What's the Matter with Class?

By Kuttner, Robert | The American Prospect, July-August 2006 | Go to article overview

What's the Matter with Class?


Kuttner, Robert, The American Prospect


ON JUNE 6, CALIFORNIA VOTERS DECISIVELY REJECTED a ballot initiative to provide tax-supported public pre-kindergarten. A special surtax would have touched only residents making at least $400,000 or $800,000 for a couple. It's hard to think of a better use of social outlay for the middle class and the poor, or a better-targeted tax. Yet the measure lost, 61 to 39 percent. Yes, there were extenuating circumstances--low turnout, ambivalence of the state's political elite, and damaging fallout over the dual role of prime sponsor Rob Reiner, who also chaired a state-funded commission on early education.

But the defeat was no fluke. Two years ago, writing in the Prospect, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels reported that voters of all classes supported repeal of the estate tax, which affected only the richest 2 percent. Even moderate-income voters who deplored rising inequality and supported activist government favored repeal by 2-to-1.

Last year, Bartels went on to challenge Tom Frank, author of What's the Matter with Kansas? Frank says social issues have filled a vacuum left by the failure of mainstream polities to address the crisis of the pocketbook, leaving working-class voters to vote against their own economic interests. Bartels faults Frank for overemphasizing class, though after criticizing Frank for multiple sins of methodology, Bartels concedes that "bread-and-butter economic issues are likely to be more potent than social issues" if Democrats are to reach downscale white voters.

The Democratic Leadership Council echoes Bartels' criticism. In a paper

on the DLC Web site, economist Stephen Rose says only about one-fourth of working-age Americans have a "class-based" interest in the pocketbook programs associated with traditional Democrats. He faults populists like Frank for "cling[ing] to an outdated concept of workers' interests, a holdover from the New Deal to Great Society era when a large blue-collar class was fighting for a fair share of the industrial economy's rewards."

THE CONTENTION THAT DEMOCRATIC populists are mistakenly obsessed with the "working class" is a straw man. At least two-thirds of Americans today are economically stressed. American families are working longer hours to stay barely even. Productivity almost doubled during the past three decades, and all the gains went to the top 10 percent (most to the top 1 percent), because the right has so relentlessly undermined institutions of opportunity and security long championed by Democrats. …

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