IT'S IMPORTANT to understand what happened here. Entire forests have been felled explaining why the working class abandoned the Democratic Party, but that's not the real story. It's true that Southern whites of all classes have increasingly voted Republican over the past 30 years. But working-class African Americans have been (and remain) among the most reliable Democratic voters, and as Larry Bartels has shown convincingly, outside the South the white working class has not dramatically changed its voting behavior over the past half-century. About 50 percent of these moderate-income whites vote for Democratic presidential candidates, and a bit more than half self-identify as Democrats. These numbers bounce up and down a bit (thus the "Reagan Democrat" phenomenon of the early '80s), but the overall trend has been virtually flat since 1948.
Click here for more infographics on America's plutocracy.In other words, it's not that the working class has abandoned Democrats. It's just the opposite: The Democratic Party has largely abandoned the working class.
Here's why this is a big deal. Progressive change in the United States has always come in short, intense spurts: The Progressive Era lasted barely a decade at the national level, the New Deal saw virtually all of its legislative activity enacted within the space of six years between 1933 and 1938, and the frenzy of federal action associated with the '60s nearly all unfolded between 1964 and 1970. There have been exceptions, of course: The FDA was created in 1906, the GI Bill was passed in 1944, and the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. And the courts have followed a schedule all their own. Still, one striking fact remains: Liberal reform is not a continuous movement powered by mere enthusiasm. Reform eras last only a short time and require extraordinarily intense levels of cultural and political energy to get started. And they require two other things to get started: a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress.
In 2008, fully four decades after our last burst of liberal change, we got that again. But instead of five or six tumultuous years, the surge of liberalism that started in 2008 lasted scarcely 18 months and produced only two legislative changes really worthy of note: health care reform and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. By the summer of 2010 liberals were dispirited, political energy had been co-opted almost entirely by the tea party movement, and in November, Republicans won a crushing victory.
Why? The answer, I think, is that there simply wasn't an institutional base big enough to insist on the kinds of political choices that would have kept the momentum of 2008 alive. In the past, blue-collar workers largely took their cues on economic policy from meetings in union halls, and in turn, labor leaders gave them a voice in Washington.
This matters, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue in one of last year's most important books, Winner-Take-All Politics, because politicians don't respond to the concerns of voters, they respond to the organized muscle of institutions that represent them. With labor in decline, both parties now respond strongly to the interests of the rich—whose institutional representation is deep and energetic—and barely at all to the interests of the working and middle classes.
This has produced three decades of commercial and financial deregulation that started during the administration of a Democrat, Jimmy Carter, gained steam throughout the Reagan era, and continued under Bill Clinton. There were a lot of ways America could have responded to the twin challenges of '70s-era stagflation and the globalization of finance, but the policies we chose almost invariably ignored the stagnating wages of the middle class and instead catered to the desires of the superrich: hefty tax cuts on both high incomes and capital gains. Deregulation of S&Ls (PDF) that led to extensive looting and billions in taxpayer losses. Monetary policy focused excessively on inflation instead of employment levels. Tacit acceptance of asset bubbles as a way of maintaining high economic growth. An unwillingness to regulate financial derivatives that led to enormous Wall Street profits and contributed to the financial crisis of 2008. At nearly every turn, corporations and the financial industry used their institutional muscle to get what they wanted, while the working class sat by and watched, mostly unaware that any of this was even happening.
Labor in the postwar era "did not confine itself to bread-and-butter issues for its own members. It was at the forefront of battles for aid to education, civil rights, housing programs, and other social causes."
IT'S IMPOSSIBLE to wind back the clock and see what would have happened if things had been different, but we can take a pretty good guess. Organized labor, for all its faults, acted as an effective countervailing power for decades, representing not just its own interests, but the interests of virtually the entire wage-earning class against the investor class. As veteran Washington Post reporter David Broder wrote a few years ago, labor in the postwar era "did not confine itself to bread-and-butter issues for its own members. It was at the forefront of battles for aid to education, civil rights, housing programs and a host of other social causes important to the whole community. And because it was muscular, it was heard and heeded." If unions had been as strong in the '80s and '90s as they were in the '50s and '60s, it's almost inconceivable that they would have sat by and accepted tax cuts and financial deregulation on the scale that we got. They would have demanded economic policies friendlier to middle-class interests, they would have pressed for the appointment of regulators less captured by the financial industry, and they would have had the muscle to get both.
And that means things would have been different during the first two years of the Obama era, too. Aside from the question of whether the crisis would have been so acute in the first place, a labor-oriented Democratic Party almost certainly would have demanded a bigger stimulus in 2009. It would have fought hard for "cramdown" legislation to help distressed homeowners, instead of caving in to the banks that wanted it killed. It would have resisted the reappointment of Ben Bernanke as Fed chairman. These and other choices would have helped the economic recovery and produced a surge of electoral energy far beyond Obama's first few months. And since elections are won and lost on economic performance, voter turnout, and legislative accomplishments, Democrats probably would have lost something like 10 or 20 seats last November, not 63. Instead of petering out after 18 months, the Obama era might still have several years to run.
This is, of course, pie in the sky. Organized labor has become a shell of its former self, and the working class doesn't have any institutional muscle in Washington. As a result, the Democratic Party no longer has much real connection to moderate-income voters. And that's hurt nearly everyone.