The Magazine

What Is the Matter with Kansas?

Economic populism makes a comeback.

Nov 20, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 10 • By REIHAN SALAM and ROSS DOUTHAT
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AFTER AN ELECTION SEASON in which the GOP shot itself in the foot at every opportunity, it's easy to explain last week's sweeping midterm defeat as having more to do with Republican weakness than Democratic strength. But give the Democrats their due. They succeeded in spite of the "firewall" that the Republicans had gerrymandered around their majority, and they captured House and Senate seats not only in swing states, but in traditional GOP strongholds as well. Just two years after a narrow but decisive Republican triumph, the Democrats picked the GOP's locks on the Mountain West and the Old Confederacy.

They did so, significantly, by eschewing the Clinton playbook, and running away from the me-too instincts of the party's Washington establishment. This leftward turn was most apparent on foreign policy, but it wasn't just the Iraq war where the Democrats sharpened distinctions with the GOP; Democratic candidates moved leftward on economic issues as well. After falling short for years, in spite of racking up large majorities of unmarried women, blacks, and Latinos, the Democrats focused their efforts on "hunting where the ducks are"--namely, among working-class whites.

These "Lou Dobbs Democrats," as Jacob Weisberg called them in Slate, didn't just attack the GOP's corruption and malfeasance; they embraced a more thoroughgoing economic populism, taking a stand against the malefactors of great wealth who are the enduring bêtes noires of right-minded progressives everywhere, while mixing in protectionist and nationalist appeals on trade and immigration.

In 2006, Clinton's Third Way was left for dead, and in its place came candidates like Sherrod Brown of Ohio, railing against "job-killing trade agreements." In Virginia, Jim Webb hammered away at outsourcing. In Montana, Jon Tester angrily denounced Republicans for passing sweetheart deals benefiting only the rich, arguing, in his words, that "the middle class is being forced into poverty." In Pennsylvania, Democratic House candidates like Chris Carney and Patrick Murphy attacked GOP incumbents from the right on immigration, and won. In six states, all of them won by Bush in 2004, liberals put minimum-wage increases on the ballot, and they passed in all six, running ahead of Democratic candidates.

The strategy worked: Among voters without college degrees, the standard definition of the working class, support for congressional Republicans collapsed from 51 percent in 2004 to 43 percent, one of the largest drops in any major demographic category.

Hovering over these successes was the spirit of Thomas Frank, the author of the 2004 bestseller What's the Matter with Kansas? Today's white working-class voters are GOP dupes, he famously argued, voting on "cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion and the rest whose hallucinatory appeal would ordinarily be far overshadowed by material concerns." But Frank didn't just blame the conservative con men for this sorry state of affairs; he blamed centrist Democrats, whose pusillanimity on trade, taxes, unions, and other bread-and-butter questions of economic justice left these voters with nothing else to vote for. What the party needed, he insisted, was to downplay the social issues and return to first principles with a frontal assault on corporations, free trade, and global capitalism.

Though he was rarely invoked by name, the renewal of Democratic populism, particularly in the so-called red states so many liberals had written off, bore the stamp of Frank's analysis. The Democrats had attempted this populist turn before--Al Gore's "people versus the powerful" rhetoric, John Edwards's talk of "two Americas"--but this time around they made a concerted effort to soft-pedal their social liberalism as well. Democrats like Heath Shuler in North Carolina and Pennsylvania's Bob Casey Jr. loved their guns almost as much as they loved God, and they were at least ambivalent about abortion. And as seats flipped across the country, no one must have been more pleased with the results than Frank. His thesis, after all, had been vindicated.

Or had it? Here's where things get complicated. The original problem with the Frank thesis, as many reviewers pointed out, was its allergy to actual data. He claimed the white working class had been immiserated under GOP rule, even as they voted Republican in ever-greater numbers. But had they really? If we define working-class status by education, the white working class represents roughly two-thirds of the white population, and its median income actually surpasses the national median. Indeed, roughly 40 percent of these voters had family incomes over $60,000 in 2004, an amount of money that still goes a long way in most parts of the country. This is a group that literally defines the American mainstream.

