Hispanic voters attend a rally on horseback (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

March 16, 2023   5 mins

What explains the widening chasm between America’s political class and the American people? While the Democrats and Republicans squabble over climate change and race, these are among the lowest concerns on the public’s agenda: according to Pew, voters care far more about strengthening the economy, reducing healthcare costs, defending against terrorism, and reducing the influence of money in politics.

This political uncoupling is largely a product of the class system and the skewing of politics towards the priorities of college-educated Americans and wealthy political donors in both parties. This warping is built into the system from the start. Democrat and Republican nominees are chosen in party primaries, whose participants are far more educated and affluent than the average voter. Although the gap is large in both parties, it is particularly pronounced on the Democratic side. As a Brookings study in 2018 showed, Democratic voters are “almost twice as likely as the voting age population in their district to have college degrees or postgraduate study”.

This matters because college-educated voters tend to be more liberal on social issues than less-educated ones. Last year, for instance, 66% of college graduates wanted abortion to be legal in all or most cases, while only 54% of high-school graduates did. Similarly, immigration, which is treated as a “social issue” rather than as a labour market or welfare state one in the US, was seen as a “good thing” by 80% of college graduates, but only by 64% of respondents with “no college”, with twice as many non-college voters (30%) as college graduates (14%) viewing immigration as a “bad thing”.

The influence of big donors in both parties further skews politics from the pragmatic concerns of America’s working-class majority. Wealthy donors, like primary voters, tend to be socially liberal and support free trade, immigration and cuts in government social spending more than the average voter. It’s not hyperbole to conclude that the United States is a nation of communitarians ruled by an oligarchy of libertarians.

This confirms the suspicions of most Americans. In a 2021 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs which asked who benefited from US foreign policy, most respondents answered “large corporations” (92%), “the US government” (90%), “wealthy Americans” (87%), and “the US military” (80%). By and large, they were not mistaken; paranoids can have real enemies. The claim that American political parties and their donors use cultural and social issues to distract from economic topics, in the spirit of divide-and-rule, is not a conspiracy theory; it is manifestly correct. On the progressive side of the political spectrum, where Silicon Valley and Wall Street are major sources of campaign finance, the situation could not be more obvious. Amazon, for example, has viciously fought attempts by its workforce to unionise for years, while simultaneously making $10-million donations to “organisations supporting [racial] justice and equity”.

During the same period, this cynical approach has trickled down into the Democratic party machine. President Biden last week announced a plan to shore up Medicare’s finances by raising taxes on Americans earning more than $400,000 a year. Why $400,000? Because, in 2021, he had pledged not to raise taxes on anyone bringing home less than $400,000. This represented a significant increase from Hillary Clinton’s promise during her 2016 campaign to not raise taxes on anyone making $250,000 or less.

For Clinton (and Bernie Sanders), anyone earning less than $250,000 was “middle-class”. Four years later, Biden nearly doubled the definitional limit — even though, according to the IRS, a household (not an individual) with $400,000 or more of income is in the top 1.8% of US households. Yet Biden’s broad definition has largely gone unquestioned, with mainstream Republicans describing his tax rise for the 1.8% as dangerous “socialism”. A recent Newsweek headline follows the script: “Joe Biden to Raise Taxes for Nearly 2.5 million Americans” — without mentioning that America has a population of 336 million.

Taken together, then, we can see that affluent, college-educated voters and the donors in both parties are skewing American politics to the Left on social issues and to the Right on economics. This has left a substantial part of the American public unrepresented in our two-party system. Almost six years ago, the political scientist Lee Drutman, then my colleague at New America, the think tank I co-founded, used voting data to show that very few voters were consistent libertarians (socially conservative and economically libertarian), while 40% were in the socially-conservative, economically-progressive category. To put it another way, the libertarians have many donors but almost no voters, while the communitarians are not represented by either mainstream progressives or mainstream conservatives. (Drutman called this group “populist”, but communitarian is now a less pejorative term.)

Over the past decade, the anti-establishment insurgencies of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump appealed to many of these people, particularly working-class voters in industrial states who supported the pro-worker, “bread and butter” politics absent from both parties. Since the 2016 election, however, instead of trying to win back former Trump voters, the Democrats have mostly doubled down on the identity politics and environmentalism favoured by their new, college-educated metropolitan social base. In contrast, with varying degrees of sincerity, Republican politicians, whatever their views of Trump, have tried to appeal to the new working-class voters, many of them former Democrats or independents, who voted for Trump.

The result has been an on-going realignment in the presidential and midterm elections since 2016. Growing numbers of working-class black and Hispanic voters have shifted to the Republican Party, while well-to-do, highly-educated white voters continue to leave the Republicans for the Democrats. These trends refute the standard Democratic narrative that the Republicans are a dying party of authoritarian white nationalists who want to overthrow democracy and re-establish racial segregation. Rather, it reflects an increasing polarisation along class lines, as measured by education. In 2022, the Republicans won more of the non-college vote (55%) than they had in 2016, while the Democratic share was only 43%, something unthinkable in the days of Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson.

As exiled country-club Republicans seek asylum by joining the Democratic Party, raising its average income and educational attainment, can the Republicans move in the opposite direction and become the party of the multiracial working class? A small but significant minority of Republican policymakers, including Senators Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley and J.D. Vance, is certainly breaking taboos that date back to the Reagan era.

Rubio, for instance, has voiced support for Amazon labour organisers and for organised labour in principle, while Hawley (along with Ted Cruz) voted for a bill opposed by the Biden administration and sponsored by Sanders to provide railroad workers with more paid leave. Vance, meanwhile, has added his voice to this faction, which finds intellectual supporters in both American Affairs and the think tank American Compass. If they succeed, the Republicans would still be a pro-business party, but one that accepts the legitimacy of unions and seeks votes from union members, similar to the GOP under Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.

To date, however, these populist Republicans are a minority in their party. Conventional conservative Republicans might be estranged from their traditional big business allies, but this is only because the financial giants have assumed a progressive narrative and the Big Tech companies discriminate against conservatives — rather than because they treat their workers badly. And it seems unlikely this will change soon: the post-Trump Republican leadership seems intent on reverting to something similar to the Reagan-Bush parties, using hot-button culture war issues to win working-class votes and then implementing an economic agenda favoured by business, wealthy donors and libertarian ideologues.

If this isn’t reversed, American politics will return to the pre-2016 status quo: a struggle for office among rival factions of the economic elite which mobilise voters by using identity politics on the Left and a culture war on the Right. An oligarchy of libertarians will continue to rule — and a nation of communitarians will suffer.

Michael Lind is a columnist at Tablet and a fellow at New America. His latest book is Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages is Destroying America.