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.
In the 1990s, when the Democrats, led by Bill Clinton, tacked to the right on economic issues in order to “triangulate” the Republicans and co-opt their way to power, workers, quite naturally, began to question their loyalty to the erstwhile party of the New Deal. This was the era of financial deregulation, trade liberalization, NAFTA, welfare reform, Permanent Normal Trade Relations status for China, and the founding of the World Trade Organization — all championed by what was called “the Washington Consensus,” which is to say, a working agreement among the elites of both parties. What was left of America’s manufacturing base was outsourced to Asia, a change that was celebrated by economic technocrats who heralded the arrival of the post-industrial “knowledge economy.” The slow death of Rust Belt cities quickened. Once powerful industrial unions shriveled into dwarves. As jobs disappeared from American inner cities, the drug trade expanded to fill the vacuum. Rural communities atrophied, and narcotics once largely associated with big cities — meth, opiates — became as emblematic of the American hinterland as grain silos and American flags. Instead of building and growing things, less-educated Americans were greeting customers at Walmart and clearing bed pans in hospitals for minimum wage.
At the same time, in America’s great coastal cities and inland metropolitan corridors, the real estate market boomed. The tech industry inflated like the bubble it was. The financial sector soared. Once working class, immigrant neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Manhattan’s Lower East Side were flooded with liberal arts graduates like myself, as their dive bars shuttered and re-opened as farm-to-table restaurants. The value of a college degree could be measured not just in a lifetime of increased earning potential, but in the access it granted its holders to a renaissance of metropolitan youth culture vaguely referred to as the “hipster” scene. Life was pretty good for your average college grad.
By the time John Edwards ran for President in 2004, everyone understood without explanation what his “two Americas” mantra meant. Edwards, a trial lawyer who masqueraded as a proletarian, was the apotheosis of the turn-of-the-millennium Democratic politician. His Southern Appalachian drawl and his populist bombast spoke to the self-conception and increasingly nostalgic appeal of the party’s working man’s identity — reduced but not yet obliterated by Clintonian neoliberalism — while his $400 haircuts and his meticulously choreographed stump speeches conformed to the professionalized and highly produced hyperreality that the party had in fact become. Edwards was a fraud, but in exactly the way the party as a whole had become a fraud.
The next Democrat to become President would be Barack Obama, a more authentic personality than both Clinton and Edwards if only because by then it was no longer incumbent upon the leader of the Democratic Party to LARP as the salt of the earth. The Democratic coalition was self-actualizing as the coalition of the cities and affluent suburbs, and Obama was free to be exactly who he was: a cosmopolitan, cerebral technocrat who felt an instinctive compassion for the disadvantaged but who felt socially at home among fellow Ivy League-educated elites. John Kerry, but black.
Obama was exactly what the Democratic Party and American liberalism more generally had by now become and remains today: a political movement of the educated, the credentialed, and the culturally capitalized. As befits a self-respecting aristocracy, liberal leaders and activists like Obama care about the downtrodden but are not of them. Their regard is paternalistic; the oppressed are “vulnerable,” “marginalized” and “victimized.” This language is a far cry from what used to characterize the left. Workers are no longer, to paraphrase Marx, “a specter haunting America.” Instead they are children, in need of adult protection. And that protection is the responsibility of the elite themselves: politicians, corporate leaders, educated and enlightened white people. Despite the hyperbolic radical rhetoric of today’s left, these privileged parties are no longer regarded as the agents of oppression, but of salvation. To the extent that they actively exploit those without power, they do so not through their actions but by their inaction — by insufficiently committing themselves to the elevation of their social inferiors via DEI trainings, antiracist curricula, gender inclusive language, land acknowledgements, etc. Liberation is a top-down process, incumbent upon the institutions of the elite as a patrician moral obligation, rather than upon the unfree as a function of their will to power.
The “oppressed” have become, again in Marx’s words, no longer a “class for itself” but merely a “class in itself.” In the liberal imagination, they are a monolithic, inert object, capable of being injured but not much else. They are no longer architects of their own destinies — to even suggest that the oppressed must emancipate themselves is regarded as an outrageous imposition upon them and an absolving of the oppressor, whose duty it is to “do the work” to free those they inadvertently oppress. This is the liberation theology of the post-modern bourgeoisie, which is the liberation theology of idiots.
It has come as a shock to elite Democrats that what the poor and disenfranchised seek is not, in fact, their sympathy and their heroism. What they want is what everyone wants: safe communities, good jobs, fairness and a chance of achieving prosperity. They are not, as it turns out, auditioning as extras in the moral fables of the Brown alumni network. They’re not waiting for the big scene where they can cheer and applaud in gratitude as their Cultural Studies-minoring champions embrace triumphantly, the cops and racists and January 6 insurrectionists at long last subdued. This is not their fan fiction; it’s the fan fiction of the professional managerial class.
The Republican Party remains the party of capitalists, but today no more so than the Democrats. Both parties are dominated by factions of the same American elite, but as the Democrats continue to write histrionic odes to themselves, the GOP smells blood. The Democratic Party can come up with as many excuses about the knuckle-dragging racism of the less-educated as they want, but workers are now up for grabs in the two-party system. Having already jettisoned their fealty to free market doctrine, Republicans have afforded themselves the political space to inveigh against liberal elitism not only on cultural grounds, but on economic ones as well. So certain of their righteousness, Democrats tend to hand wave all of this Republican strategic posturing away as a transparent charade that anyone will see as such. And perhaps it is — but so, in the view of many regular voters, is the savior complex of college-educated liberals. Politics is about perceptions. And the perception that Democrats have of their own party is not shared by the workers they presume to speak for. And it’s only getting worse.