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The Way We Live Now

The Rise of the Office-Park Populist

December 24, 2006 |
The implications of office-park populism for American politics and policy are hardly crystal clear. Speaking to the mix of anxiety and optimism felt by middle-class workers will require more than harangues against immigrants or free trade.
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On Election Day last month, Democratic candidates did something they haven't done for a while: they decisively won the middle class. Middle-income voters -- including white, middle-income voters who have abandoned the party in droves in recent years -- preferred Democratic candidates by wide margins. Indeed, only voters with family incomes in excess of $100,000 a year were more likely to support Republicans than Democrats in House races in November.

The conventional view among the pundit class is that this middle-class restoration, valuable as it was for Democrats, creates thorny new tensions. Motivated mainly by their disgust with corruption, incompetence and the war in Iraq, middle-income voters are foul-weather friends who will flee the party en masse if it speaks forthrightly about, say, aiding the unemployed or the uninsured. Writing about the party's need to balance an uplifting message of opportunity and growth with demands for greater economic security, the veteran political reporter Thomas Edsall warns, "For Democrats to thread this needle will take a steady hand."

But the needle's eye may not be as narrow as most pundits believe. Middle-class voters didn't rush to the Democrats despite all the populist campaign messages, but -- in large part -- because of them. And they didn't do so merely in poor urban centers or regions ravaged by the loss of manufacturing jobs but in relatively affluent, exurban and suburban locales. Senator-elect Jim Webb eked out victory in Virginia by running up huge margins in the prosperous, white-collar north. Apparently he saw no conflict between his electoral base and his loud insistence, both during and after the campaign, that his reason for running was to "bring true fairness back to economic life."

All of this suggests that familiar debates pitting the disadvantaged against the comfortable may be taking a fateful new turn. Increasingly, economic insecurity is a major concern of Americans once thought to be beyond its cold reach: middle-class professionals who have gone to college, or even beyond, but who suddenly find that their education and skills are no longer a guaranteed safety net. These office-park populists, as they might be called, aren't necessarily buying smash-the-system rants against free trade and immigration. But they are skeptical of corporate promises and concerned about their security -- and surprisingly supportive of expanded health care and other ideas atop the Democrats' wish list.

For decades, it has been drilled into our heads that unskilled or uneducated workers are the big losers in a high-tech global economy. And indeed they are. What has been far less noted is that there is also a huge and growing amount of inequality among people on the highest rungs of the educational ladder. In other words, even as educated workers are pulling ever further ahead of less educated workers, they are also pulling ever further apart from one another. If you were one of the fortunate young students who rolled out of a computer-science program back in the 1990s, you may well have ended up in a cushy programming job offering a six-figure salary and lavish bonuses. If, by contrast, you find yourself looking for such a job today, you may discover that the best you can obtain is a contingent position with meager rewards, with the distinct possibility that you will soon be training your foreign replacement or writing the code that will do your old job.

Moreover, if you were the fortunate worker of the 1990s, you could very well be the unfortunate worker of the mid-2000s as well. And that raises another important point about risk: it's not just that there's a growing gap between high and low earners with advanced education. It's that all well-educated workers, even those at the top, are at much greater risk of economic reversals than they used to be. Remarkably, the ranks of the long-term unemployed -- people who spend more than six months looking for work -- are disproportionately professional and well educated. And it is better-paid workers who have seen the promise of guaranteed pensions replaced with the risks and uncertainties of private investment accounts like 401(k)s -- the less skilled rarely receive pensions at all.

Indeed, in some ways, workers who have invested the most in skills are most at risk today. For one, such investments are a lot more costly than they used to be. About a third of recent college graduates enter the job market with student-loan debts that exceed what experts consider reasonable -- a major increase from the past. What's more, skills can also put you directly at risk. If you have labored for years to learn cost accounting or blueprint preparation, you can gain a big leg up in the competition for jobs that require those specialized skills. But while these talents can help you prosper, they also make you dependent on particular jobs or lines of work. If these positions dry up, so does the market for your skills -- and the rewards those skills once delivered. (Unskilled workers, by contrast, have fewer opportunities to increase their wages but generally find it easier to move from one kind of job to another.)

Critics of arguments like these point out that the average American is richer than ever and that investments in education and skills are still on the whole worthwhile -- both true enough. But risk and insecurity are as much about the range of possible outcomes as they are about the average outcome. Here, at least, it is clear that Americans with degrees and skills face much greater worries than in the past -- even if their average incomes are higher.

The implications of office-park populism for American politics and policy are hardly crystal clear. Speaking to the mix of anxiety and optimism felt by middle-class workers will require more than harangues against immigrants or free trade. It will require innovative efforts to expand health insurance, strengthen retirement benefits and help less-than-superrich families save and invest. It will also require new types of insurance that protect against the most catastrophic risks. Proposals for new protections against huge income drops or budget-wrecking expenses have attracted support among politicians and policy experts. So has the concept of wage insurance: when workers lose high-paying jobs and take new, lower-paying ones, the government would guarantee them a portion of their former income for a certain number of years.

The growing sense of anxiety among the once-insulated middle class doesn't, of course, guarantee a long-term shift of political power or a new policy direction. But the creeping spread of economic insecurity up the class pyramid does hold out the tantalizing hope of a new sort of debate -- one that is not framed exclusively around what the prosperous many should do for the dispossessed few. Alexis de Tocqueville once marveled at Americans' enthusiastic embrace of "self-interest rightly understood," a philosophy of individualism that nonetheless celebrated aid to others and shared sacrifice. A body politic animated by self-interest rightly understood would lament the erosion of economic security not just because it was morally troubling or harmful to those at the bottom but because it was ultimately bad for us all.

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