburbs. Illinois went Republican.
In 1960 Detroit cast 22 percent of the Michigan vote. Seventy-one percent of those votes went Democratic. Kennedy got a 312,000-vote lead out of Detroit. The Detroit suburbs also went Democratic that year, by 84,000 votes. Michigan ended up in the Democratic column.
By 1988 Detroit voted a whopping 85 percent Democratic. But the city was down to eight percent of the Michigan vote. It gave Michael S. Dukakis a 217,000-vote lead. Detroit's suburbs were now voting 60 percent Republican. And they accounted for a third of the Michigan vote. The suburbs gave Bush a 230,000-vote lead. Michigan went Republican.
In 1960 Los Angeles County had two and a half times as many voters as the five suburban counties of southern California. But the Republican lead in the suburban counties (138,000 votes) was already large enough to offset the Democratic lead in Los Angeles County (21,000 votes). By 1988 L.A. County and the southern California suburbs were casting the same number of votes. The Democrats' lead of 133,000 votes in L.A. County was dwarfed by the Republicans' lead of 717,000 votes in the suburbs. A state that had gone Republican by 36,000 votes in 1960 went Republican by 353,000 votes in 1988.
How bad has it gotten for Democrats? Bush's margin in Ohio (477,000 votes) was far larger than his total vote in Cleveland (34,000 votes). His margin in Michigan (290,000) was greater than his total vote in Detroit (44,000). Ditto for Georgia and Atlanta. And for Louisiana and New Orleans. The same was very nearly true for Maryland and Baltimore and for California and Los Angeles. Bush's margin in Missouri (83,000 votes) was about the same as the total number of votes he got in St. Louis and Kansas City together (85,000).
In other words, Bush could have carried most of these states without getting a single vote in their largest cities. Republicans can afford to ignore the cities. But the Democrats, like many urban residents, have to worry about becoming trapped in them--exactly the way the Democrats got trapped in rural America in the 1890s.
DEMOCRATS have not done badly among suburban voters in elections below the presidential level. California, for instance, is a heavily suburban state that has voted for the Democratic ticket only once since Harry Truman (the 1964 LBJ landslide), but Democrats have won ten out of twenty-four elections for governor and senator since 1952, have held a majority of California's seats in the House of Representatives since 1958, and have controlled both houses of the state legislature since 1974.
Across the country suburban voters usually vote more Democratic in state elections than in presidential elections. The difference averages between five and eight points in nonsouthern states like California, Illinois, and Michigan. Among suburban voters in southern states like Texas and Florida, Democratic candidates for governor and senator typically do 15 to 25 points better than Democratic presidential candidates.
In 1990 a hundred and seventy congressional districts had majority suburban populations (according to data in the 1980 Census). That was substantially more than the number of majority urban (ninety-eight) or majority rural (eighty-eight) districts. (The remaining seventy-nine districts were "mixed.") Democrats represented more than 80 percent of the urban districts, almost 60 percent of the rural districts, and a bare 50 percent of the suburban districts. The Democrats' ability to sustain a majority in the House of Representatives depends on the party's continuing competitiveness in the suburbs.
And that, in turn, depends on the Democrats' ability to understand the suburban view of government. Suburbanization means the privatization of American life and culture. To move to the suburbs is to express a preference for the private over the public. The architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk offer this disdainful characterization:
"The classic suburb is less a community than an agglomeration of houses, shops, and offices connected to one another by cars, not by the fabric of human life. . . .The structure of the suburb tends to confine people to their houses and cars; it discourages strolling, walking, mingling with neighbors. The suburb is the last word in privatization, perhaps even its lethal consummation, and it spells the end of authentic civic life."
There is a reason why people want to be confined to their houses and their cars. They want a secure and controlled environment. Suburban commuters show a determined preference for private over public transportation. Automobiles may not be efficient, but they give people a sense of security and control. With a car you can go anywhere you want, anytime you want, in the comfort of your own private space.
