The “rising American electorate” is the name given to the core of the Obama electoral majority of the young, single women, and minorities. Democratic pundits suggest that this coalition essentially dooms Republican presidential prospects for the foreseeable future. Demography, they argue, is destiny.
This ignores one depressing reality: The rising American electorate is sinking together in this economy. The faltering jobless recovery isn’t working for most working families. Over 20 million are still in need of full-time work. Wages and family income are falling. The top 1 percent has captured all of the income growth in the country over the first two years coming out of the Great Recession. Profits are hitting new highs as a portion of the economy; wages hitting new lows. The jobs being created are more part-time than full-time, and with lower pay and fewer benefits than those that were lost.
And in this bleak scene, the Obama coalition is faring the worst. Millennials – the 18- to 29-year-olds that provided energy and big margins to Obama’s victories – are struggling. Their unemployment rate is officially 12.5 percent, but one of six is unemployed when including those who have stopped looking for work.
Even college graduates aren’t faring well. A Rutgers study found that only one-half of recent college graduates are employed full time. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nearly half of college graduates are employed in jobs that do not require a college degree. The average wage for those who got their first job in 2009-2011 was $27,000 a year, 10 percent lower than those who entered the workforce two years earlier. Student debt now exceeds credit card debt. Two-thirds of students graduating in 2012 had student debts which averaged $27,000. Increasingly students are forced to move back with their parents. They have three big checks to write each month – rent, student debt, and car payment and even those working full time find it hard to cover more than two of them.
Single women – particularly single mothers – struggle in any economy. Women are still paid less then men. The “recovery” hasn’t reached many of these women. Single women with children have about twice the rate of unemployment as the general population, and have been losing jobs since the “recovery” began. Their wages aren’t keeping up. The median wealth for single white women is $41,500. For single Hispanic women, it is $100, with nearly half having zero or negative worth, more debts than assets.
Minorities have been hit hard in the Great Recession and the faltering recovery. Black unemployment rates are double the rate of whites. Nearly 50 percent of black teenagers 16-19 are unemployed, and 30 percent of those up to age 24. Unemployment among the young is crippling, reaching levels of one of two among African-American youth without college. From 2005-2009, the median wealth of Black households was cut in half, for Hispanics by two-thirds.
Behind these numbers is a harsh human toll of shattered hopes and grim sacrifices. Studies show that when young people enter their working lives without work, they lose ground that is never regained. Prolonged unemployment undermines skills and confidence. Lower wages and less secure jobs provide less shelter against future storms. The lack of savings and loss of wealth means not simply less security at the end of long years of work, but less ability to educate the next generation. The very parts of the electorate that are rising in numbers are sinking in circumstance.
This reality changes political calculations. The rising American electorate has a hard time seeing an increasingly shrill and divisive Republican Party as an alternative. Insult and disdain are rarely effective recruiting tactics.
But if after six years (in 2014) or eight years (2016) of a Democratic president, the rising American electorate continues to fare badly in the economy, they are unlikely to look to Democratic candidates for a way out. Turnout, enthusiasm, energy will all flag. The Obama presidential campaign deployed cutting-edge social media strategies to identify, engage, enlist and turn out their base. But good tweets don’t pay student loans. And a grand bargain that sustains austerity, trading cuts in Medicare and Social Security for closing various tax dodges will add to insecurity, not reduce it.
Not surprisingly, polls show that jobs and the economy remain the top concerns of every element of the rising American electorate. They are more favorable to public investment that will put people to work. They have a big stake in improving public education and making college more affordable. They are looking for a strategy that will make this economy work for working families once more. They are more supportive of programs for the vulnerable than the rest of the society.
Over these next days, Campaign for America’s Future writers will probe different parts of the rising American electorate, describing their economic circumstances, and their political priorities. We’ll show that while demography and Republican reaction have provided an extraordinary opportunity to forge an enduring reform majority, that can be sustained only if Democrats champion and move an economic agenda that works.
You can neither “cut your way to prosperity,” as the president said, nor grand-bargain your way there. The rising American electorate is looking for help: a forward strategy that will rebuild the country, educate the young, put people to work, capture a lead in the green industrial revolution that is sweeping the world, while insuring that the rewards of growth are widely shared. This requires fierce battles with those standing in the way – not simply the Tea Party zealots, but Big Oil and Big Pharma, Wall Street and the global corporate lobby that will spend lavishly to protect their privileges and subsidies. Without that vision and courage, the rising American electorate will continue to sink together. And Democrats will discover that a status quo party has little attraction to voters looking for change.