Previously in Politics & Prose:
Governing Globalism (May 3, 2000)
Jack Beatty on the protests in Washington, Runaway World, and globalization's good and bad sides.
The Uses of Sprawl (April 6, 2000)
Christopher Caldwell on Suburban Nation, New Urbanism, and how Democrats can reap the benefits of the sprawl they helped to create.
Be Afraid (April 6, 2000)
If the digital revolution produces the dystopian nightmare envisioned in the April issue of Wired, humanity's only hope may be the end of capitalism as we know it. Try selling that in an election year, Jack Beatty writes.
Tagging After Teddy (March 22, 2000)
Christopher Caldwell on why Teddy Roosevelt -- "an egomaniacal weirdo" -- is an unlikely hero to both Republicans and Democrats.
Bush vs. Gore (March 8, 2000)
Scenes from the first presidential debate of the 2000 election campaign. By Jack Beatty.
The Populists' Progress (February 24, 2000)
Right-wing populists, like Austria's Jörg Haider, are gaining ground in Europe. Is America next? Christopher Caldwell looks at populism on both continents.
Reform Politics! (Then What?) (February 16, 2000)
Does John McCain have an agenda beyond reforming the political process? What, Jack Beatty asks, would a McCain Administration do?
More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.
Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.
The Republicans are the party of the rich and the Democrats of the working class, right? It's time to rethink that assumption
by Christopher Caldwell
Running on the strongest economy in living memory, as the handpicked heir of a popular President, Al Gore is lagging alarmingly in the polls even though his campaign so far has been diligent, disciplined, and skillful. He has improved as an orator. The issues -- health care, the environment, guns -- run heavily in his favor. And the financial position of the Democratic National Committee is stronger than it's been for several election cycles. Yet Gore is tied with George W. Bush in Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington -- all states that have voted Democratic in recent elections. He's losing in liberal Iowa, and he's even ten points behind in the Democratic bastion of West Virginia. What's going on?
The obsession this publishing season with class may offer a clue.
David Brooks, my colleague at The Weekly Standard, has just published Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. It is a paean to the winners of the new economy, who have, Brooks thinks, found a balance between the bourgeois diligence of the 1980s and the bohemian self-expression of the 1960s. (Bourgeois + Bohemian = Bobo.) As such the book is more focused on what Bobos wear, where they shop, and how they run their businesses than on their ideology.
But Brooks also sees that the rise of the Bobo has political implications. Bill Clinton and Al Gore -- archetypal Bobo pols -- have arrived at a centrist, even anti-ideological politics beyond the "tired old labels of left and right," writes Brooks. The Clinton Administration has embraced this centrism opportunistically. "They have settled on this style of politics," Brooks says, "because this is what appeals to the affluent suburbanites and to the sorts of people who control the money, media, and culture in American society today."
Yet what if wooing America's new elites really bugs the rest of the country? Ruy Teixeira, one of Washington's most gifted demographers, and Joel Rogers, a social-science professor at the University of Wisconsin, think it does. In America's Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters, they note that the big change in American voting since 1980 has been a "major shift away from the Democratic party." And yet they don't buy any of the conventional wisdom on why this has happened. Are Americans getting more conservative? No. In fact they're moving left on some issues -- particularly on race, gender, and the environment -- a shift that has "propped up" Democratic support that would have gone through the floor. Nor do they buy the sour-grapes accusation of the left that veiled racism holds the key. Teixeira and Rogers note that although there is a rise in anti-welfare and anti-government ideology, the fact remains that on almost any polling question, a higher percentage wish the government would spend more rather than less.
The problem is that Democrats have been more solicitous of a character one might call Brad Entrepreneur than of Joe Sixpack. Teixeira and Rogers see a "Great Divide" in American class between those who have a four-year college degree and those who don't. And since 1973 the three quarters of Americans who fall in the latter category, particularly the men, have seen a dimunition in their economic prospects that is "close to a disaster." With the new economy has come a rise in economic inequality and what the authors call a "New Insecurity" -- over layoffs, worsening health plans, and evaporating pensions. They may live in the suburbs, they may own a computer, they may drink premium ale, but Mr. and Mrs. Joe Sixpack still exist. The white working class makes up at least 55 percent of the voting population. College-educated whites, by contrast, make up only a fifth.
In their attempts to replace their constituency of blue-collar workers with "soccer moms," "wired workers," "knowledge workers," and other beneficiaries of the new economy, Democrats may have lost much of their claim to being the non-elite party. True, college-educated whites gave Democrats only 40 percent of their votes in the 1998 elections, but the party now takes roughly half the votes of elite women in presidential elections. There were some truly striking instances in the 1990s of rich voters joining the Democrats and working-class voters defecting. Between their 1992 triumph and the 1994 debacle that cost them both houses of Congress, Democrats lost ten points among high school dropouts, eleven among high school graduates, and twelve among those with some college. Yet their share of white elites (those with a four-year college education) held steady, and among elite women it rose. (Furthermore, David Brooks informs us, thirteen of the seventeen richest communities in the country went for Clinton in 1996.)
What if Teixeira and Rogers are right that there is a natural working-class majority reawakening into class-consciousness? And what if Brooks is right that high-tech hippie millionaires constitute "the new upper class"? Then the beneficiaries are likely to be Republicans. The GOP long ago won the argument that the Democratic Party was home to the nation's cultural elites. But ever since FDR inveighed against the GOP's "economic royalists" and "malefactors of great wealth," we have assumed that any resentment of economic elites will be directed at Republicans. Republicans assume it too -- "class warfare" is what they accuse Democrats of waging anytime someone brings up the issue of how much benefit the rich will receive from a tax cut.
Perhaps it's time to rethink that assumption. Both presidential candidates are certainly members of elites. But the New England Brahmins with whom George W. Bush is associated are museum pieces who haven't held any real power in more than a generation. The high-tech progressive entrepreneurs whom Al Gore wholeheartedly supports are a living, breathing, power-wielding, world-shaping force. Are working-class voters more worried about the influence of advisers from Yale's Skull and Bones, which was an anachronistic joke even when Bush belonged to it decades ago? Or are they upset about the still-growing economic inequality spawned by the Internet, of which Al Gore continues to be the most uncompromising champion? Are they worried that Cabots and Lowells (who probably knew some Bushes in 1915) might make a secret banking deal? Or are they worried that software designers or TV network executives (who support Al Gore almost unanimously) might make a secret telecommunications deal?
Two months ago, Gore's advisers were confidently predicting that the general election could be wrapped up by the time both parties held their conventions this summer. Maybe one of the things they did not reckon with was the way political assumptions get upended when the torch is passed to a new generation of economic royalists.
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Christopher Caldwell is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. He writes a weekly Washington column for New York Press and is a regular contributor to Atlantic Unbound.
All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.