The Politics of the New Middle America

Among the poll findings that bombarded us after the 2010 elections, three are of overwhelming importance.

First, the age composition of the electorate changed radically. In 2008, 18 percent of voters were under 30 and 16 percent were over 65. In 2010, only 12 percent were under 30, while 21 percent were over 65. Not surprisingly, 2010's older electorate was also more conservative.

Second, Democrats lost enormous ground among white working-class voters. In 2010, Democrats lost white working-class voters by 30 points. In 2006 and 2008, they lost them by only 10 points.

Third, Republicans won control of the House of Representatives because many voters who didn't really like the GOP voted for its candidates anyway. According to the major TV networks' combined exit poll, 52 percent of November voters had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party, yet 23 percent of this group voted for Republican House candidates. These are the quintessential disaffected voters, and they may be the key swing voters of 2012.

Taken together, these numbers point to a country as much dispirited as angry. True, anger on the right drove conservative turnout to very high levels. But in core Democratic constituencies and in the middle of the electorate, disappointment more than rage drove decisions, including the one to stay home.

That disappointment was the mirror image of the hopefulness that inspired Barack Obama's movement in 2008. Even if Obama and the 111th Congress produced a remarkable legislative record, the president's first two years did not (maybe could not) live up to the dreams and imaginings of the young. The working class was mired in an economic downturn that showed no signs of ending quickly -- and this after the long income stagnation in supposedly good times.

Thus did so many voters who had little confidence in the Republicans cast grudging protest ballots for the GOP, signaling that things were still not right. These are the voters who cost the Democrats 27 of their 63 lost House seats in the great belt of states that had once constituted the nation's industrial heartland: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. These losses more than account for the difference between majority and minority status for the Democrats. Absent a strategy to recapture the respect of voters in the Greater Midwest -- middle Americans in every sense of the term -- Democrats and progressives will find themselves isolated. To these voters, attention must be paid.

For a Washington Post column after the 2010 election, I interviewed some of the vanquished House members who rode to office on the 2006 and 2008 Democratic waves. Perhaps the most poignant testimony came from Mary Jo Kilroy, who lost her seat centered around Columbus, Ohio. In almost every respect, Kilroy is a middle -- American Democrat, in touch with the aspirations of her district and insistent that her role is to represent the poor and the middle class alike. With experience rooted in school-board politics, she is grounded in the values as well as the interests of her constituents.

The party's losses among white working-class voters came as no shock to Kilroy. "I watched them in the last four years go from being anxious about the future to being worried but also hopeful during the 2008 campaign, to being very angry," she said. To explain, she invoked the world as seen by a person who worked for 25 years at Siemens, a large, global electronics company that had cut employment in her area.

"You have a son who is a high school basketball player and wants to go to college -- and then your factory goes off to Mexico," she said. "And you're a man of a certain age and another factory or another employer won't give you a second look. Think of the despair felt by that person."

Voters in this fix, she said, see Washington as "a place where their interests get sold out." What they want is "to feel they're being treated as well as the bankers who get bailed out." Indeed. The exit poll found that 35 percent of the 2010 voters blamed Wall Street rather than either Barack Obama or George W. Bush for the nation's economic problems -- and among them, Republican House candidates led Democrats, 57 percent to 41 percent. When critics of Wall Street vote overwhelmingly for the Republicans, something is awry in the Democrats' approach.

Which "New Majority" and the Limits of Old Arguments

For years, progressives have debated whether they can build a new majority on the basis of well-educated middle- and upper-middle-income white voters, allied with African Americans, Hispanics, and the young. In a view that became increasingly popular after the Democrats' 2006 and 2008 victories, white working-class voters were seen as a shrinking share of the electorate already alienated from liberal candidates by concerns related to religious matters, gun control, and, in some cases, race and immigration.

During the 2008 primary campaign, Obama created a problem for himself by seeming to embrace this view. "So it's not surprising then that they get bitter," he told an affluent crowd at a San Francisco fundraiser, speaking about downscale whites. "They cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." Later, Obama insisted that he was not out of touch with such voters but rather understood precisely why they were embittered. "I know what's going on in Indiana, I know what's going on in Illinois," he said. "People are fed up, they're angry, they're frustrated, they're bitter, and they want to see a change in Washington." Nonetheless, the controversy resonated because the debate that lay beneath it was very much alive among progressives and Democrats.

It is, in fact, a very old controversy. Following Richard Nixon's 1968 election victory, Fred Dutton, once an aide to Robert F. Kennedy and later a well-known lobbyist, wrote an influential book titled Changing Sources of Power: American Politics in the 1970s. Dutton argued that the progressive future lay with new and younger voters who had been politicized by the movements for civil rights and against the Vietnam War and were more focused on social than economic issues. These voters provided an alternative to the old labor-liberal alliance that had very nearly pushed Hubert Humphrey past Richard Nixon. At the time, Dutton's volume was widely seen as a counterpoint to what was arguably an even more influential book published in 1970, a year before his. In The Real Majority, Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg argued that the American majority was "unyoung, unpoor and unblack" and that the central figure of American politics was "a 47-year-old housewife from the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio, whose husband is a machinist." (Blue-collar Ohio, it seems, is always at the center of discussions of this sort.)

