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September 02, 2004

Dems or Repubs? Feh

Dear Blowhards --

Since I've got zero to contribute where the Bush vs. Kerry foodfight is concerned, the election-season contribution I've decided to make is to suggest thinking about what's become of American politics these days less in terms of Dems vs. Repubs and more in terms of Them (ie., our political class) vs. Us (ie., regular people). How and why did our political class lose its sense of responsibility to the people whose interests it's supposed to be serving? And how can We make Them behave more responsively?

Deep thinker that I am, it seems to me that the very first thing that's needed to rectify this state of affairs is for Us to whine, bitch, and complain very loudly about Them. I have trouble understanding why this isn't clear to more people. Is the fun of rooting for the home team so overwhelming that people are willing to forgo griping about how rotten the game has become? Yet how is the political class ever going to hear us if we don't yell real loud? The alternative to yelling would seem to be accepting passively the lousy products -- GWB, Kerry -- the political class serves up.

But maybe I've got a finger, if only a small one, on a tiny part of the zeitgeist. Even in the midst of the usual election-season hoopla, it seems that points of view close to mine are beginning to surface. AEI's Karl Zinnsmeister, for instance, has written an op-ed piece for today's WSJ that addresses some of these questions. Ignore his heavy Republican bias and focus for a few secs on some of the information he provides.

I couldn't find the piece online, so I've copied and pasted excerpts from an email distribution list. I'm going to indulge myself and boldface passages that I find particularly important.

Democrats: the party of the little guy. Republicans: the party of the wealthy. Those images of America's two major political wings have been frozen for generations.

The stereotypes were always a little off, incomplete, exaggerated. (Can you say Adlai Stevenson?) But like most stereotypes, they reflected rough truths.

No more. Starting in the 1960s and '70s, whole blocs of "little guys" -- ethnics, rural residents, evangelicals, cops, construction workers, homemakers, military veterans -- began moving into the Republican column. And big chunks of America's rich elite -- financiers, academics, heiresses, media barons, software millionaires, entertainers -- drifted into the Democratic Party.

The extent to which the parties have flipped positions on the little-guy/rich-guy divide is illustrated by research from the Ipsos-Reid polling firm. Comparing counties that voted strongly for George W. Bush to those that voted strongly for Al Gore in the 2000 election, the study shows that in pro-Bush counties only 7% of voters earned at least $100,000, while 38% had household incomes below $30,000. In the pro-Gore counties, fully 14% pulled in $100,000 or more, while 29% earned less than $30,000 ...

The financial pillars for Democrats are now super-rich trial lawyers, Hollywood entertainment executives, and megabuck financiers. Both parties have their fat cats, obviously, but Federal Election Commission data show that many of the very wealthiest political players are now in the Democratic column.

Today's most aggressive election donors by far are lawyers. As of July, law partners had donated $112 million to 2004 political candidates; by comparison, the entire oil and gas industry donated only $15 million. And wealthy lawyers now tilt strongly Democratic: 71% of their money goes to Democrats, only 29% to Republicans.

Wall Street, traditionally thought of as a GOP bastion, is no longer any such thing. Ultra-income brokers and bankers now give heavily to the party of Andrew Jackson. Six of the top 15 contributions to Democratic nominee John Kerry came from partners at firms like Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and J.P. Morgan.

John Kerry is a perfect embodiment of the takeover of the Democratic Party by wealthy elites. If elected, he would become the richest man ever to sit in the White House; experts describe his bloodline as "more royal than any previous American President"; his educational path was pluperfect upper crust. And there are now many Democrats like Mr. Kerry -- from Sen. Jon Corzine to Sen. Jay Rockefeller -- who are simultaneously top of the heap in wealth and on the left in politics.

Migration of the rich and powerful to the Democrats has been so pronounced, John Kerry has actually pulled in much more money than sitting President George Bush this spring and summer. Mr. Kerry's monthly fund-raising totals have routinely doubled or even tripled Mr. Bush's sums. And while Mr. Bush has relied heavily on flocks of small donors, the money on the Kerry side has come much more from well-heeled individuals like the Hamptons beach-house owners who handed him $3 million in one day at the end of August ...

