The Democratic coalition is getting richer, while the Republican one is getting poorer.
This was true back when the phrase “President Donald Trump” was still a Simpsons reference. Working-class whites have been defecting to Red America while affluent ones joined up with Team Blue for decades now. But the GOP’s nomination of a xenophobic insult comic in 2016 accelerated the decline of class polarization among U.S. voters. The Trumpist GOP still does better with high-income Americans than low-income ones. But Trump lost voters making under $30,000 by 16 fewer points than Mitt Romney had, and those making between $30,000 and $50,000 by six points fewer, according to exit polls. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, significantly outperformed Barack Obama’s 2012 showing among voters who made more than $100,000 a year.
Many observers expected these developments to redefine the terms of America’s policy debate. As both parties became more socioeconomically diverse, their economic platforms would have to become less distinct. “Eventually, the Democrats will become the party of urban cosmopolitan business liberalism,” the political scientist Lee Drutman wrote in 2016, “and the Republicans will become the party of suburban and rural nationalist populism.”
While aspects of Drutman’s dichotomy ring true, we are now 29 months into the Trump era and there is no sign that Democrats are growing more business friendly and only scant evidence that Republicans are trending more economically “populist.” Blue America extended its frontiers into many a historically Republican suburb last year, and yet the “moderate” front-runner in the Democratic Party’s 2020 race is calling for sharp tax hikes on the rich, massive public spending to address climate change, a strong public option for health insurance, a $15 federal minimum wage, and a robust package of progressive labor-law reforms. On the other side of the aisle, a few social conservatives have begun advertising their contempt for “free market” economics. But this iconoclasm remains almost entirely rhetorical. And the GOP leadership hasn’t given an inch to their party’s heretics. In fact, the current Republican president has (arguably) been more deferential to the interests of the rich — and the tenets of Ayn Rand’s gospel — than the last one was. Under George W. Bush, congressional Republicans raised the minimum wage and created a new entitlement program. Under Trump, they’ve done little beyond cut taxes on the rich, try to throw poor people off health insurance, and confirm handmaidens of capital to the federal courts.
All of which prompts the question: Why hasn’t the declining class polarization of the electorate reduced the ideological polarization of the two major parties on matters of political economy?
There are many correct answers to that question. But a new analysis from the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group shines a light on two of them.
Low-income Republicans are economically liberal but politically passive.
The Voter Study Group tracks the evolving views of thousands of voters, who were first interviewed in 2011. To keep their survey sample nationally representative, the VSG has added new voters into the mix, but the poll still works as a gauge of how various categories of voters are changing with the times. In the latest report to emerge from this project, the (aforementioned) political scientist Lee Drutman, Brookings Institute scholar Vanessa Williams, and Roosevelt Institute president Felicia Wong examine “how Americans’ economic views define — and defy — party lines.”
Their findings suggest that the GOP’s growing low-income wing does have markedly more progressive economic preferences than the rest of the party. In fact, one in five GOP voters espouse economic views that are closer to those of the average Democratic voter than the average Republican one. And low-income Republicans are heavily concentrated in that heretical 20 percent. On every economic-policy question the researchers looked at, GOP voters who earned less than $40,000 were far to the left of those earning more than $80,000. Among the former, 65 percent supported tax credits for low-income workers, 53 percent backed paid family leave, and 45 percent approved of raising taxes on those who earn more than $200,000 a year; among more affluent Republicans, those figures were 50 percent, 39 percent, and 23 percent, respectively.
Notably, low-income Republicans were also far more likely to endorse left-wing premises on broad questions of how the American economy works. For example, 45 percent of such GOP voters felt that unfair economic rules govern who becomes wealthy and who becomes poor in the U.S.; just 18 percent of Republicans who earn over $80,000 said the same.
And yet, if low-income Republicans are more economically liberal than their wealthier fellow travelers, they have demonstrated little interest in punishing their party for its plutocratic ways. Between the 2016 and 2018 elections, Democrats gained ground with a wide variety of different constituencies, but economically left-wing Republicans weren’t one of them:
If the GOP’s decisions to prioritize historically unpopular proposals for giving tax breaks to the rich and taking health care from the poor weren’t sufficient to sour economically left-wing Republicans on their party, it’s difficult to imagine what would.
