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From class to culture--the results

Last week, I tried to demonstrate that American politics was undergoing a subtle but important transformation as we move from an alignment based more on class to one based importantly on culture. Today, cultural attitudes and behaviors do a better job of predicting partisanship than does class. In short, those with a more traditional cultural stance have moved toward the Republicans, while cultural progressives joined the Democrats.

Last week, I tried to demonstrate that American politics was undergoing a subtle but important transformation as we move from an alignment based more on class to one based importantly on culture. Today, cultural attitudes and behaviors do a better job of predicting partisanship than does class. In short, those with a more traditional cultural stance have moved toward the Republicans, while cultural progressives joined the Democrats.

This transformation has at least three critical implications for politics and governing.

• First, the pyramidal nature of class structures used to give Democrats a substantial advantage. It’s the nature of pyramids. There were always more of us Democrats at the bottom than there were Republicans at the top.

By contrast, the cultural division is much more even. For example about 42 percent of Americans profess to attend religious services regularly, while 43 percent rarely or never do so.

So while the New Deal alignment reigned supreme, Democrats enjoyed 15-, 20-, even 25-point advantages in party identification. With an alignment now based on culture, partisanship was no better than even in 2004, while Democrats actually ran behind the Republicans in 2002.

• Second, class is spread rather evenly around the country while culture is not. The class pyramids in New York and Mississippi look similar. The cultural divisions do not. Alterations in the political map are a result.

Some parts of the country that used to look competitive or solid for one party or the other are no longer competitive. Mississippi is clearly less hospitable to Democrats than it once was.

But on the other side of the ledger, California was essentially a one-party, Republican state for the first half of the 20th century. From the ’60s through the early ’90s, the great question in presidential politics was always “Could the Democratic nominee carry California?” Jimmy Cater won the White House without it. But cultural politics has now made California so safe for Democrats in presidential campaigns that Republicans no longer even attempt to compete.

• Third, class politics focused on the provision of divisible economic benefits. Who would get how much of the tax cut? Which income group would get the largess from which program? Compromise consisted of deciding where to draw the line for benefits.

Cultural politics is less easily divisible. It is identity politics. It is about right and wrong. It is not about where to slice the loaf. It is about whether to have a loaf.

We cannot undo the cultural alignment by wishing it into the dustbin of history or shifting our principled positions on issues, even very central ones. The battle lines of cultural conflict are defined not just by choice and gay rights but by a wide array of issues including civil rights, women’s rights, affirmative action, cultural diversity, an internationalist foreign policy and acceptance of premarital sex.

However, the future seems to bode well for cultural progressives. The strong pro-choice majority is one sign of this. The substantial increase in support for gays is another.

More broadly, Democrats can rejoice in looking at younger voters. John Kerry did better with voters under 30 than any Democrat in the history of exit polling. One critically important reason is that voters under 30 are one of the most culturally progressive segments of the electorate on all of the indicia noted above. What we might euphemistically label the inexorable forces of generational replacement guarantee that, over time, these younger, culturally progressive voters will make up an ever-increasing share of the electorate.

Help is on the way. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.