What this means is that the white working class is so large and variegated as to defy easy generalizations. It includes successful small-scale entrepreneurs as well as impoverished blue-collar workers, managers at big-box stores as well as their struggling part-time subordinates. The Republican edge with these voters in recent years has been based on many things, including rational economic interests, not a grand deception. Working-class Americans who have thrived in the changing economy, the capital-rich who've seen their homes appreciate and their businesses grow, are supportive of tax cuts and deregulation. And enough of them are thriving to have provided the GOP with supermajorities of the white working class vote in 2002 and 2004.

Meanwhile, those working-class voters who find it harder and harder to keep up have been trending leftward. Indeed, far from becoming less Democratic over the past half-century--under the influence of those "hallucinatory" culture war issues, as Frank would have it--poor non-college-educated voters have become far more Democratic. These voters' struggles are real: The sad fact, as Thomas Edsall reports in Building Red America, is that only 45 percent of whites in the bottom third of the income distribution work at all, and almost 60 percent are unmarried. They depend on government services, and they vote for them.

But there aren't enough of these downwardly mobile Americans for the Democrats' populist appeals to win elections, at least until this cycle. Earlier this year, Stephen Rose, now a senior economic fellow with the center-left think tank Third Way, infuriated many to his left with a short paper called "The Trouble With Class-Interest Populism," in which he pointed out that as little as 23 percent of the American population "can be categorized as having a direct personal interest in supporting the social safety net programs that most of the public strongly associates with the Democratic party."

For Rose, the economic story of recent decades is not one of immiseration but one of dramatic gains for both middle and working-class families. His most striking finding: When you average-out family incomes over 15 years and capture only the peak earning years--from age 26 to 59--fully 60 percent of Americans will live in households making over $60,000 a year, with half of these households making over $85,000. This has meant that more and more workers feel like beneficiaries of the changing economy rather than victims of it--and as a result, feel comfortable voting for the GOP.

So what happened in 2006? Why is left-wing populism suddenly resonating? What's masked by Rose's averaging, and by the general picture of working-class success, are the tremendous fluctuations in annual income created by the globalized economy. This has made economic security, not poverty or prosperity, the central concern of today's working class--whether you're talking about the small business woman who can barely afford health care or the autoworker who's just discovered that his corporate pension is a mirage. And the bad news for the GOP is that the left has begun to figure out how to speak their language. In cutting-edge polemics like Jacob Hacker's The Great Risk Shift, the smartest liberal voices are focusing on voter anxiety about health care and income volatility--anxiety that the GOP hasn't even begun to find a way to address.

The good news for Republicans, on the other hand, is that the left's preferred solution--making America more like Europe through a vast expansion of the tax-and-transfer state--is still extremely unpopular with most voters, which is why Democrats talked up economic security in 2006 but were thin on policy detail. To working-class Americans struggling to figure out how to get ahead in a more competitive economy, when you can expect to change jobs several times in a decade let alone a lifetime, the "Lou Dobbs Democrats" don't have much to offer--a minimum wage increase, a critique of the alleged inequities of small-bore trade deals, and tough talk on border security that will be drowned out in a caucus that's eager to liberalize immigration laws and increase the influx of low-skilled laborers. Once the artfully named bills pass and the signing ceremonies fade into the past, working class voters will probably wonder, as Walter Mondale once put it, "Where's the beef?"

This gap between what the Democrats are promising and what they can deliver offers a renewed opportunity to the GOP. To date, Republicans have failed to come to grips with the issue of economic insecurity, offering table scraps and tax credits in place of real solutions. This signal failure is the reason that the Bush-Rove vision of a lasting Republican majority has hovered just beyond the GOP's reach. It's easy, however, to imagine a renewed "ownership agenda" focused on spreading capital ownership, freeing workers from employer-based health care, rewarding low-wage work, and defending the interests of hard-pressed parents. The question is whether Republicans, in their present state of drift and disarray, will be farsighted enough to embrace it.

Ross Douthat, an associate editor at the Atlantic Monthly, and Reihan Salam, a writer in Washington, are at work on a book on the future of the GOP.