David Frum, author of “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again,” wrote an op-ed in the New York Times yesterday that has some interesting insights and but also suffers from some of the usual confusions about rich and poor, Democrats and Republicans. Overall I think Frum has some interesting things to say but I want to point out a couple of places where I think he may have been misled by focusing too strongly on the D.C. metropolitan area.
Income inequality and Democratic voting
Frum writes: “As a general rule, the more unequal a place is, the more Democratic; the more equal, the more Republican.” At least at the state level, it’s not so clear. Below is a map of the states with high income inequality (in dark colors) and low inequality (in light colors), revealing high-inequality Democratic states such as California and New York but also high-inequality Republican states such as Texas and Arizona, with the most unequal states being those with high immigration. Overall, the Democrats’ vote share by state is slightly correlated with income inequality, but much less than the correlation with income itself. It is in the rich states, but not consistently the unequal states, that Democrats are doing best:
Rich and poor counties
Frum writes about rich Fairfax County, Virginia, which, we writes, was largely middle class a third of a century ago and now is rich. During this period, Fairfax, like many wealthy east-coast suburbs, has moved from the Republican to the Democratic column. This is interesting but I want to point out a few things:
1. This is a coastal thing. In other places, the rich suburbs go for Republicans, not Democrats. See this graph of Bush vote vs. county income in Texas:
The graph above shows the pattern: Collin and Zavala (the dark circles on the scatterplot) are the richest and poorest counties in Texas, and there is a clear pattern that poor counties supported the Democrats while the Republicans won in middle-class and rich counties.
When we showed this to a political scientist, he asked about the state capital, noted for its liberal attitudes, vibrant alternative rock scene, and the University of Texas: “What about Austin? It must be rich and liberal.” We looked it up. Austin is in Travis County and makes up almost all its population. Travis County has a median household income of $45,000 and gave George W. Bush 53% of the vote, putting it about midway between Collin and Zavala counties in the graph.
By comparison, if you go to a state such as Maryland or Virginia, the pattern isn’t so clear, and it’s possible to pick rich or poor counties that go either way.
2. Fairfax County is rich now, but it was also rich a third of a century ago. Here are some numbers. In 2004, when Kerry beat Bush in Fairfax County, the median family income there was $90,000, which 1.7 times the U.S. median of $54,000. In 1979, it was $33,000, which was 1.7 times the U.S. median of $19,500. Fairfax is, by some measures, the richest county in America today. A third of a century ago, it was in the top five richest, I believe.
3. Frum writes, “America’s wealthiest ZIP codes are a roll call of Democratic strongholds.” Again, this is a red-state, blue-state thing. In the coastal blue states, rich areas are likely to lean Democratic, but in red states, rich areas are more Republican. See the graphs on pages 68-70 of Red State, Blue State.
4. The “media center” thing. Frum lives in D.C. and he is naturally attuned to patterns in the northeast. If he were to go to Oklahoma or Texas, he would see that it is the richer areas, and the richer voters, who are more Republican. By focusing on Fairfax County, Virginia, he’s missing the big picture.
Concerns about inequality in general
Frum talks about Republicans’ attitudes toward inequality. One thing I’d like to add, in favor of his argument, is that, on average, inequality has been decreasing in poor, Republican-controlled states and increasing in richer states, which tend to have Democratic majorities. In poor states, the poor have been getting richer:
And in rich states, it is the rich who have been getting richer:
See here (and in chapter 5 of our book) for further discussion of this point.