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Political Realignment Keeps On Rolling... And I'm Not So Sure It'll Work Out Too Well For Democrats

FDR and his advisors would find it incredulous but Republicans now control most of the House seats in districts where the median income trails the national level of nearly $65,000 annually. And not just that, but Ruy Teixereira wrote late last year that “America’s historical party of the working class keeps losing working-class support. And not just among white voters.” He blamed Democratic losses on the fact that the party is targeting socially liberal, college-educated voters with issues like, abortion rights, gun control, and safeguarding democracy, issues that don;’t resonate strongly with working class voters, who are more focused— as the Democratic Party once was (pre-Bill Clinton, although Teixereira found the roots in the Hillary campaign) on kitchen table issues and crime. He wrote that “from 2012 to 2020, the Democrats not only saw their support among white working-class voters— those without college degrees— crater, they also saw their advantage among nonwhite working-class voters fall by 18 points… In contrast, Democrats’ advantage among white college-educated voters improved by 16 points from 2012 to 2020.”

Yesterday, Ron Brownstein, took up where Teixereira had left off, looking at how working-class white voters became the GOP’s foundation, despite the paradox that “House Republicans are “now more likely than Democrats to represent districts filled with older and lower-income voters who rely on the social programs that the GOP wants to cut. A much larger share of Republican than Democratic House members represent districts where seniors exceed their share of the national population, census data show.”

Republicans are aggressively pushing “for sweeping reductions in domestic social programs, likely including Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, the principal federal programs providing health care for working-age adults. And while House Republicans appear to have backed away from pursuing reductions in Social Security and Medicare, the conservative Republican Study Committee has set a long-term goal of cutting and partially privatizing both programs.

