Democrats Can Reach More Working Class Voters

But They’ll Have to Ditch the Woke Stuff

Times are tough for the historic party of the working class. The divorce between Democrats and the working class just continues to grow. Despite a slight improvement, Democrats still lost white working class (noncollege) voters in 2020 by 26 points (Catalist two party vote). Since 2012, nonwhite working class voters have shifted away from the Democrats by 18 points, with a particularly sharp shift in the last election and particularly among Hispanics.

In the recent Virginia gubernatorial election, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe lost working class voters overall by 7 points, with large swings against the Democrats among the overwhelmingly working class Hispanic population (the same basic pattern can be seen in the New Jersey election results).

Recent generic Congressional ballot results show Democrats’ working class support as the mirror image of their college graduate support—strongly negative among working class voters, strongly positive among college graduate voters. But there are way more working class voters than college graduate voters.

It’s not a good look for the party of the working class to be losing so much working class support that it’s no longer, well, the party of the working class. But of course it goes way beyond the look to the realities of electoral performance and political power. Put simply, there’s just no way Democrats can maintain a consistent hold on political power with this level of working class support. And if there’s no consistent hold on power, the economic and social transformation they claim to be promoting cannot happen. As an excellent new study of working class voters by Jacobin/Center for Working Class Studies/YouGov notes:

[P]rogressive triumphs have been concentrated in well-educated, relatively high-income, and heavily Democratic districts. Even when progressives have won primaries in working-class areas, they have generally done so without increasing total turnout or winning over new working-class voters. And in races outside the friendly terrain of the blue-state metropolis, the same progressive candidates have largely struggled. Overall, progressives have not yet made good on one key promise of their campaigns: to transform and expand the electorate itself.

This poses a major challenge to any hope for a national political realignment on progressive terms. Recent events suggest that left-wing candidates may continue to replace moderate Democrats in demographically favorable urban districts, which could lead to more progressive policies at the municipal or state level. But the national picture is less promising. There are simply not enough districts of this kind to win control of the US House of Representatives, never mind the Senate. For the kind of majority necessary to pass…big-ticket items on the social democratic agenda, progressive candidates will need to win in a far wider range of places. Until they do, their political leverage will remain sharply limited at the local, state, and national levels.

In other words, AOC can win in NY-14 but AOC-type candidates are no solution at all to the Democrats’ working class problems in most areas of the country. The grim fact is that as education polarization has played out geographically, Democratic votes are now distributed so inefficiently that the translation of these votes into political power has been severely undercut. Democrats are simply not competitive in much of rural, small town, small city and working class suburban America. This puts many House and especially Senate seats where Democrats used to have some success out of their reach and handicaps them in Presidential races as well. As a result, Democrats’ hold on political power is ever on a knife’s edge even when their last election was a good one (as it is today).

So: what to do? Increased support among working class voters is a necessity, not optional, for a more consistent Democratic hold on political power. That means more improvement in Democratic performance, not slippage, among white working class voters and in more areas of the country. It also means putting a hard stop on deteriorating Democratic support among nonwhite working class voters, particularly Hispanics. The latter, if not stopped, endangers the Democrats’ newfound success in Sunbelt states like Arizona (which is actually more working class than the nation as a whole) and would put Texas out of reach.

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The Jacobin study, based on sophisticated testing of which types of candidate working class voters prefer, illuminates the approach Democrats should take if they wish to make progress on both fronts and re-establish themselves as the party of the multiracial working class. Consistent with other recent research, the study finds that:

Working-class voters prefer progressive candidates who focus primarily on bread-and-butter economic issues, and who frame those issues in universal terms. This is especially true outside deep-blue parts of the country. Candidates whose campaigns focused primarily on universalist policy issues such as jobs, health care, and the economy performed better than those who focused on group-specific policies, such as racial justice or immigration. In addition, woke messaging decreased the appeal of other candidate characteristics. For example, candidates employing woke messaging who championed either centrist or progressive economic, health care, or civil rights policy priorities were viewed less favorably than their counterparts who championed the same priorities but opted for universalist messaging.

