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The Shifting Class Politics of the Democratic Party

The battle for the presidential nomination has exposed ideological and class fault lines within the Democratic Party. The opposition to Hillary Clinton’s position on trade and other economic issues reveal the sense among many registered Democrats that the Party establishment has abandoned their economic concerns. The shift in the class interests of the Party has not been a sudden one, precipitated by the Trans-Pacific Partnership or even NAFTA, but part of a longer story of transformation, a shift of the Democratic base away from its roots in the labor union halls in northern cities and toward white-collar tech workers in the suburbs and gentrified enclaves of major metropolises. Since the 1960s, suburban knowledge professionals and high-tech corporations have supplanted urban ethnics and labor unions as the party’s core constituency. This shifting base intensified structural inequality and constrained the party’s ability to create policies that support economic equity.

Hillary Clinton embodies this transformation. While Hillary is often associated with the “New Democrats” of the 1990s, her lineage — and the cleavage between her supporters and those of Bernie Sanders — can actually be traced back to the “Atari Democrats” of the 1970s and 1980s. This group included many of the politicians — and embraced many of the issues — that would come dominate the Democratic Party after 1992.

Pundit Christopher Matthews, then an aide to Tip O’Neill, first coined the term “Atari Democrats” in 1982 to suggest how the group’s agenda differed from his boss’s bread-and-butter Democratic platform and constituents. Although Colorado Senator Tim Wirth quipped, “We prefer Apple Democrats, it sounds more American,” he did not challenge the implications of the label. In addition to Wirth, the group included Senators Gary Hart (CO), Bill Bradley (NJ), Paul Tsongas (MA), Christopher Dodd (CT), and of course Al Gore (TN), as well as governors like Jerry Brown (CA), Bruce Babbitt (AZ), and Michael Dukakis (MA). These figures all earned reputations as issue-oriented, reform-minded politicians. They shared a desire to distance themselves from the “old politics” of the New Deal regulars and to inaugurate a new era for the Democratic Party and the country.

The Atari Democrats’ platform combined a liberal stance on the environment, foreign policy and issues like civil rights and feminism with a commitment to stimulating entrepreneurship and private sector growth, especially in the tech industry. Many of the members also firmly believed in increasing opportunity and empowerment for all Americans, but thought these goals could be better achieved through programs with a market-based orientation. Atari Democrats abided by the mantra that “the solutions of the thirties will not solve the problems of the eighties” (see Randall Rothenberg, The Neoliberals: Creating a New American Politics, Simon & Schuster, 1984). On the campaign trail and in office, they pushed policies that aimed to increase investment rather than broad-based well-being. In some ways, the Atari Democrats were no less “supply-siders” than rising stars in the Republican Party like Jack Kemp (NY) and William Steiger (WI).

As their sobriquet suggests, no sector was more important to the Atari Democrats than tech. The cohort’s emphasis was on expanding the tech sector both in the United States and globally. This, plus their focus on improving quality of life and keeping taxes low, made the Atari Democrats popular among suburban professional voters, as I explain at length in my book (Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party, Princeton University Press, 2015). This approach, however, made employment overly dependent on the boom-bust cycles of the tech economy and produced an economically and geographically uneven distribution of economic growth that privileged middle-class professionals and exacerbated structural inequities. The high-tech industry primarily created jobs for scientists, engineers, computer programmers, and data analysts that paid well, but these opportunities demanded a high level of expertise, experience, and training, and were non-unionized. High-tech manufacturing, however, increasingly moved overseas. The manufacturing jobs that did exist at computer companies in places like Silicon Valley and Route 128 outside of Boston were not just non-union, but low-wage, offering little long-term security (see Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison, The Deindustrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment, and the Dismantling of Basic Industry, Basic Books, 1982).

The Atari Democrats retreated from New Deal issues and from New Deal voters, particularly members of the unionized white working class. These shifts led many to charge that the Atari Democrats had abandoned a commitment to economic concerns. Yet in championing the high-tech economy and suburban quality-of-life values, the Atari Democrats did not abandon class politics. They merely advocated policies that reflected the class interests of the party’s rank-and-file base, which by the 1980s had shifted from auto-workers to knowledge workers.

This focus on stimulating high-tech growth and expanding opportunity has been crucial to the Democratic Party’s competitiveness, especially in presidential elections, since the 1980s. Bill Clinton placed high-tech growth and suburban professionals at the center of his presidential bid (see John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, The Emerging Democratic Majority, Scribner, 2002). Barack Obama’s campaign combined class-blind notions of equality of opportunity with promises of stimulating high-tech employment and entrepreneurship, offering tax cuts for the middle class, and providing improvements to public education. In both elections, Obama handily won areas where a large concentration of residents had advanced degrees, and he secured the support of high-tech workers nationally by an overwhelming margin. He earned the votes and campaign contributions of workers at companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple at astonishingly high rates, building on the relationships forged between tech companies and the Democratic Party by the Atari Democrats. This emphasis, however, further alienated lower-income voters and led to historically low turnout rates among this constituency. As a result, the chasm between voters and non-voters has widened. Non-voters, who tend to support unions and public spending on jobs and health insurance, face falling real incomes while higher-income voters, who are less in favor of such policies, continue to see their incomes rise.

These voting patterns have shaped the strategy of the Democratic Party and amplified the power of both affluent voters and high-tech corporations. For instance, Clinton’s and Obama’s tech-friendly policies reflected their close and personal ties with many of Silicon Valley’s leading tycoons and companies. In her 2016 campaign bid, Hillary Clinton has sought to further solidify the bonds between the tech industry and the Democratic Party. She has surpassed candidates from both parties in individual donations from employees at the ten highest-grossing companies in Silicon Valley, including, Google, Facebook, eBay, and Apple. Yet balancing these relationships with gaining the support of other constituencies has proven increasingly difficult, leaving an opening for Bernie Sanders.

Many Americans no longer view Silicon Valley as a site of opportunity and democracy, but instead see it as a source of elitism and inequity. This attitude coincides with, and has contributed to, the success of Sanders’s bid. Sanders has helped to place the issue of the unequal distribution of wealth at the center of the Democratic Party’s agenda for the first time in generations. His populist platform and stump speeches have put redistribution back on the Party’s agenda, emphasizing issues that have been antithetical to the tech sector since the Atari Democrats appeared on the political stage. Sanders’s candidacy might very well represent a longstanding shift back toward a more class-inclusive base and a return to the types of thirties or New Deal-style solutions that Atari Democrats and their successors eschewed.

As it stands, however, people interested in improving the material conditions of more than high-tech workers and other white-collar professionals should be skeptical of the Democrats’ ability to deliver meaningful reform and change. Nor should mainstream Democratic candidates be surprised by the alienation of large segments of American workers from their message. How can you maintain the support of the working-class when you’ve disavowed them?

*This piece is a modified and shortened version of an article that originally appeared in Jacobin

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