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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: White Liberals vs. the Working-Class

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from The Liberal Patriot:

Joe Biden in his generally well-received State of the Union address made a clear attempt to reach out to working class voters. As he recounted his administration’s achievements, he said:

Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back, because choices we made in the last several years. You know, this is, in my view, a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives at home.

Much of the first part of his speech was devoted to laying out the receipts for his pro-working class claims and the promise of much more bounty to come. This may reflect Biden’s genuine desire to turn the Democratic party back into a forthrightly working class party and, not unrelated, his recognition that a Democratic coalition with steadily declining working class support is electorally very fragile.

That may be what Biden wants. But will his party cooperate? This is a party whose image and priorities are increasingly determined by white liberals not working class voters. The party’s claim to be a working class party these days rests primarily on its undeniable—though diminishing—strength among nonwhite working class (noncollege) voters. These voters made up about 28 percent of Democratic supporters in 2020 according to States of Change data and probably about the same in 2022. But a substantially larger 37 percent of Democratic voters are white liberals (Gallup datacross-walked with States of Change data). This size mismatch is heavily exacerbated by the high educational levels of white liberals which translates into much higher levelsof political attention, interest, knowledge, donations and activism among these voters than among working class nonwhites. Add to that the dominance of educated white liberals in the Democratic party infrastructure and in sympathetic media, nonprofits, advocacy groups, foundations and educational sectors and you have a group that punches way, way above its already considerable weight in the party.

It would be strange indeed, given these facts, if the values and priorities of white liberals weren’t over-weighted in the Democrats’ values and priorities, particularly as perceived by working class voters. That suggests it will take quite some time and a determined, if not single-minded, focus to make the Democratic party once again the party of the working class rather than the party of white liberals. Here are some data that suggest the immensity of the task.

  1. Pew just released data about the public’s top policy priorities. They found that of the 21 priorities tested, protecting the environment and dealing with global climate change ranked 14th and 17th, respectively, on the public’s priority list. But among liberal Democrats, these issues ranked first and third, respectively. The story was basically the same among white college-educated Democrats, who are heavily dominated by liberals.
  2. A new CBS News poll confirms the low priority of dealing with climate change. Among the ten priorities tested, addressing climate change ranked ninth (interestingly, protecting abortion access ranked dead last).
  3. The same poll indicates a poor evaluation of the Biden administration’s actions in areas that rank much higher in working class concerns. On the US economy 53 percent said Biden’s policies have made it worse, compared to 27 percent who say his policies have made it better. The analogous figures on “your own family’s finances” are 49 percent vs. 18 percent; on illegal immigration, 51 percent vs. 21 percent; on inflation, 57 percent vs. 22 percent; and on gas prices, 55 percent vs. 21 percent.
  4. Recent Gallup data show half in the country saying they are financially worse off today than they were a year ago, the highest level since 2009 in the midst of the Great Recession. Among the working class, the level saying they are worse off is even higher.
  5. New Washington Post/ABC News data further document the depth of working class discontent. In the poll, 41 percent of the public say they are worse off today than they were when Biden took office, the highest level the poll has recorded on analogous questions dating back 37 years. But the negative judgement is even higher among working class respondents at 44 percent to a mere 14 percent who say they are better off. This undoubtedly has a lot to do with the fact that, despite the low unemployment rate, real wages are still lower today than they were when Biden took office.
  6. In the same poll, working class respondents were not sanguine about the Biden administration’s accomplishments. By 68 percent to 30 percent the working class view was that Biden had accomplished not much/little or nothing as opposed to a great deal/a good amount. But Democratic liberals—who are overwhelmingly white—had a diametrically opposed view; 85 percent credited Biden with a accomplishing a great deal or a good amount and just 15 percent thought not much/little or nothing had been accomplished.
  7. Moreover by 2 or 3:1 the working class thought Biden had not made progress in four specific areas. Only 21 percent thought he had made progress of making electric vehicles more affordable compared to 60 percent who saw no progress; just 27 percent saw progress on lowering prescription drug costs; and a mere 31 percent, respectively, thought he had made progress on improving roads and bridges and creating good jobs in their communities. Liberal Democrats, however, were happy campers. By 2:1 they thought Biden had made progress on the first three items and by a ringing 3:1 they endorsed Biden’s progress on creating good jobs in their communities.

Biden clearly has his work cut out for him if he truly seeks to make the Democrats the undisputed party of the working class rather than the chosen vehicle for white liberals. Zach Goldberg puts it well in his recent detailed report on the demographic evolution of the Democratic party.

[I]ndividuals of higher socioeconomic status are more socially progressive and are more likely to prioritize post-material or moral-value-related issues (e.g., abortion, climate change, LGBT rights) over kitchen-table issues… The result of this phenomenon is the selection of candidates who are—or who are pressured and incentivized to be—far more socially progressive than would be the case with proportional constituent input, as well as legislative time and energy being expended on niche progressive causes, programs, and amendments that are likely to polarize the chambers and produce congressional gridlock. There are also opportunity costs: the more time invested in debating and attempting to pass progressive legislative agendas, the less time that can be spent on “normal” economic and quality-of-life issues that are far more relevant to the lives of many working class nonwhite Democrats.

There are indeed opportunity costs! Biden and his party will continue to pay those costs, which put a ceiling on their coalition, unless and until they are prepared to break the hegemony of white liberals and concentrate unreservedly on working class concerns.

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