Over the last generation, reports Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, professional elites have become both "less nationalistic" and "more liberal than the American public. This is revealed by 20 public opinion surveys from 1974 to 2000." One authoritative study of a dozen different elites, including top civil servants, lawyers, religious authorities, military officers, entertainment moguls, union leaders, non-profit managers, business executives, and media chieftains, found that every one of these groups but two (businesspeople and the military) was twice to three times as liberal as the public at large ...

It's not as if the Democrats have taken over the top of the socioeconomic ladder and the Republicans the bottom. Rather, Democrats dominate at the very upper and lowest rungs, while Republicans find their following in the middle.

You can see this when slicing the electorate by education as much as by income. At the bottom, school dropouts and unskilled workers are heavily Democratic, but so are grad students and professors on the other end of the educational spectrum. (College faculty groups are the very top financial contributors to John Kerry, according to Federal Election Commission data.) Meanwhile, high school graduates and individuals with bachelor's degrees (the middle) are predominantly Republican ...

As a result, the old way of thinking about U.S. politics -- little-guy Democrats vs. wealthy Republicans -- is about as accurate and relevant today as a 1930 weather forecast. New fronts have moved in. Expect some major squalls ahead.

My own conclusion: American politics has become a matter of "my fatcats and special interests vs. your fatcats and special interests" -- and what kind of choice is that, really? I'm not thrilled about having reached this conclusion, by the way; I'd love to have a strong preference for a candidate or a party. But what I find myself caring about far more than GWB vs. JK is what has gone wrong more generally.

And in other news ...

  • More evidence that these questions are in the air: I notice that the cover line on the new issue of Reason magazine says something like (I'm typing from memory), "10 Reasons Why Bush is a Disaster ... And Why Kerry Would Be Worse," more or less. It's not yet available at Reason's website.

  • GNXP's Godless writes a typically brash 'n' brainy posting on the future of the Republicans, here. A good comments free-for-all follows, in which no one seems enthusiastic about either Presidential candidate. (UPDATE: Responding to Godless' posting, Randall Parker comes up with about a dozen good-rightie reasons to hope Bush will be defeated, here.)

  • Jim Kalb has a sensible hunch about what makes the real difference in current American political points of view, here.

  • Yeah, but is there any real chance that yelling about what a lousy job they're doing will make the political class take note? Glenn Reynolds thinks that, thanks to tech changes, the answer is yes. He argues here that in this election, bloggers have already put Big Media -- a key part of the political class, after all -- on the defensive. Link thanks to Seablogger, here.

  • For Business Week, here, Mark Weisbrot tallies up the costs of the Iraq war and makes some scary and all-too-plausible financial predictions:

    For fiscal 2005, which begins in October, the U.S. gross federal debt is projected to be $8.1 trillion, or 67.5% of GDP. By the time 100,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam in 1965, it was 46.9% and falling ... The U.S. is borrowing more than $600 billion a year from the rest of the world, and it can't go on much longer ... The bottom line is that the American empire just isn't affordable ... In the meantime, the segment of American society that would like to see advances in health care, education, poverty alleviation, or any other positive economic or social goals will get bad news. The foreseeable future is a lot different from most of the post-World War II era, during which the U.S. added such programs as Medicare and Medicaid while spending literally trillions of dollars on cold and hot wars.

  • In a good piece (not online) for The American Conservative magazine, James Kurth argues that Leftie political elites root for French Englightenment ideals, and Rightie elites root for British Enlightenment ideals -- but that neither elite expresses the slightest bit of caution about Enlightenment absolutism:

    Ever since the coming of the Enlightenment, Western elites have adhered to a variety of secularist and universalist faiths, which in effect have been religions without God ... The universalist ideology of Olympian elites is largely consistent with, and perhaps reflective of, the expanding interests of global corporations ... Those in the intellectual sectors are largely multiculturalists; those in the business sector are largely globalists; and those in the political sector largely represent these business and intellectual views. All adhere to the universalist ideology.

