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August 29, 2003

Politics of the Minimum Wage

So here you have the minimum wage-- supported by 80% of the population and able to put tens of billions of dollars straight into the hands of the working poor, with no cost to the federal treasury.

This would seem like a no-brainer as a top issue for Democrats.

But it's not.

And therein is the story of the Democrats failure to win politically. A lot of analysts argue that "social issues" -- abortion, affirmative action, prayer in schools, etc. -- have driven poor working class whites out of the party.

That's inaccurate.

Why Dems Lose White Working Class Voters: What's driven those voters out is the failure of the Democrats to more strongly articulate the economic policies that will make those working class whites vote their pocketbooks, not their churches. Without a strong economic message for working Americans, voters turn to cultural issues to define their politics. Back in 1994 when the Republicans took over Congress I outlined this as the key reason for that loss by the Democrats. (See Why Voters Left the Democrats.)

And despite Clinton triangulating his own personal political survival, the Democrats didn't learn that lesson well, except for Gore's hesitant lunges at a "populist agenda", which he retreated from quickly as the 2000 election proceeded.

Ruy Tuxeira notes that the key to Bush winning in 2000 versus Dole losing in 1996 was dominance of the white working and middle class vote:

[Bush] won white voters with household incomes under $75,000 by 13 points, compared with Dole, who lost the same group in 1996 by a point. And he carried noncollege-educated whites by 17 points, while Dole had lost them by a point.
Oddly, the reason Dems are remaining competitive at all is that they are picking up socially liberal upscale communities while losing more poor districts:
In 2000, the voters in 17 out of 25 of the nation's most affluent counties -- all with high percentages of people with advanced degrees -- cast majorities for Al Gore, sometimes by more than 70 percent.

In nine out of the 10 poorest counties in Kentucky, for example, places where the Democratic Party of Harry S. Truman ran roughshod over Republican adversaries, George W. Bush won, frequently by margins the mirror image of Gore's in the nation's richest and best educated counties.

These new voting patterns are changing the composition of the House. According to a study by the National Committee for an Effective Congress of the 88 congressional districts that shifted from Democrat to Republican from 1994 to 2000, 59 had average incomes below the national norm, and in 68, the percentage of residents with college degrees was below the national average.

The rightwing used to have rhetoric about "limosine liberals" which was largely irrelevant to the working class voters who knew that the Democrats were standing up for the minimum wage, union rights and other core issues of job protections that kept the loyalty of those voters.

The Muting of Economic Liberalism: But the articulation of issues like the minimum wage as core values of liberalism has become so muted that white working class voters tend to think of themselves not as liberals -- associated now with social issues like abortion rather than the minimum wage -- but as conservatives. And it's that indentification which has made church-going a more reliable barometer of voting patterns than economic class. See this article in the Economist:

The more often voters went to church, the more likely they were to vote Republican. Of those who never go, 61% chose Mr Gore, 32% Mr Bush. For those who go more than once a week, the votes were reversed
This is not an argument for reversing on social issues but more forcefully articulating an economic agenda that appeals to working class white voters-- some may still vote culture issues, but others will choose their pocketbook instead. And the minimum wage, which would help 20% plus of the population is a core part of targetting that audience.

As the recent fight in Alabama over making the tax code more progressive shows, economic justice can be articulated as core a concern for the religious as abortion has been.

"Jesus says one of our missions is to take care of the least among us," [Governor] Riley told The Birmingham News in May, echoing the same Gospel passage that supplied the title of Hamill's book. "We've got to take care of the poor."
Conservatives have mastered the art of dividing core Democratic constituencies through "wedge" campaigns-- well, the minimum wage is a wedge to divide working class whites from their corporate allies.

A Louder Trumpet: There are hopeful signs that the candidates this year recognize this, but there needs to be a broader intellectual revitablization in defense of the minimum wage to make liberals stop being so damn indecisive on the issue. (What started this series of posts in the first place.) A weak trumpet will hardly rally people to your cause.

Posted by Nathan at August 29, 2003 07:30 AM