Comment: Poor Americans are losing out in the culture war

With the debate moved to divisive social issues, low-income white voters are siding against their own interests.

By Francis Wilkinson / Bloomberg Opinion

The federal government says that 38 million Americans live in poverty. In addition, tens of millions live above the poverty line but in more or less permanent financial insecurity. Who represents the interests of all these people?

For most of the 20th century the answer was straightforward. The party of poor Americans was the party of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, rural electrification and the minimum wage: the Democrats. That’s still mostly true. When a political party holds the nation’s credit hostage in an effort to cut food stamps, you can be certain it isn’t the party of Franklin Roosevelt and Joe Biden.

But as the affluent wing of the Democratic Party continues to enlarge, and economically struggling whites grow ever more committed to the Republican culture war, party identities are bound to come under pressure.

The core of the Republican Party in 2023, according to a new analysis by political scientists Lee Drutman and Oscar Pocasangre, is found in districts where income is below average and whiteness is above average. Republicans dominate the 162 congressional districts that fit that description, winning 137 of them in 2022. Such districts account for more than 61 percent of the 222 districts that comprise the GOP House majority.

Democrats won a majority of districts that are more racially diverse than average, winning about three-quarters of such districts, regardless of how affluent they were. Democrats also won a modest majority (57 percent) of districts that were above average in both affluence and whiteness.

This political evolution has been under way for several decades. In the 1992 election, after being represented for 14 years by a liberal Republican, Manhattan’s “silk-stocking” congressional district on the Upper East Side elected a Democrat. Liberal Republicans no longer exist, and Democrats have represented Park Avenue for three decades running.

All this has worked out well for wealthy Americans, who now have two parties relatively committed to their well-being instead of one. Many (though surely not all ) Democrats are reluctant to impose significant taxes on the rich, though few policies enjoy such widespread support from voters. President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies pushed through a genuinely redistributive health care plan that has helped tens of millions of poor and working-class Americans. But the party assumed great political risk in enacting it and fought hard to defend it for a decade after its passage.

Other efforts to increase the tax burden on the wealthy failed. When Obama tried to change the 529 education savings program to make it less skewed toward the wealthy, the votes weren’t there. Republicans opposed him, of course. But he abandoned the effort after House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and other influential lawmakers persuaded him to pull the plug.

Democrats raised some corporate taxes in the Inflation Reduction Act signed into law last year while also funding the Internal Revenue Service sufficiently to actually perform its duties. Democrats retained the cap on the SALT deduction , which reduces benefits to wealthy taxpayers in high-tax states, over the objections of legislators from California and the Northeast.

But overall, the legislation was far more notable for its broad benefits — it made a host of tax credits available, for example — than for any tax increase. Likewise, Joe Biden repeatedly reminds the public, most recently in his State of the Union address, of his vow not to tax any household making less than $400,000 a year. That threshold leaves only the top 2 percent of income earners outside the protective bubble (although even that rhetoric is sufficient to inspire Republican wails of “socialism!”).

Despite representing less affluent districts, the Republican Party has shown no interest in representing less affluent interests. It remains vehemently opposed to tax increases on the wealthy and to redistributing wealth or services down the economic scale. But the predominance of lower-income GOP districts does seem to be easing Republican enthusiasm for killing Social Security and Medicare. Even Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida is now saying that when he declared that he wanted to sunset all federal programs he by no means meant that he wanted to sunset ALL federal programs.

Confirming, as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Jonathan Bernstein has long maintained, that the GOP is a “post-policy” party, Republicans didn’t even bother to produce a platform in 2020. Their policy is politics; what they are for or against is a function of who is in a given office at a given moment. (Likewise elections that Republicans lose are rigged and elections that they win — even on the same day in the same precincts — are fair and square.) Republican foreign policy is increasingly contingent on the dictates of domestic opportunism. But one policy to which the GOP clings, no matter the politics, is opposition to taxes on the wealthy, especially as a means to provide benefits to the poor; even the Republican poor.

That leaves culture war as the main stuff of American politics. “Under these conditions,” Drutman and Pocasangre write, “the hyper-polarization that characterizes American politics becomes increasingly difficult to resolve. The different ways in which Democrats and Republicans carve out and sustain their respective coalitions leaves little room for agreement, particularly when identity and cultural issues replace economic issues as the focal conflict of politics.”

Culture war works, to a limited extent, for Democrats because diversity and youth, and thus the future, are largely on the Democrats’ side. The most economically vibrant parts of the nation are culturally liberal. Culture war works for Republicans because it’s all they’ve got. Any effort to reorient the party’s economic policies toward its less affluent constituents would run afoul of right-wing donors and a vast conservative infrastructure established to insulate the wealthy from the policy preferences of the American majority. White grievance and a perpetually mutating rage against kids these days, by contrast, produces no intra-party conflict.

Both parties are cross-pressured by rich and poor constituents. For Democrats, that’s resulted in greater caution about taxing the wealthy while still seeking to provide benefits to the poor. For Republicans, it has necessitated a singular focus on culture war to rally voters whose economic interests are actively undermined by the party.

The policy foundation for a less unequal society — one party that ideologically supports redistribution and another party whose constituents increasingly need it — is visible. Unfortunately, the political foundation is rotted.

Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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