Why is there no real party of the people?

A conservative Christian writer and blogger named Rod Dreher is disgusted with how the Republican Party serves the interests of Wall Street and the military-industrial complex.  But he won’t vote for the Democrats because he is opposed to gay marriage and abortion rights.

He wonders why there can’t be a party that represents the interests of the common people on economics and the views of the common people on social issues?

The reason why economic and social issues are aligned the way they are is the power of big money in politics.

Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and the other Democratic leaders are strongly pro-business.  But they can never be as pro-business as George W. Bush, Mitt Romney or the other Republican leaders.

So in order to appeal to rich people, the Democratic leaders have to differentiate themselves on non-economic issues.  A Wall Street banker or Silicon Valley CEO who was gay or female or an immigrant or a marijuana user, or had relatives or friends who were, would prefer Democrats to Republicans unless the Democrats were an actual threat to their wealth and power—which Democrats have not been for decades.

Social issues work the other way for Republicans.   Abortion, gun rights, immigration and gay marriage are issues that enable the GOP to appeal to middle-income voters who might otherwise vote Democratic.  And, in fact, many Democrats would prefer to campaign on these issues than press for raising the minimum wage, breaking up the too-big-to-fail banks or preserving Social Security and Medicare.

donorsHat tip to occasional links and commentary.

Thomas B. Edsall, in a recent New York Times column, had an extremely interesting chart which I am unable to reproduce in this post, showing year-by-year what percentage of campaign contributions to each party came from labor PACs, other PACs, small donors, large donors and “super-donors” (representing the top 0.01 percent of American voters).

In 1980, both Republicans and Democrats received the overwhelming majority on their campaign funds from small donors.   In 2012, both depended on large donors and “super donors” for the majority of their contributions.

Democrats got 25 percent of their contributions from “super donors” and Republicans even more.  Democrats got more from “super donors” than from organized labor.   How can this not affect their priorities?

Edsall cited political scientists who demonstrated that on any issue in which the interests or views of middle-class Americans come in conflict with wealthy Americans or organized interest groups, the middle-class Americans always lose.

There is a bipartisan consensus in favor financial deregulation, immunity for “too big to fail” banks and free-trade agreements, for which there is virtually no grass-roots support.  Democratic leaders are almost as reluctant as Republicans to defend Social Security and Medicare, raise the minimum wage or increase taxes on the super-rich.



Results of exit polls in 2012 election, showing Democratic and Republican strength among different income groups. Blank spaces indicate states where such exit polls were not taken.

Source: New York Times.


Nancy LeTourneau, in a couple of posts on the Washington Monthly web log, attempted to rebut Edsall.   She cited the chart, shown above, which shows that people whose incomes are less than $30,000 a year—including socially conservative black and Hispanic people, and including residents of so-called red states—vote solidly Democratic.

The Republicans get a majority of people with incomes of $100,000 to $200,000 a year, but not in all states.  Note that in Bernie Sanders’ home state, Vermont, the Democrats get a majority of all income groups under $200,000.  So, she concludes, there is no reason why Democrats can’t get the votes of both Democrats and Republicans.

My problem with her argument is that she discusses the current political alignment only in terms of the range of opinion between Democrats and Republicans, as if that represented the limits of the possible.

She misses Edsall’s deeper point, which is that the top leaders of both political parties represent the interests of a tiny financial and corporate elite and not the interests of the American people generally.

I do not claim that all political issues, or even all economic issues, can be reduced to a conflict between the elite and the other 99 percent of the population.

There is a real conflict of interest between the interests of poor people, who depend on government services, and the property-owning middle class, who don’t like to pay high taxes.  There is a real conflict of interest between immigrants, both legal and unauthorized, and native-born citizens who compete for jobs.

I do claim that the power of the financial elite keeps the leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties committed to policies that generate permanent economic stagnation and a growing concentration of wealth in that elite.

If you look at policy not in terms of what’s considered politically feasible, but what’s needed to keep the USA prosperous and free, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties.   I’m not speaking of all Democrats or Republicans, but their dominant factions.


How Did the Democrats Become Favorites of the Rich? by Thomas B. Edsall for The New York Times.  A brilliant analysis.

Identity Politics vs. Class-Based Politics Is Not an Either-Or Question (Part 1) by Nancy LeTourneau for The Washington Monthly.  An attempt to rebut Edsall.

Identity Politics vs. Class-Based Politics Is Not an Either-Or Question (Part 2) by Nancy LeTourneau for The Washington Monthly.   She thinks what Obama has accomplished is the most that is reasonable to expect.

Red vs. Blue in a New Light by Andrew Gelman and Avi Feller in The New York Times (2012).  Source of the chart.



For the record, I take the conventional liberal position on abortion rights and gay marriage, but not on gun control.

I acknowledge that the conventional liberal position is no longer unpopular, as it once was, and therefore it is no longer a risky position for Democrats.  College-educated white liberals have taken an uncompromising position on abortion rights and gay rights (unlike with labor rights) and are convincing the rest of the population.  This is what you can accomplish when you stand up with what you believe in.

I still think that the influence of big money is the reason why there are so many politicians who call themselves economic conservatives and social liberals, and so few who are the reverse.

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One Response to “Why is there no real party of the people?”

  1. paintedjaguar Says:

    Another underlying truth that almost nobody will speak is that there is really no such thing as being an economic conservative and social liberal. In practice under capitalism your social freedom is almost entirely constrained by your financial resources. Including your so-called right to life.


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