The Return of Class

It Can’t Be Ignored, However Much Politicians May Want To

Lurking beneath the surface of the 2020 election results were some important reminders of the central importance of class to American politics. According to Catalist data (two party vote), Republicans carried the overall working class (noncollege) vote by 4 points for the second straight time. Of course, the anchor of Republican strength among the working class is dominance among whites within that group, which only subsided slightly in 2020. But it is startling to note that since 2012, running against Trump twice, Democrats have lost 18 points off of their margin among nonwhite working class voters. This includes a shocking 22 point decline among nonwhite working class men compared to “only” a 14 point decline among nonwhite working class women.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that working class voters still vastly outnumber college-educated voters by around 63-37. Among whites, working class voters are bit over three-fifths of the vote and among nonwhites, the working class contingent is a full two thirds of voters. Trends among the working class can overwhelm trends among college-educated voters.

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Another reminder of the centrality of class is the rise of the crime issue. Whenever crime goes up, especially violent crime, it is the working class that suffers the most. This is especially true of heavily working class black and Latino communities in urban areas. The negative impact on these communities is hard to overestimate. As Ezra Klein noted in a recent Twitter thread:

[V]iolent crime supercharges inequality. Families who can flee, do. Business close or never open. Banks won’t make loans. Property values plummet. Children are traumatized, with lifelong impacts on stress and cognition.

Democrats may be uncomfortable with a focus on crime, but the crime issue is coming for them whether they like it or not. This will very definitely include rising demand for public safety within nonwhite working class communities. If Democrats are not responsive, it is entirely predictable that they will lose votes in these communities, as well as more broadly in other areas.

Another example is the effort to finally end the covid pandemic which depends on the continuing success of the vaccination effort through all strata of society. While covid inequalities have typically been examined through the lens of race, David Leonhardt notes that on vaccine attitudes and behaviors class is hugely important to understanding our current challenges:

[W]orking-class members of every group are less likely to have received a vaccine and more likely to be skeptical. “No matter which of these groups we looked at, we see an education divide,” Mollyann Brodie, who oversees the Kaiser surveys, told me. In some cases, different racial groups with the same education levels — like Black and white college graduates — look remarkably similar.

That is indeed the case as you can see from the Kaiser data reproduced below. Black college graduates actually have a higher vaccination rate and lower vaccine hesitancy than white college graduates. And for both whites and blacks there is huge class gap between college graduates and the working class on these measures, with white and black working class adults quite close together in their low vaccination rates and high vaccine hesitancy.

The message here is simple: in either politics or public policy, class is central to making serious progress. It may have vanished from our public discourse but it is coming back. Count on it.