Demographics and the Republican Party’s enduring appeal to upper-income voters

This article by Ryan Streeter summarizes some demographic trends highlighted by demographer Joel Kotkin which he describes as showing that “America is evolving in a conservative direction.” I’m not quite convinced by that, but I do think these statistics give some insight into how the Republican Party maintains its strength among high-income Americans.

People are less mobile: “in 1970, 20 percent of Americans moved annually . . . by 2008, it dropped to 10 percent.” That’s interesting–I didn’t know that! I’d also like to see how this breaks down by age. There’s also the distinction between local and long-distance moves. (A large percentage of moves are within the same county.)

The statistic about the marriage gap (“92 percent of children in homes earning more than $75,000 live with both parents, and fewer than 10 percent of mothers with college degrees are unmarried”) is interesting too. I’ve seen this sort of thing before but it’s never bad to be reminded of such statistics.

One thing I can’t quite figure out is how this relates to immigration. In a related article, Kotkin discusses fertility rates and writes, “America will expand its population in the midst of a global demographic slowdown. . . .in relative terms, but it will maintain a youthful, dynamic demographic.” I’d think that these projections would be highly dependent on assumptions about immigration. This is probably in his book but I’m surprised he doesn’t mention it in his article. (Based on this article on the same website, I’d guess that Kotkin supports high immigration rates.)

Some of Streeter’s statistics would be improved by the addition of baselines. For example, “in 2006 the home-based workforce had doubled twice as fast as in the previous decade, enabled mainly by telecommuting. By 2015, more people will be working from home than taking public transit.” This sounds like a lot! But then he writes, “According to the International Telework Association, roughly 20 million workers telecommute at least once each month in the United States, and a fifth of them nearly every day.” Umm . . . a fifth of 20 million, that’s 4 million, which is 2.6% of the 150-million-strong civilian workforce. 2.6% is a trend, sure, but it’s still only 2.6%. Streeter characterizes this as a “preindustrial workplace,” which seems a bit of an exaggeration. Where in the preindustrial landscape do they get the gas to run the cars?

Overall, though, I’d say the article is consistent with a story of a new upper middle class: some subset of people who are financially comfortable, are likely to be married, might work from home in a suburb or exurb, and might home-school their kids (if they have any). I would indeed expect that such people would have both economically and socially conservative views and fit in well with the Republican Party. This kind of analysis gives some perspective on how it is that, despite all of Barack Obama’s yuppie appeal, and despite the Democratic Party’s position on issues such as gay rights, Republicans retain the allegiance of upper-income Americans.

P.S. Streeter’s argument has some interesting juxtapositions of statistics but seems to have some confusion when it moves away from the numbers and toward interpretation. For example, what can one make of the claim: “regardless of how liberal media elites celebrate the European ideal of shrinking families, a large swath of Americans from boomers to Millennials seem to prefer the rather unpopular, mundane ideal of family-centric suburbanized stability.”

It really true that “liberal media elites” celebrate shrinking families? The Simpsons have 3 kids, right? And how can Streeter say, in a single paragraph, that something that “a large swath of Americans” prefer is “rather unpopular”? That’s just silly. I think what he’s trying to say is that he wants to live in the suburbs–or, perhaps, he wants other people to live in the suburbs–but other people whom he doesn’t like (“hip urban developers”) don’t like that. But he’s twisted like a pretzel into wanting his preferences to be both popular and unpopular at the same time.

P.P.S. Streeter is listed as a “Senior Fellow with the London-based Legatum Institute.” I looked up this institute on the web–they have a bunch of interesting-looking projects–but the one thing I can’t figure out is how they ended up to be in London. The four leaders of the institute all appear to be American. I’m not saying there’s anything sinister here, just wondering what the story is.

6 thoughts on “Demographics and the Republican Party’s enduring appeal to upper-income voters

  1. Kind of silly. Lower mobility recently? People can't sell their homes! The coming conservative wave? Except that younger voters tend Democratic.

    Nothing like taking one or two carefully selected points and drawing a trend line.

  2. 'People are less mobile: "in 1970, 20 percent of Americans moved annually . . . by 2008, it dropped to 10 percent." That's interesting–I didn't know that! I'd also like to see how this breaks down by age. There's also the distinction between local and long-distance moves. (A large percentage of moves are within the same county.)'

    I'd take your point about age a bit further. The first wave of the baby boom was hitting its mid-twenties in 1970. How much of the difference could be explained by teenagers leaving home, college students heading off for their first job, and the general tendency of young adults to move a lot.

  3. Lower mobility:

    It's easier for a one-career family to move when Dad gets transferred. Big companies in the 1950s and 1960s tended to transfer their mid-level managers around the country willy-nilly — it was seen as a test of loyalty to the company.

    The rise of two-career families led to resistance to transfers, since the spouse wouldn't have to quit her/his job.

    Also, the rise of two-income families led to bigger cities (e.g., Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta) becoming more preferred by two-career couples over smaller cities like Dayton. My spouse is likely to be able to find a decent job in Chicago in her field, but there are slimmer pickings in Dayton.

  4. These explanations make sense, also are consistent with our story in Red State, Blue State for how geographic/political polarization arose among upper-income voters in the past few decades. I don't know if Streeter and Kotkin fully realized the implications of the statistics that he quoted; in any case, big changes like this are worth talking about again and again until all of us as news consumers can internalize them.

  5. Frank Rich notes the opposite: "Demographics are avatars of a change bigger than any bill contemplated by Obama or Congress. The week before the health care vote, The Times reported that births to Asian, black and Hispanic women accounted for 48 percent of all births in America in the 12 months ending in July 2008. By 2012, the next presidential election year, non-Hispanic white births will be in the minority. The Tea Party movement is virtually all white. The Republicans haven’t had a single African-American in the Senate or the House since 2003 and have had only three in total since 1935. Their anxieties about a rapidly changing America are well-grounded."

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