Two years ago I hailed Barack Obama’s election as “the triumph of the creative class.” Yesterday everything reversed, as middle-class Americans smacked down their putative new ruling class of highly educated urbanistas and college town denizens.
More than anything, this election marked a shift in American class dynamics. In 2008 President Obama managed to win enough middle-class, suburban voters to win an impressive victory. This year, those same voters deserted, rejecting policies more geared to the “creative class” than mainstream America.
A term coined by urban guru Richard Florida, “the creative class” also covers what David Brooks more cunningly calls “bourgeois bohemians”–socially liberal, well-educated, predominately white, upper middle-class voters. They are clustered largely in expensive urban centers, along the coasts, around universities and high-tech regions. To this base, Obama can add the welfare dependents, virtually all African-Americans, and the well-organized legions of public employees.
These are the groups for whom Obama’s persona and policies pack the greatest appeal. Since Obama took office, the prime beneficiary of fiscal and monetary policies has been Wall Street, which has seen a nice 30% rise in the market and record bonuses. Large corporations, which are largely financed by stocks and bonds, have seen their profits soar over 40%, in part due to access to easy money.
The financial boomlet is most marked in key creative class strongholds such as Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco, as well as their surrounding, super-affluent suburbs. The largesse benefits not only the traders, but the high-priced lawyers, accountants and publicists serving the financial elite. It has also benefited the high-end consumer industry, including the arts, which support much of the creative class. Not surpisingly, the Democrats scored well in these areas last night despite the GOP tide.
The creative class also has benefited from the lavish expenditures of public funds to major universities for research. This has lifted the prospects of the professoriate at the elite colleges from which Obama takes much of his advice. Finally the administration has rewarded its friends and funders among Silicon Valley venture capitalists. Once self-described paragons of entrepreneurial risk-taking, they increasingly search out government incentives and subsidies to pay for their large bets on renewable energy technology.
In contrast, the traditional middle class has not fared well at all. This group consists of virtually everyone who earns the national household median income of $50,000 or somewhat above. They tend to be white, concentrated outside the coasts (except along the Gulf), suburban and politically independent. In 2008 they divided their votes, allowing Obama, with his huge urban, minority and youth base, to win easily.
Since Obama’s inauguration all the economic statistics vital to their lives–job creation, family income, housing prices–have been stagnant or negative. Not surprising then that suburbanites, small businesspeople and middle-income workers walked out on the Democrats last night. They did not do so because they loved the Republicans but because the majority either fears unemployment or already have lost their jobs. Many were employed in the industries such as manufacturing and construction hardest hit in the recession; it has not escaped their attention that Obama’s public-sector allies, paid with their taxes, have remained not only largely unscathed, but much better compensated.
Of course, few on the progressive left–more expressive of a dictatorship of the professoriate than that of the proletariat–seem likely to confront these class realities. Many will ascribe last night’s disaster to the dunderheadness of the American people, or to the clever venality of the right. Certainly some tea party candidates, inexperienced and untested, did appear incapable of passing a high school civics test. But the results had less to do with Karl Rove’s money than the Democrats disconnect with the middle class.
The real problem for the Democrats lies with fundamental demographics. The middle class is a huge proportion of the population. Thirty-five million households earn between $50,000 and $100,000 a year; close to another 15 million have incomes between $100,000 and $150,000. Together these households overwhelm the number of poor households as well as the highly affluent.
In contrast, the “creative class” represents a relatively small grouping. Some define this group as upward of 40% of the workforce–largely by dint of having a four-year college degree–but this seems far too broad. The creative class is often seen as sharing the hip values of the Bobo crowd. Lumping an accountant with two kids in suburban Detroit or Atlanta with a childless SoHo graphic artist couple seems disingenuous at best. In reality the true creative class, notes demographer Bill Frey, may constitute no more than 5% of the total.
At the same time, this affluent constituency may be more than offset by another more traditional upper class. This consists of people closely tied to such basic sectors as agriculture, fossil fuel production, suburban home-builders and the aerospace industry. These voters have, for the most part, remained solidly Republican for generations, and but many followed the “creative class” into the Democratic Party in 2006 and 2008. Last night this part of the upper class shifted back toward their political home.
But the real decider–to use George W. Bush’s unfortunate phrase–remains the much larger, more amorphous middle class. Given the economy of the past two years, the subsequent alienation of this group should pose no mystery. Suburban swing voters didn’t suddenly turn into racists or right-wing cranks. Instead they have seen, correctly, that Obama’s economic policy has to date worked to the advantage of others far more than themselves or their families. Until the Democrats and Obama can prove that they once again can serve the interests of these voters, they will continue to struggle to recapture the optimism so appropriate two years ago.