Exit polls conducted at last week’s elections reveal the contradictions and limits of the Democrats’ victories. As reported in the New York Times (November 9, 2006, page P7), the four fifths of US voters who are white preferred Republicans (52 to 48 percent), while Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians chose Democrats (by 89 to 11, 70 to 30, and 62 to 38 respectively). Looking at voters’ income levels showed that the lower the family income, the larger the Democratic margin. Families earning below $15,000 preferred Democrats over Republicans by 69 to 31 percent. As incomes rose, the Democratic advantage fell: families with incomes over $100,000 — 23 per cent of voters — preferred Republicans over Democrats by 52 to 48 percent. Democrats owe their victories in no small measure to the poorer and the less white among us.
Yet, consider these contradictory numbers for families with very high annual incomes ($150,000 – 200,000). Those living in the East preferred Democrats by 63 to 37 percent, a remarkable shift from 2004 when they preferred Republicans by 50 to 48 percent. For Eastern families earning over $200,000, the 2006 results showed a preference for Democrats of 50 to 48 percent, compared to 2004 when those families preferred Republicans by 56 to 40. Exit polls in the South, West, and Midwest, while less extreme, showed similar shifts. Many of the richest Americans changed their party preferences over the last two years.
The richest Americans provide most of the contributions funding Congressional campaigns. The Democrats got more votes in no small part because they got more money from those richer households: money used to offset both heavy Republican spending on TV advertising and media “reportage” that favored Republicans.
The exit polls therefore pose an obvious question: why did so many of the richest families switch their contributions and their votes to Democrats? Slate magazine’s Daniel Gross refers to “angry, well-off, well-educated yuppies, generally clustered on the coasts, who were funneling windfalls from Bush tax cuts into the campaigns of Democrats and preparing to vote for those who would raise taxes on their capital gains, their incomes, and their estates.” Gross thinks that hatred of Bush trumped their economic self-interest. If so, the question is why. Here is one possible answer.
What Bush accomplished was rarely a problem for his richest constituents. It was rather the manner, speed, and costs of his accomplishments that provoked their growing criticism, distaste, and derision. In Iraq, he had dared to go further and faster to transform US foreign policy from multilateral diplomacy to aggressive unilateral militarism. Likewise, he went further and faster in widening the domestic gap between rich and poor, a daring demolition of what remained of the New Deal welfare state. These goals were popular with most rich Americans from 2000 through 2004. Moreover, 9/11/2001 gave Bush the political cover and capital to pursue these goals further and faster. But as 9/11/2001 receded into history, Bush’s pursuit produced a predictable backlash.
The war and occupation provoked violent resistance inside Iraq that the US could not contain. More importantly, it increased political, diplomatic, and ideological opposition to the US nearly everywhere. As the war dragged on and its costs rose, so too did criticism. Beyond harsh denunciations of that criticism, Bush moved to prevent potential domestic opposition by curtailing civil liberties and expanding federal power to wage an endless war against terrorism. The transformation of US foreign policy into a military unilateralism thus took on higher costs (political, cultural, as well as economic; foreign and domestic) than rich Americans (as well as others) were content to pay. They wanted US foreign interests to be advanced, but henceforth more slowly, multilaterally, and diplomatically than the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld approach.
Much the same happened to the Bush economic policies (tax changes, relaxed industrial regulations, cheap labor immigration, subsidies to favored industries, encouragement of job outsourcing, and so on). Together such policies accelerated the declining conditions of most middle- and lower-income families. Increasingly stressed by longer and harder work and mounting debts, those families had begun to complain about, criticize, and oppose Bush policies. The richest Americans had benefited from Bush economics far more than the rest of the population, as widening wealth and income disparities showed. Rumblings of mass discontent made many of the richest Americans determined somehow to soften and slow the Bush economic program. Otherwise it might be ended or, worse still, reversed.
The elections of 2006 may thus continue the basic Bush shifts in foreign policy and domestic economic change but less quickly, less sharply, less offensively. The elections weakened the Bush approach and removed some of its most aggressive leaders (e.g. Rumsfeld). The elections empowered Democrats to slow and soften Bush policies and thereby hopefully to reduce opposition to them. The richest Americans’ votes and contributions to Democrats represented their demand that the Bush program be drastically moderated. Bush, his cabinet, and their neo-con gurus were not trusted to achieve the required moderation quickly (even the James A. Baker III-Lee Hamilton commission redesigning Iraq policy was too slow, too little, and too late). Many of America’s richest concluded that financing and voting for Democrats was necessary.
Bush and “his” Republicans had gone far to reconstitute a pre-1929 kind of US capitalism and to reposition the US as the world’s dominant unilateralist military power as well as economic center. However, en route to these welcomed gains, they had overshot the mark in ways deemed dangerous by many of the richest Americans. Thus, they turned to the Democrats to mollify all those offended, frightened, or damaged by Bush’s programs while consolidating and solidifying those same programs’ achievements. The classical oscillation between the two parties should once again serve the system and its chief beneficiaries that finance them both. Republicans can console themselves with the knowledge that, once the Democrats have done their job, Republicans can reasonably expect America’s richest to switch back and support their approach yet again.
Rick Wolff is Professor of Economics at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the author of many books and articles, including (with Stephen Resnick) Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the U.S.S.R. (Routledge, 2002) and (with Stephen Resnick) New Departures in Marxian Theory (Routledge, 2006).