Democrats can expand their coalition by fixing these two intractable problems

Democrats can expand their coalition by fixing these two intractable problems
Image via Gage Skidmore.
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Americans without bachelor’s degrees outnumber college grads two to one. But if you and most people you know (and have ever known) are college graduates, you might not realize that most Americans are not like you and your cohort. As a result, you’re likely to think your class is much larger than it is.

That misunderstanding is crucial for American politics in the early 21st century. As David Shor and others have pointed out, most political operatives and activists -- and perhaps especially Democrats -- are college grads who seem to assume that most voters are like them. Likewise, most network and cable TV reporters and commentators also seem to assume that almost everybody has been to college.

They might get the right answer on a true-or-false question if somebody asked, but nobody does. And, thus, there is a feedback loop among the political and pundit class: they don’t realize that they are engaged in a public interclass conversation that is code-restricted to those who have graduated from college -- and maybe even only to those who have graduated from the most elite schools.

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For the past two decades, Ruy Teixeira and a handful of other progressive Democratic analysts have been banging their heads against this wall, trying to convince Dems to pay more attention to working-class whites, defined as whites without bachelor’s degrees, and now raising alarms about the erosion of Black and Hispanic working-class voters as well. Teixeira’s latest effort shows how the political class shapes issues based on unconscious or semi-conscious class bias: focusing on abortion, Trump’s corruption, gun control, and J6 -- top issues among the college-educated -- to the exclusion of economic issues, including inflation and its effects on real wages, that matter most to working-class voters of all colors.

I sympathize with Teixeira’s frustration with Democratic Party professionals, but I think he presents too uniform a view of the party, one that may be accurate in the DC-New York corridor, but much less so across the country. President Biden has repeatedly emphasized working-class issues, for example. So have several Democratic Congressional candidates, like Tim Ryan in Ohio.

But the party can’t ignore issues like abortion and Trumpian corruption for both principled reasons and because it is a cross-class, multi-racial coalition that cannot work without all of its parts.

Democratic data firm Catalist makes the challenge clear: Democrats are still a mostly working-class party, as 58 percent of Biden voters, all colors, did not have bachelor’s degrees. But the other 42 percent of the coalition did. The Democrats cannot ignore either group’s interests. The picture gets more complicated when we factor in race. Catalist groups Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and “Others” together as people of color (POC), and they made up 39% of the Biden coalition.

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Many politically informed people would be surprised to see that the white working class made up such a large proportion of the Biden Democratic coalition. Since 62 percent of that demographic voted for Trump, how could they also make up nearly a third of Democratic voters? The answer is that working-class whites are a very large group -- 44 percent of all voters in 2020. So large that while they are about a third of Dem voters, they are also nearly 60 percent of all Trump voters. It would be political malfeasance to ignore this big a group of voters.

Nor can the party ignore people of color, especially those without college degrees.

Black and Hispanic voters are disproportionately working class, so they share many of the economic interests of the white working class -- as well as some cultural and religious proclivities. When our educated middle class publicly talks about politics among themselves, most people of color, like most whites, are missing in that conversation. The assumption that secular, cosmopolitan, aspirational values are the only ones that matter grates on some people in the multiracial working class. For others, however, it nurtures cynicism and political indifference -- a potentially dangerous political stew where what looks like apathy can quickly turn to rage.

So instead of one intractable problem -- class bias among the political and communications elites – I see two.

Democrats need to resist that class bias within their own ranks and at the same time find ways to speak to both working-class needs and values, and professional class interests, all without ignoring their own and voters’ interests as women, people of color and more. Teixeira is right that anchoring the party in working class needs and values can unify the varied parts of the Democratic coalition, but only so long as the party also makes room for more middle-class priorities, like abortion and climate change.

I think this is what President Biden has been trying to do – in his (sometimes lame) “from the middle out” rhetoric, but more importantly, in the substantive proposals of his Bernie-influenced Build Back Better plan with its emphasis on industrial policy and the care economy.

To reduce their class biases, our highly educated, allegedly data-conscious political class should memorize basic facts:

  • The working class as conventionally defined by education, and also in a number of different ways around occupation, is a substantial majority of the population, a majority of voters and a majority of Democratic voters.
  • Roughly 40 percent of them are people of color, and they have been much more likely than the non-Hispanic-white part of the working class to support Democrats.
  • The large grab bag of progressive economic proposals that Democrats sometimes shy away from talking about in their campaigns -- many of which were in Biden’s original legislative agenda, much of which came very close to passing -- help the working class of all races. While people of color benefit disproportionately from these programs, most of those who benefit from higher wages, affordable child and health care, and other policies are white and working class. This is the rocky road to unifying working-class voters across race. We need to stay on it and keep at it.
  • Finally, it’s worth remembering that many college-educated people are also struggling financially. Managers and professionals in the US have median incomes of $71,000 and $77,000, respectively. At least half of them are likely living paycheck to paycheck and would greatly benefit from a progressive economic agenda.

In the end, we all have class interests that shape the way we look at and live in the world, what we prioritize and what we neglect. But within that shaping process, there’s a lot of room for rational self-consciousness to help us reconcile our interests with what others see as the common good.

You’d think the highly educated would be especially good at this, and they can be.

They might just need to get out more among the hoi polloi.

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