The fact that so many House Republicans feel safe advancing these proposals in districts with such extensive economic need testifies to the power of what I’ve called “the class inversion” in American politics: the growing tendency of voters to divide between the parties based on cultural attitudes, rather than class interests. That dynamic has simultaneously allowed House Democrats to gain in more socially liberal, affluent, metropolitan areas and House Republicans to consolidate their hold over more culturally conservative, economically hardscrabble, nonurban areas.
…While Republicans have gained in some areas primarily around culturally and racially infused disputes such as those over crime and immigration, a struggle over spending priorities will inevitably highlight that “their policies on these bread-and-butter issues remain diametrically opposed to the economic interest of much of their base,” Paul Pierson, a political scientist at UC Berkeley and a co-author of Let Them Eat Tweets, told me.
…[T]o understand the social and economic characteristics of the House seats held by each party, Jeffer Giang and Justin Scoggins of the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California analyzed five-year summary results through 2020 from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
That analysis inverts many traditional assumptions, even within the parties themselves, about whose voters rely on the social safety net. “There has been a massive transformation of the coalitions,” Manuel Pastor, a sociology professor at USC and the director of the Equity Research Institute, told me.
Democrats, who led the legislative efforts to create Social Security under Franklin D. Roosevelt and Medicare under Lyndon B. Johnson, have long thought of themselves as the party of seniors. But today, Republicans represent 141 of the 215 House districts where adults aged 65 and older exceed their 16 percent share of the national population, while Democrats hold a clear majority of seats in districts with fewer seniors than average, according to the Equity Research Institute analysis.
Republicans now also control most of the House seats in which the median income trails the national level of nearly $65,000 annually. Republicans hold 152 of the 237 seats in that category. Democrats, in turn, hold 128 of the 198 seats where the median income exceeds the national level.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Republicans hold a clear majority of the districts where the share of residents who lack health insurance exceeds the national level of 9 percent. The GOP now holds 110 of those 185 highly uninsured seats. Democrats control 138 of the 250 seats with fewer uninsured than the nation overall.
…In the 141 seats Republicans hold with more seniors than the national average, white residents exceed their national share of the population in 127 of them. Likewise, white residents surpass their share of the national population in more than four-fifths of the Republican-held districts that lag the median income. Nearly half of House Republicans represent districts in which all three things are true: They have more seniors than the national level, more white residents than the national level, and a lower median income than the national level.
All of this reflects how working-class white voters, many of them financially squeezed, have become the unquestioned foundation of the GOP’s coalition at every level, from the House through presidential elections.
Biden is laying siege to those voters with a strategy of deemphasizing cultural disputes and stressing kitchen-table economic benefits. “Democrats really are making appeals to these districts in a big way,” Pierson said. “Most of that infrastructure and climate [spending] is going to go on in red states. There really is a big effort to say, ‘We are going to use policy to try to make our electoral coalition bigger.’”
A key element of Biden’s courtship of these voters is defending the social safety net, especially Social Security and Medicare. The president’s repeated rejection of reductions in those programs, combined with former President Donald Trump’s opposition to potential cuts, has resulted in the most obvious concession by House Republicans to their evolving electoral base: public declarations by Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other leaders that they will not target Social Security and Medicare in the cutbacks they are demanding for raising the federal debt limit this summer.
Republicans hope that exempting Social Security and Medicare will dampen any backlash to their deficit-reduction plans in economically vulnerable districts. But protecting those programs, as well as defense, from cuts— while also precluding tax increases— will force the House Republicans to propose severe reductions in other domestic programs that many voters in blue-collar Republican districts rely on, potentially including Medicaid, the ACA, and food and housing assistance.
Will a Republican push for severe reductions in those programs provide Democrats with an opening in such places? Robert Blendon, a professor emeritus at the Harvard School of Public Health, is dubious. Although these areas have extensive needs, he told me, the residents voting Republican in them are generally skeptical of social-welfare spending apart from Social Security and Medicare. “We are dealing with a set of values here, which has a distrust of government and a sense that anyone should have to work to get any sort of low-income benefit,” Blendon said. “The people voting Republican in those districts don’t see it as important [that] government provides those benefits.”
The one risk for Republicans in such areas, he noted, would be if voters conclude that they present a genuine threat to Social Security and Medicare. Even most conservative voters strongly favor those programs, Blendon told me, primarily because they view them as an earned benefit that workers have contributed to during their lifetime. If the GOP seriously pushes ideas such as converting Medicare into a voucher program, or diverting part of Social Security revenue into private investment accounts, then “in districts with a lot of older people, they are going to get in trouble,” Blendon said.
[USC Professor Manuel] Pastor, the director of the Equity Research Institute, also believes that current Democratic arguments targeted at older and non-college-educated white voters that they are “voting against their interests” economically are unlikely to succeed. The problem, he says, is that those arguments don’t directly address the way many voters also define their interests to include cultural and racial dynamics. Because Republican strength in these older, predominantly white, financially stressed districts is rooted largely in “the alienation of white voters who fear the country is shifting on them demographically,” Democrats must ultimately make a more explicit case to those voters about how all Americans can benefit from a more diverse and inclusive society, Pastor said. “The Democratic Party needs to figure out how to talk more effectively about race and racism— not try to ignore it, but try to inoculate people against it,” he said.
Bryan Bennett, the senior director of polling and analytics at the Hub Project, notes that the majority of voters, including seniors, support Biden’s approach to preserving the safety net for retirees: In a recent national survey, his group found that voters were nearly four times as likely to support stabilizing Medicare by raising taxes on the affluent rather than cutting benefits. “There is quite a bit of economically populist appetite even among Republicans for raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations,” Bennett told me. Even Medicaid, once seen as a program for the poor, now draws widespread support across party lines, he said.
Yet Bennett, too, is cautious about predicting that Republican efforts to cut the safety net will hurt them in districts that highly depend on it. The GOP, Bennett said, is gambling that it can cut programs that benefit the party’s lower-income white base and still prevent those voters from defecting to Democrats by stressing “other issues like immigration and the culture war.”
If Republicans face any internal resistance to sharp cuts in the safety net, in fact, it may be more likely to come from their members who represent socially liberal white-collar districts that don’t rely as much on these programs than from their members who represent the culturally conservative blue-collar districts that do depend on them. The Republicans who seem least concerned about targeting the social safety net are those who represent the places that need those programs the most. That’s another telling measure of just how fully the concrete has settled beneath a modern political alignment that revolves more around culture than class.

2 Kommentare

Republicans have been demonizing government for as long as I can remember. Many Republicans honestly believe that government cannot improve their situation by any action except reducing their taxes. Others believe that anything government could do to help them could be more cost effectively be done by the free market. These are not just idle opinions, these are values that define their identity. They are not willing to sacrifice their identity for an untested handout program.

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Misses a vital point; this isn't something voters did; it was engineered by the Democrats. Democrats deliberately ejected labor, and courted upper income voters at the cost of winning elections. Middle class and rich voters like the status quo; they are doing fine, and don't really need anything, that is why they are attractive.

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