Thomas Byrne Edsall Replies

Thomas Byrne Edsall Replies

Ruy Teixeira and I are in substantial agreement on many of the forces at work in contemporary politics—particularly on the central role of white, working-class voters in recent elections and the necessity of having an effective plan for promoting economic growth and more equitable distribution in new competitive circumstances to win their votes. We differ, however, on a number of specifics, and those specifics have major consequences. Teixeira quite correctly, writes from the point of view of someone who wants to shape a certain kind of coalition and to have the parties polarize in ways that fit his vision of what the Democratic Party ought to be. My own approach is less concerned with what ought to be than with what is likely. Teixeira and other allies may well be able to push politics in a different direction, but I think that their task will be difficult.

Most important, politicians and political strategists generally respond to market pressures. In the case of the Democrats, the pressures are to continue to go after upscale, well-educated voters and not to go after white, working-class voters. Most of the growth in Democratic support has been among well-educated, white professionals who are liberal on social issues (abortion, school prayer, the culture wars generally). In the 2000 election, Al Gore won a majority in seventeen of the twenty-five most affluent counties in the nation. In the same election, Bush won in some of the poorest, predominantly white counties in the country. These trends are well documented in Social Cleavages and Political Change, by Jeff Manza and Clem Brooks.

Relatively well-to-do and very well educated voters (many with more than a college degree) are increasingly drawn to the Democratic Party and have been crucial to the party’s success in California, New York, and on both coasts—as well as in the suburbs of such cities as Chicago and Detroit. Politicians and parties tend to go where the votes are, and in recent years, the Democrats have found their new voters not in the white working class, but among the educated. White, working-class voters, as Stan Greenberg’s polling shows, hold less than welcoming attitudes toward the Democratic Party, and among non-college-educated whites, hostile attitudes outweigh positive ones. This climate does not create much incentive for a Democratic politician seeking to build a majority in the relatively short time frame of a campaign.

Teixeira argues that “Democrats and progressives need not fear identification with this [socially liberal] cultural ethos; indeed, they should welcome it. And they certainly should not fear that existing cultural conservatism makes a strong program on economic issues moot. As the Clinton administration becomes a more distant memory and as the country continues its economic and social transformation, that conservatism will be less and less decisive to voters’, including forgotten-majority voters’, decisions. T...