Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Frum and the vanishing Republican voter

David Frum wrote a recent piece in the New York Times in which he notes that fewer people are self-identifying as Republicans. The reason for this, he argues, is income inequality:
I live in Washington, in a neighborhood that is home to lawyers, political consultants, television personalities and the chief executive of the TIAA-CREF pension fund. Not exactly an abode of the superrich, but the kind of neighborhood where almost nobody does her own yardwork or vacuums his own floor. Children’s birthday parties feature rented moon bounces or hired magicians. The local grocery stores offer elegant precooked dinners of salmon, duck and artichoke ravioli.

Four miles to the southeast there stretches a different Washington. More than one-third of the people live in poverty. Close to half the young children are overweight. Fewer than half the adults work. The rate of violent crime is more than 10 times that of the leafy streets of my neighborhood.

Measured by money income, Washington qualifies as one the most unequal cities in the United States. Yet these two very different halves of a single city do share at least one thing. They vote the same way: Democratic. And in this, we are not alone. As a general rule, the more unequal a place is, the more Democratic; the more equal, the more Republican. The gap between rich and poor in Washington is nearly twice as great as in strongly Republican Charlotte, N.C.; and more than twice as great as in Republican-leaning Phoenix, Fort Worth, Indianapolis and Anaheim.

...As America becomes more unequal, it also becomes less Republican. The trends we have dismissed are ending by devouring us.
Frum goes on to detail reasons for this growing inequality, laying much of the blame on soaring health care, food, energy and tuition costs as well as pressure on wages from illegal immigration. He concludes with the following:
Equality in itself never can be or should be a conservative goal. But inequality taken to extremes can overwhelm conservative ideals of self-reliance, limited government and national unity. It can delegitimize commerce and business and invite destructive protectionism and overregulation. Inequality, in short, is a conservative issue too. We must develop a positive agenda that integrates the right kind of egalitarianism with our conservative principles of liberty. If we neglect this task and this opportunity, we won’t lose just the northern Virginia suburbs. We will lose America.
Frankly, I don't think I buy it. I really struggle with this notion that people have consciously made the decision to vote Democratic because of income inequality. That said, I do think that Frum gets a few things right. Voters by and large have not felt a rising prosperity under the Bush Administration. Wages have stagnated. Costs, such as the aforementioned health care and tuition, have soared (and money spent by employers on health insurance is less that can be given to employers are direct cash compensation). Economic factors, however, do not provide the primary reason for this shift in voting patters. Rather, I think the explanation lies in cultural factors.

Like Frum, I too live in Washington. Indeed, I met Frum a year or two ago at an indoor soccer game where he was there watching his son. I have a good guess as to the neighborhood he lives in. While Frum cites, or at least strongly hints, at the high income levels of his neighbors I think that a better explanation lies in education levels. Indeed, Frum himself points out the following:
Leaving aside the District of Columbia, 7 of America’s 10 best-educated states are strongly “blue” in national politics, and the others (Colorado, New Hampshire and Virginia) have been trending blue. Of the 10 least-educated, only one (Nevada) is not reliably Republican. And so we arrive at a weird situation in which the party that identifies itself with markets, with business and with technology cannot win the votes of those who have prospered most from markets, from business and from technology. Republicans have been badly hurt in upper America by the collapse of their onetime reputation for integrity and competence. Upper Americans live in a world in which things work. The packages arrive overnight. The car doors clink seamlessly shut. The prevailing Republican view — “of course government always fails, what do you expect it to do?” — is not what this slice of America expects to hear from the people asking to be entrusted with the government.
This gets closer to the heart of the problem, but doesn't quite nail it. Allow me to present another theory. This theory begins with the premise that voters typically make their decisions based on cultural rather than economic factors. The majority of voters do not vote their pocketbook. Superrich Hollywood celebrities are a reliably Democratic constituency, as is Warren Buffet, who argues that he doesn't pay enough money in taxes. Race is a better predictor of voting patterns than income, as is other factors such as church attendance and whether you live in the city or a rural area. Another factor, that Frum notes, is education.

I imagine that a look at the demographics of Frum's Washington neighborhood would not only reveal sizeable income levels, but an incredibly well-educated population as well. College degrees are a given and graduate degrees from prestigious schools likely the norm. You probably couldn't throw a rock without hitting a lawyer.

The educated by their very nature tend to place a premium on learning and intellectual curiosity. Sadly this places them at odds with much of the perceived Republican agenda. They see a Republican party that becomes wildly animated over the subject of gay marriage, but have gay friends and fail to see it as a grave threat themselves. They see a Republican party in which many of its members subscribe to faith-based creationism instead of the reasoned theory of evolution. They perceive a scientific consensus behind global warming on one side and on the other only perceive a reflexive denial. Regular church attendance is not seen as a reliable indicator of morality or trustworthiness.

This isn't the whole story, but I think that it goes a long ways towards the true explanation. The educated class is not ready to throw its lot in with what it views as a reactionary Republican party whose leaders are seen as having thrown their lot in with those who simply believe rather than think.

Another aspect, as Frum notes, is competence. Two issues where Republicans have traditionally held an edge is foreign affairs and the economy. Republicans knew how to be tough with America's enemies and were trusted with their use of the military, whose use usually resulted in swift victory: Grenada, Libya bombing, Panama, Gulf War (Lebanon a notable exception). We won the Cold War. On the economy the stagnation of the 1970s gave way to the prosperity of the 80s. The GOP brand also benefited from a strong stand on welfare reform in the 90s and perceived fiscal discipline of the Republican Congress.

Since then, however, much of it has been downhill. On the foreign affairs and military front the news has been grim, with morass the order of the day in Iraq and Afghanistan for much of the time spent there. Bin Laden is no closer to capture. (although, in fairness, the U.S. has been spared any more terror attacks, a huge credit to the Bush Administration) On the economic front tax cuts have been accompanied by renewed deficits while a serious overhaul of health care or entitlement programs remains a pipe dream. Spending remains out of control.

Combine this lack of competence with a perceived premium on faith rather than reason and I think we see why Republicans are losing the educated class. Perhaps salvation and restoration can be found through a renewed embrace of libertarianism.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

1) Washington is not a microcosm of the US as a whole. It is strongly skewed in many ways.
2) The Democratic party has two large elements: a) those who believe that they are smarter and more educated than others and, thus, qualified to tell others how to live, and b) those who do not want to take responsibility for their lives and want government to take care of them. It is logical that both elements are amply represented in the DC area. Interesting that a strongly Democrat/liberal area should have so much inequality when a major expressed goal of liberals is to make us more equal.
3)It has been said that if you feel you had to work hard to achieve success, you are probably a conservative. If you feel that your success is due mainly to good fortune, you are probably a liberal.
4) Advanced degrees provide one type of education, but there are many types of knowledge to be gained outside of college courses. Similarly, advanced degrees are one indicator of intelligence, but mental acuity can also be expressed in many other ways.
5) The Republican party has lost its way and squandered its good name.
For the above-listed reasons, and many others which could be added, I don't think that the co-relation that Frum tries to draw has much validity.