Out-of-Focus Groups


Middle Class Dreams: The Politics and Power of the New American Majority, by Stanley B. Greenberg, New York: Times Books, 338 pages, $25.00

The most attentive audience for political punditry is people with forgetful minds. Today's conventional wisdom so easily becomes tomorrow's unintended hilarity that pollsters and commentators must rely on short attention spans to be taken seriously. How many political experts predicted, in the post-Carter world, that little-known governors from small southern states could never be elected to the presidency again? How many predicted that George Bush, with a 91-percent approval rating after the Gulf War, was invulnerable in 1992?

Fortunately for the punditry industry (in which I've worked myself), the news cycle for political predictions and insights rarely lasts more than a month. Of course, that doesn't protect you if you go and do a bonehead thing like write a book, as Washington reporter Peter Brown did in 1991 with his well-reviewed but slightly off-kilter Minority Party: Why the Democrats Face Defeat in 1992 and Beyond.

Stanley B. Greenberg, President Clinton's pollster, is punditry's newest bonehead. In his Middle Class Dreams, Greenberg set out to chronicle a sea-change in American politics—the reuniting of poor voters with the middle class in a rejuvenated and populist Democratic Party—by comparing his boss Bill Clinton to Franklin Roosevelt in terms of the permanence of their political influence. But before the book was completed, an inconvenient event happened in November 1994 that made Greenberg's task a bit more challenging. The Democrats got shellacked, with no Republican incumbents losing reelection. Greenberg's thesis was disproved. Indeed, Democratic candidates had tried desperately to distance themselves from Clinton, to no avail.

A lesser talent might have quietly scrapped the book until a more intelligible message could be found. But not Greenberg. "The Republican victories in 1994," he writes in his revised introduction, "were impressive but merely political, reflecting no greater confidence in the party or top-down Reaganism."

In Middle Class Dreams, Greenberg tries to explain American political history as a struggle between two pitches for middle-class voters: the "top-down" message of Republicans that serving the interests of big business could spread prosperity throughout society and the "bottom-up" message of Democrats that government should be on the side of "the working man." This construct constitutes a breathtaking oversimplification of American politics—ignoring, as it does, regional differences and the salience of political sentiments such as fear of crime, confidence in small business, and non-class-based ideologies. It also borrows heavily from previous books such as Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics by Thomas Byrne and Mary Edsall (1991) and Boiling Point: Republicans, Democrats, and the Decline of Middle-Class Prosperity (1993) by Kevin Phillips, the political consultant who is quoted so extensively in Greenberg's book that he retains his title as every Democrat's favorite token Republican.

Greenberg's take on politics in the 1990s is essentially that the country is fed up with top-down politics as typified by the Reagan '80s. During the 1994 congressional campaigns, Greenberg helped orchestrate the Democratic strategy of linking Republican challengers to that horrible decade, creating a choice in voters' minds between Clinton and Reagan, the 1990s vs. the 1980s. Greenberg based this clever strategy on his own polls and focus groups, which found that Americans were increasingly worried about their nation and the economy and dissatisfied with previous efforts to reverse long-term downward trends in incomes and prospects.

One notable section of Middle Class Dreams contains pages and pages of sample graphs drawn by members of Greenberg's focus groups. The graphs are supposed to represent the "state of the country," according to each focus group member, from 1950 to 1990. Some graphs have gradually sloping downward lines during the 1980s, some squiggle up and down, and a few (presumably greedy Wall Street bond traders) had upward lines.

Given a choice between Clintonism and Reaganism, however, actual voters (as opposed to poll respondents) in 1994 chose the latter overwhelmingly. Greenberg's misunderstanding of popular sentiment demonstrates the risk you run in trying to interpret poll results—that your own opinion, rather than that of your respondents, guides the outcome.

In this case, what Greenberg apparently never considers is an alternative explanation for voter disaffection with the economy: the impact of the news and entertainment media on public perception of abstract ideas such as "the state of the country." Something should have clicked in Greenberg's mind when his focus groupies started quoting movie characters such as Gordon Gekko's "Greed is good" speech from Wall Street to explain their reactions to poll questions about the 1980s.

I've recently been looking at trends in both standards of living and Americans' confidence in their own economic prospects, and can only conclude that 1) American living standards have improved steadily during the past three decades, and 2) in their own cases, Americans know that. When asked by pollsters about their financial prospects, American workers today will say they would like to earn more money (who wouldn't?), but they also view their economic prospects as good and admit that they are better off financially than their parents were at their age.

The Consumer Sentiment Index compiled by the University of Michigan Survey Research Center shows that in every single year since the early 1950s, more than 60 percent of Americans said they were better off financially than they were the previous year. Indeed, except for two brief periods—the Watergate and oil-shocks era of 1973–74 and the recession years of 1979–82—more than 70 percent of all Americans have said they were better off each year. In a 1994 survey, 65 percent of American workers said they were satisfied with their current jobs, while just 10 percent said they were dissatisfied.

The image we often see or hear about of an anxiety-stricken, embittered, deeply pessimistic workforce with little hope for advancement is more a fantasy of political commentators and professional pessimists (both conservative and liberal) than it is the reality in America. How do you square that fact with Greenberg's trusty focus-group reports? Easy. People know about their own economic condition but have little first-hand knowledge with which to judge what's happening to other people. They tend to get that knowledge from the press, which likes bad news more than good news, and popular entertainment, which is dominated by Democrats and political liberals.

Psyched by Clinton's 1992 victory (made possible more by Republican incompetence and Ross Perot than a new New Deal message), Greenberg seems politically tone deaf in Middle Class Dreams. That doesn't mean I didn't find the book a little interesting. My favorite passages have to do with Clinton's rise to power in Arkansas, which Greenberg describes in almost mythic language. "In early 1974, at age 27, Clinton got into his 1970 Gremlin and began searching for any gathering of people that would hear him out," Greenberg writes reverently. Clinton's bull session continues even today—and, thanks to advisers like Greenberg, his choice of platform is still a clunker.

Contributing Editor John Hood is on leave from the John Locke Foundation, a state policy think tank in North Carolina, and is a Bradley Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.