Class Trumps Race

Appeal to suburbanites or blue-collar workers?

Disunity among Democrats is, of course, nothing new. What has changed is the most important fault line of division. Race and region used to be the keys to intraparty splits. From the Depression to the civil rights movement, for example, the Democratic Party was a hodgepodge of Southern segregationists and Northern urban liberals, divisions that the New Democrats repackaged during the 1980s, with stances on fighting crime and “reforming welfare” that appealed to white Southerners and Northern working-class whites worried about the black poor.

But in the 1990s, the New Democrats, with their emphasis on an “information age” economy, are orienting themselves away from working-class voters and toward upscale suburbanites across the country. This has created an opening for the populists to position themselves as “lunch-bucket Democrats,” reaching out to blue-collar and lower-middle-class families. Although affirmative action and welfare remain contentious within the Democratic Party, neither the New Democrats nor the populists are highlighting racially divisive issues.

A shrinking electorate and an increasingly money-driven polity spur opposite responses from the two Democratic factions. Despite easier registration under the Motor Voter bill, the 1996 election had the lowest turnout since 1924 — and voting was sharply skewed by family income. Richer Americans vote more, while also lobbying and giving political contributions, making them an appealing target for the New Democrats. Populists, meanwhile, want to make headway by activating enlarged support at the grassroots. This is a much tougher proposition, but, over the course of several elections, it might do more to counter the Republicans.