Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Progressive Agenda and the Upscale Voter

Though behavior-wise I don't fit the mold of an upscale voter, for example most of the clothes I'm wearing now were bought at Walmart, in other words I'm something of a cheapskate, income-wise I match the profile.  As I've written many times before, my household is part of the professional class, by which I mean that our household income lies somewhere between the 80th percentile and the 99th percentile in the distribution.  The expression professional class is also meant to convey many related aspects of the household profile.  In our case both my wife and I have PhDs, quite a common situation in a college town, and there are concomitant behaviors and attitudes about work, family, and friends that are part and parcel of being a member of the professional class.  Indeed, most of my social interactions are with others in higher education, which clearly shapes how I think about things and why I feel so at home expressing myself in writing.  This narrows me somewhat as does living in a college town as opposed to living in a major metropolitan area.  Nonetheless, when I make reference to the upscale voter in this piece, I include myself as one of them.

Today, Bernie Sanders has an Op-Ed in the NY Times, How Democrats Can Stop Losing Elections.  I largely agreed with what was said there.  Democrats need to get to potential voters who are currently not participating.  The obvious candidates are working class people and young people.  The policies of the Democrats must clearly favor these people, to give them a reason to vote and then to vote for Democrats.  This seems good and sensible to me.  Yet I was troubled by this piece.

The enemy in the Sanders story is the top 1 percent, who claim a much too large share of GDP, leaving not enough left for ordinary people.  I agree that they need to pay more in taxes, as a progressive tax system demands.   I asked myself, however, where am I and voters like me in this story?  It seems we're not part of the narrative at all.  For Sanders narrative to make sense, voters like me would have to continue to participate and fully buy into the progressive agenda.  My guess is that won't happen if the approach is to ignore us.  But, no doubt, including us complicates matters some, perhaps quite a lot.  Here I want to take on some of those complications.  But I want to do it in as straightforward a way as possible.

The core issue is that voters have been acculturated to "vote their pocketbook."  There is quite a long tradition of doing just that.   But if all voters do that then upscale Democrats likely wouldn't fully endorse a progressive agenda.  They will then perhaps try to block it or possibly become disillusioned and not participate or maybe vote for anti-tax Republicans.  In none of these scenarios is the path that Sanders sketches easy to follow. Thomas Edsall describes the issue well in a piece called, The Democratic Party Is in Worse Shape Than You Thought.

How then might upscale voters come to embrace the progressive agenda and refrain from voting their pocketbook?  My belief is that the Democrats need to embrace a politics of social conscience and social responsibility.  I wrote about this at length in a post called The Next Deal and I have been writing about related themes for some time.  But getting from here to there will be an enormous challenge, one that needs to be faced squarely.  Here are some further thoughts on that.

The issue is described quite well in a piece by Richard Reeves, Stop Pretending You're Not Rich.  Upscale voters engage in a variety of undemocratic practices that favor themselves and their offspring.  Voting one's pocketbook is only a part of the picture.  There are other private behaviors that are equally damning.  When push comes to shove, an upscale voter will justify this behavior with the excuse - everybody else is doing it. If the behavior is to stop, this excuse needs to be taken away.

Now here's a bit of game theory to explain why this might be possible.  Below is a simple bi-matrix game.  There are two players.  The Row Player chooses Top or Bottom.  The Column Player chooses Left or Right.  They make their choices independently.  The joint choice determines a cell in the matrix.  The first number in the cell is the payoff for the Row Player, the second the payoff for the Column Player.  As Top is a best response to Left and Left is a best response to Top, Top-Left is an equilibrium.  Bottom-Right is also an equilibrium. Top-Left is better than Bottom-Right.   This type of structure is a "coordination game," a game that has two equilibria and one of those is better than the other.

You might ask whether the players will figure out themselves to play the better equilibrium.  This game is cooked so answer to that question is no.  Top is a far riskier strategy than Bottom for the Row Player.  If both players make a safety play, then you get Bottom-Right as the outcome.  In order to get the better equilibrium, there must be external coordination to achieve it.  This is why orchestras need conductors and why organizations need managers.

The situation that Reeves describes suggests a coordination game, so on that score I liked his analysis very much.  But his tone is scolding.  Most people don't respond to scolding well.  Some other approach is needed, one that treats all voters as responsible adults.  This requires explaining the nature of the coordination problem and the need for social responsibility in voter behavior.

I have no idea how much education of this sort is needed, but I suspect quite a lot.  And my guess is that Bernie Sanders is not the right messenger for this, because he is already so strongly associated with the progressive agenda that the message would seem self-serving rather than entirely genuine.  Jerry Brown might be the right messenger, as he has had to address these sort of issues in California and he no longer has any pretensions at national office.

Alternatively, he might be enlisted to identify credible Hollywood types, well known names who are not overtly political (I am thinking of the Director Ron Howard, Opie on Andy of Mayberry, but I have no idea of his politics or whether he'd be willing, and others from Saturday Night Live, before it got caught up too much in politics) for a campaign on the need for social responsibility.  I don't want to get hung up on the logistics of such a campaign, as that is outside my expertise.  But what seems  clear to me is a need for a concerted effort of this sort and that the entire Democratic leadership - Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer along with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren - all embrace such an educational effort to give direction to the party.

Let me close with the following observation.  Right now the story is being dictated by Trump rather than by a progressive agenda.  In the immediate future, running against Trump might suffice.  Surely that will be true for 2018.  Perhaps it will also be true for 2020.  The requisite educational program will take time to implement and additional time to have good effect.  My view is that we need to think past not-Trump to something much more affirming.  But we're not ready for that now.  That is good.  It gives us a window in which to get ready. 

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