The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden and Democratic governors embrace the new (old) class politics

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) at the White House on Friday for a meeting of the National Governors Association. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
5 min

The most important arguments in politics are often over what the argument should be about in the first place. Last week should be remembered as the beginning of a new round in this old struggle.

President Biden and the nation’s Democratic governors want to talk about jobs, incomes, child care, health care and who wields economic power. Republicans, led by many of their own governors, want the fight to be all about a packet of cultural issues connected to race, LGBTQ rights, the schools and religion — “woke fantasies,” in the shorthand of Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s response to Biden’s State of the Union address.

There is a subtext to this debate: Leading figures in both parties have decided that the future of American politics rests in the hands of working-class voters. With the most affluent voters now largely sorted by ideology, the “working middle class” in the poll-tested phrase popular among politicians, will be getting a lot of love.

Biden’s bet — and it’s a wager many successful Democratic governors made last year — is that Democrats can win back blue-collar voters. This means not just gaining ground among Whites without college degrees but also winning back Hispanic voters who have drifted toward the GOP, and boosting turnout among the Black working class.

The president reiterated one of his favorite formulations on Tuesday, describing his agenda as “a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America.” His first stop the day after his big speech was at a laborers’ union training center in Wisconsin. “For decades, the backbone of America — the middle class — has been hollowed out,” Biden said, adding: “Once-thriving cities and towns became shadows of what they used to be. … Now we’re going to turn that around.”

The barriers to the conversation- and coalition-shifts Biden has in mind are substantial. Declining faith in government’s capacity to make a difference in their economic lives has pushed many working-class voters to cast ballots on cultural issues, some closely connected to race. Many Republicans, including Sanders, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott, will continue to push these conversations to the fore.

And many Democrats argue that non-economic issues, particularly abortion rights, have been key to the party’s advances among suburban swing voters. Some abortion-rights advocates expressed disappointment that Biden allocated less than a minute to the cause toward the end of his 72-minute State of the Union address.

Nonetheless, one group of Democrats that sees promise in Biden’s emphasis on jobs, investment and a blue-collar political blueprint is made up of the party’s governors. This is not surprising since all governors, as Utah’s Republican Gov. Spencer Cox said during a White House meeting of state chief executives on Friday, like to think of themselves as “the get-stuff-done caucus.”

In conversations during this weekend’s meeting in Washington of the National Governors Association, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, both Democrats, stressed, in Whitmer’s words, that “the culture wars … are a distraction.” They hold this view even as they express pride in their support for LGBTQ and abortion rights.

In the case of schools, for example, “the culture wars … are not fueled by what the average parent of school age kids is thinking about,” Whitmer said. “They want their kids to be safe when they’re at school. They want a reasonable class size so their kid gets enough attention.” What parents are deeply concerned about is “learning loss” during the pandemic, one reason she is pushing a program of “individualized tutoring” to help students catch up.

Whitmer and Hochul each stressed the jobs they have preserved or brought into their states — by working to save a paper mill in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in Whitmer’s case, and by bringing a major computer-chip plant to the Syracuse suburbs in Hochul’s.

Hochul spoke of her family’s journey to the middle class and the need to create comparable opportunities in a very different economic moment. “We have to go back to the soul of an FDR Democrat,” she said, describing her parents’ political faith. “You take care of people. You let them know that you’re on their side.” Roosevelt, she said, “was the voice of a nation and gave hope to people impoverished and those struggling to even find a way into the middle class. Shame on us if we don’t reconnect with that history.”

It’s a mistake to pretend there is a clean divide between economic and cultural politics — and not just because the right’s focus on social issues is often a way to evade the unpopularity of conservative economics. Both Hochul and Whitmer challenge abortion-rights opponents who oppose family leave, child care and nutrition programs, an approach Hochul derided as: “ ‘You can’t have an abortion. … But then we’re done with you.’ ”

Whitmer still believes in the oldest of progressive dreams, that some of the country’s deepest divides could be eased if politicians were more attentive to people’s economic needs. “There are a lot of similarities between poor inner cities and small towns and rural parts” of her state, she said. “A feeling that they’re just a number or they don’t matter or they’re not on anyone’s radar.” Her word of advice to those in her business: “Listen.”

A lot is riding on this wager being right.