Culture

Fat-cat liberals

Culture | In a stereotype reversal, Democrats are becoming the party of the rich

Issue: "Tax man's terror," April 14, 2001

Democrats love populist rhetoric, portraying themselves as the friend of the little man, with Republicans excoriated as the party of the rich. The reality, though, is becoming quite different. Increasingly, wealthy Americans are becoming liberal, while the working class is becoming conservative.

Thomas Edsall in The Washington Post found that among the 25 most affluent counties in the nation, 17 were carried by Al Gore. Poor whites in the South, though, voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush, with as many as nine out of 10 of the poorest counties in Kentucky voting Republican. Of the 46 congressional seats that switched from Republican to Democrat over the last six years, 29 came from districts with a higher income than the national average. Conversely, of the 88 districts that changed from Democrat to Republican, 59 had lower-than-average incomes.

To be sure, country club Republicans and proletarian Democrats still exist. Slightly more than half of the wealthiest Americans voted for Mr. Bush and slightly more than half of the poorest voted for Mr. Gore. Still, politicians and political scientists are noting the shifting economic alignment, which seems to be happening on every level of local, state, and national politics.

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The key seems to be cultural issues. Working-class Democrats are becoming Republicans because they take a conservative stance on issues such as abortion. Affluent Republicans are becoming Democrats over the same issues, only they take the liberal position.

Mr. Edsall reports that the best indicator of whether someone is liberal or conservative is how often that person goes to church. "Those who go often tend to be Republican," he writes; "those who go rarely or not at all tend to be Democratic." The Voter News Service found that whites who go to church more than once a week went for Mr. Bush 79 percent to 20 percent. Those who never go to church voted for Mr. Gore 59 percent to 33 percent.

These numbers, however, leave out the major demographic of black Americans, who tend to have lower incomes and go to church more frequently than white Americans, as a whole. Blacks voted for Mr. Gore overwhelmingly. But if the trend continues for poor churchgoers to vote Republican, Democrats-who seem to be moving away from their blue-collar roots-have cause to worry.

Though this economic and cultural realignment seems to be a result of the culture wars, there seems to be a change even in the ways the parties address economic issues. Today, Democratic politicians are opposing Mr. Bush's tax-cut proposals by demanding a balanced budget and sternly warning against deficit spending. The irony-or hypocrisy-is excruciating, when one remembers that only a decade ago, some of these same politicians were champions of Keynesian economics, which calls for the government to spend more than it takes in. It was the Republicans who kept calling for a balanced budget.

Since the wealthy do want to protect their assets, the most common mantra--even among those who are still Republicans-is to say, "I am conservative economically, but liberal culturally." The Bible says that the rich are susceptible to certain moral and spiritual temptations. What are the political and cultural temptations that are pulling many of them-though by no means all-into the left wing?

Environmentalists tend to be from the affluent class, which, as of old, has often seen the natural landscape as its own private park, demanding that the vulgar masses stay away. (This was what got Robin Hood in trouble, deer-hunting in the aristocrats' nature preserve.) But folks who make their living from nature-farmers, ranchers, loggers, roughnecks-have a less idealized view of nature. Affluent suburbanites are not bothered by the high price of fuel for their Lexus SUVs, so it is easy for them to oppose drilling for new oil to save the arctic tundra. Truck drivers and construction workers counting their pennies to fill up their gas tanks will have a different opinion.

Many among the affluent are used to doing whatever they want, pursuing pleasure, and having people obey them. No wonder many are likely to favor a big, authoritative government. No wonder many are "pro-choice" when it comes to abortion, and permissive on other moral issues.

But many among the wealthy do feel some obligation to the poor, and also have a sense of liberal guilt. This is why they keep telling the world that they are on the side of the little man.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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