Advertisement

A New Constituency That Could Roil State Politics

<i> Joel Kotkin, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Center for the New West and an international fellow at the Pepperdine University School of Business in Los Angeles</i>

Although virtually all political candidates declare the “middle class” to be their target constituency, few seem to recognize its changing na ture. Most ignored are those seg ments of the middle class who are younger, who work in the fastest-growing sectors of the economy--information, entertainment, high-end business services, international trade and design-- or who are self-employed. Taken together, these workers and business owners make up a new constituency whose interests could significantly alter the political calculus. And nowhere is the new constituency more evident than in California, where the economy is undergoing fundamental changes.

Members of the new constituency earn their money from “knowledge work,” to use Peter F. Drucker’s phrase. They work for, or own, smaller and mid-sized non-unionized companies that are rapidly growing. Many of these firms rely heavily on international connections--both in terms of trade and suppliers--for their current and future growth. Most important, these companies offer the same kind of high-wage job opportunity that once was the hallmark of aerospace firms.

The new constituency includes the twenty- and thirtysomethings who predominate at companies like Kingston Technologies in Orange County or Hollywood’s Pacific Data Images; the graphic artists, software writers and musicians who work at firms like Torrance-based Davidson and Co.; the former Marine who works in the highly computerized shipping department at Pairgain in Cerritos; the woman who heads research and development at a biomedical firm; the Latina who works on the assembly line of a medical-instrument company; the African American who runs a management-consulting business, and the Asian American who keeps the books at a PC manufacturer.

Many members of the new constituency are self-employed as consultants or specialists. Nearly one in six households in California reports some self-employment income, a rate 25% above the national average.

Advertisement

One of the most striking characteristics of the new constituency is its racial, ethnic and gender diversity. One recent survey of small, independent companies in Los Angeles County revealed that non-whites held one-third of all management positions and 40% of the jobs in research and development, traditional middle-class occupations. Women were particularly well-represented, holding one-third of all management positions and a majority of marketing jobs.

The diversity of this new middle class also extends to business ownership. Woman-owned companies now account for as many as half of all the region’s new businesses. Perhaps even more dramatic has been the growth of minority-owned firms. Southern California, for example, leads the nation in Latino-, Asian- and African American-owned enterprises. Over the past decade alone, the number of Latino- and Asian-owned businesses has more than doubled.

One key and often overlooked fact about the new constituency is that it includes a middle class far broader than ever before. Over the past decade, for example, the number of Californians with at least one year of college grew by 71%, but for Latinos, it rose by 138%, and for Asians, by 258%. In 1980, there were just 400,000 Asians and Latinos with college experience; today, the number approaches 2.5 million.

Different economic interests make for a different political agenda. Since the new constituency is more globally oriented in its economic outlook, it would probably not favor government protection from foreign competition. Rather, it would demand of politicians that they strive to pry open overseas markets.

Advertisement

As young or prospective parents, members of the new constituency would have a keen interest in reversing the decades-long decline in public education. And as entrepreneurs of information-based industries dependent on highly skilled workers for success, they would have strong reasons to push for reform of the state’s higher education.

Still, the politics of the new constituency is evolving. It tends to favor the kind of deregulatory and lower-tax regime backed by private-sector-oriented people, yet it looks to government--although not necessarily Washington--to correct such problems as crime. The steady exodus of younger families to such areas as Irvine, Calabasas and Thousand Oaks, as well as to towns in the intermountain hinterland, suggests their appeal as places where governmental institutions, notably schools and police, still work reasonably well.

Whatever its politics, the realities of the new constituency are not included in the political messages of the two major parties. Consider the gubernatorial race in California. When Kathleen Brown talks about the middle class, she has in mind the middle class of older, unionized workers at defense plants. Yet, across the nation and especially in California, unionization outside of public employment has been dropping precipitously, most notably among the young. Today, less than 6% of workers aged 18 to 24 are union members, compared with nearly twice that percentage 10 years ago.

Gov. Pete Wilson’s quest to restore the “Ozzie and Harriet” California of the 1950s offers the new constituency no bargain, either. His nativist assaults risk alienating Asians and Latinos, whose rates of home ownership, years of college education and levels of income are among the fastest growing in the state.

Advertisement

During the 1840s and 1850s, the Whigs continued to cater to their mercantile base even as the economy was producing new political players--the industrial classes and small farmers--who eventually gravitated to the newly formed Republican Party. The Whigs were soon out of business.

Today, California’s two major political parties may face a similar fate if they continue to ignore the state’s new and growing constituency.


Advertisement