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Democrats Can Win Back the Working Class
The party should drop their unpopular social agenda and focus on materially improving people's lives.
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On to today’s article, which was originally published in Persuasion…
Democrats were once the party of the working class. From the New Deal era through the mid-1960s, clear majorities of working-class whites and black voters of all economic strata threw their support behind Democrats.
But the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 marked the end of that tenuous cross-racial coalition. Furious and full of racial resentment, white working-class voters fled the Democratic Party into the open arms of Richard Nixon and the Republican Party. That exodus continued as Democrats made room in their coalition for the era’s counterculture and progressive social movements dedicated to civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, and ending the Vietnam War. Some of these voters did return to the party when the “Boy Governor” from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, led the Democratic ticket, but that resurgence was short-lived.
In the last decade, the Democratic Party’s struggle with working-class voters has become more acute than ever. In 2012, Barack Obama carried 51% of all voters without a college education (the best proxy we have for working-class, and the one that will be used in this article), while Joe Biden won just 48% in 2020. Exit polls from the 2022 midterms show that number dropping to 43%.
Especially concerning for Democrats is that this time, unlike in the 60s and 70s, the exodus is multiracial. Working-class voters of color gave Obama 84% of their vote in 2012, Biden 75% in 2020, and Democrats as a whole 68% in 2022. For working-class white voters, those numbers are 40%, 37%, and 32%.
This trend should concern Democrats on two levels.
First, it’s an existential problem. Historically, the mission of left-leaning parties has been to improve the conditions for the working class. That was true, too, of the modern Democratic Party, with its roots in the New Deal. The fact that working-class voters are abandoning the party should be a warning sign to Democrats that something is fundamentally broken with their policy agenda and messaging. In other words, they’ve lost sight of their reason for existing.
Second, it’s a practical problem. If Democrats continue to bleed working-class voters, they’ll start losing elections. Around 6 in 10 Americans do not have a bachelor’s degree, and that number is even higher in the swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia. Democrats might think they’ve hit a floor in working-class support, but there’s always room to go lower. If they do, it would be an electoral catastrophe.
To get out of this mess, Democrats need a plan. And while winning back the working class certainly won’t be easy, it’s also not rocket science. When you boil it down, Democrats need to execute a relatively straightforward plan composed of two parts: A negative agenda and a positive agenda.
The Negative Agenda
Before they can start to climb out of the hole they’ve found themselves in with working-class voters, Democrats need to stop digging themselves in deeper. In other words, Democrats need to learn what not to do—especially when it comes to social and cultural issues.
The central problem for Democrats is that, as their coalition became increasingly reliant on college-educated people for votes and donations over recent years, the party began to tailor its message to appeal to that same demographic. To some extent, that is inevitable. Parties need to stake out positions and pursue policies that their supporters like. But in recent years, Democrats have gone further, adopting ideas that are not merely targeted at educated elites, but which are also politically toxic to everyone outside that narrow constituency.
Consider, for example, the fact that nearly every 2020 Democratic presidential candidate promised to decriminalize border crossings. Even the so-called “moderate” candidates like Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden raised their hands when asked if they would pursue that policy. Staking out such an extreme position was quite clearly an effort to win over the party’s progressive base of college-educated voters. But as a strategy to win over working-class voters, decriminalizing border crossings is doomed to fail: just 25% of people without a degree say it’s a good idea.
A similar thing is going on with Biden’s plan to cancel $10,000 of student debt. This policy, perhaps more than any other, comes across as a gift being given to the Democratic base of college-educated voters at the literal expense of people who never took out student loans. Unsurprisingly, that program is viewed much more skeptically by people who never took out student loans than those who did.
The Democratic Party’s mistakes don’t stop here. While most Democrats didn’t outright support the most extreme progressive causes of recent years, like defunding the police or abolishing ICE, it’s hard to argue that the Democratic Party hasn’t trended toward the fringes on cultural issues in recent years. This is the party that invited Robin DiAngelo, the author of the book White Fragility, to speak at their “Democratic Caucus family discussion on race” and praised her for “reminding us that systemic racism is actively perpetrated by ‘nice’ and ‘well-intentioned’ people.” Even more superficial behavior, like their embrace of new academic vocabulary like “BIPOC” and “Latinx” that is popular with progressives but unpopular among the very groups it is supposed to benefit, contributes to the sense that the Democratic Party is full of out-of-touch elites.
