Seeing our political divisions as a battle between the culture of dependence and the culture of independence helps to make sense of the divisions seen in the 2008 election. Barack Obama carried voters with incomes under $50,000 and those with incomes over $200,000, and lost those with incomes in between. He won large margins from those who never graduated from high school and from those with graduate school degrees, and barely exceeded 50 percent among those in between.
The top-and-bottom Obama coalition was in effect a coalition of those dependent on government transfers and benefits and those in what David Brooks calls "the educated class," who administer or believe that their kind of people administer those transactions. They are the natural constituency for the culture of dependence.
Interestingly, in the Massachusetts special Senate election, the purported beneficiaries of the culture of dependence -- low-income and low-education voters -- did not turn out in large numbers. In contrast, the administrators of that culture -- affluent secular professionals, public employees, university personnel -- were the one group that turned out in force and voted for the hapless Democratic candidate.
The in-between people on the income and education ladders, it turns out, are a constituency for the culture of independence. Smart conservatives like David Frum, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam argued in 2009 books that modest-income conservative voters have had stagnant incomes over the last decade and that Republicans should offer them compensatory tax breaks.
That seemed to make sense in the wake of the 2008 election. But it's been undercut by developments since. As Susan Roesgen discovered, tea party supporters are not in the mood to be bought off with $400 tax credits. They have a longer time horizon and can see where the Obama Democrats are trying to take us.
Paul Lazarsfeld saw politics as just a matter of dollars and cents. The tea party movement reminds us of what the Founders taught -- that it has a moral dimension, as well. They risked all in the cause of the culture of independence. The polling evidence suggests that most Americans don't want to leave that behind.