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Democrats Are Too Affluent to Be Socialists

Francis Wilkinson
·5 mins read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On Sept. 27, 2012, the Democratic fundraising website ActBlue hit a landmark. It announced it had raised $300 million since it started in 2004. A sleek digital engine that could raise $300 million in eight years — with zero time or effort invested by candidates — represented a new kind of fundraising marvel.

In the month of August 2020, ActBlue raised $485 million. In the 12 hours after the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was announced on Sept. 18, the site raised more than $30 million. The numbers for the full month of September may well be gobsmacking.

As Republicans have grown more ideologically extreme and degradingly Trumpy, Democrats have grown more committed to funding the nation’s one resolutely democratic party. Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and allied party committees raised $364.5 million August, a one-month tally unlike any in American political history. (Republicans and President Donald Trump’s campaign said they raised $210 million in August.)

Yet there’s another reason for soaring donations: Democrats are relatively rich. According to a Brookings Institution study, the median household income in House districts held by Democrats rose from $54,000 in 2008 to $61,000 a decade later. In Republican districts, it declined from $55,000 to $53,000.

The parties’ disparate fortunes are driven by a sharp divergence in economic output. “Underlying these changes have been eye-popping shifts in economic performance,” says the Brookings report. “Democratic-voting districts have seen their GDP per seat grow by a third since 2008, from $35.7 billion to $48.5 billion a seat, whereas Republican districts saw their output slightly decline from $33.2 billion to $32.6 billion.”

House districts in the bottom two quintiles of income distribution accounted for about half of the districts in the Democratic caucus in 1960, according to Michael Podhorzer, a strategist at the AFL-CIO. By 2018, they represented less than one third. The share of GOP districts from the bottom two quintiles more than doubled during that same time. In 2018, districts in the bottom 40 percent of income distribution accounted for slightly more than half of GOP districts.

Education and diversity drive the change. Brookings demographer William Frey analyzed 102 counties that had voted Republican in 2004 and Democratic in 2016. In aggregate in 2016 they were 46.4% non-White; 22.9% White college graduate and 30.7% non-college White. The 2,427 counties that voted Republican in both 2004 and 2016 had less than half the share of non-White population and almost double the share of non-college Whites. Those counties were 20.7% nonwhite; 21.8% White college and 57.5% non-college White. Since 2016, the Republican hemorrhage of college-educated Whites has grown worse, turning affluent suburbs ever bluer.

Republicans represent many more poor and struggling districts than in the past, but GOP policies and rhetoric are designed to sharpen resentments, not boost finances, among the non-affluent. The Republican ideological predisposition to aid the already affluent is reinforced by financial realities. While Trump has developed a grassroots funding base, plutocrats, not paupers, fund the bulk of the party. They likewise reap the financial benefits of GOP rule.

Democrats, meanwhile, are increasingly reliant on what Thomas Piketty has called a “Brahmin” class of cultural and information workers. In his 1988 book “Honest Graft,” Brooks Jackson chronicled the nearly indiscriminate pursuit by then-Representative Tony Coelho of corporate funds for Democratic coffers. With labor unions in steep decline, Coelho led Democrats in shifting their attention to where the money was — the corporate sector. The funding shift accompanied the rise of market-oriented, corporate-friendly, neoliberalism in the party.

Today, party finances are ever more reliant on high-education professionals in cities and suburbs. From Jan. 1, 2019 to Aug. 31, 2020, the Federal Election Commission lists the top five professions for ActBlue donors as attorney, teacher, physician, professor and engineer. For WinRed, the newer, less successful, GOP competitor to ActBlue, the top five occupations (other than retired or not employed) are CEO, owner, sales, physician and president.

There were 3.1 million unique donors to ActBlue in the 2016 campaign cycle through August 2016. In the 2020 campaign cycle through August, the site received donations from 12.5 million individuals.

The manic failures and sprawling criminality of Trump’s presidency make it hard to gauge how the Democratic fundraising machinery might function under normal circumstances — in the event such circumstances return. The reliance on affluent professionals, meanwhile, raises questions about the power balance and direction of the Democratic coalition. As Thomas Edsall asked: “Can a party split between an upscale wing that is majority white and a heavily minority working class wing effectively advocate on behalf of a liberal-left economic agenda?”

Trump’s degradation of democracy and deadly failure in the face of pandemic has allowed Democrats to kick that quandary down the road. Because Trump and his enablers pose an acute threat to democracy, prosperity and rule of law, Democrats have had little difficulty pulling together to confront the crisis.

Indeed, they are funding their party as if life itself depends on it. Those funds can accelerate powerful changes already driven by demographics and pent-up demands for equality, justice and opportunity (or what Trump derisively calls “socialism”). The lopsided flow of money, however, will exert a powerful influence on the party’s direction. The Democratic appetite for change appears expansive. The contours of suburban comfort zones may yet prove more limited.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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