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How the Democrats became the party of the rich The working class is excluded from its agenda

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

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.

MattThomasNYC

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Stuart Sutherland
Stuart Sutherland
2 years ago

Sounds just like the Labour party’s problems here in the UK!

Justin Clark
Justin Clark
2 years ago

same blueprints, proivided from the powers above.

Last edited 2 years ago by Justin Clark
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

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.
I found this to be one of the most troubling parts of the article, because it implies that the powers-that-be in the Democratic party are willing to change what they stand for just to get into power; I always thought that you want to get into power to push through the policies that you believe to be best for the people and the country. This is not the same as realising that one policy is not popular and dropping that one, or slightly ameliorating another policy, if only temporarily until the people wise-up and realise the benefits of all your policies; if your policies change just to get a majority then you stand for nothing.

Karl Juhnke
Karl Juhnke
2 years ago

‘I found this to be one of the most troubling parts of the article, because it implies that the powers-that-be in the Democratic party are willing to change what they stand for just to get into power; I always thought that you want to get into power to push through the policies that you believe to be best for the people and the country’.

The economic rationalism of the neoliberals means exactly this. They do not stand for nothing. They stand for money and power as the only rational choices

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

You must be either joking or seriously naive.
The definition of the modern day democrat: “the powers-that-be in the Democratic party are willing to change what they stand for just to get into power;”

Andy Aitch
Andy Aitch
2 years ago

A well-meaning cri-de-coeur but, sad to say, a perfect description of politics in the modern world – from Putin through Tony Blair to Boris Johnson.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andy Aitch
nigel roberts
nigel roberts
1 year ago

Viz: Lenin – “Socialism is not a political philosophy. It is a path to power.”

Last edited 1 year ago by nigel roberts
Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago

Would be interesting to see how quickly and commonly the Hispanics come to the realisation that the Democrats they largely vote for, hold their class in contempt.

That may well be the biggest challenge for Democrats long term. The upper middle class voters will continue to virtue signal, Asian immigrants might continue to be turkeys voting for Christmas and support the party of affirmative action, blacks will still vote for the party of Jim Crow and slavery even if Democrat leaders grind down large black cities with poverty and crime….but Hispanics and white conservatives together are still the majority in the country.

Last edited 2 years ago by Samir Iker
Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Alright, I know this might shock some people, but most Hispanics in America are not illegals fresh over the border. Few of them are even coming from Mexico anymore. Most illegals are coming from places like El Salvador now. Some of them have been in the country for generations at this point and they have other concerns and problems to deal with. For more than a few of them, that even includes cracking down on illegal immigration. Oh and on a side note, I have yet to meet one who does not get pissed when being referred to as “Latinx”.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt Hindman
Emre 0
Emre 0
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I think he’s referring to things like (social justice) discrimination against Asians such as in university admissions.

Last edited 2 years ago by Emre 0
Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago
Reply to  Emre 0

My point is that one of the biggest reasons that the Democrats are failing is that they treat Hispanics as one giant interchangeable group and their obsession with “social justice” and open borders has blinded them to how culturally and politically diverse of a group they really are.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt Hindman
Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

It’s because the left treats ALL people as one giant interchangeable group. To the left, people are commodities and you deploy them as you would any other resource. There is no human connection or empathy.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago

Not the Left I grew up in, which had roots in Fabian socialism, Methodism, unionism and Irish Catholicism. It was always concerned that communities should be fostered and protected, and individuals allowed to live lives of dignity. Perhaps you’re confusing the social democratic Left of the west with the communism of the east.

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

No confusion. The mistake most people make is to think the Labour Party as founded in the early twentieth century was socialist. It wasn’t. It was actually based on Christianity, as your post implies, particularly Methodism and, latterly, Catholicism. However, people like the Fabians — who actually WERE socialists — attached themselves to the movement like parasites. When I use the word “socialist”, yes, I am thinking of the communism of the East. The thing you regard as socialism — which never had a proper name of its own — no longer exists. For all his blather and windbaggery, probably Neill Kinnock was the last representative of it. It was a bearable philosophy which had its points, but it wasn’t socialism.

