Issues in American Politics
The demise of the New Deal coalition has generated considerable commentary and anguish among some scholars. For those troubled about this demise, the concern is that the Democratic Party alienated some of its core constituency and the party is no longer able to play the vital role of articulating concerns about inequality of opportunity, fairness in distribution of income, and related economic issues. As inequalities in the distribution of income and access to education increase, and access to health care and pensions remains unequal, there is concern that these issues are not a part of political debates because the Democratic Party cannot play the role of articulating these concerns. If the Democratic Party fails to play that role, there is no alternative political means to make the case for responding to shifting social conditions. Absent Democratic efforts, the concerns of the less affluent get less attention in the political process.
The view that Democrats once did but no longer carry the argument for the less affluent, however, has several flaws. First, the New Deal coalition in the 1950s and the 1960s did not embody as much class division as is often presumed. The party had a clear advantage among white southerners, Catholics, union members, Jews, and blacks, but class divisions were limited.
In the 1950s and the 1960s the poorer one-third of the white electorate was no more Democratic than the middle class, and upper-income voters were as likely to be Democrats as Republicans. Income had less to do with party preference than race, religion, union membership or region. ( Petrocik and Steeper 1987: 42)
The results presented in prior chapters indicate just how limited political divisions by income were in the 1950s and the 1960s. Although evidence exists that there were significant class divisions during the 1930s and 1940s ( Cantril 1951: 588-939; Ladd and Hadley 1975: 69-71; Stonecash 1999b), by the 1950s political divisions by income had declined.