Entertainment has also been privatized. Suburbanites watch cable television and rent videos. They can watch anything they want, anytime they want, in the comfort of their own private space. People have control over what they see--remote control. And they don't have to put up with the insecurity and disorder of public spaces. Historically, enjoying public spaces was one of the reasons people lived in cities.
Even public activities like shopping have been privatized. The difference between a mall and a downtown is that a mall is a private space, a secure environment. Young people can hang out there. Old people can "mall walk" for exercise. Those are difficult and dangerous things to do in uncontrolled public spaces. Even the streets of a suburb are not really public areas. Suburban houses have decks, which protrude into private back yards. In the great American suburb there are no front porches.
Suburbanites' preference for the private applies to government as well. Suburban voters buy "private" government--good schools and safe streets for the people who live there. They control their local government, including taxes, spending, schools, and police.
There are rich suburbs (Fairfax County, Virginia) and poor suburbs (Chelsea, Massachusetts); black suburbs (Prince Georges County, Maryland) and Hispanic suburbs (Hialeah, Florida); liberal suburbs (Marin County, California) and conservative suburbs (Orange County, California). Can suburban voters, then, be said to have a defining characteristic? Yes: suburban voters are predominantly property owners. And that makes them highly tax-sensitive.
A major reason people move out to the suburbs is simply to be able to buy their own government. These people resent it when politicians take their money and use it to solve other people's problems, especially when they don't believe that government can actually solve those problems. Two streams of opinion seem to be feeding the anti-government consensus as American politics enters the suburban era. One is resistance to taxes, which is strongest among middle-class suburban voters. The other is cynicism about government, which is strongest among the urban poor and the poorly educated.
Upscale voters are the most likely to say that government has too much power and influence, that taxes should be kept low, and that people should solve their problems for themselves. That's the "elitist" suburban view. Downscale voters express doubts about what government can do. They are the most likely to say that public officials don't know what they are doing, that most of them are crooks, that they don't pay attention to what people think, that government is run by a few big interests, and that you can't trust the government to do what is right. That's the cynical, "populist" view. Put the two together and you have a powerful, broad-based, anti-government, anti-tax coalition.
Polls show that people want government to do more about education, the environment, the infrastructure, and health care. But they trust it less than ever. The more expansive view of what government should do has been canceled out by the more constricted view of what government can do. No one wants to give politicians more money to spend, even if the nation's problems are becoming more serious.
The last time the nation was in this kind of anti-political frenzy was during the Progressive era, in the early decades of this century. Progressives, however, were anti-political but pro-government. The reforms of that era were aimed at curbing the power of political parties by expanding what Progressives saw as the rational, managerial authority of government (for example, having cities run by professional city managers instead of politicians). They used the attack on politics to justify an essentially liberal agenda: making government more professional.
Today the attack on politics serves an essentially conservative agenda: taking government out of the hands of a professional political elite and making it more responsive to the people. How? By limiting terms, limiting pay, limiting spending, and limiting taxes. In the suburban eras unlike the Progressive era, opposition to politics and opposition to government go hand in hand.
THE suburbanization of the electorate raises a big problem for the Democrats: How can they sell activist government to a constituency that is hostile to government? The answer is, they have to learn how to talk about taxes and spending in ways palatable to the middle class. There are two lessons the Democrats should have learned by now.
One is that the only social programs that are politically secure are those that benefit everybody. Medicare, for example, is the principal enduring legacy of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Like Social Security, Medicare helps everybody, not just those in greatest financial need. The Democrats found it impossible to sustain support for LBJ's War on Poverty, however, precisely because it was not a universal entitlement. It was targeted at the poor.
Consider two kinds of government spending. Public-works spending is salable to middle-class voters. Social-welfare spending is not. Public-works spending involves benefits that are available to everyone and that people cannot provide for themselves--things like good schools, fast highways, safe streets, and a clean environment.
Social-welfare spending is targeted by need. It helps disadvantaged people get things that others are able to provide for themselves, like housing, food, and medical care. That is fine with middle-class voters, as long as they are persuaded that the benefits are going to the "truly needy" and that no one is taking advantage of the system. But middle-class voters tend to be suspicious of programs aimed at creating social change rather than providing public services.
