The Seething Majority


The Politics and Power of the New American Majority

By Stanley B. Greenberg

Times 338pp $25

In the world of political analysis, Macomb County in suburban Detroit is legendary. During the 1960 Presidential election, this white, blue-collar enclave was the most Democratic suburb in the U.S. But in 1980, nearly 70% of the votes went to Ronald Reagan. At the request of local Democrats, a Yale University professor named Stanley B. Greenberg went to Macomb to make sense of all this. In a well-regarded study, he wrote that Reagan Democrats, battered by auto-industry layoffs and rising taxes, felt the Democratic Party had abandoned them.

Greenberg later joined Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential campaign, helping to hone a populist message that won back many working-class families. But in last year's congressional elections, lower-middle-class voters who considered themselves Democrats once again went with the GOP.

The stunning 1994 upset forced Greenberg, who is the White House pollster, to revise Middle Class Dreams: The Politics and Power of the New American Majority, which was in galleys last fall. The book then ended with Clinton's election and its possibilities for Democratic renewal. Still, in the finished version, Greenberg sticks to his basic premise: Middle-class voters are sick of both parties. They have realized that "the Democratic Party no longer championed the common people, and the Republican Party no longer enriched the many."

This "crash of the dominant and inspiring visions that gave Americans confidence" has left voters angry and dispirited. Now, both parties are scrambling to write "a new social compact" to win back Middle America. Greenberg gives Democrats the odds, dismissing the 1994 Republican romp as "reflecting no greater confidence in the party or top-down Reaganism."

Greenberg traces how both parties managed to alternately hold middle-class affections. Republicans stayed in as long as their "top-down" view of business leadership led to growth. Democrats prevailed when a "bottom-up" approach was more appealing--in eras of jarring change, such as the Great Depression, when voters sought government help. But middle-class disillusionment began in the Johnson Administration. To struggling workers, the Great Society--and subsequent Democratic strategies--narrowed the definition of the "common people" to mean minorities and the poor. They also felt betrayed by the Reagan Revolution, says Greenberg, because supply-side economics did nothing for them. Voters, says Greenberg, were ready for anyone that placed middle-class economic issues first.

Clinton seemed the answer, Greenberg writes. He rejected the "false choices" between left and right, devising a message that bridged the interests of the working classes and the poor. The agenda included job training for the middle class, government reform, and the end of some corporate tax breaks. The message resonated. Bush lost many Reagan Democrats and lower-middle-income voters he had won over in 1988.

Greenberg's discussion of the pitfalls facing both parties is on the mark, but his affiliation with Clinton hobbles his analysis of how far his man can go in forging a new coalition. True, compared with previous Democratic Presidential candidates, Clinton did better among independent men, Republicans, whites, and lower-middle-class voters. But Ross Perot won 19% of the vote--mostly the swing voters the major parties coveted. And Clinton's 43% of the vote was the same as Hubert Humphrey's in the three-way race in 1968. In other words, the core of Clinton's support came from groups that traditionally vote Democratic.

And Greenberg absolves his boss of much of the blame in 1994. In surveys and focus groups mentioned in his postelection update of Middle Class Dreams, he finds a seething electorate. America, he says, "may be doomed to a failed politics...incapable of recapturing the public's imagination." But Greenberg doesn't hold Clinton accountable. He says only 8% of voters cited Clinton in describing the "mess in Washington."

Greenberg knows better. In a postelection poll for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, he found that Southerners, particularly independents, "turned against the Democratic Party and the President. By a 2 to 1 margin, these independents thought Clinton was taking the country in the wrong direction." Clinton was not pleased that his pollster released these findings--and they aren't in the book.

Greenberg lists numerous reasons for middle-class anger, from partisan bickering to the dominance of special interests to high taxes. But Clinton's role can't be ignored. While he brilliantly tapped into middle-class anxieties in 1992, he dropped the ball in office. He failed to push for a middle-class tax cut, campaign-finance and lobby reforms, and a welfare overhaul. His health-care plan was a debacle. His Reinventing Government efforts got scant attention. His job-training plans went nowhere.

Since the election, Clinton has revived his middle-class theme. Given the growing saliency of the affirmative-

action issue, it may be trickier this time for Clinton to bridge the gap between Macomb-type voters and minorities. But if Greenberg is right, neither party can expect voter loyalty unless it comes up with a new contract with workers--and lives up to it.

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