If the Democratic Party is the party of the common man, the Republicans are the party of the wealthy upper class. That, of course, is the stereotype that has prevailed in American political discussion for well over a century, and with no small reason. Now, as a new century gapes before us, it may be a stereotype fated to vanish.
Last week in The Washington Post, reporter Thomas Edsall surveyed recent developments among white voters that suggest that income is no longer determining which party they support. What seems to determine voter support is something called "values." To put it bluntly, culture trumps economics as the determinant of mass political behavior.
"The transformation of voting patterns over the past three decades," writes Mr. Edsall, "has weakened the long-standing link between income and voting among whites. Racial issues such as busing and affirmative action have pushed blue-collar voters into the GOP, at the same time that cultural issues, especially abortion rights, have built Democratic allegiance among white professionals."
The result is that neither party today reflects the bloc of economic interests once associated with it. The Republicans now enjoy the support of what the story describes as "some of the nation's poorest white counties—especially in southern border states," while the Democrats control "some of the nation's best educated and highest income communities." Polls by the Institute for America's Future show that "whites without college degrees had significantly more positive feelings toward the Republican Party than toward the Democratic Party."
The findings carry some major political implications, if those who run at least the Republican Party have the brains to see them. For one thing, they imply that the conventional political ideologies of the two parties are no longer congruent with the composition of their voting bases.
The whites who vote Republican in "some of the nation's poorest white counties" aren't likely to care very much about tax cuts and abolishing the estate tax. They're more likely to care about busing, affirmative action and crime, and a party that carries those voters will be more likely to win elections than one that carries the well-heeled crowd, for the simple reason that there are more poor folks than rich ones.
Nevertheless, the Republican leadership persists in acting as though the only voters who mattered are either high-rolling country-clubbers or the non-whites to whom the GOP leadership so assiduously panders. Last week President Bush had a more or less happy conclave with right-of-center black leaders. This week he had a not-so happy visit with left-of-center Hispanic leaders. He has yet to meet with any white Republicans from "some of the nation's poorest white counties."
Mr. Edsall cites exit polls from the last election that show that 52 percent of whites with high-school diplomas think abortion should be illegal and that they split evenly on gun control. But whites with college and post-graduate degrees support abortion by 63 percent and gun control by 66 percent. The latter category is starting to vote for the Democrats, who tend to reflect their values but who also continue to enjoy a lock on non-white voters and white union members.
The results ought to be welcomed by most conservatives, who have long resisted the Marxist notion that class economic interests determine human behavior and thinking, but today's Beltway Right are Economic Men who have bought into the Marxist myth. As a result, they're going to find it hard to swallow the truth that tax cuts and lower budgets matter less as vote-getters than abortion, gun control and racial solidarity. It's by no means clear that Beltway conservatives, much less the brainiacs who run the Stupid Party, will be able to stand the truth when it smacks them in the face.
But if Mr. Edsall's data are anywhere close to being reliable, the smacking will come sooner or later. Conservative and Republican strategy right now is based on the assumption that the low income white cultural conservatives who form their party's base have nowhere else to go and will never leave. Hence, the party can keep playing with non-whites, catering to the well-heeled and Big Business, and ignoring the interests and values of the voters who really put Republicans in office.
But that may not always be the case. Economic Men should know that where there's a demand, there's likely to be a supply, and where there's a constituency whose values are being ignored by the party it votes for, sooner or later someone else will start supplying a new party, new candidates and new leaders. If the Stupid Party thinks that day will never come, it may be even stupider than it looks.
COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.
April 05, 2001