US election is about class not party

If you want an insight into the American election, look at The Guardian's decision to halt its assault on a single county - Clark County, Ohio. The UK newspaper and its supporters had been seeking to score a victory for John Kerry by writing, e-mailing and otherwise brow-beating the county's voters. Ohio demurred and The Guardian backed down.

But the newspaper's Ohio adventure highlights a larger struggle. This election, many believed, would be a typical struggle of rich against poor. Instead it has turned out to be one of elites against populists. And not merely the domestic "blue state" against "red state" struggle so much discussed, but also one involving foreign policy.

The Democratic party is traditionally the workers' party, and Mr Kerry has taken positions that ought to appeal to middle or lower earners. He wants to punish the rich with tax increases. He has sworn his dedication to the working woman. And he obsesses about job creation. Yet Mr Kerry lags behind in states where personal income per capita is below the average.

Then there is President George W. Bush, champion of tax cuts for the rich, trickle-down economics and some form of privatisation of the old safety net for the elderly, Social Security. Yet Mr Bush seems to be losing in important rich states - Massachusetts, New York, California. And he is doing fine in poorer states - Mississippi, Louisiana, Montana. He is also faring well in states that are net recipients per capita of federal aid, not quite what one might expect for a Republican.

One could posit that those who support Mr Kerry are magnanimous - willing to accept tax increases in order to help the vulnerable. Republicans by this argument are the selfish ones, always wanting to pay less in tax and collect more federal aid.

There is, however, another explanation - class. Domestically, Mr Kerry represents the established order. He wants to return to a typical postwar tax structure. He signals that he will protect Social Security in its current form by assiduously avoiding the topic. These Kerry positions sit well with wealthier Americans, who have such a big stake in sustaining the established order that they will even forgo tax dollars to do so. Overall gross domestic product growth matters less to them because they are already wealthy. The very wealthiest of Mr Kerry's supporters might not mind the fact that Mr Kerry's income tax increases punish the upper-middle class most of all. After all, that means there will be less of a crunch for the super-rich at the top. And blocking Social Security privatisation ensures that lower earners will be denied an important chance to increase their net worth and narrow income gaps overall.

But one can also argue that Mr Kerry succeeds because he represents an international elite of established institutions and traditions - the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, peacekeeping forces. Other presidents have made the same appeal - Richard Nixon - but few so explicitly. Mr Kerry has even supported the current troop deployment in Europe, and attacked Mr Bush's plan for change.

Mr Kerry is, in effect, betting that blue state voters like blue helmets. And, with their Ohio campaign, The Guardian's editors were themselves betting that the citizens of Springfield, Ohio, see themselves as citizens of the world as much as they do Ohioans.

To be sure, the Democrats still tend their reputation as a workers party, just as older Guardian readers still cherish their working-class credentials. But that does not mean their leaders are not from an elite. Mr Kerry may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars more than Antonia Fraser and John Le Carré, to name two authors who endorsed The Guardian's campaign in Ohio. But all three are members of the Anglo-American nomenklatura.

The elite versus populist paradigm also helps to explain Mr Bush's supporters. Lower earners will back a president who cuts taxes for rentiers because they know that rentiers' fortunes sooner or later create jobs. These voters place more faith in the possibility of economic change than they do in the domestic status quo.

This faith in change at home carries over to matters international. Quite literally so - when it came to ousting Saddam Hussein - but also in a more general, cultural way. (This is why Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, felt comfortable castigating "old Europe".) And if these voters tend to benefit from military spending that flows to their states in the name of that change - New Mexico, for example, with its defence installations - well, that is all right with them.

Which brings us back to the battlegrounds. As Roger Kubarych, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow and adviser to HVB, the German bank, points out*, by economic measures battleground states are just about average. That is what makes the contests there so tight. Nationally unemployment is at 5.4 per cent. In battleground states unemployment is higher, but only by a tenth of a percentage point. A big recipient of federal aid such as New Mexico boosts Mr Bush's chances in that state. But Florida - so important this year - is fairly wealthy and receives less aid than all states but three, and therefore might be inclined to support Mr Kerry. Who would have thought that in the US of 2004, the contest would be between classes, not parties?

* HVB Group Memo, October 15

© Copyright 2004 Financial Times

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