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The U-shaped party | Citizen newspaper

For a century, Kansas’ Johnson County has pulled the lever for Republican presidential candidates, choosing Herbert Hoover over Franklin Roosevelt, John Dewey over Harry Truman, and Barry Goldwater over Lyndon Johnson. Containing some of the Kansas City metropolitan area’s most prosperous suburbs and home to many important corporate offices, the county enthusiastically voted for Ronald Reagan, Bush and Mitt Romney. However, as the 2000s wore on, Republican margins in the county declined, from 20 percentage points in 2000 to just 2 in 2016. And in 2020, Joe Biden won this rich county by 8 points. This trend isn’t limited to presidential races. In 2002, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius won the Kansas gubernatorial race by nearly 8 points, but lost Johnson County by 6. In 2022, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly just squealed into reelection by 2 points, but got a 20-point margin of victory to Johnson.

Like its sociocultural counterparts — parts of Fairfax County in Virginia, Bergen County in New Jersey — Johnson County exemplifies a trend: affluent communities are switching from Republicans to Democrats. A new study by Yale political science graduate student Sam Zacher details the growing popularity of the Democratic Party among wealthy voters.

In the second half of the 20th century, Republicans were often the strongest among wealthy communities, while many working-class voters favored Democrats. Drawing on the work of other political scientists, Zacher illustrates how this dynamic began to change in the 1990s. In the 1980 presidential election, Democrats won just over 35 percent of voters in the top third of income earners. In 2000, Democrats accounted for more than 45% of this group; in 2016 and 2020, Democrats outright won voters with higher incomes. Looking at the richest 20% of incomes, we see an even more marked trend in favor of the Democrats. By 2020, Democrats won voters in this group by nearly 15 points.

Zacher explains that the Democratic coalition is now “U-shaped,” garnering the greatest support among voters in the bottom fifth and top fifth of incomes and doing worst among voters in the middle 20% to 80%. The shift of the wealthy to the Democratic Party can be seen across ethnic groups and even across education levels; voters from families earning more than $150,000 a year moved 15 points in the Democratic direction if they have a college degree and 10 points if they don’t. The trend is particularly marked in large metropolitan areas; wealthy voters in smaller cities and rural regions have not swung as much in the Democratic direction and remain more Republican-friendly.

The causes of these trends are complex and open to debate. Zacher points out some possibilities. Bill Clinton helped solidify a shift among Democrats “anti-welfare, anti-union, and ideally pro-free market,” he argues, which, in turn, made the party more palatable to wealthy Americans. Globalization, the technological revolution, and financialization have led to greater economic opportunities for college-educated Americans and have been intertwined with the consolidation of finance capital in major urban centers. College-educated elites have become more sympathetic to a certain type of leftist cultural politics, which has come to define the contemporary Democratic Party. The turmoil of the Trump presidency may have accelerated some of these trends, Zacher argues, but that’s far from their sole cause.

The marshalling of the wealthy into the Democratic column could have important implications for the trajectory of Democratic politics and coalition politics.

As president, Joe Biden has simultaneously sought to move away from the centrist policies of the Clinton era and adjust to new coalition political realities, needing the wealthy voters Clinton helped bring to the party. In his recent State of the Union address, Biden defended federal rights and his record in industrial policy. His rhetorical turn toward state capacity politics is in part an appeal to working-class voters, an attempt to wrest the banner of populism from Republicans. But industrial and infrastructure policy programs can also speak to the interests of many high-income voters: For example, fortunes can be made on federal subsidies for computer chips. And Biden’s record more broadly has directed the benefits to wealthy, educated voters who make up a growing part of the Democratic base. His student loan forgiveness plan is clearly aimed at benefiting the higher education sector and many college-educated Democratic voters; under his plan, a married couple earning up to $250,000 would still qualify for debt relief, indicating that beneficiaries could include many upper-middle-class families.

