The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

More than 2 Americas

December 9, 2007

Peter has a great post about the meaning of wealth in America — and the diverse problem that voters making upwards of $97,000 annually pose to the Democratic candidates in the 2008 election campaign.

After all, Democrats have long been said to represent the interests of the downtrodden. Think about FDR’s “New Deal” or LBJ’s “Great Society.” Yet, Democratic members now hold many House seats in districts that are viewed as affluent by income measures.

Though Peter framed this debate around the positions of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, it arguably reflects the “two Americas” theme that John Edwards has been talking about since ’04. He hasn’t been able to gain quite enough traction to emerge as a serious contender.

Keep in mind that the affluent tend to vote at higher rates than do those making less than them. The underclass feels almost completely powerless in many political debates.

In any case, I want to devote this post to a different problem: income isn’t the only difference dividing these urban & suburban residents on the coasts from the rest of the country. The journalist Thomas Frank has famously discussed the importance of the cultural divide separating red and blue states. However, in the context of intra-Democratic struggles, the cultural divide is perhaps best explained in the scholarship of Richard Florida.

Republican candidates seem to make overt appeals to their cultural base and the business class voters understand that the talk about abortion and gay marriage (it used to be school prayer and drug policy) is mere window-dressing. As a cynic, I suspect the immigration issue is the 2008 version. These business class voters (whether on Wall Street or Main Street) know that Republican office-holders reliably bring tax cuts, deregulation, and weak government oversight. They know that post-election, the Republicans won’t prevent the low paid migrant workforce from entering the US.

In the end, the economics trump the culture wars.

In contrast, the Democratic cultural base is quite diverse and creates different cross-cutting problems on economic questions. The Democrats cannot readily make a cultural argument that won’t truly offend some of their constituency. If they go too far to the right, as the 2000 Nader problem revealed, many of their voters may go Green instead.

It is difficult for some Democrats to appeal to union, Catholic, and many minority households that are often culturally — and even fiscally — conservative. Those constituencies historically vote blue, but many union voters became Reagan Democrats and some Republican candidates have received large number of Catholic votes based on the abortion issue. African Americans have remained loyal to the Democratic party, but many Hispanics have shifted their votes in different elections.

Generally, those constituencies do not make $97,000 per year. The classic way to appeal to them is via economic arguments about government’s role in providing a safety net — college tuition assistance, Social Security preservation, child care tax credits, etc.

As Richard Florida demonstrates, numerous highly creative, tolerant and socially liberal people from the heartland tend to migrate to large cities and the coasts. Many become wealthy (this is often the $97K crowd) and vote for Democrats anyway because they abhor the dominant “Republican” cultural values they left behind in Nebraska. Most are not very likely to vote Republican simply because that move would bring lower taxes.

These voters want to hear appeals based on the environment, perhaps, or the role of government in promoting the information age. They are quite open to culturally progressive ideas like gay marriage. They don’t care all that much about the classic Dem arguments about government’s role providing a safety net.

They don’t think they need such a net.

Interestingly, however, while many of these voters’ “native” suburban neighbors are nearly as tolerant culturally, they are far more economically conservative. They are Republicans making $97K and up.

Perhaps the best way to explain the culture problem for the Democrats is to consider the Velveeta/Brie divide.

Remember that anti-Howard Dean commercial from 2004 (video link)?

“I think Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government- expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading. . .” — and then his wife picks up the litany: “. . . body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs.”

Well, it turns out that most Brie eaters are “soft Republican” voters who support abortion rights and legalization of marijuana. Democratic candidates, conceivably, could appeal to those voters — at the risk of losing some of the culturally conservative traditional base.

More likely, however, many of those “soft Republicans” will become hardened as their economic situation continues to improve relative to the rest of the country and they grow attached to the same Republican virtues that appeal to the business classes. In fact, they become the business class.

Here’s the culture clash for the Dems in a nutshell: Most Velveeta buyers are conservative Democrats who support school prayer and listen to Christian music.

So far as I can tell, none of the 2008 Democratic candidates is able to cross the intra-party cultural divide in the way that Bill Clinton could. Clinton effectively appealed to many different constituencies, but it is far from an easy task. He was a Rhodes scholar and policy wonk who attended Yale, but he was also a white southern man who ate at McDonald’s, loved college sports, and played saxophone.

In sum, the problem Peter identifies separating the appeals offered by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is not exclusively about economics. I suspect both candidates are getting a lot of cash from the affluent members of the party that are culturally liberal. Obama must figure that he won’t offend them much by threatening to raise taxes, so long as the new brand of politics he is selling continues to appeal to their intellect or values.

+ posts

Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.