Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The class basis of US elections

The Democrats have lost the House of Representatives but kept the Senate by a slim margin. The Tea Party 'movement' will be credited for giving the Republicans this energy in the polls, but in fact there will be little evidence when the dust settles that anything particularly remarkable happened here. A few whack jobs got elected, quite a few didn't, turnout was probably around 40% (which will be hailed as a record high if true), and capitalism remains firmly in control of the political process. The dominant faction of the 'political class' will still comprise rich corporate lawyers, the majority of senators will still be millionaires, and Wall Street will still control the Treasury.

The Republican sweep, announcing a "seismic shift", will be every bit as flimsy as the 'revolution' of 1994. This was when Gingrich's hard right rump took control of both houses of Congress for the first time in fifty years. They added 54 seats to their total in the House of Representatives (2010 equivalent: 36, with 14 undecided), while adding 8 senate seats to their total to gain the upper house (2010 equivalent, 5, with 3 undecided - and no prospect of gaining control of the upper house). But the 'Republican revolution' took place with the support of less than 20% of eligible voters, with a turnout of less than 40%. Many of the same personnel who drove that 'revolution', and drafted the 'Contract with America' that few read or understood, are now 'activists' in the Tea Party movement. The FT calls Dick Armey an 'activist', for christ's sake.

This change in the political composition of the elected chambers as a result of the 2010 mid-terms will be even less significant than the 1994 congressional elections. The GOP's 'surge' will be predicated on, again, just about a fifth of eligible voters. Bear in mind that voter eligibility is, thanks to a racist criminal justice system and voting laws that deprive convicted felons of the right to vote, biased against poor and black voters anyway. But it will be depicted as a populist upsurge against what is perceived to be a tax-and-spend administration with socialist, Muslim, Kenyan anti-colonialist roots. In fact, the Tea Party 'movement' will probably not have had the effect that the commentariat is looking for. It is the result not of 'grassroots' right-wing anger, but of class-conscious business intervention in the political process - particularly by the billionaire Koch brothers. The 'grassroots' that are mobilised tend to be whiter and wealthier than the population at large, and they are heavily dependent on the media to talk up their activities.

In reality, just as in Massachusetts in January, millions of Democratic voters will not have turned out. Obama and his supporters have relied on a strategy of condescendingly lecturing the base, telling them off for expecting too much, which is grotesque and pathetic. (He saved capitalism, you fools!) His staff, as well, have been known to insult the base, especially progressives, as idiots and morons for being furious over the healthcare sell-out. So, why would grassroots Dems mobilise for an elitist pro-Wall Street clique that treats them like dirt and tells them they should be grateful? More on this in a bit. The point is that voters, just like the Tea Party 'movement', and just like the Republican base, will be heavily skewed toward the whiter and the wealthier, and the majority of the working class will have been effectively squeezed out of the electoral system.

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If we understand electoral politics as a particular expression of the class struggle in the US, the bizarre trends noted above can be comprehended better. First of all, the obvious. Unlike in much of the world, the United States does not have a party of labour, that is a party created by and rooted in the organised working class. The electoral system is entirely dominated by two pro-business parties. The Democrats have, since the 'New Deal', tended to gain from whatever votes are cast by the working class, and have ruthlessly and jealously guarded that advantage against all potential 'third party' rivals. But the correlation between class voting and Democratic voting declined in the post-war era. This has usually been measured by the gap between the number of 'working class' and 'middle class' voters supporting the Democrats in any given election. You subtract the percentage of the 'middle class' vote that backs the Democrats from the percentage of the 'working class' vote that backs the Democrats and you have a class voting index - the Alford Index. This is not particularly sophisticated, and tends to rely on simplistic, occupational grading models of class. But the results of applying it do disclose a trend, which is worth noting.

One study, which focused on white voters (because African Americans were for much of the relevant period prevented from voting in much of the country), noted that the gap in 1948 was 44%. In 1952 it was 20%. In 1960 it was 12%. In 1964 it was 19%. In 1968, it was 8%. And in 1972, it was 2%. This form of 'class voting' benefiting the Democrats is subject to considerable variation depending on the context. I suspect that it would have been relatively high in 2008 and relatively low in 2004, for example. But the secular trend is one of decline. And the declining relevance of this particular index of class to determining voter behaviour has been interpreted by the usual dirt - sorry, by some academics - as a decline in class voting as such. It's been tied into a broader claim about the demise of class as an important factor in American life, most notably by Terry Clark and Seymour Lipset. This is just the American version of 'electoral dealignment' theory, which became popular among psephologists in the UK in the 1980s, and it maintains that as class loses its social significance, voters become more like consumers, choosing electoral brands based on the values they associate with that brand.

More plausibly, it has been claimed that since the Goldwater campaign in 1964, the Republicans learned how to use 'culture wars' effectively to win over a sector of racist white wokers. This is arguably the very effect that Republicans were unable to produce in 2008. Thus, the 'southern strategy' using a fusion of racial and religious politics, helped depress the overall levels of class voting. But it's important not to exaggerate this. Most white workers still don't vote Republican. In most cases, a majority of them simply decline to vote. Further, 'class voting' in the sense of working class mobilisation for the Democrats was in decline well before the overthrow of segregation and the onset of the Nixonite 'southern strategy'. Most of the decline cannot be explained by racism. According to Michael Hout et al (1995) [pdf], adjusting the research to take account of advances in stratification and class theory, and using multivariate analyses rather than just the Alford Indez, produces a very different picture. They build on the approach of critical psephologists such as John Curtice and Anthony Heath in the UK to suggest that 'electoral realignment' is a more plausible description of the trends than 'electoral dealignment'. Class still profoundly determines voting behaviour, and it determines it all the more if you consider non-voting one form of that behaviour.