Rob Wright
Rob Wright
2 years ago

Agree on Kinnock. Last time I voted Labour.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

I had this exact thought earlier today: that socialism without Christianity often tends to become parasitical.
Your comment puts me in mind of this quote by G. K. Chesterton:
“The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.”

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago

The thing you regard as socialism — which never had a proper name of its own — no longer exists.”
I think it does, though it doesn’t have a clear home. I didn’t refer to socialism, but ‘the left’ and ‘the social democratic left’. Though it isn’t well represented, organisationally, I think there are a lot of we social democrats around.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

I agree that the left is baseless when it comes to human beings, in general, but they certainly select various groups of people to exploit from time to time when it is politically convenient. How else can you create oppressed groups and the oppressors?

Emre 0
Emre 0
2 years ago

Glimmers of sanity seem to be coming back to the American Left, this can only be a good thing. Just before this, I came across a bizarrely reasonable article in The Atlantic about ACLU having lost its way, that they’re ignoring their core causes.
This is a good article covering a complex topic that’s the emergence of neoliberalism despite steering mostly clear of hot-button cultural issues that came to represent the Democrats these days.
I’d argue the election to look at to understand Sanders’ potential would be the 2016 primaries against Clinton. This is because the Democratic political machine (with the rest of the establishment) went into a cultural issues overdrive following 2016 which gave us the “fiery but largely peaceful protests” that tore down American cities for weeks. You don’t often get the CEO of JP Morgan bending the knee on camera. This was meant to refocus politics away from the economic issues Sanders championed into cultural issues which were seen as vote winners (while avoiding socialism). Therefore 2020 election is an imperfect representation Sander’s potential soon after the whole liberal political apparatus turned against him.

Last edited 2 years ago by Emre 0
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Emre 0

It is easier for corporate types to be concerned about “social issues” than pay decent wages or improve working conditions The same goes for highly paid professionals; make the “right” noises on the” right” issues and let’s not even think about economic inequallies, thank-you. This is what this is all about, why the rich are so on-board with all this, why the young are encouraged in their nonsense, the elite keep their economic power. I don’t want to come acoss as a consipacy theorist, but I find this the only explanation that fits the facts that I have, I’ve tried giving them the benefit of doubt and assume that they are genuine believers but, if they are, then their “social conscience” seems to have very large holes in it.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

I believe you are correct. It’s a classic case of the red herring.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

I think another factor is that as the professional class stays so busy, they have no time to think about and discuss what is happening on issues and simply receive sound bites from their long-time sources, which have made quantum moves to the left over the last 20 years.
How else can we explain why so many formerly reasonable people have become so intoxicated with far left propaganda?

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

I think it’s the opposite. The professional class are bored in their office jobs, all day long they are scrolling through Twitter feeds, reading Buzzfeed articles, and getting into online flamewars about the definition of “woman”. That way they have been radicalized. Meanwhile, working-class people whose jobs require them actually to work all day don’t have time for this nonsense.

Rob Wright
Rob Wright
2 years ago

In America the working man listens to the radio thru the day. The laptop class scroll thru their feeds and stream cable news at their desks. So they both get information and news but from different technologies and with different politics.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

There is some truth to this, although I went the other way i.e. less progressive. During the pandemic the faculty at my college were forced to stay on-campus even though no face-to-face classes were being given. Except for grading papers, I had very little to do so ended up doom-scrolling through sites like Reddit and Quillette. I quit my job soon after. Sitting in my office all day doing nothing worth-while is worse than being unemployed.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

What a splendid caption photograph! It looks like the Biden Beast is about to start a brawl in a pub in Castlebar!

