Affluent Voters and the Democratic Conundrum

 
Today's Republican Party does a great job of sticking up for rich people, which is ironic given that most wealthy Americans live in states and congressional districts that are represented by Democratic lawmakers -- which, of course, helps explain why Democrats also do such a good job of sticking up for rich people. 
 
Think of it this way: The GOP is ideologically committed to defending the rich, even as it increasingly speaks for white voters of modest means, while the Democratic Party -- which represents much of affluent America -- caters to the affluent as a matter of constituent service. This is on top of the fact that both parties grovel to the "donor class" that dominates our electoral system. 
 
The oddity of things was underscored by a new analysis recently by the AP which found that:
Of the 10 richest House districts, only two have Republican congressmen. Democrats claim the top six, sprinkled along the East and West coasts. ... The richest: New York's 12th Congressional District, which includes Manhattan's Upper East Side ... Democrat Carolyn Maloney is in her 11th term representing the district.
Hard-hitting liberals like Henry Waxman, Nancy Pelosi, and Jerry Nadler also represent the very wealthiest districts. On the Senate side, the trend is equally noticeable: Of the twenty senators who represent the 10 wealthiest U.S. states, 18 are Democrats. 
 
Much has been made of how Democrats defend the rich because of campaign donations. But the sheer numbers of affluent people -- and voters -- in some states and congressional districts also explains things. In Connecticut, 46 percent of voters in 2012 came from households making over $100,000. It was 44 percent in Maryland and 38 percent in Massachusetts. 
 
Even taking into account that the affluent vote at much higher rates, which greatly amplifies their voice, it's just a plain fact that there are a lot of well-off people clustered in certain parts of the country. So even if more balanced turnout rates by class meant that only a quarter of voters in, say, Massachusetts were from affluent households, that's still a lot of voters. Enough that no politician can afford to ignore their preferences. 
 
Compounding this dynamic is the fact that many of these affluent voters have long voted Democratic. So it's not that a state like Massachusettts has a lot of affluent people, and they're the people who vote Republican -- thereby allowing Democrats to ignore them. Many of these voters go Democrat. For example, Elizabeth Warren won nearly half of all affluent voters in 2012 even though she was one of the most populist senate candidates in the nation that year. 
 
Affluent Americans vote Democratic for various reasons, starting with the fact that they tend to be socially liberal and concerned about the environment. But it's also true that they don't perceive today's Democratic Party as all that hostile to the well-off. But if that ever changes, if the Democratic Party ever does become a populist force that actually engages in class warfare, many of those voters may defect to the GOP. 
 
And therein lies a major conundrum for the Democratic Party: To truly take on inequality means risking the support of a significant swath of voters in the nation's main Democratic strongholds. In other words, the problem is not simply a risk of alienating the donor class; it's alienating large numbers of constituents that send Democrats to Congress.
 
I'll give you a concrete example: One key way to reduce inequality would be to retarget how a half trillion dollars in annual tax expenditures are spent for housing, healthcare, and retirement savings. Right now, these subsidies mainly benefit the affluent -- and entirely leave out the many Americans who don't own a home and don't have employer-provided healthcare and a 401(k). 
 
But what do you think would happen if President Obama floated a plan to shift all those subsides to helping people at the bottom of the income ladder? A gazillion homeowners and professionals in blue America, many of whom are Democrats, would flip out -- and, therefore, so would their representatives in Congress. In particular, reducing the home mortgage interest tax deduction -- and the related deduction for state and local taxes -- would inflict the most pain on the northeast and California. 
 
These realities suggest that Democrats need to not just think about the best ways to tackle inequality, substantively, but also to think about how to do so politically given who the party represents these days. As well, Democrats need to take a hard look at the electoral trade-offs: If they alienate current constituents by going populist, can they mobilize new voters or convert lower class Republicans to their cause?  
 

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