This is a long post, and kind of heavy on the wonkery, because it includes some long quotes that give some good conceptual frameworks for looking at the class issues in this year's elections. More specifically, they give some basis for judging how close the Big Pundits are coming to reality when they make some self-confident assertion about what "the white working class" is thinking, or about what "latte liberals" want. (When they talk about what "the American people" want, that's easy to interpret; that mean what the pundit who's speaking wants. Big Pundits assume they speak for "the American people".)
Mark Schone did a great interview with Tom Schaller, Ruy Teixeira and Sean Wilentz, What role did race play with white Democrats?Salon 06/03/08. Schaller, Teixeira and Wilentz do a good job in this piece of trying to adhere to empirical data on the groups they discuss. In it, they talk about the current Democratic coalition:
Schaller: I hate to crystallize it, but in a sense, and they're not equally proportionate in their size, but if you think of the Democratic Party as working-class whites, working-class blacks, which is almost a redundancy because of socioeconomic differences, though obviously there are some middle-class blacks, and then the elite class, whatever that is, the cappuccino, latte class ... and trichotomize the Democratic Party coalition as those three things, if you can get two of the three you're probably going to be the nominee. And I don't want to speak for Sean, but I think his point is well, OK, but you need all three to win the general election and which two do you need to start with? And I suspect Sean would say that you need to start with the two working-class components because the college professor and the New York City liberals, they're going to come home eventually. Whereas if you start with the cappuccino classes and the black coalition you don't know if you're going, and this is Hillary Clinton's essential argument, you don't know if you're going to get the white working-class voters to come along in the end. (my emphasis)
I actually think Schaller has some pretty good shorthand terms there. The "cappuccino classes" is a phrase that can cover the Democratic investment bankers as well as affluent environmentalists, small business owners, and liberal-minded middle managers and professionals.
Both African-Americans and Latinos are groups which face certain issues that heavily affect their voting behavior which are more likely to override class factors than among the majority whites, so it certainly makes sense to view them as distinct voting groups.
The "white working-class" designation is in some ways the vaguest, just because of lack of consensus on how that group should actually be defined, and the problems in the data that have to be used to do so. But it's still a meaningful and useful way to describe a critical element of the Democratic coalition.
Salon: My interest is whether or not you alienate them [the Clinton voters], after they've chosen the other candidate, by telling them that they were bad people for choosing that candidate.
Wilentz: I think that's an excellent point. The media is getting those voters very angry by saying that it is based on race. ...
Teixeira: It's interesting to note that even now, the national security issue having been highlighted, it's more a national security election now between Obama and McCain than it's likely to be later, because McCain has basically talked about what he's wanted to talk about and Hillary and Obama have been cutting themselves up with knives. So it's a pretty good time to be pushing the election in that direction. And yet, take the latest Pew poll, Obama is still ahead by three points, even in a poll in which he's deemed not tough enough by a lot of voters, many more than John McCain on national security, he's got a nine-point deficit among white voters. They don't give a white working-class voter data point, but nine points, which is much better than John Kerry. So already he's there. You would think that the dynamic as it unfolds and as it moves more to domestic issues whether John McCain likes it or not is going to make that even more favorable.
Schaller: For all the discussion of the Appalachian white voter, however you want to define it, which was made very real in recent weeks because of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and so forth, when you look at the election and pull this back to the lens of the actual electoral map and the states that actually matter, you're talking about Ohio, Pennsylvania, maybe Missouri, as your Appalachian states that matter, and then really, the election in the last two cycles where it matters, in the Midwest, particularly the upper Midwest and the Southwest, and the white voters there are a little different. In the Midwest, yes, they're a little more evangelical, but the Midwest has the highest high school graduation, it has the highest college graduate rates of any region in the country. And your independent voters in Colorado, in New Mexico and Nevada are potentially in play for Obama or for Clinton if she were to be the nominee. Those voters are transplanted voters, often from the greater Northeast, who moved down there because of property values and bigger communities and more control over their land and new jobs and a new economy, or they moved east from California. And Ruy and John Judis wrote about these sorts of communities: the Santa Fe-Albuquerque corridor, the Denver-Boulder corridor. So the white voter discussion, yes, is partially about the white Appalachian voter, but that's only a third of the conversation in terms of where it really matters [for the Presidential election]. We don't really have to talk about the Barney Frank white voter in Massachusetts because that's out of play and we don't have to talk about the white voter from South Texas because that's really not an issue, we need to talk about pretty well educated upper Midwest white voters and we need to talk about independent white voters in the growing suburbs of the Southwest and we, yes, we need to talk about Appalachian downscale, non-college educated or some college education white voters in Appalachian districts.
