The Four Quadrants of American Politics

In The News Piece in The Atlantic
Photo by Quick PS on Unsplash
March 17, 2023

Lee Drutman and Oscar Pocasangre's report was cited in The Atlantic on American politics and Congress.

Today, districts with a higher share of white college graduates than the nation overall account for less than one-fourth of all GOP seats, down from one-third in 2009. The heavily blue-collar “lo-lo” districts have grown from just over half of the GOP conference in 2009 to their current level of nearly two-thirds. (The share of Republicans in seats with more minorities and fewer white college graduates than average has remained constant since 2009, at about one in seven.)
Each party is pushing an economic agenda that collides with the immediate economic interests of a large portion of its voters. “!e party leadership has not caught up with the coalitions,” says former Representative Tom Davis, who served as chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
For years, some progressives have feared that Democrats would back away from a populist economic agenda if the party grew more reliant on affluent voters. That shift has certainly occurred, with Democrats now holding 128 of the 198 House districts where the median income exceeds the national level. But the party has continued to advocate for a redistributionist economic agenda that seeks higher taxes on upper-income adults to fund expanded social programs for working-class families, as proposed in President Joe Biden’s latest budget. The one concession to the new coalition reality is that Democrats now seek to exempt from higher taxes families earning up to $400,000—a level that earlier generations of Democrats probably would have considered much too high.
Republicans face more dissonance between their reconfigured coalition and their agenda. !ough the GOP holds 152 of the 237 districts where the median income trails the national level, the party continues to champion big cuts in domestic social programs that benefit low-income families while pushing tax cuts that mostly 3ow toward the wealthy and corporations. As former Democratic Representative David Price, now a visiting fellow at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, says, there “is a pretty profound disconnect” between the GOP’s economic agenda and “the economic deprivation and what you would think would be a pretty clear set of needs” of the districts the party represents.
Each of these seeming contradictions underscores how cultural a$nity has displaced economic interest as the most powerful glue binding each side’s coalition. Republicans like Davis lament that their party can no longer win culturally liberal suburban voters by warning that Democrats will raise their taxes; Democrats like Price express frustration that their party can’t win culturally conservative rural voters by portraying Republicans as threats to Security and Medicare.
The advantage for Republicans in this new alignment is that there are still many more seats where whites exceed their share of the national population than seats with more minorities than average. Likewise, the number of seats with fewer white college graduates than the nation overall exceeds the number with more.
That probably gives Republicans a slight advantage in the struggle for House control over the next few years. Of the 22 House seats that the nonpartisan Cook Political Report currently rates as toss-ups or leaning toward the other party in 2024, for instance, 14 have fewer minorities than average and 12 have fewer white college graduates. “On the wedge issues, a lot of the swing districts look a little bit more like Republican districts than Democratic districts,” says Drutman, whose own recent analysis of House districts used an academic polling project to assess attitudes in all 435 seats.
But as Pastor points out, Republicans are growing more dependent on those heavily white and non-college-educated districts as society overall is growing more diverse and better educated, especially in younger generations. “It’s hard to see how the Republicans can grow their coalition,” Pastor told me, with the militant culture-war messages they are using “to cement their current coalition.”
Davis, the former NRCC chair, also worries that the GOP is relying too much on squeezing bigger margins from shrinking groups. The way out of that trap, he argues, is for Republicans to continue advancing from the beachheads they have established in recent years among more culturally conservative voters of color, especially Latino men.
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