Last Sunday, for the second time in three weeks, the New York Times presented an economy's-eye view of the election, this time from David Frum. But although Frum is conservative -- and a veteran of the Bush White House, where he's often credited for coining the phrase "the axis of evil" for the president -- he raised exactly the same damning point that David Leonhardt made in his article two weeks before.
Frum's analysis is called "The Vanishing Republican Voter", and it argued that growing income inequality has caused wealthy voters in long-time Republican suburbs such as Fairfax, Virginia, to desert the party. Now, he says, the middle class in the exurbs are following suit. Ordinarily, inequality isn't a problem for Frum and his brethren -- in fact, they see it as the virtue of a free society -- or even, perhaps, for the country at large. "As long as there exists equality of opportunity," Frum writes, "who cares if some people get rich faster than others?" But then Frum acknowledges, as Leonhardt did before him, that since 2000, "incomes in the middle have ceased to rise. The mood of the country has soured." And: "as incomes become more unequal, it also becomes less Republican. The trends we have dismissed are ending by devouring us."
It's a provocative thesis, and he marshals the electoral trends to back it up. But the rest of the article is much less persuasive. Trying to figure out why this has happened, Frum's thinking seems muddled. He insists that the difference between the more-prosperous-for-more-people Clinton economy and the more-prosperous-for-fewer-people Bush economy "owes little to the policies of either president." Yet just a few paragraphs later he acknowledges that "Republican economic management since 2001 has not yielded many benefits for middle-income America." He wants to lay the blame for stagnant income principally on rising health care costs, noting that since 2001, "the amount employers paid for labor rose impressively, at least 25 percent." On the other hand, illegal immigration is lowering the wages of poor people (which, I should add, suggests that most of that 25 percent increase went to wealthier folk) and driving up the cost for state and local government for the middle class. This, Frum suggests, explains the "middle -class revolt against the Bush Administration's easy immigration polices."
But if so, why would the middle class flee to the Democrats, whose immigration policies are even easier? And why is it that it's the rich who've been so quick to abandon the Republicans when they've profited so handsomely by them? Frum answers: "By returning to the center on economic matters in the 1990s, the Democrats emancipated higher-income and socially moderate voters to vote with their values rather than with their pocketbooks." Never mind, I guess, Clinton's 36 and 39.6 percent tax bracket. Presumably, then, the middle class has been doing the same thing: voting their values (socially conservative) and the expense of their pocketbooks.
Until now, that is. It may not make a whole lot of sense, but that's the trend Frum sees. Read his piece, and let me know what you think.