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Why Democratic Appeals To The ‘Working Class’ Are Unlikely to Work

A year ago, Rep. Jim Banks, a Republican from Indiana, sent a memo to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy about how he thought the Republican Party should work to keep the coalition that had voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Republicans, he thought, could “permanently become the Party of the Working Class.”

It was a paradigm shift, he argued, and embracing it would be key to Republicans winning back the House and Senate in the midterm elections. “After five years,” he said, “it’s clear this reversal isn’t a temporary realignment contingent on Donald Trump’s presence in the White House — both parties are undergoing coalitional transformations.”

For Democrats, meanwhile, memos on how to hold on to or win back the working class are perennial favorites from pollsters and strategists. This has been especially true during the midterm cycle as Democrats sound the alarm that their party is out of touch with their constituents. “The starting point for the strategy is seeing that both our base and our target persuasion audiences are working-class and struggling, and we see them and wear their shoes,” the longtime pollster Stanley Greenberg wrote in a polling memo in November. What’s left unsaid but is heavily implied in these appeals, though, is that Democrats are primarily concerned with losing the white working class.

These voters are the focus of key Senate races in Pennsylvania and Ohio, two states where the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton lost to Trump in 2016. President Biden narrowly won back Pennsylvania in 2020, but Ohio remained unattainable. Yet Democrats are following similar playbooks: In Pennsylvania, the Democratic candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is talking about unions, and in Ohio, Rep. Tim Ryan is promising to raise the minimum wage and expand child care

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These messages, though, are unlikely to work on their own because the dividing line in the American electorate is not economics; it’s race and culture. Democratic strategists often point to Barack Obama’s presidency and his response to the Great Recession as a turning point for the party’s appeals to working-class white people. After all, Obama won many of the Rust Belt states partly on the strength of the white working-class vote, but after his presidency, many of those voters turned to Trump and the Republican Party. That’s because Obama’s presidency marked another big turning point in American society: a step toward greater racial equity. And on this issue, Democrats and Republicans could not be further apart. It’s why Democratic appeals to win back the working class are unlikely to work, too.

The parties’ pitches

In the Democratic Party’s 2020 platform, “building a stronger, fairer economy” was the second item listed, after strategies to deal with COVID-19, and it sounded a populist note: that the American economy is tilted toward corporations and the wealthy, and that it’s harder than ever for Americans to move up the economic ladder. “Americans deserve an economy that works for everyone — not just for the wealthy and the well-connected,” their platform reads. 

Indeed, Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill focused largely on the economy and passed soon after he took office. They’ve also concentrated on other priorities meant to help middle-class families financially, including an effort that would expand the child tax credit and help families pay for child care and extend subsidies for health insurance. 

By contrast, the agenda Banks laid out in his memo to McCarthy centers on nationalistic policies and cultural issues — not necessarily economic ones. For instance, Banks devotes an entire category to “Anti-Wokeness,” writing, “Nothing better encapsulates Democrats’ elitism and classism than their turn towards ‘wokeness.’” And the first item on his list is immigration. But even when the memo does turn to the economy, in its section on trade, Banks largely makes an anti-China argument. “President Trump’s push to take on the Chinese Communist Party resonated because voters felt, correctly, that the Communist Party harmed American jobs more than any other foreign government.” Likewise, Banks’s point during a section on “Main Street vs Wall Street” is to rail against the COVID-19 shutdown policies and not point to any economic differences.

What’s clear from the two parties’ approaches is that Republicans mainly think of the working class as a cultural and racial identity, and not an economic one. Democrats, to be sure, are also leaning into a cultural appeal when they pitch themselves to working-class voters — primarily a populist appeal bent on uniting the working class against corporate greed — but it is still rooted more in economics than any national culture-war issue.

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One struggle for Democrats in this messaging war is that cultural and ethnic identities have traditionally mattered more to Americans than class identity. “America is the only country that never had a mass socialist movement or a really successful labor movement on the level of even Canada, much less Europe,” said David Brady, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside. “So I think that America has a sort of skittishness or reluctance to embrace its social class solidarity.” Americans are somewhat divided on class politics: Most say unions have had a positive effect on American life, but many are also skeptical of socialism.

Some Democratic strategists and pundits have argued that Trump was successful because he recognized the anger that the working classes have felt since the Great Recession and because he then channeled it, even if he didn’t have the policies to match. The Democratic strategists, though, argue that they do have such policies. And indeed, legislation like the COVID-19 recovery bill has been popular. Seventy percent of adults were in favor of it, including even 41 percent of Republicans. However, Biden’s popularity has dropped below 40 percent since then, and Republicans are favored to reclaim the House. These policies on their own just aren’t enough to break through an increasingly divided country.

Representative Tim Ryan, who is running for Ohio Senate, speaks to a rally crowd
Rep. Tim Ryan has tried to center his Senate campaign on workers in Ohio, but he faces an uphill battle against Republican nominee J.D. Vance.

Matthew Hatcher / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Who is the “working class”?

Part of the problem for Democrats is that since Trump’s election, the definition of “working class” — already a squishy term — has largely come to be defined as people who haven’t graduated from college, especially when it refers to white people. The issue with this definition is that it constitutes the vast majority of Americans: Only about a third of adults in the country over the age of 25 hold a bachelor’s degree, including about 36 percent of white, non-Hispanic people.