Entitlement programs are like public works. By definition, entitlements are not based on need. People are entitled to a benefit because they belong to a certain category, and it is a category anyone can belong to--the elderly, children, veterans, disabled persons (everyone was once a child, everyone expects to get old, and everyone can join the service or become disabled). True, entitlement programs are wasteful, expensive, and inefficient ways to bring about social change. But that is not their purpose. Entitlement programs, like Social Security, are only incidentally redistributive. In effect, middle-class voters are bribed to support them because they get benefits too.
It is worth remembering that the New Deal was not a social-welfare program. The Great Depression was a natural disaster that affected everybody, the just and the unjust alike. When the Democrats took the White House in 1933, they did not attempt a tremendous program of social change. What they came up with was an ambitious program of public works.
The other lesson for Democrats comes from the Reagan era: Don't raise taxes that hurt everybody. Democrats saw what happened to Walter Mondale in 1984 when he proposed a general tax increase. Suburban middle-class voters, however, are willing to consider specifically targeted fees and taxes. That was the principle behind the highway bill passed in 1987 over President Reagan's veto. The bill designated revenues from the highway trust fund to pay for road and bridge construction. Congress proudly pointed to the fact that the bill did not do anything to increase the federal deficit. Of course, it did not do anything to reduce the deficit either.
An even more ingenious solution to the revenue problem is not to raise taxes or spend government money at all. Just mandate that employers pay more in benefits to their workers. Raise the minimum wage. Require employers to pay for health insurance and grant parental and medical leave. The idea is to expand "workers' rights" and "family rights"--that is, entitlements--by making business, not government, pay for them. These kinds of proposals elicit a great many complaints from business, particularly small business, which bears most of the burden. But they draw few complaints from taxpayers.
According to The New York Times, state and local governments have been relying increasingly on special-purpose taxes, revenues frequently raised from specific groups of taxpayers and used for specific purposes. Among the examples: a $10 increase in marriage-license fees in Colorado to pay for child-abuse prevention programs. Higher real-estate taxes for downtown property owners in an eighty-block area of Philadelphia to pay for enhanced security and special street-cleaning services. A dollar a year added to automobile insurance premiums in Michigan to pay for auto-theft prevention programs. Taxes on beer in several states to pay for anti-drunk-driving and alcohol rehabilitation programs.
"The logical place for this to wind up," the criminologist Lawrence W. Sherman told the Times, "is that every crime will have its own tax, except for the unpopular offenses that involve the poor or that are not important to middle-class voters." Precisely. Special-purpose taxes are the suburban ideal--not just private government but private taxes.
The message to Democrats is: In order to compete for a suburban electorate, keep spending as broad as possible and make taxes as specific as possible.
That, of course, is the exact reverse of urban priorities. The urban agenda consists of broad-based taxes and targeted spending programs: tax as many people as possible in order to provide for the needs of specific disadvantaged groups. That requires means-testing. Probably the most difficult thing to do in politics these days is to sell means-tested programs to suburban voters. They know that they will end up paying for the programs and that the benefits will go to people of more modest means. To middle-class voters, a program that helps the few and taxes the many is an outrage. A program that helps the many and taxes the few seems eminently fair.
TWENTY-FIVE years ago, in The Political Beliefs of Americans, Lloyd A. Free and Hadley Cantril described the American public as ideologically conservative and operationally liberal. Their polls showed that Americans professed a belief in small government but at the same time supported a wide range of government subsidies and spending programs. The Democrats ruled by appealing to those operational sentiments. "President Johnson was correct," Free and Cantril concluded, "when he indicated that the argument over the welfare state had been resolved in favor of federal action to achieve it."
The Reagan era appears to have reversed that formulation. During the 1980s public opinion grew more liberal on issues of government spending and intervention. Nevertheless, the anti-tax consensus has held fast. Today's "operational conservatism" is sustained by both continued public resistance to tax increases and widespread cynicism about what government can do. That operational conservatism has enabled Republicans to control the agenda since 1978.
