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Why Democrats lost the Middle Class

Wednesday, July 21, 2004
From Wilson through Johnson, the Democrat party was the champion of middle class opportunity. The list of accomplishments is impressive: anti-monopoly regulations, Medicare, unemployment insurance, the GI Bill, aid to schools, progressive taxation, etc. But at some point in the 1970's, Democrats lost that image. Instead, they were perceived as defending the position of the underprivileged (women, blacks, Hispanics, the poor, gays-- wow, there certainly are a lot of them). The middle class decided that the Democrats had abandoned them- that big government now meant not security for the middle class but help for marginal elements in society. So they left.

How did this happen? I think it has a lot to do with the success of the Democrats in the postwar period. In part, the middle class now felt secure enough in the late sixties to vote based on non-economic issues. But I think the more important reason is that Democrats decided that the problem of creating and maintaining a middle class was essentially solved. They then moved on to other issues. This made them vulnerable to a Republican counter-attack, a vulnerability that was exploited because of the counter-culture and Vietnam by Nixon.

And we now know that precisely the same moment that Democrats took the middle class for granted, that same middle class was coming under renewed economic pressure from the forces of globalization. Since the Democrats had no obvious solution (or even interest) in their problems, and Reagan claimed to have a magic wand to fix them (while actually making things worse), the middle class started voting Republican.

The sad truth is that a middle class is NEVER secure. The free hand of the market always pushes towards concentration and monopoly, a lesson we have had to learn time and again. All the successful middle classes in history have evaporated when the government which supported them (the Roman and Byzantine yeoman farmers, Italian merchants, the Dutch burghers) began to either ignore them or implement policies that undermined them.

The great task of liberalism, then, is to preserve the middle class. Even leftists who don't like the middle class, who are focused on other issues, need to realize that they will never be able to assemble a political majority without those voters. Any policy the left embraces, even when not explicitly targeted towards the middle class, at least need to offer them something, some reason to support the policy.

This is actually not all that hard to do. Liberalism traditionally couched its policies in univeralist terms. For example, if everyone gets national health insurance, that takes some of the burden off of the middle class, while providing a disproportional benefit to the poor. Look at it mathematically- if we provide 100 dollars in services to every citizen, that is trivial to the upper class, a decent amount to the middle class, and a positive boon to the poor. Yes there is a price in terms of economic efficiency, but the only alternative is to not have the policy at all.

So what Democrats have to do is frame every issue, and I mean EVERY issue, in terms of middle class quality of life. Want to help the poor? Propose univeral programs for health, safety, housing, etc. Want to improve the environment? Emphasize not only clean water, but to preserve nature so it's there for you later. Want to aid ethnic minorities? Base policies on class, which will help the disproportionately poor minorities but not invite a racial backlash.

What's so hard about that?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 3:37 PM
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