Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A 16-year-old election forecast

From circa 1980 to about 2005, I used to clip articles from newspapers and magazines. I had hundreds of folders with articles on a wide range of topics in which I was interested. News accounts, articles, essays, research papers, you name it.

The internet brought an end to those days. Why keep a physical record when a digital one works just about as well? Hence, Commonplace of a Magpie where I keep track of articles which I might want to reference again.

In the meantime, all the old physical files sat in boxes in storage. Recently, I began clearing out those files. I could just toss them all, but given how things get mixed up in moves, it made sense to go through them and check what was being tossed, and record that which might be still of interest.

It has been an interesting exercise. I kept virtually nothing from the Technology file - it has all been superseded.

It has been interesting to see some of yesteryear's crises which ended up not being crises. Yesteryear's received wisdoms which have now been overturned. Yesteryear's issues which we have still not addressed today.

Also interesting to see how much more centrist most of the news sources were: New York Times, Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, etc. The writing was just so much more normal.

And sometimes, there are articles which were prescient.

Such as, America's Forgotten Majority by Joel Rogers and Ruy Teixeira, written in 2000. After the election of 2016 with the solid triumph of the people's candidate over the chattering class candidate, the chattering class launched innumerable and interminable postmortems to discover just how such a "catastrophe" could have occurred.

Ignoring the fact that the the losing candidate had a warehouse of political baggage, a wagon train of scandals, and not an ounce of retail politicking talent, and ignoring the smokescreen stories about Russian intervention, one of the central talking points to emerge has been the fact that the urban coastal chattering class employed by the government or academia have no clue what is happening in the rest of the country, nor any idea how or why the economic uncertainties of the past decade have laid low the American Dream.

The idea has taken hold that the explanation for the election outcome must lie with a hitherto ignored demographic, the white working class. The talk has turned, David Livingston-like, to mounting exploratory expeditions to the hinterland to discover this tribe of unknowns, the average American.

I don't dispute that in addition to running a bad campaign and being a candidate with more scandals than a reality TV host, ignoring the white working class was a contributor to the outcome. No doubt about it.

Rogers and Teixeira were all over this way back in 2000. To them, at that time, it was obvious that Republicans could not be the party of the working class. At the same time, they were concerned that Democrats, with their identity politics coalition, might not be able to build bridges to the single largest demographic group in the US.

But it is interesting that the argument was being made empirically and rationally in 2000 and yet was not being paid attention to. What Rogers and Teixeira were concerned about was the possibility that Democrats 1) would not be able to translate POC dominance into enough votes for victory, and 2) Democrats, by focusing on African Americans, Hispanics, LGBT, immigrants, etc. (no group of which, individually or collectively, constituted anything near a voting majority) would not engage with the white working middle class, the majority of the voting population. And that is what happened in 2016. Rogers and Teixeira called it.

This is a taste of their thought process:
We became particularly intrigued by the assertion -- explicit above, sometimes implicit, but almost always there -- that the white working class had become politically irrelevant. How could this be? The 1980s weren't that long ago. Demographic change is generally gradual, not sudden. The country is still mostly white (almost three quarters of adults, more than four fifths of voters), and most people have, according to the data just cited, jobs, educations, and incomes that can broadly be described as working-class.

Well, what can't be usually isn't. The white working class is alive and well in American politics today. Sure, many of its members prefer the label "middle class," and most don't work in factories or at any other kind of blue-collar job. But their economic position in American society bears little resemblance to that of the suburban college-educated professionals we hear so much about.

We call these white working-class voters the forgotten majority of American politics: "forgotten" because we haven't heard much about them of late and also because they haven't benefited much from policy changes over the past thirty years or so; "majority" because they are just that -- about 55 percent of the voting population.


But the Democrats have won the past two presidential elections, though the Republicans still control Congress. And all of a sudden, after dominating our politics for sixty years, the white working class is nowhere to be found in most media accounts of current politics. We hear a lot about soccer moms, wired workers, and suburban independents, but virtually nothing about this formerly central group of voters. What happened? Has the world really changed so much in the past decade or two? Could the white working class have been rendered irrelevant by the rise of a new economy?


These people are the real swing voters in American politics. Their loyalties shift the most from election to election and, in so doing, determine the winners in American politics. They are also the majority -- about 55 percent of voters and of the adult population. But they don't receive much attention these days; they are invisible to the journalists and commentators who define our national discourse. To bring them into focus more sharply, we will review some basic information about them. As we proceed, it will become clear that the new white working class is quite at variance with dated stereotypes from the 1970s and 1980s.


In sum, the white working class remains numerically dominant, even if its form has changed. Sure, many of its members qualify as wired, in the narrow sense that they work with computers and information technology. Many also qualify as soccer moms, in the narrow sense that they have to juggle job and family, including driving their kids to and from athletic contests. And certainly many qualify as suburban independents, in the narrow sense that they live in the suburbs and lack a strong identification with either party. Nonetheless, they are members of a white working class whose economic interests and experience diverge fundamentally -- in terms of culture, class, and history -- from those of soccer moms in Bethesda, suburban independents in Fair Lawn, and wired cyber professionals in Silicon Valley.


Democratic Party strategy suffers from a refusal to recognize the forgotten majority as fundamental to a new popular majority. The Democrats prefer to target various fashionable voter groups as supplements to their base in unions and minority groups and hope that they manage to outpoll the Republicans, as they have in the past two presidential elections. The Democrats also lack a program for uniting the values and economic experience of the forgotten majority; they simply hope that the current economic expansion will last forever, a scenario that cannot happen. And even now the expansion is doing little to solve long-term problems such as health security, retirement security, and education reform, which are crucial to the forgotten majority's economic future. These problems demand bold policy interventions -- interventions that the Democrats are reluctant to propose, given their born-again commitment to fiscal prudence and modest government.


So an expansion of the existing Democratic base holds little promise for creating a new Democratic majority. The current Democratic coalition -- most emphatically not a majority -- is already doing a fair job of turning out these voters. It could always do better, of course, but there are limits to the likely effect.

Inescapably, the forgotten majority is the answer.
Rogers and Teixeira then go on to discuss how Democrats might convert the white working class and also pick-up white college educated women.
Of course, the Democrats could focus both on the forgotten majority and on college-educated white women, particularly those with postgraduate degrees. The latter cannot substitute for the former, however. If the Democrats could improve their support among the forgotten majority, additional support from highly educated white women would be icing on the cake. But without the forgotten-majority voters there will be no cake to ice.
Ironically, they lost both in 2016, both the white working class and college-educated white women. No cake, no icing.

Interestingly, while Rogers and Teixeira are trying to map a path in 2000 for Democrats to become the majority party, they also identify the various barriers that might keep Democrats from actually trying to convert the majority demographic. Much of which came to pass in the election of 2016.

It is not enough to know the future. As Rogers and Teixeira show, thinking goes only so far. You have to want the future enough to accept it on its own terms.

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