Of course, easier said than done given Democrats’ recent evolution away from universalist messaging and toward foregrounding the equity effects of unambiguously universal programs and deferring to group specific concerns around race, gender and sexuality, even where they are clearly unpopular and dubious as policy. The result has a been a shift in the Democratic party “brand” that has created barriers to Democratic party voting among broad swathes of the working class.

You don’t just see this among the white working class. You can see it in the support for being tough on crime and against defunding the police among black working class voters. You can see it among Hispanic working class voters for that and, in southern border regions, for a border security situation that seems out of control. You can see it among Asian working class voters for all that and for the incredibly ill-advised Democratic attacks on gifted programs, test-in elite schools and standardized testing in general, which these voters see as tools for upward mobility. The more working class voters see their values as being at variance with the Democratic party brand, the less likely it is that Democrats will see due credit for even their measures that do provide benefits to working class voters. That, in turn, undermines Democratic electoral prospects so that they can be defeated in their efforts to promote economic and social transformation just as they’ve started. The grim prospects for the Democrats in 2022 and the gut-wrenching prospect of losing the White House to Donald Trump (again) in 2024 make clear the stakes.

A Democratic brand reset is clearly in order to stop the bleeding among working class voters, along the lines suggested by the Jacobin study. A good way to start would be to embrace widely-held American views and values that are particularly strong among the multiracial working class.

  • Equality of opportunity is a fundamental American principle; equality of outcome is not.

  • America is not perfect but it is good to be patriotic and proud of the country.

  • Discrimination and racism are bad but they are not the cause of all disparities in American society.

  • No one is completely without bias but calling all white people racists who benefit from white privilege and American society a white supremacist society is not right or fair.

  • America benefits from the presence of immigrants and no immigrant, even if illegal, should be mistreated. But border security is still important, as is an enforceable system that fairly decides who can enter the country.

  • Police misconduct and brutality against people of any race is wrong and we need to reform police conduct and recruitment. But crime is a real problem so more and better policing is needed for public safety. That cannot be provided by “defunding the police”.

  • There are underlying differences between men and women but discrimination on the basis of gender is wrong.

  • There are basically two genders but people who want to live as a gender different from their biological sex should have that right and not be discriminated against. However, there are issues around child consent to transitioning and participation in women’s sports that are complicated and not settled.

  • Racial achievement gaps are bad and we should seek to close them. However, they are not due just to racism and standards of high achievement should be maintained for people of all races.

  • Language policing has gone too far; by and large, people should be able to express their views without fear of sanction by employer, school, institution or government. Good faith should be assumed, not bad faith.

Besides positively embracing these views it is necessary for major Democratic officeholders and candidates to actively dissociate themselves and their party from the woke stances that contradict these views and tarnish their brand among working class voters. That entails not just saying that one does not endorse now-familiar strands of cultural leftism but in some well-chosen places directly criticizing by name some who hold extreme views that are associated with the Democrats. That will be of great assistance in getting the message through to average working class voters.

This will no doubt lead to the standard invocation on the left that mainstreaming Democratic views in this fashion, whatever the gains, will lead to serious defections from the Democrats among “base” constituencies. Well, this will certainly make some Democratic activists, particularly among younger woke college-educated liberals, white and nonwhite, unhappy but that does not necessarily translate into consequential losses among Democratic base voters writ large. I’ll simply note here that, as the Democratic party has gotten steadily woker, its standing among the nonwhite working class has continued to deteriorate. So the effect of mainstreaming Democratic views on their base could be quite the opposite of what left critics envision.

The truth of the matter is that these views are entirely consistent with a very progressive Democratic program in the areas of health care, education, social programs, jobs and the economy that would disproportionately benefit the poor and working class, and therefore blacks and Hispanics. And this approach, unlike the Democrats’ current default setting, has the potential to make the Democrats and their progressive policies consistent winners. In that sense, one might respond to the inevitable accusation that a universalist, mainstream approach is tantamount to throwing loyal Democratic constituencies in need of help “under the bus”: who is throwing whom under the bus? Perhaps it is those who stand in the way of a Democratic approach that could plausibly generate the widest possible support that are throwing those who need help the most under the bus.

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