With the midterm elections only two weeks away and the Democrats in jeopardy, the prevailing wisdom is that the election will be a referendum on the Obama administration’s stewardship of the economy. A large fraction of 2008 Obama voters now cite the economy and jobs as the key reason they will vote Republican this year, according to an October 17 AP poll. “The president must zero in on the economy if he wants to help himself and his party,” writes Eleanor Clift. The basic notion here, promulgated by pundits and political analysts, is that the current political environment turns on the vagaries of the economy. This amounts to a cyclical theory of American politics. And, in fact, several decades ago, the political scientist Douglas Hibbs advanced his seminal theory of the “political business cycle” which argues that economic movements have a sizable effect on American elections.
But another line of thinking suggests that American politics turns on deeper structural changes in economy and society. In the influential Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State, Columbia University’s Andrew Gelman and his colleagues uncovered a paradox that both confirms and defies the conventional wisdom about American elections. While rich voters trend Republican, rich states trend Democratic, he found. The opposite holds as well. Though poor and minority voters overwhelmingly pull the lever for Democrats, poor states consistently end up in the Republican column. A second version of the structural approach comes from John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, who argue in The Emerging Democratic Majority that the rise of the post-industrial economy has tilted the playing field toward Democrats who gain advantage in wealthier urban “ideopolises” while holding onto the votes of the poor and minorities. A third perspective comes from Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan, whose detailed World Values Surveys identify a shift in political culture from the more traditional, religious, and materialist orientations of the industrial age to post-materialist values of self-expression, openness to diversity, secularism, and broad public goods like concern for the environment.