Contemporary progressive climate policy is in other ways targeted at the interests of high-income voters. The Inflation Reduction Act’s $7,500 tax credit for electric vehicles directly helps a corporate lawyer who wants a new electric BMW, but not the retail store worker who can only afford a second-hand gas-powered sedan $6,000 hand. Government-mandated efforts to phase out fossil fuels would require massive public investment to expand an electrified power grid and create major new financial opportunities for “green” entrepreneurs. Spiking energy costs as part of this transition could function as a sort of “green tax” on energy, one that wealthier voters would be better able to pay.

Recent years have also demonstrated the influence of a U-shaped coalition on democratic tax policy. A policy of taxing the rich becomes much more difficult when the “rich” have become major players in your coalition. While Barack Obama pledged not to raise taxes on households earning less than $250,000, Joe Biden went even further by pledging not to raise taxes on those earning less than $400,000 (about 98 percent of the population, according to Zacher ). Democrats have even pretended to try to cut taxes for the rich. After the 2018 Republican tax law significantly reduced the state and local tax break, Democrats in Congress repeatedly attempted to expand it, which would disproportionately benefit high incomes in high-tax localities.

At the same time, many parts of the Democratic coalition are calling for the expansion of federal programs and subsidies: health care, child care, transportation, education and so on. Many high-income Democrats could benefit from these programs and are sympathetic to them. As Zacher explains, the growing weight of the professional class in democratic circles (and in centre-left parties in Europe) has led to more public spending on such voices. Political psychology can also play a role: many of those attracted to the Democratic Party see it as a redistributionist faction and a vehicle for social justice.

Paying for all this spending without endangering the economic interests of wealthier Democratic voters won’t be easy. In the Biden years, Democrats leaned into deficit spending as a way to resolve these coalition tensions. Borrowing money would allow the federal government to fund expansive social programs and avoid imposing higher taxes on top incomes to pay for these programs. The latest White House budget projects deficits of more than 4.5% of GDP through 2027.

Ironically, Democrats’ growing reliance on wealthy voters could cause the party to focus even more on trying to tax the super-rich. But here too the picture is mixed. The Biden White House has persistently called for a minimum income tax of 20% for “billionaires” (actually, families worth more than $100 million), but Democrats in Congress have blocked that proposal. The Inflation Reduction Act instituted a minimum 15% tax on companies making more than $1 billion a year. Raising taxes on corporations and corporate transactions (such as stock buybacks) could be an attractive revenue stream for Democrats in the future: Such taxes would not be collected directly by many higher income earners.

The wealth-infused democratic coalition faces other strains. Zacher argues that the “moderate nature of the Democrats’ economic policy agenda” was a necessary condition for successfully reaching affluent voters. Yet this need for restraint collides with the demands of a recovering economic left. The economic concentration that has helped expand the Democratic coalition among the wealthy has also fueled a self-described “socialist” backlash, which is itself anchored in college-educated urban voters. And many of the new Democratic voters seem willing to go only so far to redistribute wealth. In 2022, Massachusetts barely passed a referendum that would have levied an additional tax surcharge on income over $1 million. In the race for governor, Democratic nominee Maura Healey (who backed this referendum) scored a 29-point victory against a weak Republican opponent, but the proposed million-dollar taxes fell far short of her totals in many affluent suburbs. The City of Wellesley, for example, backed it by 45 points but opposed the referendum by 26 points.

The growing dominance of wealthy and established urban voters in the Democratic coalition could also influence cultural policy, as Zach Goldberg has noted. It could lead Democrats to more fully embrace an identity politics out of step with many working-class Americans. Biden may be able to sidestep these risks with his new rhetorical emphasis, but a GOP that addresses kitchen-table issues more effectively could complicate that Democratic strategy.

Growing support for Democrats in affluent metropolitan areas has changed the political calculus for the party, and there could be further disruptions. By emphasizing the importance of national resilience, many Republicans and Democrats have moved away from the political commitments that once characterized their parties. The continuities between the Trump and Biden presidencies are as striking as some of the differences. It remains to be seen how this policy shift will affect both coalitions.

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

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