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The rich used to vote Red. Not anymore - BCB #39
Here’s why they increasingly vote Blue instead, and why neither side has addressed economic inequality.
It’s conventional wisdom that Red is pro-business and supported by the rich. This is historically true: from the 1950s to the 1990s, Republicans generally had support from the rich and educated, while the Democrats used to win votes from lower-income and less educated voters.
In this issue, we present data showing that the rich are increasingly aligning with Blue values and candidates. Then we highlight an argument that conservatives could play to their populist base by abandoning their libertarian love of limited government – but so far they haven’t, choosing to focus instead on culture war issues.
Here at the Bulletin we normally think of the Red-Blue identity divide as the primary axis of American conflict, but class issues are never far away – and economic inequality has always been linked to polarization. So far, neither party has succeeded in capturing the imagination of working people, much less getting policy passed for them. Class is an untapped force that may one day reshape the American political conflict. Meanwhile, it’s time to retire the idea that the GOP is the party of big business while the Democrats fight for the workers.
Polarization of the Rich: The New Democratic Allegiance of Affluent Americans and the Politics of Redistribution
This paper shows that times have changed: since about 2010, the richer you are, the more likely you are to vote Blue (the charts below show two different data sources, which agree on the overall trend).
The paper doesn’t give a simple reason for this switch, but notes likely economic factors, such as a transition from an industrial to a knowledge economy, where urban voters with more education start to favor increased government spending on infrastructure. This shift is likely both a cause and an effect of economic policy: by and large, Democrats have not really supported more progressive tax rates in recent years. While there have been redistributive efforts like Obama’s Affordable Care Act and increases in short-term welfare spending since the 1990s, elected Democrats have not passed broader redistributive taxation. Indeed, they joined Reagan in cutting the top income tax rates in the 1980s, Clinton was harsher to organized labor than any Democrat president in decades, and while Obama promised not to raise taxes on incomes under $250,000 Biden extended that freeze up to $400,000.
This shift of allegiance is significant, as the Democrats may find it increasingly difficult to implement economically progressive policies while their voting base includes the wealthy. Meanwhile, those without college educations increasingly support Red values and politicians.
This long piece on the state of the conservative movement argues that the GOP missed the populist moment – and lost in the 2022 midterms – by not considering the economic realities of their voters. Instead, Red politics is still locked into old fashioned, small-government ideology that no longer resonates, and blinded by the symbolism of the culture war:
There is no reason to think that doubling down on standard “conservative” issues like tax cuts—or, even worse, gimmicks like sunsetting all federal legislation—would help the Republican Party get to 51 percent in the states where it needs to. In fact, polling consistently shows that Americans oppose federal budget austerity and prefer increases in federal spending.
A clear contrast between the “based New Right” and a more populist policy angle occurred in late August, when the Biden administration announced the largest student-debt cancellation in American history. As if on cue, the supposedly now more populist Heritage Foundation released “Seven Reasons Why President Biden’s Student-Loan Debt Transfer Is Bad for America.” But as usual, conservatives could offer no arguments about how to help despondent, work-seeking, debt-laden young Americans other than standard bromides: Don’t take on debt you don’t intend to pay off! Work harder and pick up an extra job! Meanwhile, with entry-level housing prices at generational highs and the job market now weakening even for those with college degrees, it’s no surprise that young, college-educated Americans despair of voting for the Republican Party. Contrary to what many backers of conservative causes think, it’s not the spread of “socialism” or “woke ideology” on campus that is driving college students to the Left. Rather, they manifestly have nothing to gain in material terms from voting for the Republican Party.
Quote of the Week
Individual affluent voters attempt to influence politics via donating campaign funds, which may be an additional force impacting the Democratic policy agenda—particularly in primary election settings—worth studying.