The Democrats Have a Self-Delusion Problem
They're the only ones who don't understand that they're no longer the party of the working class.
Yesterday, I was walking around downtown Oakland talking to voters, for reasons I’ll explain next week. (No, I’m not running for office.) At one point I chatted with three black men standing in the parking lot of a liquor store. The youngest one of them — he looked maybe 22 or 23 — told me he’s always pretty much blindly voted for Democrats. But in a recent election, he decided to undertake an experiment. “I wanted to think for myself,” he said. Instead of just checking off the D candidates and the D-supported initiatives on his ballot, he actually looked at each race and each measure individually, and voted without consideration of party. He told me he ended up voting straight-ticket Republican.
I didn’t get a chance to ask him about his background, but all the visual cues indicated he was working class. Most partisan Democrats would find that as perplexing as the fact that a young black man was a naturally-inclined Republican voter: they might understand if a wealthy voter of whatever race might vote Republican, but a worker?
That instinct, though, would fly in the face of the data: the reality, as Ruy Teixeira and David Shor have demonstrated exhaustively, is that workers of all races have been moving toward the Republican Party for years, while professional-class voters of all races have become increasingly loyal to the Democrats. The most salient split between voters who support Republicans versus voters who support Democrats is not race, or gender, or geography, or even income, but whether or not they have a four-year college degree. It’s a clean, class-based split. This is an indisputable reality that has not even begun to settle into the consciousness of most liberals.
For a while, journalists and political analysts tried to explain this away as white racism. White workers, the hypothesis went, hold profound racial resentment against non-whites. Especially after the election of Barack Obama, they expressed their bigoted grievances at the ballot box. Here’s how The Atlantic put it in 2018:
When President Trump says “Make America great again,” the again is instructive. He’s capitalizing on the nostalgia that non-college-educated white voters have for America’s past. “That harkening back to a supposed golden age where things were better has a really, really strong appeal for whites without a college degree,” Jones said.
That nostalgia, however, is for a time when black Americans and other minority groups had significantly fewer civil rights. And a Republican rhetoric that centers a longing for an era of white prosperity, rife with racist violence against black people, is why it’s impossible to understand the diploma divide without accounting for racial resentment. Needless to say, black Americans and other minority groups aren’t as keen on returning to the past.
It’s a convenient explanation for Democrats: It’s not us, it’s them. But if it has any empirical validity at all, the 2020 election results showed it to be woefully incomplete. In 2020, Trump improved his performance among black and Latino voters over 2016, continuing a trend that began well before anyone even seriously imagined the possibility of a Trump presidency. Since 2012, Teixeira notes, “nonwhite working class voters have shifted away from the Democrats by 18 margin points, with a particularly sharp shift in the last election and particularly among Hispanics.” Unless you’re prepared to argue that a growing proportion of black and Latino voters suffer from internalized white supremacy that attracts them, Stockholm Syndrome style, to an overtly racist party, then there’s clearly something other than bigotry at work in the multiracial working class’ abandonment of the Democratic Party. And it’s been quite a long time in the making.
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