Sunday, March 16, 2014

Democrats and demographics

If you read Thomas Edsall's New York Times opinion columns -- and you should if you care about intelligent presentation of data about the political opinion and trends among the United States population -- you might think that he contradicted himself in a couple of recent articles.

On March 4, he wrote about popular responses to rising economic inequality and offered a dismal prediction about inequality's implications for people who hope to use the Democratic Party to win populist changes.

... minority voters – and Democrats generally, including single women and single mothers – are far more supportive of taxing the rich than Republicans or independents. Gallup, in April, 2013, found that three-quarters of Democrats think the “government should redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich,” while 72 percent of Republicans opposed such action.

However, this leftward ideological and demographic shift is taking place largely within the Democratic electorate and much less so among the public at large.

With recent history as a guide, the smart handicapper will take the safe bet on the power of money over demographics. For the moment, the political reality is that the Democratic Party does not have the stomach to seriously engage the issue of inequality, and remains far too conflicted to take on the concentration of power and income at the top. Those benefiting most from the system as it is will continue to determine the operative definition of optimal inequality.

He goes on to document that Democrats are nearly as dependent on big money as Republicans, so the preferences of the base have a hard time getting heard.

A week later, Edsall weighed in on the hardy perennial topic of how Democrats could increase their vote among members of the white working class. For decades, many white working class voters have distrusted Democrats as the party of affirmative action and care for poor people, policies they firmly believe advantage black and brown folks at their expense. But in this column, Edsall shares data about why this may be changing.

White working-class voters outside the South are becoming more open to the Democratic Party because, as the P.R.R.I. polling on abortion and same-sex marriage shows, they are coming to terms with the cultural transformations stemming from what sociologists call the “second demographic transition.”

As I wrote last September, one of the more visible dividing lines between left and right in American politics is the extent to which voters in a particular state or region have adopted the values of this second demographic transition — a lessening of sexual constraint, extensive nonmarital cohabitation, delayed childbearing, reduced fertility, family disruption, a stress on personal autonomy and individual self-expression, declining religiosity and growing acceptance of women’s rights.

For decades, the cultural conflicts that emerged from the 1960s gave the Republican Party highly effective wedge issues to build support among white working-class Americans.

These voters were first the “silent majority,” then “Reagan Democrats” and subsequently “angry white men,” but they were crucial at every point to the conservative coalition that produced presidential victories for the Republican Party in five of the six elections between 1968 and 1988.

The declining commitment of white noncollege voters outside the South to conservative values has been masked, politically and culturally, by the continued ferocity of sociocultural and racial conservatism among working class whites in the South. But insofar as the second demographic transition is taking hold among these voters in the North, the Midwest and the West, Democratic prospects may well be better than national polling data suggests.

If these voters, who are by-and-large sympathetic to economic populist policies like raising the minimum wage and taxing the rich also finally are making peace with the 60s and thus participating more comfortably in the Democratic coalition, the party's demographic advantage will simply become overwhelming.

If East Coast pundits paid a little more attention to California, they'd notice this has already happened in the Golden State.

In the early 2000s, I was commissioned to study election data for an outfit that was trying to sell itself as helping Democrats win statewide elections. After a decade of losing a series of nasty fights over initiatives (see Prop. 187, Prop. 209, and Prop. 227)designed to divide the state along age and racial lines, we'd elected a Democratic governor -- and then lost him to a smart Hollywood cartoon character. What was it going to take to forge a winning Democratic coalition in this racially and socially fractured state? I spent a week or so looking at numbers, and though I had to be encouraged by the increase in the proportion of the electorate from the various communities of color over the previous decade, I concluded that the process of forming a new Democratic majority would be a long slog. Why white people would remain a majority of the electorate until 2040 at the earliest!

I was simply wrong about my timeline. Whites will still be a majority of the electorate for a long time to come in California, but a significant and growing fraction of the white population became ready to dial back racial and cultural fear much earlier than I'd expected. The result, plus the very hard work of unions and community groups to increase turnout among new voters of color, is that today California is the new model Democratic state. The Democratic coalition doesn't need a majority of white voters; it needs a significant fraction, maybe 40 percent of these mostly married whites, and a lot of other voters. And in California, that is the shape of the electorate.

The outcome of these happy demographic changes is that the struggle about whether the democratic process can be used to moderate inequality now resides not between Republicans and Democrats, but within the Democratic party.

This isn't something that demographic change can make us complacent about. In progressive San Francisco, where all office holders are Democrats and actual leftists have long been a force, progressives have lost power to tech tycoons and developers. They were smart, but we were also somewhat asleep at the switch after a decade of hard fought victories. In consequence, the mass of more entrenched San Franciscans again need to struggle for the soul of the city.

Edsall's slightly contradictory data do point toward where this is going. We need to understand where the fights take place these days and organize our Democratic coalition accordingly. We still need more Democrats -- but even more, in California we need better Democrats. This should be a project that many in the aging white working class can get behind.


Rain Trueax said...

I am a left leaning moderate who often favors Democratic positions but doesn't trust the Democratic party as such which means I donate to individuals, not the party. I don't like extremely high taxes on the richest either. I think when you take more than 50% of what someone has made, it's onerous. it was the one thing with which I agreed with Reagan. What we should do instead is deal with deductions in such a way that corporations cannot deduct those extremely high salaries they pay CEOs as legitimate business expenses. We can raise minimum wage and make it easier for unions to get the pay raises that originally raised men like my father into the middle class. We can make it so that these offshore tax shelters don't work for men like Romney. If they just paid their share (and 50% is not unusual for someone making a good income counting state and federal taxes), then I'd be satisfied with a country working to get more infrastructure jobs-- that is where the middle class often has made its living. Letting the government take 70%+ of someone's income just doesn't seem fair nor do I trust them to use it that wisely. I am not pro government to that level.

i really don't want income leveling done by fiat. Communism has not worked anywhere I've heard it tried-- not for longer than an emergency situation might require. After that it begins to fall apart and usually into dictatorships. Yes, I know I'm not a pure liberal. never have been. I actually consider myself pretty conservative in an era when that word has lost all meaning with the right wing misusing it so badly. I see value in liberal ideas to try new things and conservatives to hold the line as I think balance used mean. Now it's gone totally crazy and mostly on the right-- as I see it anyway.

Hattie said...

I don't see why rich people should have tax advantages over the merely affuent, like us. About 50% of our income goes out in taxes. Rich people have all kinds of ways to evade taxes, but we don't have any of those shelters.
I don't know what balance has to do with this. We should all pay our share and in return get the government services we need. But of course this would mean a moral revolution among the rich, and I don't see that happening.

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