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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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?"