So much for 'progressive centrism' (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

May 12, 2022   6 mins

Ever since Joe Biden’s election, the media has displayed an almost obsessive interest in the Democratic Party’s dwindling popularity among the working class, and its booming support among affluent professionals. The trend has been so dramatic that some Republicans have sought to rebrand the GOP as the party of the “multiracial working class”.

But will this strategy work? To truly understand the gentrification of the Democratic Party, we need only observe how the class composition of the Democratic presidential primary electorate shifted between 2008 and 2020. Looking at the 16 states that voted in both 2008 and 2020 before the winner was all but decided, the trend is the same: poor and working-class voters are shrinking as a share of the Democratic electorate, while middle-class and affluent voters are growing.

In these 16 states, counties where the median household income (MHI) is under $60,000/year went from contributing 35.3% of the presidential primary vote in 2008 to just 28.6% in 2020. By contrast, counties where the MHI is over $80,000/year rose from 24.5% to 30.7%, with about half of that growth in counties where the MHI is over $100,000/year.

In some states this transformation was particularly astonishing. In Virginia, for instance, counties where the MHI is under $60,000/year accounted for 32% of the vote in 2010, while counties where the MHI is over $100,000/year accounted for 34.4%. Ten years later, the state’s poorest counties contributed just 25.3% of the presidential primary vote, while the richest counties contributed 41.4%. During the same period in South Carolina, the electorate shifted away from poor and working-class counties and toward middle-class counties by 20%. In North Carolina, the shift was 11%; in Florida, it was 9%.

These changes have occurred not only because the party is growing in prosperous areas, but because it’s also collapsing in struggling ones — a trend that has been most dramatic in the South. Middle-class counties in Tennessee, for instance, grew as a share of the Democratic electorate from 30% to 37.3%, and their raw vote shot up by more than 50,000. But at the same time, poorer counties went from representing 65.9% of the electorate to 56.3%, and their raw vote plunged by over 120,000.

What accounts for such profound changes to the Democratic coalition? Some argue the cultural aesthetic of liberal professionals has become toxic among voters without a college degree. Others believe the party has squandered its credibility with working-class voters by failing to pursue a robust economic agenda. The former perspective counsels Democrats to move to the centre on culture; the latter urges them to move Left on economics. Ideally, Democrats should do both. But the truth is that these problems have been brewing for decades, and it’s unclear if they can be reversed.

It was during the mid-Sixties that the Democratic Party’s traditional base in the white working class started defecting to Republicans, kicking off the slow-motion collapse of the New Deal coalition. Over the next decade, senior Democrats began contemplating how to attract new constituencies that could replace these voters. In December 1976, Jimmy Carter’s pollster Pat Cadell wrote a memo arguing that the party’s best bet was to capture the ballooning cohort of college-educated professionals emerging from the country’s transition to a post-industrial economy. Caddell called for the development of an agenda that catered to this cohort’s liberal cultural sensibilities and moderate economic views, one that eventually came to be known as neoliberalism.

This ideology emerged victorious from the internecine battles that roiled the party in the Eighties, culminating with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. Though the Clinton years saw new milestones in the country’s partisan realignment, Democrats still enjoyed enough support from the white working class that it remained an important constituency, if no longer a dominant one. As a result, the Clinton administration was often riven by contradictions — particularly in the realm of social policy — as it sought to satisfy different members of its coalition at different times.

Though the Democratic Party’s neoliberal wing was willing to ban same-sex marriage and execute the disabled from time to time in order to mollify conservative white workers, it resisted any concessions to them on economic grounds. What it wanted more than anything was the chance to move further in the direction of social liberalism and economic conservatism. When Al Gore lost the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000, politicians such as Al From, the founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, and Clinton pollster Mark Penn argued that Gore’s mistake was in adopting populist economic rhetoric that alienated the white professional class.

As John Judis and Ruy Teixera noted in The Emerging Democratic Majority: “The DLC and Penn blamed Gore’s loss on his adoption of a populist appeal in the last months of the campaign.” Published in 2002, the book is mostly remembered for its prediction that changes in racial demography would lead to Democratic dominance over American politics. But Judis and Teixeira argued almost the exact opposite.