In the world of political sociology, the argument was joined by Ronald Inglehart. His 1977 book, The Silent Revolution, argued from extensive survey research that Western societies were moving from old "materialist values" centering on economic and physical security to "post-materialist" values that emphasized personal autonomy and self-expression. Inglehart's thesis anticipated the rise of Green parties in Europe and the growing role of a progressive, educated class in the traditional socialist, social democratic, and left-liberal parties once rooted in the labor movement. Inglehart's approach was seen by its enthusiasts as transcending Seymour Martin Lipset's argument in Political Man, published in 1960, that elections in "every modern democracy" reflected a "democratic translation of the class struggle." Even if many parties renounced "the principle of class conflict or loyalty," Lipset argued, "parties are primarily based on either the lower classes or the middle and upper classes." As a rule, Lipset observed, leftist parties won over less affluent voters by emphasizing "the need for security of income," "the need for satisfying work," and "the need for status, for social recognition of one's value and freedom from degrading discrimination in social relations."

Seen from the perspective of 2011, progressive political parties are still trying to square the insights of Dutton and Scammon and Wattenberg, of Inglehart and Lipset. Progressives in all the democracies now count on the ballots of well-educated middle-class voters in a way they did not in the 1930s, 1940s, or 1950s. Whether these voters can fairly be called "post-materialist" -- post-materialism being an easier disposition in economic booms than in busts -- Inglehart was right about the new emphasis on autonomy and self-expression in democratic politics. But Lipset's insight that elections are an expression of a "democratic class struggle" still holds, perhaps more so than ever in the United States given the dwindling security of the working middle class and the expanding role of large-scale political contributions in the electoral world created by the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Citizens United decision.

Yet the results of the 2010 elections at least partially settled this controversy by underscoring the limits of a politics based on an upscale-minority coalition. If the outcomes in 2006 and 2008 showed that progressives and Democrats can split or lose the white working-class vote and still secure a majority, 2010 showed that they simply cannot expect victory when the white working class turns against them by landslide proportions. Again: Attention must be paid.

Absent an approach addressed to the aspirations and needs of middle-American white voters, liberals cannot take for granted high levels of support among African Americans or Hispanics, either. For the 2010 election also saw a decline in African American electoral participation and uneven Hispanic participation. As Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin noted in their post-election report for the Center for American Progress, the minority share of the electorate dropped from 26 percent in 2008 to 23 percent in 2010. "This is a sharp drop by recent standards," they wrote. The prospect of the first African American president boosted black participation to extraordinary levels in 2008 and raised the Democratic share of the African American presidential vote to an unprecedented (and almost impossible to repeat) 95 percent. But the decline in the minority vote in just two years was a warning sign. Hope needs to be nurtured.

When it comes to both core values and economic interests, African Americans and Hispanics are no less "middle American" than are the white working and middle classes. The aspirations to work for a decent income, to become more affluent over the course of a working lifetime, to open new opportunities for one's children, to see the nation as a whole advance in prosperity and international influence, to have the values of "family, work, and neighborhood" -- yes, they are Ronald Reagan's words -- reflected in social policy, and to see the religious convictions of those inspired by faith respected: These are commitments that cut across the lines so often perceived as dividing us.

A New Politics of Interests and Values

Fear of American decline is the specter haunting our politics, and fear of the decline in the economic stability on which traditional American values rest is the specter haunting our moral debate. The constituents whom Mary Jo Kilroy describes care about their jobs and their families, their incomes and their country, their autonomy and their obligations. Middle Americans are sensibly hybrid beings: communitarian individualists, tolerant traditionalists (in William Galston's evocative phrase), and patriotic internationalists.

The difficulties Obama faced in the first two years of his presidency heightened the very anxieties that led to his election -- and this despite a long list of policy achievements that progressives would do well to celebrate rather than denigrate. One can debate the various choices Obama made: The original stimulus did need to be bigger; a health plan with a public option would, paradoxically, have been less complicated and easier to explain; his critique of Wall Street excess needed to be more consistent. But the president's central shortcomings were his failures to forge a clear link between his policies and the values that underlay them and to offer a consistent and persistent case that his program constituted a straightforward path to renewed American strength and a more secure working and middle class.

This is why Theda Skocpol's proposal in these pages for National Greatness Liberalism is so important. It is also why Garance Franke-Ruta was right in her seminal 2006 Prospect piece "Remapping the Cultural Debate" linking economic and cultural issues. Her key insight: "In today's society, traditional values have become aspirational." Why? Because, as she noted, "lower-income individuals simply live in a much more disrupted society, with higher divorce rates, more single moms, more abortions, and more interpersonal and interfamily strife, than do the middle- and upper-middle class people they want to be like." The focus of many "middle-income voters on cultural traditionalism is not entirely separate from their economic aspirations." She added: "Social solidarity and even simple familial stability have become part of the package of private privileges available to the well-to-do," and "there has been no one on the Democratic side in recent years to defend traditional, sensible middle-class values against the onslaught of the new nihilistic, macho, libertarian lawlessness unleashed by an economy that pits every man against his fellows."

Finding a way to link and resolve concerns over the stagnation of middle-class incomes, the decline in manufacturing employment in the American heartland, the new challenges to America's standing in the world, and the disruption of family and community life is a national imperative, not simply a political need. Doing so would marry the older quest for security and solidarity with the newer emphasis on autonomy and self-expression. This is the key to reviving an optimism of the American spirit that led a nation to embrace a candidate who campaigned on hope -- and that, in truth, is always at the heart of a successful progressive politics.

In his intuitive way, Franklin D. Roosevelt always understood the need to speak simultaneously to the practical and the aspirational sides of his fellow citizens. "I still believe in ideals," he said in his Sept. 30, 1934, "fireside chat." "I am not for a return to that definition of liberty under which for many years, a free people were being gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few. I prefer, and I am sure you prefer, that broader definition of liberty under which we are moving forward to greater freedom, to greater security for the average man than he has ever known before in the history of America."

Freedom, security, and the American dream: Middle-American politics were rooted in these things in 1934. They still are.

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