There are many reasons why Republican politicians have not moderated on economics over the past two years. But the fact that the party’s internal dissenters have proved unable or unwilling to hold its leadership accountable to their interests is an important one. Low-income voters may skew economically liberal, but they also skew politically disengaged and disempowered. Working-class Americans often lack the time to follow politics closely or the money to support advocacy organizations that might make their voices heard in intraparty conflicts. Given these realities, it’s not altogether surprising that the Trumpian proletariat has failed to seize the means of policy production.
Affluent Democrats are a “Panera land” of contrasts.
If Republican voters view economic policy as a vulgar Marxist would predict, Democrats very much do not. In fact, as the chart below illustrates, Democrats who earn more than $80,000 a year were actually slightly more left-wing on economic issues in the VSG survey than those who earned less than $40,000.
This result isn’t entirely surprising. Americans with high incomes are more likely to be highly educated, and highly educated partisans are more likely to espouse ideologically consistent (and “extreme,” relative to the median) policy views. On the Republican side, highly educated voters’ attraction to ideological purity pulls them in the same direction as their class interests. But the opposite is true in Team Blue’s tent.
The researchers did confirm that the quintessential “corporate Democrats” — fiscally conservative, socially liberal — do exist. In their survey, about one in ten Democratic voters espoused economic views that were closer to those of the average Republican. This contingent is disproportionately composed of very high-income Democrats: While Democratic voters who earn between $80,000 and $200,000 are more economically progressive than the party’s poorest members, those who earn more than $200,000 are decidedly more conservative. As the authors write:
[A]bout 40 percent of Democrats earning over $200,000 a year strongly supported making it easier for workers to unionize, compared to 48 percent of those making less than $200,000 a year. Fifty-eight percent of high-earning Democrats supported raising the minimum wage, compared to 67 percent of other Democrats. These results fit with academic research into the attitudes of the very wealthy, which finds that they are more economically conservative.
Nevertheless, even with Blue America’s annexation of “Panera land” last fall, Democrats who earn more than $200,000 a year remain a small minority within the party (the median household income in America’s single richest congressional district is $116,000). And since most professional-class Democrats are more invested in their identities as ideologically coherent progressives than they are in defending the narrowest possible conception of their material interests, Team Blue has managed to move to the suburbs without moving right.
Democrats have much to gain and little to lose by running on a progressive economic message in 2020.
Between Donald Trump’s election and last year’s midterms, the Democratic Party shifted its economic agenda to the left and narrowed the focus of its message to “bread and butter” issues. Whereas Hillary Clinton’s paid messaging had centered on her party’s commitment to multicultural tolerance, the Democrats’ 2018 candidates favored a relentless focus on health care and tax policy.
This “Better Deal” agenda was insufficient to lure the GOP’s “big government” conservatives out of Trump’s camp. But Democrats did make major gains with economically left-wing independent voters. According to the VSG survey, Clinton won that contingent by 19 points in 2016, but Democratic congressional candidates won it by 42 points two years later. Since economically liberal independents make up about 7 percent of the electorate, the Democrats’ improved margin with such voters netted them a 1 percent gain in the national popular vote. Critically, this gain was not offset by any losses among economically right-wing Democrats or independents, as both of those voting blocs became slightly more likely to vote Democratic in 2018.
To be sure, general and midterm elections are subject to very different dynamics. It’s impossible to say with certainty that it was Democrats’ messaging choices — rather than Trump’s grotesqueries — that delivered a supermajority of economically liberal independents to Team Blue last year. Nevertheless, the Voter Study Group’s data confirms a key takeaway from other recent analyses of American public opinion: Democrats have much to gain and little to lose by increasing the salience of economic policy in U.S. politics.
The GOP is far more dependent on the support of economic liberals than Democrats are on the votes of economic conservatives. While the Republicans’ burgeoning low-income wing is aberrantly liberal on fiscal issues, the Democrats growing professional-class contingent is just as — if not more — left-wing than the rest of the party on questions of federal economic policy (questions of municipal zoning may be another matter).
Thus, although the increasing socioeconomic diversity of both parties has yet to cause major tensions within either coalition, the GOP remains more vulnerable to an internecine class war. Economically liberal Republicans did not vote more Democratic in 2018 than they did in 2016, but in both of those elections they nonetheless voted more Democratic than did other Republicans. There is still some risk that the GOP could alienate an electorally significant segment of these voters. Meanwhile, if the Democratic nominee can reengineer the Donkey Party’s 2018 showing among economically left-wing independents, Donald Trump will almost certainly lose reelection in a rout.
All of which is to say: For Democrats, “economic populism” and “electoral pragmatism” are now different names for the same thing.