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  • Madison Lazenby

Democrats and the Working Class

What type of voter does the Democratic Party attract?

A good person to answer this question is Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. During the 2016 presidential race, Schumer argued that “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” Of course, Schumer was wrong; while white working class voters either didn’t vote or voted for Trump, moderate Republicans didn’t flock to Clinton in the numbers needed to prevent a Republican victory. This dealignment of the white working class from the Democratic Party shocked pundits in the aftermath of the election, and created entire boom towns of Washington Post reporters questioning voters in Midwestern diners.

The party of working America is becoming less and less centered around the working class. While Democratic voters used to be both less educated and less wealthy than their Republican counterparts, modern Democrats are far more likely to be college educated compared to Republicans. Even stranger, the 2016 election was the first modern presidential election where voters in the top 10% of the income bracket were more likely to support the Democratic Party than the Republicans. Between 1982 and 2012, the Republican share of contributions from the Forbes 400 has fallen 9%, with increasing numbers of the ultra-wealthy supporting the Democrats. In other words, the supposed “labor party” of the United States has become the party of the highly educated (and increasingly, the highly affluent).

But while the results of the 2016 election were unprecedented, what Schumer described isn’t new. Working class migration away from the Democratic Party is part of a larger 40 year trend that transcends individual elections. And while the mainstream media has focused on the supposed shift of the “white working class” towards Trump, the more important result of the Democratic Party’s abandonment of the working class is the continued absence of millions of Black and Hispanic voters.

To understand this trend, look to the election of Ronald Reagan. In 1980, Reagan entered his first term as president and embarked on an ambitious program of union busting, deregulation and tax cuts, to resounding popularity. His radical economic reforms were seen by many as necessary to combat “stagflation” and increase economic growth, and reestablish American as the dominant political and economic power in the world. Slashing taxes and regulations and lifting price controls certainly worked the way he hoped; GDP grew massively over his two terms as president and he was credited with an economic miracle.

After three successive presidential election losses, Democrats were faced with a difficult decision: defend their long tradition of social democracy, or embrace the underlying logic of Reaganomics? They eventually found their answer in Bill Clinton. An enthusiastic supporter of the free market, some of Clinton’s most notable policy achievements include the signing of free trade agreements like NAFTA, the wholesale deregulation of the finance industry, and “ending welfare as we know it.” Far from challenging Reagan-era policy, Clinton expanded its reach and severity throughout the global economy. It worked: Clinton achieved massive popularity and served two full terms despite being impeached. Thus, with both Democrats and Republicans firmly behind it, the ideology of the “free market” dominated.

Of course, unleashing the market had its costs, and the next 40 years of neoliberal policy caused the problems with Reaganomics to become apparent. Though GDP skyrocketed, the wealth that was being created went almost entirely to the ultra-rich and wasn’t trickling down as policymakers had promised. As unions decayed, taxes declined and industries moved abroad, the average wage of the American worker stagnated. GDP growth and worker compensation, once closely tied together, diverged: while workers have become 70% more productive since 1980, their wages have only increased by 10%. Money previously going to the hands of the working class funneled up the ladder, allowing corporate salaries to balloon and the financial sector to become an increasingly important, and precarious, part of the economy. Inequality at the current level hasn’t been seen since the Great Depression.

Moreover, “unleashing” the economy, while providing a short term GDP boost, was limited in the fact that an industry could only be deregulated once. Policymakers pursued increasingly aggressive and dangerous strategies to chase growth, from the wholesale integration of the private sector into the military-industrial complex to allowing the financial industry to engage in increasingly incomprehensible and unaccountable behavior, including the subprime lending responsible for the Great Recession.

