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. The mainstream media trumpet that crime is up. And the centerpiece of President Biden’s domestic agenda has been torpedoed by united Republican obstruction—and, until the recently brokered spending deal, by the Democratic Senator Joe Manchin III.
But a more long-term difficulty was revealed in a recent New York Times–Siena College poll: Though they enjoy a 20-point advantage over Republicans among white, college-educated voters, Democrats have a working-class problem—and the climate deal, while welcome, isn’t going to fix it.
Currently trailing the GOP by 12 points, Democrats are becoming the party of upscale urban and suburban voters, while Republicans are beginning to consolidate a multiracial coalition of working-class voters.
A chorus of armchair pundits believe they know who’s to blame. Not Biden, not Democratic centrists, not the gerontocracy that runs the party in the House and Senate, not the party establishment.
“Wokeness,” sputters James Carville, “is a problem, and we all know it.” Ruy Teixeira argues that the left has poisoned the “party brand,” dismissing 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.
How to make sense of this house of mirrors? After all, Biden is the president, not Bernie Sanders. Nancy Pelosi and Steny H. Hoyer lead the House, not “the Squad” or the Progressive Caucus. Centrists have sabotaged Biden’s economic plan, not the left. Murder rates are up in red and blue states alike—and Biden has called for funding the police more than reforming them. Job creation keeps setting records. Abortion, gun control, and the idea of defending democracy all enjoy majority support—central reasons why Democrats lead among college-educated voters. And if, as the pundits argue, working-class voters feel looked down upon, nothing Black Lives Matter has done has been as poisonous as Hillary Clinton’s calling half of Trump supporters “deplorables.”
Yet Democrats are right to worry that the activists of their base—the young, African Americans, immigrant and climate activists, women—remain demoralized, while those on the right are aroused and on the march.
Trump’s administration was a hot mess, but the corporations got deregulation, evangelicals got zealous judges, the rich got tax cuts, Big Oil got climate action blocked. And for communities ravaged by plant closures and jobs shipped abroad, Trump called out the elites that had failed them and broke with neoliberal “free trade” shibboleths. He might not have had a coherent plan, but he did something. Republicans delivered to their base, even when most Americans disagreed.
Democrats, by contrast, spurn their activists. Promises on student loan relief have been broken, action on voting rights and immigration stymied. Biden is more pro-labor than his Democratic predecessors, but labor law reform is going nowhere. The party says it is all in on saving abortion, but that didn’t keep Pelosi and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from fending off a pro-choice primary challenger to Representative 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 the Squad 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 grow less secure. Working-class Americans struggle to afford necessities: health care, housing, education, retirement security—and now food and gas.
Centrist Democrats from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama championed the neoliberal policies—deregulation, free trade, privatization—that led to this crisis. What Democrats need isn’t a turn to the right on social issues but a populist agenda on economic issues. They must be clear they are willing to ensure that the rich pay their fair share in taxes, to invest in rebuilding America, to take on the monopolies—from Big Pharma to Big Oil—that are driving inflation, and to empower workers and hold CEOs accountable. And they have to deliver.
If Democrats can’t produce for working people, while Republicans continue to serve corporations and the rich, our divisions will fester, and the future of our democracy will be in doubt.