Jack Metzgar

Democrats can expand their coalition by fixing these two intractable problems

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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'The poorly educated deserve to earn a good living': POTUS needs to be a champion for free community college

Joe Biden was right for proposing free pre-K and free community college in his initial legislative package, rather than pushing for free public university education and the cancellation of college debt.

All four progressive education initiatives would serve the public good by making education more available to millions. However, policies that promote university education do little to help the working class.

They also feed into the false and damaging narrative that a college education is the right path to upward mobility for most people.

While free public universities could be transformative in the very long term, most of the benefits would go to higher-income families.

They are more likely to live in areas with high-quality K-12 schools. Their children are more likely to have the kinds of social and cultural capital advantageous for getting into and succeeding in college.

Similarly, while forgiving all or some portion of existing student loan debt would likely benefit low- and middle-income young people, who are more likely to have higher levels of debt than their more affluent contemporaries, this too has limited benefit for the working class.

It only helps those who have gone to college. That’s a large group, but forgiving their debts does nothing for the many others who aren’t in debt because they didn’t go to college at all or for very long.

Free public pre-K and free community college, on the other hand, disproportionately benefit working-class children and adults.

Free pre-K will not only improve the educational prospects of children, but it also saves families money. For those currently using the cheapest daycare, this would save some $10,000 to $15,000 a year – a significant increase in spending power for all income classes, but transformative for low- and middle-income family budgets.

What’s more, for low-income parents who currently can’t afford daycare and thus can’t work full-time or at all, free pre-K would allow them to work and earn more in the paid workforce.

Likewise, free community college would disproportionately benefit low-income people who cannot go to college. They need to work.

Community college education includes apprenticeships and other pre-training needed for entry into many middle-wage jobs, including in the soon-to-be-expanding building trades.

Free public university would mostly benefit young people who can take the long road, while free community college is more valuable for working adults who already have work and family responsibilities.

The class-skewed benefits of these initiatives are relatively complex, but we should also pay attention to the messages they reinforce.

Prioritizing free college and student debt forgiveness plays into a toxic narrative that has deep roots in our public discourse: that college-educated people are more valuable, more worthy of public subsidy, than the so-called “poorly educated.”

This narrative accepts that college graduates deserve to be paid more. It also offers an empty promise: that the best way to increase wages and living standards – or more grandly, to restore the American Dream of upward mobility — is for more and more people to get college degrees.

Both are false.

The first reflects a nearly impregnable professional-middle-class prejudice, but the second is an intellectual error that, if corrected, could burst a professional-class bubble.

College education cannot be a path for widespread upward mobility because a large majority of jobs in our economy do not require a college education or anything like it. Sixty-one percent require high school or less. Another 11 percent require an associate’s degree, some college, or other postsecondary education – not a bachelor’s degree.

Only 28 percent of jobs in 2020 required a bachelor’s, far less than the nearly 40 percent of workers over 25 who had that degree.

That’s why we find so many with bachelor’s degrees as fast-food workers, retail salespersons or cashiers, waiters, waitresses or cooks, freight, stock and material movers, janitors and cleaners, and home health care or child care workers. These occupations are among those with the largest annual job openings. All of them have median annual wages ranging from $22,740 to $29,510 (that is, less than $15 an hour).

This is a tragedy for college graduates told that becoming part of the exam-passing classes would lead to better lives. But for most people doing those jobs, college probably never crossed their minds.

Still, that work needs to be done, no matter the educational attainment of the people who do it. The work they do is socially valuable, some of it even “essential,” and those jobs need to be paid a living wage.

To be told the only way to improve your life conditions is through more (and more) education is demoralizing and, especially for those who work alongside grads doing the same work, palpably false.

Higher education is a circuitous route to improving one’s prospects, a route that will not work for at least a third of those who can afford it, a route not realistically available for the majority of our population.

If we want to improve wages and conditions, we need public policy that will improve them directly, not by producing more college grads.

President Biden’s initial transformative legislative package that got whittled down to Build Back Better (BBB) embodied the understanding that education was neither the answer nor an important part of the answer for achieving upward mobility.

That initial package included a $15-an-hour minimum wage and the union-empowering Pro-Act quickly jettisoned because Democrats could not avoid a Republican filibuster the way budget bills can.

But equally or more important, many elements of BBB provided for a series of enhanced social wages that together would dramatically improve life prospects across the board – none more important than the package of child care subsidies including universal free pre-K.

Social wages explicitly recognize that even with better minimum wages and stronger unions, most wages will not come close to reflecting the collective social value workers provide.

Nor are wages going to be sufficient to provide decent incomes for most people most of the time. Reducing the cost of health care, housing, transportation and child care (all of which are addressed in BBB) increases all incomes most dramatically for low-wage workers.

By prioritizing those workers, most of whom do not have college degrees, the Biden package had the potential to pierce the professional-class prejudice that has dominated public policy.

Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama all proclaimed more and better education was the only way to address our savage inequalities of income, wealth and opportunity.

Biden, by contrast, is the first president in memory to brag about creating well-paying jobs that do not require any college.

Alas, Build Back Better – let alone the initial, larger version of itself – is dead for now. The possibility of a transformational package becoming law is probably gone for the immediate future.

But a healthy majority (and more than 90 percent of the Congressional Democrats) support its core idea of increasing taxes on corporations and the rich to transfer money to workers and citizens in ways that could dramatically improve the lives of working-class people.

Hopefully, that shows a shift away from the idea that education is the only path to improved prospects. Perhaps a public consensus is developing – even the poorly educated deserve to earn a good living.

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