The study shows changes in the make-up and alignment of the electorate. The number of owners and proprietors has declined - perhaps as ownership becomes more concentrated. Meanwhile the number of professionals and managers has increased. There has been an overall increase in white collar non-managerial voters, the votes of unskilled and semi-skilled workers remain steady, and the representation of skilled workers has fallen sharply. So the class structure has been recomposed, and the electorate has changed accordingly. Secondly, when you look at the partisan preferences of different class, you see that skilled workers became less Democratic between 1948 and 1992, while white collar workers went from being modestly Republican to being strongly Democratic. Professionals became more Democratic, while owners and managers became strongly Republican. Finally, on turnout, you see that managers, professionals and owners are much more likely to vote in presidential elections than workers of all kinds. The study concludes "The gap between the turnout for professionals and for semiskilled and unskilled [workers] ... corresponds to a range of 77 percent to 40 percent (using 60 percent as the average turnout)."

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Thus, you have an electoral system that vastly over-represents owners, managers and professionals, and under-represents the working class by a wide margin. Incidentally, there's no sign that education has any impact on this. The increase in high school and college education among 'lower socioeconomic groups' has not led to a corresponding increase in turnout. Other research looking at non-voting corroborates this picture. Reeve Vanneman and Lynn Cannon's classic study, The American Perception of Class, looked at voting and non-voting behaviour in the US, comparing it with the UK, for the period covering the Sixties and early Seventies. They found that voters who were most inclined to self-identify as working class overwhelmingly voted for Labour in the UK, but overwhelmingly didn't vote in the US. By contrast, they found that more than two-thirds of supporters of the Democratic Party, which claims a near monopoly on all social forces left-of-centre in national elections, self-identified as middle class. Thus the perception of class, which Vanneman and Cannon show is strongly correlated to the reality of class, powerfully drives voting and non-voting behaviour.

Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward argued, in Why Americans Still Don't Vote, that the exclusion of the working class from elections is actively desired by politicians. They suggest that if politicians were interested in crafting a policy mix that would appeal to the poor, the poor would respond, and they would be able to command electoral majorities. Pippa Norris of Harvard University concurs: the evidence suggests that turnout among the working class will increase at elections if there are left and trade union based parties that are capable of mobilising them. But it is again worth stressing that the exclusion of the poor from the electoral system is not wholly voluntary. Thomas E Patterson, in The Vanishing Voter (2009), points out that the electoral system in the US has had a long tradition of seeking to exclude the uneducated and the poor, and Patterson argues that voter registration rules still work to limit the size and composition of the electorate. He notes that the US has a disproportionately high number of non-citizens among its total population (7%), and ineligible adults (10%). Thus, 17% of the total adult population at any given time is legally excluded from voting. The exclusion of so many voters is the result of deliberate projects: in one case to manage labour migration flows to benefit capital (non-citizens cause less trouble than those permitted to naturalise); and in the other case to construct a carceral state that imprisoned more poor and black Americans than ever before. On any given day, 1 in every 32 American adults is directly in the control of the criminal justice system, either through jail, parole, probation or community supervision. This only hints at the wider effects that this behemoth has on American society, but suffice to say that it deprives millions of the right to vote where it would easily make a significant difference to the outcome.

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The 2010 mid-term elections have thus taken place not only without the participation of the majority of voters, but with the pronounced exclusion of millions of working class Americans and particularly African Americans. Don't believe me? Let's look at the exit poll results. You can see that there's a strong Democratic bias among voters with incomes under $50k, but they only represent 37% of the total vote, while making up just over 55% of the population. Those earning $100,000 or more make up more than a quarter of the vote (26%) and have a strong Republican bias, yet they represent less than 16% of the population. Breaking it down even further, 7% of the electorate is composed of those on $200,000 or more - again, strongly Republican - which is more than double their representation as a whole. In fact, I'm over-representing the higher income earners and under-representing lower income earners because I'm relying on figures for households rather than individuals. The percentage of individuals on $50k or less is 75%. Those on $100k or more make up just over 6% of the population. So, the turnout is enormously skewed in favour of the wealthy.

The two main parties will have constructed their electoral coalitions with a disproportionate reliance on professionals, owners, and managers. Their leading personnel, those who frame and carry through policy, will be bankers, laywers, and other members of the wealthy minority. Their daily consultations and coordinations will be with the industrial and financial lobbies who fund campaigns. And the "seismic shift", the "grassroots insurgency" that is supposedly propelling reactionary populists to the levers of power will have been effected principally by a relatively small shift in an already exclusive electoral system in favour of middle class and rich voters. I raise all this merely to put it in perspective. The drama of headlines, and of the vaunted new political eras, does not have much bearing on the real state of American society.

Lastly, the Tea Party. If these results are supposed to demonstrate the enormous clout of this movement, its great popular resonance, and so on, I am singularly unimpressed. They were up against a hugely unpopular Democratic Party, whose control of the executive has disappointed so many, amid a recession that has made everyone terrified. The economy is the number one issue in this election, and the numbers of voters who said they were optimistic about the future for the economy were tiny. If the Tea Party was such a wildly popular 'movement', it would not have contributed only a small fraction to the GOP's small slice of the voting age population. As dangerous as these creeps can be, as a Poujadist movement seeking to mobilise a mass base, it's a flop. And that's a key lesson of 2010.