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Democrats should take the class warfare message to upscale suburbs

It worked for Jeremy Corbyn, and the opposite failed for Jon Ossoff.

Activists Protest Outside Bank Of America Shareholders Meeting Photo by John W. Adkisson/Getty Images

Both sides in the post-election infighting that’s plagued Democrats in 2017 have featured a covertly shared premise: the idea that populist economic policy is a message that is appropriate, if it’s appropriate anywhere, in red-trending working-class states and congressional districts, while an electoral emphasis on the college-educated professionals who are trending blue requires drastic sail-trimming.

The contrast played out in Rob Quist’s populist approach in Montana versus Jon Ossoff’s vague platitudes about wasteful spending in Georgia, with both factions not only having their own champions but seemingly accepting that the choice of electoral terrain dictated the choice of policy platforms. Progressives criticizing Ossoff’s message tended to attribute it to an allegedly doomed strategy of seeking votes in educated suburbs rather than returning to the rust belt.

But there’s no reason to believe that more affluent, suburban communities are averse to a strong, policy-based critique of Republican Party economics. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, after all, made some of its strongest gains in upscale parts of London — winning the Borough of Kensington for the first time ever, for example — and it certainly didn’t shy away from drawing a strong economic contrast.

The reason is that the past generation of economic growth has concentrated gains in the hands of a truly tiny number of people — the fabled top one percent — not the much larger mass of college graduates. And though the gap in lifestyle, manners, and social conditions between graduates and non-graduates is real enough, the real debate in federal economic policy is dominated by Republicans’ determination to further grow the after-tax income of that tiny economic elite. Pushback against this agenda is a sound strategy across all of America’s political geography, and there’s some reason to believe it’ll be especially effective in relatively affluent places.

The two class divides in America

There is a real divide in the United States between the lifestyles and social conditions between the 20 to 30 percent of the population that has a college degree and the working-class majority that doesn’t. Books such as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, and Richard Reeve’s The Dream Hoarders dwell on these differences.

Much partisan conflict inside the white population breaks down along these lines, many pundits on both the right and the center are deeply invested in discussing this gap, and the divide between the broad upper-middle class and the rest really is critical for certain aspects of American politics — particularly local politics relating to housing, zoning, schools, and the front-line provision of government services.

But in terms of federal economic policy, it’s largely irrelevant. As UC Berkeley economic professor Gabriel Zucman argued in response to a recent David Brooks column, in basic dollar terms, the top one percent — and the top 0.1 percent and the top 0.001 percent — have truly pulled away from the upper-middle class even while most college graduates’ fortunes remain broadly similar to those of the median American.

Critically, the regressive aspects of Republican Party economic policy are focused overwhelmingly on serving the interests of this hyper elite, not those of the mass affluent. Consider two critical issues currently driving federal politics:

  • The key driver of Republicans’ Affordable Care Act repeal bill is a desire to repeal a tax on the net investment income of households with an income of more than $250,000. According to the Tax Policy Center, 90 percent of the benefits of this policy accrue to families with incomes of more than $700,000.
  • The key driver of Republicans’ tax reform drive is a desire to reduce the top marginal income tax rate, a rate that currently applies only to families with incomes over $470,000.

These are not policies that advance the interests of white working-class voters, who may nonetheless be drawn to GOP politics for reasons of cultural identity and affinity. But these are also not policies that advance the interests of most white college graduates — the median income for a person with a bachelor’s degree is $89,000 and even for those with a professional degree it’s $137,000. And to the extent that college graduates feel cultural affinity with Democrats, pointing out to them that they have no reason to feel cross-pressured by GOP economics is a political winner.

Even rich areas aren’t GOP tax policy rich

Georgia Sixth Congressional District was frequently described as an upscale — “leafy” — suburb during the recent special election campaign. The median household income in the GA-6 is $73,000 a year. Even allowing for the fact that low-income people vote at a lower rate, beneficiaries of top bracket tax cuts or Net Investment Income tax repeal were rare here.

Ossoff’s campaign, hoping to ride Trump skepticism to victory without alienating anyone, chose not to really talk about these issues — treating his district as if “richer than most congressional districts” meant “rich enough for most people to benefit from Republican tax policy.” The reality is that even the richest GOP-held congressional district in the country, Virginia’s 10th, has a median household income of “only” $110,000 — far too low for most voters to benefit from the GOP’s proposed top rate cut, or even from its proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s taxes, which fall on households earning more than $250,000 a year.

It’s not only that even in these relatively affluent districts a sharp contrast on taxes could be a winner — these are precisely the kinds of places where voters are most likely to be confused. Voters in these districts, rightly, think of themselves as better-off than most Americans. The fact that even they come out as winners under Democrats’ tax-and-spend policies is genuinely surprising — and if Democrats were smart they would tell them about it.

Professionals have a lot to gain from big government

The same is true if you look at America by occupational category. If you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics’ list of all occupations in America (and you should!), you’ll see that even the highest paid job in the country (anesthesiologists) makes only $270,000 a year on average. That’s a mean number, so the median anesthesiologist is going to be doing somewhat worse than that.

From there on down the line, things only get worse. The average overall doctor earns $210,000 a year. For dentists, it’s $178,000. Financial managers and lawyers are both at around $140,000. Management occupations, software developers, computer hardware engineers, education administrators, and actuaries all clock in between $100,000 and $120,000.

These are all good-paying jobs, in other words, and the people who hold them are doing pretty well for themselves. But there is simply no job in America — even the anesthesiologists — whose typical practitioner comes anywhere close to benefitting from GOP tax policy.

On the flipside, many skilled professionals work in fields related to health care, education, or science that benefit directly from a strong public sector. (It’s not a coincidence that every major health provider trade group is opposing Obamacare repeal.) And virtually all skilled professionals place great value, personally and culturally, on creating and supporting strong educational and scientific institutions. The people most likely to be excited about the prospect of free college are people who’ve been to college themselves, experienced the burdens of student debt, and who expect to send their kids off some day.

Progressive economics doesn’t turn off upscale voters

Of course none of this is to deny that a strong pitch for progressive economic policy is a good way to try to win over cross-pressured culturally conservative working-class whites or to motivate working-class people of color.

It’s simply to say that while left-wing economics alone clearly doesn’t come close to guaranteeing electoral victory there’s little reason to believe that any kind of sharp tradeoff exists. Consider:

  • Quist lost in Montana, but he outperformed Hillary Clinton in every county of the state — including the relatively affluent and well-educated areas where she put up her best performances.
  • Ossoff attempted to improve on Clinton’s performance in an upscale district in the Atlanta suburbs by running to her right on economic policy, but actually ended up doing worse.
  • An April 14 poll by Pew showed that even among households with more than $100,000 in annual income, a majority think wealthy families and corporations don’t pay their fair share in taxes.

Democrats, in short, shouldn’t mistake the possible ambivalence about soaking the rich of their own multi-millionaire donor class for the views of any substantial block of people. The broad American upper-middle class, full of college-educated professionals whose cultural sensibilities broadly align with mainstream Democratic Party politics, is perfectly happy to raise taxes on the rich to pay for universal social services.

It’s a good message that Democrats ought to take to all kinds of districts, but especially the ones full of college graduates that party leaders have rightly identified as the most promising near-term pickup opportunities.