  • Is there a self-interested political class? And does it span both parties? Check out this fun L.A. Times piece by Walter Roche about former CIA chief James Woolsey and his wife Suzanne, here. Woolsey, a Clintonite, has been a major cheerleader for the war in Iraq, while Suzanne holds positions with outfits that have so far received more than $1.5 billion in war-related contracts.

  • Fun to read in another good piece in The American Conservative -- Bill Kauffman writing on what makes Vermont so very Vermont-ish -- this passage: "The modern GOP is the party of war and Wal-Mart." Hard to beat that for succinctness. The magazine's website is here.

  • Kauffman recommends "Real Democracy," a new small-is-beautiful book by Vermont political scientist Frank Bryan. It can be bought here. An interview with Bryan, who's clearly smart, full of knowledge, and one of a kind, can be read here. Fab excerpt:

    My findings ... show that citizens will participate�and often at great cost to themselves�when they know the political arena is small enough for them to make a difference and there are issues at stake that really matter to them ... Decentralism and empowerment: put these requirements together and democracy will flourish. Take either away and it will die ... We see today a typically American fascination with bigness. We are told that now, since we have the technology to do so�electronic interactive devices and mass media�we should make democracy big too. Why can't we be less arrogant and understand that some things�often our most precious things�have limits? These limits are not demeaning. Quite the contrary: they make beautiful things like real democracy possible.

  • Gene Callahan argues that not voting is the best way to make your voice heard, here.

  • As far as coverage of the NYC anti-Republican protests goes, Searchblog's panties-centric account (here) gets my vote.



UPDATE: Thanks to Tyler Cowen (here), who points out this good Andrew Sullivan response to Bush's speech last night, here. Excerpt:

Just remember all that Bush promised last night: an astonishingly expensive bid to spend much more money to help people in ways that conservatives once abjured ... I look forward to someone adding it all up, but it's easily in the trillions ... To propose all this knowing full well that we cannot even begin to afford it is irresponsible in the deepest degree. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the only difference between Republicans and Democrats now is that the Bush Republicans believe in Big Insolvent Government and the Kerry Democrats believe in Big Solvent Government.
posted by Michael at September 2, 2004


Not to beat a dead (or possibly dying horse) here, but it continues to be clear to me that for all the talk of America being a meritocracy, an entrepreneurially-dominated society, etc., that the U.S. government is an immensely powerful force dictating who makes the big bucks in this country. To repeat myself ad nauseum, why should anybody be surprised that the professions (law, medicine, accountancy, etc.) would tilt toward the party of big government--their incomes largely derive from government subsidies or government mandates. The connection between Wall Street and Big Government is fairly obvious. (I've always been amused at the notion of George Soros, the currency speculator, fighting for the interests of "the little guy.") University professors either teach at public colleges or are dependent on Federal government R&D grants...etc., etc., etc. I think that after 70 years of big government, people have pretty well figured out which side their bread is buttered on. Of course, given the blatant self-interest involved, Democratic talk about social equity is pretty funny, but the Republicans are hardly less humorous (the Republican party continues to deserve the label of Democratic lite.) I continue to say, a war is ahead of us: when things hit the fan because of the boomer retirement wave of the next few decades, and public finances start looking really ugly, will the citizenry manage to rein in the government behemoth or will the elites turn the U.S. into safeguard their own interests? Ooops, I'm so sorry, I meant to say to safeguard the interests of the little guy?

Stay tuned and we'll see...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 2, 2004 4:28 PM

Brainwave alert: I just posted comment with fresh illustration to what FvB said here. Duplicate for the lazy - I support this guy proposition, let's "party of the little guy" drop their pretense already!

Posted by: Tatyana on September 2, 2004 4:45 PM

"My own conclusion: American politics has become a matter of "my fatcats and special interests vs. your fatcats and special interests" -- and what kind of choice is that, really?"

From your description, it seems more like the split is between the middle class and everyone else.