For instance, while it’s generally true that not having a college degree leads to lower average earnings than having one, that broad assessment is not always true. (The amount a college degree pays off also varies by race and gender.) It misses groups like small-business owners, who may not have gone to college but whose incomes vary widely. In fact, some blue-collar workers, like those employed in the natural gas industry, might have upper-middle-class income levels. In these cases, the economic threats they often see are from Democrats to their industries, not to their own finances, which is why messaging about the government’s role in helping struggling families can fall flat with them. 

In general, Trump and the Republican Party have solidified a base of support in rural areas, which are overwhelmingly white and have lower rates of college attainment than the country as a whole, at just 21 percent. But understanding class divisions in rural America is challenging. Small-business owners and county leaders, for instance, seem to have supported Trump in just as high numbers as their lower-earning neighbors. Moreover, because fewer people with a bachelor’s degree live in rural counties overall, non-college-educated workers are just more likely to make up the middle class there. 

“If you have enough money to buy a truck and have enough money to feed your family and have a four-person house, you’re certainly not struggling,” said Daniel Laurison, a sociologist at Swarthmore College. But Republicans and Trump, according to Laurison, have used confusion around class to their advantage. “Being a white person without a college degree makes you a ‘regular guy,’” said Laurison. “It doesn’t make you economically disadvantaged.”

Yet there’s still a tendency, especially among college-educated, urban workers, to assume that those kinds of cultural differences indicate a different class position and that it’s rural voters’ class position — not their cultural attitudes — driving their votes. 

But this takes it as a given that the long-term trends in economic outcomes, which have affected many Americans, are what Trump’s voters are responding to. This line of thinking, though, ignores other changes in American life and politics, such as an increase in global trade, a shift toward knowledge work instead of blue-collar labor, a relatively new emphasis on sending students to college and a more expansive view of rights and equalities for racial, ethnic and gender minorities. 

These rifts in the kind of work that people do, the lives they live, who their neighbors are and what they think is important are what the educational divide might be picking up as much as income. “We certainly see a lot of mistrust of the elites, of people in positions of power, business leaders and elected leaders,” said Jeffrey Jones, senior editor of Gallup. “Education is a split [that] … we hadn’t seen before.”

When Trump voters are interviewed about why they supported him, they highlight gun rights, abortion, America’s standing in the world and anti-Obama and anti-Clinton sentiment. It’s, in part, why Republicans continue to attack the cultural elite, from elite colleges to the Washington elite, in their messages. They know this resonates with their base as there’s ample evidence that Trump voters’ anxiety is more about racial and gender equality and America’s standing in the world than it is about economic equality.

In reality, voters who rank the economy as their top concern tend to be richer, whiter and more Republican-leaning already, and their economic concerns very likely come from a different viewpoint than a class-based grievance sparked by inequality.

In his bid for a Senate seat in Ohio, Rep. Tim Ryan is making his appeal to voters based, in part, on a promise to raise the minimum wage and expand child care access. But his argument also has an anti-China component, which sparked criticism from other Democrats for using the “hate” and “fear” of the Republican playbook. Additionally, in his first ad against J.D. Vance, his Republican opponent, Ryan struck a populist chord, criticizing Vance for having left Ohio for San Francisco “to make millions and invest in companies that profit from globalization and free trade.” Ryan says all this while sitting at a diner. “[Vance] became a celebrity, CNN analyst and a big hit at Washington cocktail parties,” says Ryan.

But it’s hard to see how these cultural attacks, normally made by Republicans against Democrats, will work. For starters, the facts of Vance’s post-Ohio life might not matter as much as the basics of his biography — he served in the military and first became famous for writing a book about his Appalachian grandparents. Moreover, as a candidate, he hasn’t shied away from openly nationalistic, anti-Latino appeals. According to Laurison, the elite thing doesn’t stick either, “because [Vance is] not part of the ‘cultural elite’ in the same way.”

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In Pennsylvania, Fetterman is a slightly different case. He’s served as mayor of a Rust Belt town and as a lieutenant governor with just-a-dude authenticity. But the voters who put Biden over the top in 2020 were largely the voters for whom the Democratic message is already appealing or suburban voters who found Trump off-putting. It’s true that Fetterman won the primary pretty much everywhere — and handily — but he lacked support from the Democratic establishment, and it’s unclear whether he can win over more moderate, suburban voters in the general election. Polls show time and again that lower-middle-class voters routinely vote for Democrats, while white voters of all income levels vote for Republicans.

There’s also some evidence that Democratic voters want their party to also concentrate on social issues: A Democracy Corps focus group from May found that Democratic voters positively associated Democrats with “equality; civil liberties and rights; empathy; civil rights; police reform; social issues; and focus on the environment.” The issue on economics and on social issues, the memo said, was that “Democrats always ‘disappoint.’ They promise big change and nothing happens.” 

This is at odds with the advice of strategists like David Shor. “[T]he way we get around [ideological polarization] is by talking a lot about progressive goals that are not ideologically polarizing, goals that we share with self-described conservatives and moderates,” Shor, a Democratic data scientist, told New York Magazine last March. “Even among nonwhite voters, those tend to be economic issues.” But this assumes that voters will forget about the party alignments that are deeply entrenched.

When Democrats lament a bygone era in which they won the working-class vote, they are primarily talking about the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt— a time when the economy was radically shifted toward worker and labor power. But that was also a time when policies meant to favor the working class were specifically designed to help white men. The relative position of many people in the economy — and society at large — has shifted, and if that’s what Republican voters are responding to, messages of economic justices and leveling the playing field for all workers won’t change that. 

Monica Potts is a senior politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.


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