Last edited 2 years ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

That’s a photo of him trying to hold in a fart.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

I should have guessed! Thank you.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
2 years ago

Typo alert: Democrats have forgotten their history, and now believe they are the party of the white woking class.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago

“Liberal” professionals with bullpoop jobs that don’t add value drive the left towards increasingly absurd collectivist nonsense and away from compassionate liberal progressivism. Like bad money driving out good, they push working people with hard jobs that actually add real value in the real world (like fixing toilets or moving furniture) away from compassionate liberal progressivism and towards a reactionary conservatism that can be manipulated by the worst kinds of populist liars. This hardens the liberal professionals’ self-righteousness and licenses them to unleash hatred against their supposed enemies, who they demonise with any of a variety of labels (deplorables, anti-Vaxxers, racists, transphobes, whatever) whether or not they actually match reality. This reflects the liberals’ (very real fears) that the stories they tell themselves about how conscientious, altruistic, and healthy (in all senses of the word) they themselves are might well not be true. And they have no or little religious faith to give them stoicism, so they seek comfort in the soft soap of signalling their virtue by whatever faddish means is available. On the other side, the real world workers feel increasingly alienated from the mendacious, parasitic liberal, virtue-signalling professionals and irritated that many of the latter earn so much money, but many don’t feel resentful because life is too short and they’ve got kids to feed. But they don’t feel particularly inclined to vote for the politicians parroting inauthentic lies and affirm the liberals’ shaky beliefs about themselves and the world. Better to vote for the bigot who at least says what he thinks, and can crack a half decent joke even if he’s obviously a shallow charlatan. The centre collapses. In fact politics itself collapses into a cesspit because there is no longer an honest debate to be had between people with competing interests and worldviews, it’s just the exchange of lazy insults hurled within a paradigm that has detached itself from reality. Good, intelligent people with integrity from the left, right and centre have no incentive to wade into the cesspit; and those few left in it try separately to climb out of it.

The only thing that puts the whole sorry show to an end are the barbarians at the gate, ready to conquer and devour a society that has forgotten what it values and what it is good for.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago

“Execute the disabled 
 to mollify conservative white workers”. You’re obviously referring to Bill Clinton’s ordering the execution of Ricky Ray Rector (the link you provided is behind a paywall, but I remember the incident vividly). Clinton ordered the execution of that mentally disabled man (to the horror of most decent people) for the same reason he ordered the bombing of an African aspirin factory: to look tough and to distract from his sordid persona as the scheming lowlife he is. That single sentence made rest of this piece not even worth skimming.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
2 years ago

Correction to what was said in the article: LBJ didn’t win two presidential elections with a majority. He only won one. He won the Vice-Presidency in 1960 with a plurality of the vote, won a landslide victory in 1964, and chose not to run for re-election in 1968. FDR was the last Democratic presidential nominee to win two consecutive majorities – indeed, four consecutive majorities – prior to Obama.

Last edited 2 years ago by Tom Krehbiel
Christopher Gage
Christopher Gage
2 years ago

The Democrats’ problem is one of 1990s narcissism and fantasy. Theirs is the politics of that hokum book, ‘The Secret.’
Just look at their fantasy of an ’emerging Democratic majority.’ Had they bothered to read past the hubris, they’d have found the ‘declining’ white population is more than covered by the rise in the White Hispanic and White Other population. Indeed, white America is going nowhere. By some (more sensible imo) definitions, America is actually whitening. Their racial obsession appeals to fewer and fewer Americans.
Throuple that with their embrace of oligarchy and the social colonialism that is Wokeness, and you have a broken elite and a deservedly doomed party.

Last edited 2 years ago by Christopher Gage
Will Cummings
Will Cummings
2 years ago

Mr Thomas asserts that executing the disabled from time to time will “mollify conservative white workers”. This is a strong indication that there are no conservative white workers within his circle of acquaintance. Academic detachment is all very well, but before undertaking his analysis, Mr Thomas might have opted to mingle a bit with the deplorables before accepting the judgement of their deplorers as an axiom.

Douglas H
Douglas H
2 years ago

I love this line : “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.” That nails it, unfortunately