In 1991, 26 years ago, Thomas Edsall, assisted by his wife, Mary, published an astoundingly relevant book, “Chain Reaction, The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics”, that explains how the Democratic coalition created by Franklin Roosevelt, active and dominant from 1932 through 1964, lost its focus on broad central concerns, and instead became subject to attacks from a revitalized Republican, conservative movement, that was able to peg the Democratic party and liberals as elitist, and government as primarily a force for the promotion of special minority rights and re-distribution for groups such as poor blacks, Hispanics and gays. In the debate, taxes were positioned by conservatives as primarily an agent of re-distribution to these groups at the expense of the middle class. Democrats, for their part, did not address these concerns, and instead focused on special interest politics (most recently on transgender bathroom access). In the process, working and lower middle-class white voters were peeled away from the Democratic coalition to align (ironically) with traditional Republican policy-makers whose goals and practice has been to primarily benefit the very wealthy.
Where once the working and lower middle-class white votes feared the “fat-cat” bankers and industrialists, now their suspicions primarily are primarily directed against the “liberal elites”, including government bureaucrats engaged in social engineering. As this book describes, during the Nixon and Reagon years, educational institutions and the press were added to the list of elites subject to attack.
DOES ALL OF THIS SOUND FAMILIAR?
This book was written 26 years ago, describing changes over the 25 years before. Those of us who support rational government, need to understand the roots of the populist rhetoric from 26 years ago, to understand how we got here and where those of us who support government from the center need to go from here.
What were the levers that conservatives were able to use to create a coalition building effort and language culminating in the populist election of a Donald Trump? Similarly, what accounts for the ineffectiveness of the Democratic Party to understand and connect with middle and lower-middle class constituents to combat conservative policies, such as regressive tax policy or reduced assess to health care, which will clearly hurt the middle class? This Book provides great insight into the populist politics of polarization, and provides a jumping-off point for Support the Center to further and modernize this analysis, for example, tackling the urban-rural divide.
- The Civil Rights movement, in its activist stages (not the initial stages), was the first and most powerful lever which caused alienation of middle and lower-middle classes from the Democratic Party. Overall, with the exception of the South, the country supported establishment of equal legal rights such as the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Voting Rights Act, and the abolishment of forced segregation.But when the Supreme Court adopted an activist stance that mandated forced busing and affirmative action to enforce these laws, interpreted by some as an overstepping of the judiciary’s proper role, a wedge was driven between the better educated, upper-middle class elites of the Democratic Party and its working class constituents. The upper-middle class elites did not bear the burden of these policies in their insulated locales.Forced busing, for example, in Michigan in 1972, due to a court-ordered de-segregation plan between inner city and suburbs, swung a small subset of the suburban ring around Detroit to vote Republican, shifting dynamics toward Republicans in presidential elections.
- Similarly, the War on Poverty, and its attendant establishment of programs directed towards the disproportionately black and Hispanic poor, and other entitlement programs established since then, have created a perception that taxes and government programs primarily re-distribute wealth. (The irony is, that this misunderstanding has enabled conservatives to enact tax and spending policies that favor the very wealthy at the expense of the middle class. Support the Center will be examining tax and spending policies in depth in future blogs.) The War on Poverty was extremely successful at moving a significant percentage of black families into the middle class. However, the persistence of a black underclass, exhibiting disproportional amounts of dysfunctional behavior, such as predominance of single parent female headed families, higher than average incarceration rates and involvement with drugs, led many white working class families to believe that money spent on this constituency was wasteful and extracted at their expense. Taxes become identified with re-distribution, and with a perception that the middle was being ignored in favor of both the top and the bottom. The inability of the Democratic party to face the issues of the underclass squarely and engage in a neutral dialogue about these issues, led to the perception that the Party was “soft” on crime, and profligate with the “people’s money”, spending it on public housing and welfare. This allowed conservatives to control the imagery (Willy Horton) and the discussion around race and taxes.
- Lack of per capita economic growth from the 1970s on for the middle class, further eroded tolerance for expanding government programs that seemingly only help the poor, without reaching the middle class, promoted by an upper class “elite” (both Democratic and Republican) that has experienced dramatic economic gains, especially with the Reagan tax cuts (which benefited the wealthy and not the middle class) in the 1980s.
- The outsized role of the Supreme Court in the 1960s, 1970’s and 1980’s in enforcing forced busing, extending rights of special groups such as gays under the newly emergent “equal protection” rationale, protecting pornography rights as “free-expression”, and finally protecting the abortion rights in Rowe vs. Wade alienated a growing religious social conservative segment of the population, and united them with formerly libertarian, small-government leaning Republicans. The Supreme Court, not a representative body, but an unelected “elite”, was seen as eroding community standards, norms and values clung to by the middle.
- The Democratic endorsement of Republican policies of free trade and globalization, combined with lack of programs directed at sheltering working men and women from impacts of international competition, further led to anger towards the Democratic elites who no longer were perceived as protectors of unions and jobs. With the shuttering of rust-belt industry (both by greater technological efficiency and movements of manufacturing jobs overseas), Democrats were seen as less interested in the broad middle, than as beneficiaries of and protectors of special interest groups.
- Republicans and unwittingly Democrats have allowed coded language to favor the Republican Agenda:
- When Democrats (most recently Hillary Clinton) evoke “fairness”, it is seen and spoken about by Republicans as support for the underclass, blacks, feminists, gays, government unions, racial preferences in employment and softer policies on criminals.
- Republicans have monopolized the words “free markets” so government interference in markets, including providing a safety net, supporting public stewardship of roads and providing public goods, are seen as leading to corruption and stagnation. The general populace is not informed about externalities which distort markets, the benefits of progressive taxation on their well-being, and the benefits of public services and goods (eg. well maintained roads and National Parks) inproviding greater equality.
- Taxes have become associated with welfare – both domestically and in terms of giveaways to other countries. (Ironically, US foreign aid as a percentage of GDP (1%) lags worldwide averages.)
- “Special interests” have been spun as Democratic special interests, although special interest politics have become more prevalent all around.
Lessons for “Support the Center”:
- Lesson #1 – “All Lives Matter!!” This needs to be the mantra of those in the Center, Democrats and moderate Republicans in future elections. Americans will support equality under the law, but not preferential treatment. The role of individual and family responsibility needs to be emphasized by the “Support the Center” candidate.
- Lesson # 2: Benefits need to be broad in their impact. Benefits such as Social Security, good Health Care Coverage (to be covered in an upcoming STC article), decent infrastructure, emphasis on public goods such as roads, parks and public education, fit that criteria.
- Lesson #3 – An overbearing Supreme Court forcing an agenda on an unwilling populace, has done lasting damage to the Democratic coalition. It is possible to win the battle and lose the war, if the process through which rights are achieved is not caused by a shift in public opinion.
- Lesson #4 – Support the Center needs to find a new language to promote economic reality, both supporting free markets in general, while acknowledging and explaining where it fails. Rational regulations, controls and sometimes public supply of a good are needed to correct potential market failures. Trickle down economics does not work; the rich need to be taxed progressively, but not punished or relied upon to finance the economy (the math doesn’t work). All this needs to be explained to a skeptical public.
In conclusion, the embrace of special interests must be rejected and instead the welfare of the broad society emphasized.