The operational liberalism of the Johnson era was legitimized by the Democratic Party's ability to keep the country prosperous. The New Deal and the Second World War, with their unprecedented expansion of federal power, had saved the country from the Great Depression. Americans are pragmatists. They believe that if something works, it must be right. If liberalism meant prosperity, as it did from the 1930s through the 1960s, then it was all right with most Americans.
The operational conservatism of the Reagan era also had pragmatic roots. It was legitimized by the Republican Party's ability to keep the country prosperous. The Reagan Revolution, with its tax cuts and its unprecedented attack on federal power, saved the country from the Great Inflation. As long as low taxes and limited government worked, Americans had no quarrel with Reaganomics.
But Reaganomics isn't working anymore. The Boston Globe has reported that after four years in office, Bush is likely to end up with the poorest record of economic growth of any President since Harry Truman. Economists estimate that the country's average annual growth rate from 1989 through 1992 will be 1.6 percent--far lower than the yearly growth rate under Ronald Reagan (3.0 percent), Jimmy Carter (3.1 percent), Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (2.2 percent), and Lyndon Johnson (4.6 percent). No President with that kind of record is supposed to be reelected. During his 1988 campaign Bush promised to create thirty million new jobs in eight years. At the rate he is going, fewer than five million will have been created by the end of 1996.
Bush's failure gives Democrats an opportunity to woo the middle-class vote on the economic issue--but only if they understand the middle-class view of government. In 1988 Michael Dukakis went after middle-class voters the same way Democrats have always gone after constituencies. His message was: You've got a problem, we've got a program.
Dukakis had a program to provide child care to families with working parents. He had a program to help young families afford home mortgages. He had a program to help students cope with college-tuition costs. He had a program to provide health insurance to all working Americans. His programs were, for the most part, ingeniously designed to be self-financing. The Democrats could do it all without a tax increase. How? All you had to do was read the position papers.
But middle-class voters were suspicious of government programs. They figured that they would end up paying for the programs while the benefits would go to someone else. George Bush's answer to "the middle-class squeeze" was far more persuasive. What he promised middle-class voters was prosperity. "I am optimistic and I believe we can keep this long expansion going," Bush said in the second campaign debate.
That's what the middle class wanted to hear. Their message to the candidates was: Just protect our jobs, keep the paychecks coming in, and hold taxes down. We'll solve our problems for ourselves. We'll send our kids to college. You just keep the recovery going.
But Bush didn't. And now he's in danger of losing the middle class. Some Republicans believe that if they lose middle-class votes on the economy, they can get them back with an appeal to values. A Republican strategist told The New York Times early this year, "If you look at the middle class as just this monolithic group driven by economic self-interest, I think that's wrong. . . .that's what the Democrats are doing right now, and I think they'll get blind-sided by a whole set of values and other issues that will appeal to these voters."
The problem with that argument is that middle-class voters are well educated and tend to be moderate on social issues. Democrats, too, can appeal to their values. If the Supreme Court votes to overturn Roe v. Wade this year, Republicans will find themselves on the defensive on values as well as economics.
On social issues, the suburban voters of the 1990s are quite different from the silent majority of the 1970s or the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s. They are not backlash voters. Look at California, the model for the new suburban electorate. Since the passage of Proposition 13, in 1978, California has tended to be tax-averse and stingy with public funds. But it is also one of the most environmentally conscious and pro-choice states in the country.
New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley knows these voters. He is one of them, and he almost got destroyed by their tax revolt in his own state. In a deeply felt and highly personal speech delivered in the Senate last July, Bradley accused President Bush of "inflaming racial tension to perpetuate power and then using that power to reward the rich and ignore the poor." Bradley said to Bush, "You have tried to turn the Willie Horton code of 1988 into the quotas code of 1992."
