Class and the Democrats

Brian Beutler points to one problem with David Brooks' column on Obama versus Clinton as consumer items. Brooks writes:

Why do you bother me with simple problems? Listen, the essential competition in many consumer sectors is between commodity providers and experience providers, the companies that just deliver product and the companies that deliver a sensation, too. There’s Safeway, and then there is Whole Foods. There’s the PC, and then there’s the Mac. There are Holiday Inns, and there are W Hotels. There’s Walgreens, and there’s The Body Shop.

Hillary Clinton is a classic commodity provider. She caters to the less-educated, less-pretentious consumer.

As Brian says, this would just imply straightforwardly that Obama will lose. And, indeed, that was the point of the original Ron Brownstein "wine track" / "beer track" analysis. But at the moment, more people have voted for Obama and Obama has more pledged delegates. Meanwhile, in the real world relatively few people use Macs and shop at Whole Foods. So Obama's appeal is a good deal wider than this, extending to, for example, working class African-Americans, people in sparsely populated plains states, and younger people from all kinds of backgrounds. But there is an important class dynamic to the Democratic race, and Brooks does a good job of spelling out the broader diverge than the split over which candidate to pick reflects:

The consumer marketplace has been bifurcating for years! It’s happening because the educated and uneducated lead different sorts of lives. Educated people are not only growing richer than less-educated people, but their lifestyles are diverging as well. A generation ago, educated families and less-educated families looked the same, but now high school graduates divorce at twice the rate of college graduates. High school grads are much more likely to have kids out of wedlock. High school grads are much more likely to be obese. They’re much more likely to smoke and to die younger.

Their attitudes are different. High school grads are much less optimistic than college grads. They express less social trust. They feel less safe in public. They report having fewer friends and lower aspirations. The less educated speak the dialect of struggle; the more educated, the dialect of self-fulfillment.

It's definitely true that this struggle-versus-fulfillment dichotomy plays out in the difference between the candidates' rhetoric. But what's fascinating given their rather different bases of support is that this really doesn't wind up leading to any major policy disagreements. Given the different educational status of their electoral bases, you might expect Clinton and Obama to have major policy differences over climate change, trade, and immigration but in fact their differences on these topics are small and oftentimes seem trumped up. You see something similar on the GOP side where Mike Huckabee often talks as if his policy agenda is more favorable to the interests of his more downscale constituency, but there's actually very little evidence that it is. And yet, as Brooks points out the divergence in living conditions between college graduates and people who don't go to college is very much a real thing with concrete, tactile effects in the real world. One way or another, the political system ought to be responding to that divergence and not just reflecting it.