Stop Worrying About Upper-Class SuburbanitesRoundup
tags: Bill Clinton, Democratic Party, 2020 Election, suburban history, Democratic Leadership Council
Lily Geismer is an assistant professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and the author of Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party.
Matthew Lassiter is professor of history at the University of Michigan and author of The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South.
The 2020 election once again showed that the pursuit of affluent, white, college-educated suburbanites dominates the political strategies of both parties. Donald Trump made a transparently racist appeal to the so-called suburban housewives of America, warning that liberals were plotting to “abolish the suburbs” by flooding their neighborhoods with low-income housing and Black Lives Matter protests. And while Joe Biden acknowledged the increasing diversity of American suburbia, his campaign continued the decades-long centrist Democratic project of crafting electoral appeals and calibrating policy positions toward moderate, upper-income voters.
The obsession with upper-income, white suburban professionals provides myopic understandings of the past and flawed lessons for the future. In 2010, the US Census revealed that, for the first time, a majority of African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos in America’s one hundred largest metropolitan regions resided in suburban areas and not in central cities. More than half of all poor people, and of first- and second-generation immigrants, in these major metropolitan regions also lived in the census-designated suburbs, where fewer than one-fourth of households conformed to the mythical suburban ideal of a married couple with children under the age of eighteen.
Suburbs today are more working-class, and more diverse, than ever before. But it is not clear that the Democratic Party establishment, including the incoming Biden administration, is ready or willing to embrace the suburban electorate on its own terms.
The Democratic Party’s suburban strategy of chasing affluent white-collar professionals, and simultaneously marginalizing its traditional working-class base, has deep roots in the racial upheavals and economic crises of the 1960s and 1970s. During the intraparty warfare of the 1980s, a faction of professional-class politicians labeled the “Atari Democrats” argued that embracing high-tech corporations and suburban knowledge workers represented the best path forward to a prosperous future and an electoral realignment.
In the aftermath of the 1988 election, when George H. W. Bush defeated the technocrat Michael Dukakis, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the self-styled centrist outfit of professional class Democrats, commissioned political scientists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck to draft a postmortem. The resulting document, titled the “Politics of Evasion,” insisted that the party needed to fashion its appeals to middle-income white voters in the suburban Midwest and affluent white professionals in the high-tech suburban Sunbelt. It was a direct repudiation of the multiracial, working-class “Rainbow Coalition” strategy of Jesse Jackson in his 1984 and 1988 presidential bids, which sought to mobilize the “desperate, the damned, the disinherited, and the despised.” Jackson responded that the DLC, which he dismissed as the “Democrats of the Leisure Class,” was seeking to “suburbanize the Democratic party.” He was quite right.
The “Politics of Evasion” shaped the DLC’s centrist agenda in the 1990s, most notably Bill Clinton’s approach to the white suburban electorate and his “Third Way” rejection of a progressive policy agenda, especially after the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 midterms. During his 1996 reelection campaign, Clinton elevated America’s “soccer moms” — imagined as affluent, college-educated, white married suburbanites — as the archetypal swing voter and captured 53 percent of the suburban female vote.
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