There are two problems with the Democratic approach. First, it's too abstract to appeal to anyone. Second, it's not true anyway. Democrats simply don't consistently support concrete policies that help the broad working and middle classes. Half of them voted for the bankruptcy bill of 2005. They've done virtually nothing to stem the growth of monopolies and next to nothing to improve consumer protection in visible ways. They don't do anything for labor. They're soft on protecting Social Security. They bailed out the banks but refused to bail out underwater homeowners. Hell, they can't even agree to kill the carried interest loophole, a populist favorite if ever there was one.
Sure, Democrats do plenty for the poor. They support increases in the EITC and the minimum wage. They support Medicaid expansion. They passed Obamacare. They support pre-K for vulnerable populations. They expanded CHIP. But virtually none of this really benefits the working or middle classes except at the marginsFrom Ross Douthat in his New York Times blog:
In those election cycles, instead of countering the rhetoric of redistribution with the promise of higher take-home pay, conservatives basically alternated between proposing fanciful tax reforms (in the flat tax/fair tax/9-9-9 mode) that would probably raise taxes on the working class, and proposing somewhat more serious tax reforms that plowed most of the savings from cleaning out the tax code into creating the lowest possible top rate. The Romney campaign took the latter tack, and ended up wasting precious time in the waning days of the presidential race trying to prove that its tax reform wasn’t actually a middle-class tax increase – an absurd position for the anti-tax party’s candidate to end up in, but there you are.
If that's not enough, this Noah Millman piece ties everything together.
Here’s how I would describe things:
- Economic elites really care about preserving their privileges.
- Elected officials really care about reducing the risk of losing office.
- The culture war – for both nominal Left and Right, is an extremely effective way of serving the interests of both economic elites and elected officials.
Why? Because the culture war turns politics into a question of identity, of tribalism, and hence narrows the effective choice in elections. We no longer vote for the person who better represents our interests, but for the person who talks our talk, sees the world the way we do, is one of us. That contest is a cheap and easy one for politicians of any stripe to enter – and, usually, an easy one to win. It sorts the overwhelming majority of the population into easy-to-count-on camps who will not demand that politicians do anything for them, because they’re too afraid the hated “other team” might get into power.
And it’s a good basis for politics from the perspective of economic elites. If the battle between Left and Right is fundamentally over social questions like abortion and gay marriage, then it is not fundamentally over questions like who is making a killing off of government policies and who is getting screwed. Economic elites may lean to one or the other side on any cultural question (they can be found on both sides), but they can maintain their privileges no matter which side wins any particular battle. So whoever they want to win, that’s the ground on which they want the battle to be fought.