Like many of their contemporaries, they agreed that college-educated professionals should be the party’s new base. But they also emphasised that Democrats must supplement their support from the professional class with support from various other constituencies. “The key for Democrats,” they wrote, “will be… in discovering a strategy that retains support among the white working class, but also builds support among college-educated professionals and others in America’s burgeoning ideopolises.”

To strike this balance, Judis and Teixeira recommended a policy agenda that they called “progressive centrism”. Instead of pacifying the white working class with Sister Souljah moments while shipping their jobs to Mexico, they advised Democrats to just take their foot off the gas when it came to neoliberalism. As long as they avoided spooking liberal professionals on economics and alienating non-college whites on culture, the party could safely pursue a more conventional centre-Left agenda.

In 2008, Barack Obama captured the presidency with exactly the coalition that Judis and Teixeira described: young people, racial minorities, college-educated whites in the Sun Belt, and non-college whites in the Rust Belt. In 2012, he successfully reassembled that coalition, becoming the first Democratic president to win consecutive popular vote majorities since Lyndon Johnson. He governed along the same lines that they recommended, roughly halfway between Bill Clinton and Elizabeth Warren. By November 7, 2016, almost everyone in politics believed that an enduring Democratic majority had finally emerged. The next day, it was gone.

When I interviewed Teixeira in February, he told me that the reason for the collapse of the emerging Democratic majority was twofold. First, liberal professionals grew contemptuous of anyone who didn’t share their cultural politics, alienating the white working-class segment of the Obama coalition. Second, their dismissal of these voters’ economic pain as an excuse for racism allowed Donald Trump to push his advantage with non-college whites to blockbuster margins. To make matters worse, liberal professionals have only grown more insular and censorious over the past six years. Partly as a result, even non-college non-whites — Asian and Hispanic voters in particular — have started to drift to the Right.

No argument here, I told him. But what else did he expect from the professional class? They always prefer to push the envelope on culture rather than pay a nickel more in taxes. It’s no coincidence that the most explosive theatre of the Critical Race Theory war has been Loudoun County, Virginia (median household income: $152,000). If the party wanted its base to be the multiracial working class, shouldn’t it have made them a better offer than “progressive centrism”?

If only it were that simple, Teixeira answered. He told me that not only do many working-class voters not support a Left-wing economic agenda, but for those who do, economics is not always the issue that most informs their vote. A candidate who can’t satisfy their demands on higher salience issues won’t even get a hearing on economics.

He’s got me there. In 2020, a socialist candidate, Bernie Sanders, had a better shot at the Democratic presidential nomination than at any other time in the party’s history. Post-mortems on the Sanders campaign have reached all sorts of conclusions about what went wrong, and some have even cited the party’s professional-class takeover as a big reason for his defeat. But that just isn’t the case. In the 21 states that held Democratic presidential primary elections before the declaration of a national emergency concerning the coronavirus pandemic on March 13, 2020, Biden beat Sanders across all income categories, and Biden’s margin was greatest among the poorest voters.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom for the political revolution. West of the Rocky Mountains, Sanders beat Biden across all income categories in multiple states. In fact, he often notched up his best performances in poor and working-class counties, including in California. Sanders’s popularity among Hispanic voters was also critical to his success in this area of the country. Chuck Rocha, the architect of the campaign’s Hispanic outreach program, credits its success to the decision to eschew social justice rhetoric and appeals to identity in favour of bread-and-butter economic themes that resonate with immigrant families.

One more little ray of sunshine for the Left is that the economic profile of Sanders’s coalition in this cohort of 21 states closely tracked the economic profile of the overall electorate in them. In other words, his support wasn’t disproportionately concentrated in any one income category. All of which means that in 2020, Sanders really did build a movement of the “multiracial working class”, even if Joe Biden built a bigger one.

Perhaps in the future, another socialist candidate will succeed in this endeavour. But the window to do so closes a little more each year. Sanders’s coalition mirrored the Democratic electorate of 2020, not 2008: significantly wealthier and more middle class than a decade before. For years, the Democrats have sought to distance themselves from the working class — is it any wonder they’ve finally started to notice?

Adapted from Matthew Thomas’s Substack, Vulgar Marxism.

Matthew Thomas is a writer and researcher based in Queens, New York. His Substack is called Vulgar Marxism.