The Hard-Pressed and the Privileged
by Jeffrey Laurenti
Polling wizard Ruy Teixeira gloomily assessed in The New Republic last month the deepening alienation from Barack Obama and the Democratic Party of the half of the electorate he calls the "white working class," which Obama lost by 18 percentage points to John McCain in 2008 and which congressional Democrats lost to Republican opponents by a "catastrophic" 30 percentage points in 2010. (There's a reason why McCain mortgaged his campaign and the future of the Republican Party to "Joe the Plumber" in 2008.)
What, then, of the far smaller share of Americans sitting near the top of the socio-economic pyramid? A member of Harvard's class of 1956--a cohort that came of age in the Eisenhower era--passed along to me the results of these septuagenarians' 55th reunion class survey, the most recent in a series of tracking surveys that stretches back to 1966. And the change in political attitudes recorded in these data reveals a stunning migration within this tiny microcosm of America's most educationally privileged.
Even as they aged into their early 60s, the respondents in this all-male class were evenly divided in their partisan attachments: 48 percent described themselves as Republicans and 47 percent as Democrats as recently as 1996. But over the past fifteen years the balance has tilted steadily and substantially, this year standing at 60 percent Democratic and 34 percent Republican. That's surely as fast a partisan realignment as among white Southerners after the civil rights revolution.
Of course, the nature of these class surveys means that some independent factor could be at work for which a more rigorous poll might have controlled. Republican-leaners in the class may have died off at a much more rapid pace than Democrats since 1996. This seems improbable, however, since in other respects this cross-section shows considerable stability. Take income, for instance. Even though 40 percent of the class has retired since 1996, the share with yearly incomes over a quarter million dollars (not counting their spouses') remains a steady fifth of respondents.
On international affairs, too, self-reported views show some continuity. That hoary old cold-war bellwether, the idea that "the US should use all means to combat opposing ideologies...in defense of our way of life anywhere," has been rejected as "no longer valid" by a steady three-quarters of respondents year after post-cold-war year. So the finding that a third of long-time Republican leaners have shed life-long voting habits is probably not a survey quirk, but yet another piece of a more profound political realignment.
We see a similar phenomenon in Western Europe's political parties, where the balance in the parliamentary delegations of socialist and even former communist parties has tilted perceptibly from gruff working-class trade-union representatives to university professors. In the United States, the accelerating flight of highly educated people from the Republican Party may or may not affect the electoral prospects of the party's candidates, but it does diminish the once-deep talent pool on which the party can draw for expertise in economics, foreign policy, and science when voters entrust it with power--a point Chris Mooney argued recently in The American Prospect.
It is not, however, expertise (or, as Michael Dukakis delusionally put it, "competence") that despairing working class and lower middle class voters see as the missing ingredient in American public life. Having suffered severe erosions of income, employment security, and living standards, they are looking for something else.
And the international community -- which is generally quite delighted with the change Obama has effected in America's engagement with the rest of the world -- is wondering anxiously how those voters, so indifferent to the world beyond our shores, will conclude their search in November 2012.