Teixeira: I agree with that and even a little bit more specific, if you look at a lot of these places, including even in some of these Appalachian linked states and certainly outside of it, one thing that's kind of interesting, the sort of upper tier of the white working class if you define it in education terms, those with some college, which is a growing group compared to the rest of the white working class, they tend to be quite a bit more sympathetic to Obama than people with a high school degree or less. I think if Obama could possibly put more of those voters in play, that could make a difference in a lot of these states. It appears like a lot of these voters that have at least some college, a little more cosmopolitan, are a little less likely to reject Obama on cultural familiarity or even a racial basis. That could wind up making a difference in this election. I think there's a problem because people hear the white working class, however it's defined, they gravitate as if pulled in by a magnet to the idea that some blue-collar dude who works in a factory or something, has a high school degree, it's so different than the way any reasonable definition of the white working class would be today. It's such a variegated and highly diverse and much more upscale group than I think people are used to thinking about it.
Part of what makes these categories seem vague and awkward is that they tend to come into play when we're talking about national trends and statewide elections. But it's not always easy to put defining images or concepts together with the groups being described. In a local or Congressional election, you're talking about getting support from this homeowners association, or that trade group, or the city veterans group, or a regional environmental coalition, or the local merchant's association, etc. But when we talk about voting by groups in larger aggregates, it's harder to think of commonly-assumed images or groups to which to attach them.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. In The Crisis of Confidence: Ideas, Politics and Violence in America (1969) looked at the changing demographic dynamics within the national Democratic Party, as exhibited in the politics of 1968. Since that was the pivotal time for the political realignment that eventually shaped the parties as they are in 2008, it's an interesting comparison.
He describes the growing constituency of the Republican Party as the "technostructure", highly skilled professionals and middle managers:
The technostructure has, of course, its hip wing which in the main followed [Democratic] Senator [Eugene] McCarthy in 1968. ["Hip" in 1969 meant cool, fashionable, stylish.] But its square majority in the suburban foxholes saw themselves contentedly, if not quite ecstatically, in Mr. Nixon. The highly programmed character of the Nixon campaign faithfully expressed the technical virtuosity of the new men, as the campaign's intellectual emptiness reflected their conviction that technique matters more than substance. Mostly salaried employees, moving from one place to another at the organization's behest, they are beset by taxes, mortgages, installment debt, social permissiveness, rebellious children and racial integration. In the campaign Mr. Nixon called them "the forgotten people ... those who are not breaking the law, those who do pay taxes, those who do go to work, those who do support their churches and their schools." These "forgotten Americans," he said, "finally have become angry ... because they love America and don't like what has been happening to America for the last four years."
Schlesinger saw Gene McCarthy's appeal lying with new interest groups that had grown up within the Democratic coalition. The New Deal coalition had united industrial workers, farmers, Northern urbanites and Southern segregationists. By 1969, the Southern segregationist configuration was no longer possible, unless some of those voters could be kept within the Democratic Party on some new basis.
McCarthy was the prototypical latte liberal, though latte's hadn't become "hip" yet. This was the pre-Starbucks era. They had progressive instincts on peace and social reform issues. But they would die of embarrassment if any of their friends saw them walking a picket line. (We're talking stereotypes, here.) To put that latter point another way, they were individualistic enough to not want to think of themselves as part of an interest groups. Schlesinger writes:
The new interest groups - the suburban middle class, the college students, the church groups, the peace groups - may be less familiar than the wool industry or the steelworkers, less familiar even than the Negroes, the Puerto Ricans, the Mexican Americans, the Indians and the poor in general. That hardly makes them any less interest groups.
