April 28, 2023 - 6:00pm

As President Biden announced his reelection campaign, no fact — not his on-stage energy, his age, his potential challengers, nor his policy priorities — merits as much attention as his audience of choice. Mostly comprised of trade union members and overwhelmingly white and male, the crowd represents not the campaign’s base, but rather its disappearing faithful.

It indicates that the Biden camp is keenly aware of its principal challenge heading into 2024: the growing “diploma divide” in the political landscape, particularly among white Americans. In a historic reversal, college-educated white Americans are increasingly aligning with the Democratic Party while less educated white Americans identify with the Republican Party. This slowly brewing trend accelerated after Donald Trump’s election, with 2020 marking the first year in which college-educated white Democrats outnumbered their less educated counterparts.

Democrats have reason to celebrate, as the educated are more likely to donate to campaigns and are more politically active in general. But an overlooked consequence of this is the sharpening of racial inequities within the Democratic coalition. Insofar as such trends persist, the future promises a majority-minority Democratic Party nonetheless steered by a highly educated, more socially progressive, white minority. 

While declining numerically, white Democrats are becoming more educated, wealthier, and politically engaged than their non-white counterparts (except for Asians) than ever before. Educational attainment rates have long been greater — roughly double ­— among white people than other ethnic groups, but in the last decade they’ve accelerated among white Democrats while flatlining or declining among white Republicans. 

This growing attainment gap has accelerated cultural polarisation, most clearly among white people. Those with college degrees have long been more socially and culturally liberal than those without, and so long as the Republican Party passed as socially moderate its low-tax agenda appealed to college-educated white people. But as the GOP became more outwardly socially conservative and the Democrats more outwardly socially liberal, this positive relationship started to reverse. Working-class social conservatives and college-educated social liberals gradually started changing places and sorting themselves into the parties accordingly. 

By 2016, a college degree predicted an unprecedented 9.5-point decrease in the odds of a white person identifying as Republican (vs. Democrat). By 2020, the margin nearly doubled (18.1 points). Gaps in personal income and occupational prestige, which had long favoured white Republicans, now favoured white Democrats. For the first time on record, white Democrats were more likely than Republicans to describe themselves as “upper-middle” or “upper class”. Similarly, as of 2018 the median white Democrat was earning a record-high $15,773 more than the median non-white (non-Asian) Democrat, more than doubling the $7,390 gap from 2014.

As socioeconomic status predicts political engagement, these trends threaten to further boost the political influence of white Democrats over their party’s agenda and direction. Indeed, as disparities in socioeconomic status have risen, so too have those in political engagement and participation, including in attention to political information, levels of political knowledge, rates of contacting elected officials and donating to election campaigns, and even in rates of voting for Democratic candidates. Remarkably, despite the white share of Democrats falling more than 24 points between 1980-2020, white people are now more overrepresented among large ($200+) donors to Democratic congressional candidates than ever before. And even their representation among small donors has held steady.

These sets of data suggest that growing educational polarisation is allowing white Democrats to increasingly punch above their shrinking share of the party. They have, so to speak, traded quantity for quality (i.e., wealthier, more educated, and politically sophisticated voters), disconnecting their numbers from their political clout. Meanwhile, groups thought to be the party’s future — namely, black Americans and Hispanics — continue struggling to achieve political sway commensurate to their numbers. 

The rub for Democrats is that the less their leaders speak to kitchen-table issues, and the more they adopt the language and policy priorities of college-educated white progressives, the harder it becomes to maintain the “party of the working class” brand; and thus the easier it becomes for small but electorally meaningful subsets of socially conservative working-class non-whites to reconsider their political allegiances. In fact, signs of such movement were apparent in the last election. Democrats have a lot of work to do if they wish to reverse these trends.

Zach Goldberg is a Paulson Policy Analyst at the Manhattan Institute.

Zach Goldberg is a Paulson Policy Analyst at the Manhattan Institute.