The first task on the Democrats’ to-do list is simple: stop endorsing unpopular policies and ideas that will alienate working-class voters. Once they’ve done that, Democrats can turn to a positive policy agenda for winning back the working class.
The Positive Agenda
In polling from last year, Americans without college degrees said that the top concerns of the president and Congress should be: (1) strengthening the economy, (2) reducing health care costs, (3) defending against terrorism, (4) securing social security, (5) dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, (6) improving education, and (7) improving the job situation. With the exception of addressing the pandemic, there’s no reason to think that these priorities have changed.
The interesting (though unsurprising) throughline between all of these, with the potential exception of “defending against terrorism,” is that they are about improving the material conditions of everyday life. Working-class people aren’t asking for a sweeping economic transformation or a cultural revolution. They’re just asking for conditions that will allow them to live lives of financial security, physical health, and educational opportunity.
This finding is backed up by a comprehensive poll and report from the Center for Working-Class Politics, which found that “Candidates who prioritized bread-and-butter issues (jobs, health care, the economy), and who presented them in plainspoken, universalist rhetoric, performed significantly better than those who had other priorities or used other language.”
Of course, people will disagree about precisely what a platform built atop these values would look like. What should be indisputable, however, is that the platform must: foreground plans to build and preserve a robust social safety net; make housing, education, and energy abundant and affordable; take crime and public safety seriously; and nurture a strong job market that doesn’t demand a four-year college education.
If Democrats are to make any progress in that direction, they need to craft legislation that is actually designed to pass. Democrats spend too much time and energy promoting simplistic messaging bills that will never make it through Congress. Think back to how much of the 2020 presidential primary was about who had the more ambitious Medicare for All or Green New Deal plan.
Rather than waste time and political capital on fantasy legislation, Democrats should focus on crafting smaller, more piecemeal proposals that will tangibly improve the lives of working-class families. Take, for example, the executive order that Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro signed earlier this year eliminating degree requirements for 65,000 state jobs. If Democrats pushed for a similar effort federally, it could open up tens or hundreds of thousands of good jobs to working-class people who lack degrees. A policy like that obviously wouldn’t change the country’s social or economic landscape overnight, but it would make a tangible difference in real people’s lives, signal that Democrats care about more than just college-educated urbanites, and move the country in the right direction.
There are a lot of policy ideas like this—incrementalist legislation that might not be flashy, but which will make the country better for working-class families and could actually get through Congress. From permitting reform to reduce energy costs to getting smart on violent crime to universal free school lunch, there are plenty of ways to improve the everyday lives of working-class people that don’t require trillions of dollars and partisan trench warfare.
And while none of this would lead to an immediate groundswell of working-class support for Democrats, it would at least stem the tide that is pushing these voters away from the party. The 2024 election cycle is sure to feature a Republican Party doing all it can to dominate the working-class vote. Donald Trump has already made preserving Social Security one of the bedrocks of his reelection campaign. If Democrats want to have any chance of combatting this message, they’ll need to provide concrete examples of how they have made life better for working-class voters. In short, the politics of delivering on many small promises that will materially improve the lives of working people is much better than the politics of cultural posturing and radical change.
The strange thing about this plan is that, to some extent, it is self-evident. Of course Democrats should stop doing unpopular things and pursue a pragmatic agenda that will improve the everyday lives of working-class people.
The reason they haven’t, though, is that they are trapped in a vicious cycle. Over time, as college-educated Democrats replaced working-class ones, the party itself began to reflect the priorities and values of the former. Individual actors within the Democratic machine realized that they needed college-educated appeal, not working-class appeal, to win that next primary, earn that next DNC promotion, or get that next campaign job. Now Democrats find themselves with a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: they need to bring working-class Americans into their coalition, which means speaking to working-class concerns; but there’s not much incentive for individual actors within the party apparatus to foreground working-class priorities until more of those voters join their coalition.
Eventually, though, this internal contradiction will catch up to Democrats: they can’t go on identifying as a party for the working class if they don’t have any working-class voters. The party will need to either adopt a working-class agenda and keep winning elections—or else embrace its new identity as a home for the college-educated elite, and resign itself to losing.
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