I think what Obama has done -- and this is what Hillary Clinton supporters have to realize and even Latino voters have to realize, as well -- it's the whole notion of "E pluribus unum" in terms of he's going beyond just race and saying that he's going to represent all Americans.
So it's not the old politics of sort of interest group politics, and we have the feminists or African-Americans or environmentalists, and we all want a piece of the pie. We want a transformation where one candidate actually represents all those interests, including the interest of white, working people and the white poor, as well.
I didn't quote that to try to equate McCarthy's appeal with Obama's. That would confuse more things than it would clarify. But Joseph describes some of that sense of wanting to get beyond "interest group politics", the idea being that there's something inherently wrong with interest groups.
Continuing with Schlesinger's definition of the McCarthy vote in 1968:
It was McCarthy's achievement to understand that voters were beginning to defect from the old interest groups. It was his effort to put together a coalition of the new interest groups. The inner logic of his remarkable campaign was to unite the college-educated, whatever their race, religion or previous condition of servitude: teachers, students, church leaders, enlightened businessmen, civic-minded suburbanites, the rising professional, managerial and technical classes. This, of course, is why his campaign was so popular in the suburbs. This is why he was the Democratic aspirant with the greatest appeal to Republicans. This too accounts for the "we happy few" flavor of the McCarthy campaign. It explains why his embattled followers on the streets of Chicago [during the 1968 Chicago convention] were mostly sons and daughters of the white middle class — why they received so little sympathy or support from the blacks, the workingmen and the poor.
In that last observation, I suspect Schlesinger was overly influenced by the conventional wisdom of the day. I'm sure that there were plenty of blacks, poor people and workers who didn't think the Chicago police ought to be busting heads unless it was really necessary. And people could figure out even from TV news reporting in those days that the Chicago "police riot" wasn't necessary.
Unfortunately, the following is probably an anecdote that accurately portrays one of the less attractive aspects of Gene McCarthy's perspective:
He was attempting something novel in progressive politics — a revolution against the proletariat. [That sentence is an uncharacteristically lame formulation by Schlesinger.] McCarthy himself pointed up the contrast between his conception and Robert Kennedy's conception of the Democratic coalition when he told a university audience in Corvallis during the Oregon primary that public opinion polls showed Kennedy running best "among the less intelligent and less educated people in America. And I don't mean to fault them for voting for him, but I think that you ought to bear that in mind as you go to the polls here on Tuesday." (my emphasis)
Here's RFK partisan Schlesinger's take on the Kennedy voters within the Democratic Party in 1968. He saw the 1968 standard-bearer Hubert Humphrey as trapped within "Old Politics" conceptions based on a New Deal coalition that had been transformed dramatically since 1945:
The Kennedy way, in my judgment, stands in sharp contrast to both the Humphrey and McCarthy ways. Kennedy saw the Democratic party as a coalition neither of political brokers nor of college graduates but as a link between the two Americas — between educated and uneducated America, between rich and poor America, between white and black America. Unlike Humphrey, he did not suppose that the traditional political institutions could control their constituencies in the new age of television and public opinion polls. Unlike McCarthy, he did not regard the "less educated" as necessarily the "less intelligent," and he was not prepared to surrender the working masses — even the cops and the cabdrivers — to George Wallace.
Like Humphrey and McCarthy, Kennedy began his analysis with the crisis of the Roosevelt coalition; but I think he read the Roosevelt experience with more precision and penetration. He dissented from the Humphrey way because he understood that Roosevelt did not create his coalition through the institutions to which Humphrey had committed himself; these institutions were the effect, not the cause of FDR's success. He dissented from the McCarthy way because he did not believe that the old Roosevelt coalition had splintered beyond recall, though he knew that coalition had to be extended by enlisting the technostructure and the suburbs. Where Humphrey proposed to reconstruct the Roosevelt coalition from above, through the political brokers, Kennedy proposed to reconstruct it from below, through his intense personal identification with the victims and casualties of American society, through urging programs on behalf of the alienated groups and through increasing their own direct participation in the political and administrative process.