The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is a Democratic realignment afoot in the middle class?

In the past 40 years, the industrial economy has evolved into an information economy. This economic change has transformed the middle and lower classes, culminating in a partisan realignment in the middle class. If there is an ascendant Democratic coalition, it is centered here.

The new information economy is more service oriented, less industrial, and more dependent on the creative use of knowledge and computer technology. Anthony Carnevale and Donna Desrochers and the National Association of Colleges and Employers note that the new economy prizes such skills as critical thinking, problem solving, working in teams and analyzing quantitative data.

This economy is dividing the higher skilled and the lower skilled. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the fastest-growing jobs among less-skilled workers will be low-paying occupations such as home health aides and medical secretaries. The fastest-growing jobs among more-skilled workers will be higher-paying occupations such physical therapists, post-secondary health-care teachers, information security analysts and interpreters/translators.

These trends have increased economic inequality between those who are less and more skilled. According to a 2014 U.S. Conference of Mayors report, “There has been a widening gulf between the wages of the educated and technically skilled and those without.” Household income among the more and least skilled parallels this trend, as documented in this Pew analysis. Thus, the middle class is increasingly more skilled and the lower class less so. The expansion of lower-paying service jobs among the minimally skilled lower class is likely to exacerbate the economic inequality between the lower and middle classes.

Meanwhile, the political partisanship of the middle class is trending Democratic. Data from the General Social Survey show that, since 2004, the self-identified middle class has moved toward the Democrats (see these charts). These shifts are particularly pronounced among those ages 18-39, men, the college educated, whites and Protestants.

Why would these economic changes push the middle class toward the Democratic Party? Because an increasing number of the middle class are employed in the relatively lucrative knowledge, professional and high-tech sectors, and they benefit from Democratic initiatives in education, alternative energy, scientific research and civil rights. Moreover, younger people, whites and men who have encountered deepening employment challenges profit from Democratic employment initiatives. In addition, a byproduct of increasing educational attainment among these groups is a rising social liberalism, including support for gay rights, legalization of marijuana and women’s reproductive rights.

To be sure, there are skeptics of realigments, notably David Mayhew. Many of his critiques — such as of the idea of “critical elections” — are correct. My argument is somewhat different, as I see the realignment as emerging more slowly and as being most manifest in changes in the parties’ coalitions.

My argument naturally shares some affinities with other proponents of a pro-Democratic realignment, such as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira. But I see this realignment as being driven in part by groups not typically considered part of the “rising American electorate” — such as whites and men within the middle class. The emerging Democratic coalition is broader and deeper than many have suggested, and it is less reliant on the support of the poor, urbanites, minorities, women and highest-educated.

Still, it would be premature to assume that these shifts portend Democratic electoral victories in 2016 and beyond. The paramount challenge facing Democrats is consolidating support among these groups.

Steven L. Schweizer is a professor of political science at Newberry College. His research interests focus on political parties and normative international relations theory. He is the author of “Imagining World Politics.”