Bradley's message was a simple and powerful "J'accuse." He didn't accuse Bush of being a racist. He accused him of dividing the country and failing to provide moral leadership. And he came close to accusing Bush of being a hypocrite. "We measure our leader by what he says and by what he does," Bradley said. "If both what he says and what he does are destructive of racial harmony, we must conclude that he wants to destroy racial harmony."
In an interview later in his office, Bradley told me that he believes there are a lot of voters out there who feel the way he does. He described them as "independent suburban voters who are under fifty and who care about civil rights, who care about America's role in the world, who are concerned about the budget deficit because they are starting to have kids."
He didn't think those voters could be reached by appealing to their racial or economic resentment. One had to appeal to their aspirations and ideals. "They define our national identity partly in terms of ethnic and racial harmony," Bradley explained. The Democrats can get them by exposing the Republicans as the party of divisiveness and intolerance. "They're going to turn off," Bradley said, once they know they're being asked to support "someone whose path to power has been to destroy that harmony, consciously, explicitly, and deliberately."
Bradley is on to something. The swing voters in the electorate today are young, well educated, moderate, and independent. They fill the suburbs of states like New Jersey and California. They have been voting Republican, not because of race but because they see the Democrats as either corrupt or fiscally incompetent. These voters are uncomfortable with the Republican positions on race and abortion; at least, they will be if the Republicans keep pursuing the "southern strategy"--that is, running on the same conservative social values they used in 1988 to portray Michael Dukakis as outside the national mainstream.
THESE days, Democratic presidential candidates consistently do worse in the South than in any other part of the country. Even Carter could not hold the South against Reagan in 1980. Democrats can either try to win it back or pursue a suburban or "California" strategy--go for the industrial states of the West Coast, the Midwest, and the Northeast.
Which strategy seems more promising for 1992? If you rank the states by the average vote they gave Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980, you get the southern strategy. The two elections in which the Democrats did best in California, relative to the national average, were 1972 and 1988. Those were the years when the Democrats nominated New Politics liberals, George McGovern and Michael Dukakis. If you average the 1972 and 1988 Democratic votes and rank the states, you have the suburban strategy.
There are eleven states (plus the District of Columbia) that the Democrats would have to carry under either strategy to get an electoral-vote majority. The eleven states are West Virginia, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Maryland, Massachusetts, Delaware, New York, Hawaii, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. These are the Democrats' base. Seven of them are in the North and East. The Democrats averaged 53.5 percent of the vote in these states and the District in 1988. Eight went for Dukakis, while the other four (Pennsylvania, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware) voted for Bush.
Under the suburban strategy, the Democrats would need to carry eleven additional states, mostly on the West Coast and in the industrial Midwest. Only three of those states went Democratic in 1988. But the vote tended to be close. On average, the eleven states needed for the suburban strategy voted 48.4 percent Democratic in 1988.
The southern strategy also adds eleven new states to the Democratic base. All of them are southern. Not a single one voted for Dukakis in 1988. The Democrats averaged only 41.0 percent of the vote in these eleven states.
This means that it would take a much stronger swing to get the South to vote Democratic in 1992 than it would to build a winning coalition outside the South. Dukakis was supposed to be pursuing a suburban strategy in 1988. In fact, Dukakis did pretty well in the prototypical suburban state, California--47.6 percent, two points better than he did in the country as a whole. In both 1976 and 1980 Carter did worse in California than he did in the country as a whole. Nevertheless, Democrats know one thing about Dukakis: he was a disaster. He got wiped out in the South, despite the presence of Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen on the ticket.
The southern strategy is the anti-Dukakis strategy. It targets Reagan Democrats, the white, blue-collar constituency that is Democratic by heritage but has abandoned the Democratic Party in presidential elections since the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. Reagan Democrats tend to be liberal on economic issues (pro-labor, pro-"fairness") and conservative on social issues (race, religion, and foreign policy). In other words, they are populists.