Posted by: lindenen on September 2, 2004 4:56 PM

This is sort of self-congratulatory since I am including myself here... But I think the right-wing end of the spectrum is more pragmatic about things. Right now, a lot of things are immaterial because there's a war going on. Now, while it may be folly to ignore the threat posed by unskilled immigration, it's also folly to open up a new front that will split the "right wing" when already fighting another battle and lose to "leftists" who are on the wrong side of both.

Everyone I know who has leftist leanings does so ideologically and not out of pragmatism. Today a friend of mine asked me to go see Outfoxed, I told him I wasn't particularly interested because I've never watched FOX News, but I'd go with him. He said he'd never watched it either, yet has persistently bashed the network in the past, present, and surely in the future. Hmm. Why do you need to go see a documentary about a news station you've never watched?

When I mentioned the propoganda tactics the film used (using obvious musical cues to trigger emotions, extreme usage of cutting, rapid flashes of FOX News clips out of context, flanging on FOX News clips to make voices of anchormen sound mechanical and inhuman, etc.) he seemed confused. He wasn't really interested in examining the movie itself as pushing an agenda that may not be 100% truth. The attitude is typical as far as I can see, being ideologically insular and only interested in the reality that confirms that world view. To be fair, I am too. But I try and maintain a healthy level of apathy about politics.

Posted by: . on September 2, 2004 9:59 PM

Michael, I couldn't agree more. Third parties have typically not fared well in our system, but I couldn't think of a better time for a strong, alternative choice. So disgusted, I may abstain from voting at all this year. Embarrassing, but the truth. Thanks to the electoral college, my vote is pretty much meaningless, or at least it feels that way.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on September 2, 2004 10:38 PM

This blog is obviously a tool of the political class and yet it constantly seeks to discredit the political class.

Very clever.

Posted by: David Sucher on September 3, 2004 12:16 AM

I think George W. Bush has done a great job under trying circumstances. Whether he wins or loses I don't see him as to blame for the World's ills. He has, in his capacity as President, kept the ball rolling, despite inheriting a bubble market and islamofascism atrocity.

Posted by: reader on September 3, 2004 12:41 AM

David Sucher,

Surely you jest? :-)

Folks, there's always the Libertarian Party.

Posted by: ricpic on September 3, 2004 6:40 AM

An interesting post. William Greider wrote a book a few years back, "Who Will Tell the People," in which he lamented the fact that the Democratic party had ceased being a mass party in any real sense. Instead it had become a collection of "political entrepreneurs," each of whom had cobbled together his own fund-raising machine based on a relatively small handful of super fat-cat supporters. He documented a number of points you make, including the fact that the Republican party had a much larger base of contributers and party activists (around 2 million)and that the average Republican contribution was far smaller (around $200) than the average Democratic one. Still, in some ways I think this analysis is misleading. For one thing, the main Republican elite -- businessmen -- has a population that is probably greater, and has more financial and lobbying clout, than all the other eleven put together. If you limit yourself to the top one percent of wealth holders in the United States -- roughly a million families with net worths of several million dollars and up -- I would guess that Republicans would outnumber Democrats 3 or 4 to 1. And they are a very well organized elite, with a long history of getting their way in Washington and in state legislatures.

What is the answer? Not to sound preverse, I think it is to do away with campaign finance reform altogether. There have always been a number of super rich Democrats around (the Warren Buffets and George Soros's of the world) to buy a megaphone for the rare talented popular leader with good ideas. But today, that leader has to spend 95% of his time raising money from hundreds of groups (the lawyers, movie stars, etc) and has little time or energy for anything else. Paradoxically, the present rules favor organized money to a degree the old ways didn't.

Posted by: Luke Lea on September 3, 2004 8:41 AM

"In the meantime, the segment of American society that would like to see advances in health care, education, poverty alleviation, or any other positive economic or social goals will get bad news. The foreseeable future is a lot different from most of the post-World War II era, during which the U.S. added such programs as Medicare and Medicaid while spending literally trillions of dollars on cold and hot wars."

