November 5, 2004

Bush, friend of the poor

Posted in International Economy ·
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Did you know that George W Bush won the eleven poorest states in the 2000 election, while Al Gore took the five most affluent? Could it be that the Republicans are actually the party of the poor in the US, while the Democratic Party is the natural home of the upper middle classes? If that proves to be the case in 2004, why do we in Ireland always plump for the Democratic candidate on the basis that he represents the interest of the downtrodden? If the Republican bloke is actually the man of the people, will we see Irish people, particularly those on the left wing who have traditionally supported the Democrats, changing sides?

There is no getting away from the fact that there has only been one Democratic President in the past quarter of a century and there have only been two since the late 1960s. Does this make the Republicans the natural party of government? And if it does, does it imply that the Republican ideology both at home and abroad represents (even by a wafer thin majority) America?

Why have the Republicans dominated? The answer appears to be in the significant shifting of America’s cultural, demographic and social sands which has taken place since the Democratic hey day of the 1960s. The Republican Party used to be perceived as the home of the rich establishment in Prescott Bush’s time (George W’s grandfather), while under Dubya it is a loose coalition of quite poor anti-establishment tribes. Granted, the very rich still vote Republican and are rewarded with lop-sided tax cuts but how come the Grand Old Party has become the party of the rich and the poor?

Well, three events in particular stand out. The first is that the Democrats lost the South. Up until the civil rights movement, the southern confederacy states were almost entirely denuded of Republicans. Dixie Democrats were Southerners, pro-segregation and vehemently anti the Waspish aristocrats of New England, Philadelphia and New York – so-called Rockefeller Republicans. However, when two Democrats – JFK first and then more dramatically Lyndon Johnson (a real Texan) – pushed through the civil rights programme, with affirmative action and (the very unpopular) bussing of white and black kids around previously segregated towns and counties, the South turned against the Democrats.

Added to this, the composition of the Southern population changed markedly. The late 1960s also presaged a dramatic migration of rural blacks from the south to the north and an equally dramatic migration of middle class whites from the cold suburbs of the north to the warm new cities of the south. The fastest growing cities and states in the US since the 1980s have all been in the Sun Belt from Arizona and Colorado in the West to Florida in the East. Whereas the southern blacks voted almost overwhelmingly Democrat, the new white families in the suburbs of Atlanta, Albuquerque and Oklahoma City were a politically more diverse bunch.

Although diverse, two crucial factors distinguished these new southerners from their northern cousins. The first was the rise and rise of evangelical Christianity in the Bible Belt and the second is the emergence of a vitriolic, patriotic “small-government” lobby. For example, America is the only country in the developed world where it is not unusual to see “I love my country but I hate my government” bumper stickers. Both groups, the Christians and the patriots, feel like outsiders, put upon by a big, interfering, atheist government that is out to deprive them of both their immovable faith and their hard-earned dollars. The emergence of the evangelical movement in particular, has been the single biggest shot in the arm for the Republican Party. The “moral majority” or “the religious right” – call them what you will – has been courted by the Republicans and now in George W Bush they have their real-life hero – a born again, patriotic, reformed alcoholic Texan. (Surprisingly, despite having impeccable evangelical credentials, Bush himself has not delivered much on the evangelical agenda.) The evangelical Christians are to the Republican Party what the blacks are to the Democrats: a solid, dependable bloc that, as well as voting, will campaign tirelessly on the issues. To win, a Republican candidate has to make sure the religious right are on side. A cautionary lesson for any Republican is what happened to George Bush senior, who in 1992 ignored the evangelicals and they, in turn, voted for Ross Perot, handing the election to Bill Clinton.

The other significant group is the small-government, gun-carrying patriots. As America has got richer, white America has moved to the suburbs. This has led to a hollowing out of the cities. This process is referred to as the “doughnut” theory whereby the cities have a hole in the centre with the middle classes living in the suburbs and leaving downtown a no-go area after 6pm. These rich, middle class Americans increasingly live in a privatised world where health care, schooling, transport and sport are now totally provided by the private sector. Therefore, they resent their taxes being spent on people who are “not like us”. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s tax cutting, deregulation mantra appealed to them and for the first time America observed formerly die-hard Democrats changing sides. The so-called Reagan Democrats, largely Irish and Italian Americans, helped make the 1980s a Republican decade.

So the demographic, cultural and social forces have led to distinctly Republic leaning blocs. This has created a situation where America has moved to the right. Even the Democrats have realised this, so for example Bill Clinton moved swiftly to the right when he got into power, scrapping his big plans for healthcare reform, gays in the military, he even championed the death penalty and promised to “end welfare as we know it”. And then he made a beeline for church after the Monica Lewinsky scandal to seek guidance from the Big Man.

So where does this leave the Democrats? If Bush can carry the 11 poorest states, who is a natural Democrat? Of the three old urban immigrant tribes – the Irish, the Italians and the Jews – only the Jews remain really committed Democrats. (In 2000, over 82% of American Jews voted for Al Gore.) The biggest switch has come in the Italian-American community as exemplified by Rudi Giuliani, but the Irish Americans are not far behind them. Again wealth, suburbanisation and the weakening of blue-collar trade unions are the dominant factors at work.

So will America henceforth be always led by a Republican President or a centre right Democrat? Maybe. But the Democrats still have their bankers – women, professionals and recent immigrants. The majority of American women support the right to choose on abortion, the majority of professionals are liberal in persuasion and the vast majority of new immigrants are Latino blue-collar workers who need the protection of the Democratic dominated union movement.

The first two bankers, professionals and in particular, professional women, will continue to vote Democrat. However, the Latinos’ voting patterns are not so easy to figure out. 43% of Texan Latinos voted for George Bush last time out and a Latino switch to the Republicans this continuing, except in California where Mexicans are unambiguously Democrat. In the years ahead, a few straws in the wind suggest that the Latinos will go Republican. First, they are more likely to be self-employed and own their own houses than any other immigrant group. For example, only 17% of poor Latinos collect welfare as opposed to 65% of poor blacks and they are moving up quickly. Latino households are four times more likely to be middle class than poor. Latinos are also the most God fearing of all immigrants. But most importantly they are the future of America. Today 14% of Americans are Latino as opposed to 12% black. In 2050, one in four Americans will be Latino. Will they move gradually into the Republican fold like the Irish and Italian Americans before them? Time will tell.

So what about Tuesday? My hunch, for what it’s worth, is that Bush will win with the help of millions of Irish American votes, reinforcing the increasing gulf between our American cousins and the old country.