The southern strategy means going after the states where Dukakis was weakest in 1988--and where the Democrats have been weakest for twenty-five years. The alternative is to build strength in the states where Dukakis did relatively well, like California. That requires a suburban strategy, which would target the so-called "new collar" Baby Boom voters. (Southern suburban voters, in contrast, are usually very conservative socially and economically, and therefore much harder for the Democrats to capture.) They are relatively affluent and well educated. They tend to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal, the antithesis of populism. They are independent by heritage and anti-establishment by inclination. They don't like racial politics. They are pro-choice on abortion. And they feel betrayed by George Bush on the economy.
Ross Perot's prospective candidacy as an independent helps make the case for the suburban strategy. The polls show Perot running strongest in the West. Perot could take enough votes from Bush to tilt this historically Republican region to the Democrats--but only if Clinton makes a credible showing in a region where he, too, is weak.
To win back the middle class, Democrats will have to regain credibility on the issue of economic growth. They will have to persuade the voters that Democrats can manage the economy better than Republicans. The recession gives the Democrats an opportunity--but only an opportunity--to do that.
Bill Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, pitches his message directly at what he calls "the forgotten middle class." He calls on Democrats to abandon the "tax and spend" policies of the past. He criticizes congressional Democrats for contributing to the mismanagement of the economy during the 1980s. He talks about restoring a sense of personal responsibility. That's a subtle way of trying to change the Democratic Party's image. More personal responsibility means less government responsibility. It's a way of saying, "We're not going to have a program for every problem. People are basically responsible for themselves. That's the middle-class way."
If New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo had run for President, Bill Clinton would have been Gary Hart, the candidate of new ideas. Instead, after Paul Tsongas won the New Hampshire primary, Clinton was thrust into the role of Walter Mondale, the fairness candidate.
Clinton is not an Old Politics Democrat, however. The candidate who came closest to that message in 1992 was Tom Harkin. Harkin's departure from the race in early March marked a turning point. He was the last New Dealer. None of the other Democrats defended the party's traditional message of taxing, spending, and big government, and its championing of big labor.
In fact, the three Democrats who have done best this year, Clinton, Tsongas, and Jerry Brown, share a skeptical, pragmatic view of government. Clinton, after all, chaired the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization whose objective has been to move the Democratic Party away from interest-group liberalism (and from Jesse Jackson, who has referred to the DLC as "Democrats for the Leisure Class"). Clinton's message, like that of Tsongas, is aimed squarely at the suburban middle class.
Clinton won the primaries by combining the South with the Democrats' shrinking urban base. That is not a formula for victory in November, however. The South is no longer solidly Democratic. And the urban base doesn't have enough votes anymore. The Democrats have to break into the suburbs by proving that they understand something they have never made an effort to understand in the past--namely, the values and priorities of suburban America.
Clinton may be able to do that. But he also has to do something else: overcome unusually strong personal negatives. In some ways Clinton is in the same situation that Ronald Reagan was in 1980. As unpopular as Carter was that year, the voters were afraid of Reagan. They saw him as a right-wing extremist who might start a war or throw old people out in the snow. The election remained a dead heat until the last few days of the campaign, when Reagan took advantage of the final debate to recast the election as a referendum on Carter's record ("Ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?"). Reagan also reassured the voters that he was not a monster and would not do the foolish things he often said he wanted to do. Things were so bad under Carter that the voters finally decided they had to have change. The country couldn't keep going the way it was going. So they took a chance and elected Reagan.
Bill Clinton has a harder task. He must reassure voters of his basic integrity. He may be able to do it, because he is a skillful and accomplished politician. That is his strength. It is also his weakness, because 1992 is a year when the voters do not seem to be looking for a skillful and accomplished politician--as the rise of Perot, the populist billionaire anti-politician, indicates.
Clinton is a master at having everything both ways. As he tries to straddle the South and the suburbs, the shrinking Democratic base and the swing voters of the middle class, that quality of his political persona and his personal character will be put to the test. In fact, he will face two tests. One test is whether he can do it. The other is whether the voters want someone who can do it.
Copyright © 1992 by William Schneider. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1992; The Suburban Century Begins; Volume 270, No. 1; pages 33-44.