Interesting, the assumption that Medicare and Medicate caused advances in health care.

The real problem is that an awful lot of voters and elected officials take as gospel economic theories that are pure crap. As long as that continues, we'll have a government that keeps throwing monkey wrenches into our economy, retarding technological progress, and impoverishing everyone.

Posted by: Ken on September 3, 2004 10:28 AM

FvB -- Scary thoughts! I wonder how things'll shake out. I'm getting to the age where my main hope is that my pension won't get wiped out in the process. I'll be really p-o'd if that happens.

Tatyana - The idea that either party is the party of the little guy is pretty funny these days, no? Funny, the way some people still want to pretend it's the case. Are they blind?

Lindenen -- I think you're right, that Zinnsmeister would want his readers to conclude that the Repubs are the party of solid middle-classers. What he doesn't seem to want to go into -- Republican propagandist that he is -- is who's behind the party.

"." -- That's a great story about your anti-Fox friend. It can be like living in a madhouse sometimes, don't you find? All these people interested in nothing but having their preconceptions reconfirmed. How do you find they react if you try to introduce a little fresh air into the discussion? In NYC, I was often amazed by how vicious their response would be. It was as though I was insulting their religion. Which, come to think of it, I may well have been doing...

Pattie -- It's a real "do you want a Coke or a Pepsi" situation, isn't it? What if what you want is something that just isn't a cola drink?

David -- This blog accepts funding from only the fattest of the fatcats!

Reader -- I'd like to like GWB and cut him a lot of slack, but I'm finding that harder to do. He's a budget-buster, an idiot on immigration, a pawn in the hands of nuttily ambitious neocons, and apparently unwilling to face any tough domestic questions. Clinton pushed through welfare reform -- what has Bush done along similar lines? On the other hand, there's Kerry .... Eek.

Ricpic -- I sometimes wonder if maybe the best "third party" solution might be to try to get as many people as possible not to vote at all. Not-voting being the ultimate protest vote. (I'm convinced that many of the 50% or so who don't vote are in fact protest-voting in just this way.) What would the press and the politicians make of it if they ran a big election and only 10 or 15% of the electorate showed up? They'd have to wonder what they were doing wrong, no?

Luke -- I don't know much about these things, but from what I've read I think you're right -- that campaign reforms have had a ton of undesirable unintended consequences. Just finished reading a book I'll blog about soon that lines some of the facts up ...

Ken -- Nice catch!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 3, 2004 11:10 AM

I've gotten to the point where, when anyone quotes Andrew Sullivan at me, I tune out. I just think the guy is an idiot.

Posted by: lindenen on September 3, 2004 4:11 PM

There is ample opportunity in modern American life. The society isn't perfect. So what. Big government is generally too intrusive and destructive; and there is indeed a political class, many of whose interests conflict with those of other Americans. But modern Americans have so many options in life that it's difficult to find much real oppression here, especially in comparison to current and historical reality elsewhere.

It's similar WRT politics. Our two-party system is lousy, except compared with the realistic alternatives. If you look beyond the platitudes and examine actual policies there are profound differences between the major parties. They provide clear if imperfect choices in many areas: taxes, regulation, litigation reform, foreign and defense policy, health-care reform, education, judicial appointments, etc. It's foolish to expect to solve the world's problems via politics, but it is possible to improve our society incrementally by making sensible electoral choices between bad and less-bad alternatives. That's how representative government works, and it's about the best anyone can hope for in humanely managing the affairs of large groups of people.

One thing I don't understand is why Democratic activists are so interested in getting only the Republicans to change. The Left might be more effective politically if it made its own candidates and policies more attractive to voters. Currently the Republicans have a lot of ideas but lack effective competition from Democrats that might constrain some of the worst ones. Meanwhile the Dems are fuming in reactionary self-absorbtion, refusing to change, blaming the electorate for their own uncompetitiveness, and further alienating voters by trying to impose their views via the courts, deceitful public-relations-type manipulation, and "direct action."

Posted by: Jonathan on September 5, 2004 3:18 PM

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