By embracing the logic of the “free market”, and playing a crucial role in its establishment, the Democrats stopped advocating for the working class. Necessary elements of the social safety net like Social Security and Medicare were grossly mismanaged with the approval of Democrats like Joe Biden, who as late as 2018 was proudly supporting efforts to raise the age of eligibility for these programs. Rather than writing legislation to rebuild unions, increase the minimum wage, or otherwise support working families, many Democrats opted to support foreign interventions and extend Republican tax cuts for the wealthy. Trade agreements like NAFTA destroyed organized labor and shrank the middle class by moving millions of jobs abroad. Action on climate change over the past 40 years have been inconsistent and weak, with even Democrats' best efforts resulting in climate action far less than what is necessary. There are certainly bright spots: legislation like the Affordable Care Act, while not a solution to our healthcare crisis, provided millions of Americans with more accessible health coverage. However, in general, the Democratic Party and its leaders have accepted the post Reagan political landscape at the expense of the working class.

As decades progressed and it became increasingly clear that working Americans were working longer, harder hours for a smaller share of the economy, huge portions of the country became dissatisfied with the status quo and abandoned the Democratic Party. Though Republicans capitalized on this through reactionary messaging on cultural and social issues, it is important to note that the largest impact of this trend is that former (and potential) Democratic voters simply vote less than they used to. Trump’s 2016 victory didn’t occur because he won the working class; it happened because millions of people didn’t vote. Registered voters who chose not to vote in 2016 were more likely to lean Democratic than Republican, leading to crucial Republican victories in the Midwest. In Wisconsin, a state Trump won by just 27,000 votes, low-income districts of Milwaukee saw voter turnout decrease by almost 20%. Similarly, only 3% more union voters voted for the Republicans in 2016 compared to 2012, while the proportion of union members voting for the Democrats shrank by 7%.

Understanding how the Democratic Party’s betrayal of the working class influences voting trends is crucial for the 2020 election. For all of the breathless coverage of the white working class, the American working class is disproportionately Black and Hispanic, demographics which vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, but also vote at far lower levels than white Americans. The real problem isn’t convincing these voters to not vote Republican; it's to give them a reason to vote for the Democrats. There’s a reason why “non-voters tend to support increasing government services and spending, guaranteeing jobs, and reducing inequality” more than voters by 17 percent. The last 40 years have made the legislative priorities of the Democratic Party clear, and in order to build long term electoral strength, Democrats need to gain the trust of these voters through pursuing a radically different path.

Democrats have inspired voters before: Obama’s incredibly successful 2008 campaign was centered around “hope and change”, speaking to the legitimate frustrations of millions of working class Americans. Though he ultimately became a far more moderate political actor than many expected, Obama was able to convince the voting public that he was ready to transform the United States into a more economically and socially just country. This quality also happened to be one of Hillary Clinton’s greatest weaknesses, as her inability to distance herself from her decades-long political career lent accusations of being a “Washington insider” credibility.

As it appears right now, Joe Biden is set to defeat Donald Trump in November. While making Trump a one term president is (and should be) the immediate priority of the Democratic Party, it would be incredibly unwise to take a Biden victory as a mandate for “business as usual.” Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and total inability to handle a crisis have caused him to hemorrhage support, but if he loses in November, the spotlight immediately turns to President Biden. Unless the Democrats are willing to actually fight for the working class and pursue policies that reduce inequality, expand access to education and healthcare, and protect existing Social Security programs, there’s no telling how 2024 might go.

Joe Biden, “the senator from MBNA”, has been instrumental in many of the dangerous and shortsighted neoliberal policy decisions of the past 40 years, from championing the Iraq War to deploying more police officers and increasing prison sentences and supporting NAFTA and other free trade agreements. While much of what Biden has promised so far on the campaign trail is promising (a two trillion dollar climate plan, eliminating the death penalty, etc.), you could be forgiven for doubting his sincerity to genuine progress. Biden was recently quoted as saying “corporate America has to change its ways. It’s not going to require legislation. I’m not proposing any,” during a teleconference fundraiser headlined by the President of the Blackstone Group. Last year, he made headlines for telling top donors that under his taxation plan “nothing will fundamentally change” for wealthy Americans. It remains to be seen how serious Joe Biden is about being “the next FDR”, and progressives must be prepared to fight the administration to affect any meaningful change. It isn’t good enough to be the better of two bad choices; to win back the trust of working class voters, the Democratic Party must build a better, progressive path forward.

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