The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion If Democrats are losing the working class, it’s not because of the left

A demonstrator in D.C. on Dec. 7, 2021. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

It’s no surprise that Democrats are up against it this fall. The president’s party generally does worse in midterm elections. Inflation is at a 40-year high. Crime is up. And the centerpiece of President Biden’s domestic agenda has been torpedoed by united Republican obstruction — and a West Virginia Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin III.

But a critical factor was revealed in a recent New York Times-Siena College poll: Though they enjoy a huge 20-point advantage over Republicans among white college-educated voters, the Democrats have a working-class problem.

The Democratic Party is losing support not just among White, but all non-college educated voters, trailing the GOP by 12 points. It is becoming the party of upscale urban and suburban voters, while Republicans are beginning to consolidate a multiracial coalition of working-class voters.

Why is this happening? A chorus of armchair pundits and centrist think tanks believe they know who’s to blame. Not Biden, not Democratic centrists, not the gerontocracy that runs the party in the House and Senate, nor the party establishment.

No, it’s all the fault of the left. “Wokeness,” splutters James Carville, “is a problem and we all know it.” Ruy Teixeira argues that the left has poisoned the “party brand” and dismisses the idea that campaigning for more gun control and against the assault on abortion and Donald Trump’s “big lie” about a stolen election will save Democrats this fall.

It’s hard to make sense of this house of mirrors. After all, the president is Biden, not Bernie Sanders. Nancy Pelosi and Steny H. Hoyer lead the House, not “the squad” nor the Progressive Caucus. Centrists such as Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema sabotaged Biden’s economic plan, not the left. Crime is up in red and blue states alike and Biden has called for funding the police more than reforming them. The economy is growing faster than ever, with job creation setting records. Abortion, gun control and defending democracy enjoy majority support and are central reasons Democrats have that lead among the college-educated.

And if the problem, as the pundits argue, is that working-class voters feel looked down upon, nothing Black Lives Matter or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have done has been as poisonous as Hillary Clinton’s calling Trump voters “deplorables,” or Barack Obama’s disdain for those who “cling to guns or religion.”

Headed into a low turnout midterm election, Democrats ought to be concerned that the activists of their base — the young, African Americans, climate activists, Hispanics — are demoralized, while those on the right are aroused and on the march.

Republicans deliver to their base, even when most Americans disagree. Trump’s administration was a hot mess, but the corporations got deregulation, the evangelicals got their zealous judges, the rich got tax cuts, Big Oil and King Coal got climate action blocked. And for those communities ravaged by plant closures and jobs getting shipped abroad, Trump called out the elites that had failed them and broke with the neoliberal “free trade” shibboleths — torpedoing Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, renegotiating Clinton’s North American Free Trade Agreement, imposing tariffs on China. He didn’t have a coherent plan or policy, but he did something.

Democrats, by contrast, spurn their activists. Promises on student loan relief have been broken, action on climate and immigration stymied. Biden is more pro-labor than his Democratic predecessors, but the National Labor Relations Board hasn’t been rebuilt, labor law reform is going nowhere. The party is going all out on saving abortion, but it didn’t keep Pelosi and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from putting real energy into fending off a pro-choice primary challenger to Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, who opposes choice and much of the rest of the Democratic agenda.

The Democrats’ problem among the working class isn’t Black Lives Matter or pro-choice activists. It’s that this economy doesn’t work for working people. The rich capture the rewards of growth, while working people’s conditions grow less secure. Working-class Americans may be able to buy more stuff at Walmart, but they struggle to afford the necessities — health care, housing, education, retirement security, and now food and gas.

Centrist Democrats from Bill Clinton to Obama championed the neoliberal policies — deregulation, free trade, privatization — that led to this result. What Democrats need isn’t a turn to the right on social issues but a populist agenda on economic issues. They have to be clear that they are willing to tax the rich and invest in rebuilding America, to take on the monopolies — from Big Pharma to Big Oil — that are driving inflation, and that they will empower workers and hold CEOs accountable. And they have to deliver. Biden offered the boldest agenda of any Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson, but he couldn’t deliver.

In the end, if our corrupted politics mean that Democrats can’t produce for working people, while Republicans continue to serve the corporations and the rich, the anger and fissures in America will fester and deepen. And the attraction of a strongman who will shake things up will only grow.