The Left Needs the “Uneducated” Working Class

All around the world, the Left has been hemorrhaging working-class support for decades. To think it could achieve long-run success as the champion of affluent cosmopolitanism is whistling past the graveyard.

Garment workers picket in New York City during the Dressmakers' strike of 1958. Kheel Center

When Donald Trump first ran for president in 2016, he uttered a line that, to most journalists and liberal pundits, seemed bizarre and condescending. “We won the evangelicals. We won with young. We won with old,” Trump boasted during a victory speech in Nevada. “We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.” 

At the time, Trump’s boast about leading a coalition of the “poorly educated” was widely mocked, dismissed as yet another gaffe that was supposed to eventually torpedo his campaign. No presidential candidate in modern memory had referred to voters in such a way. For decades — certainly in the era of the television campaign — those kinds of Americans were signaled to in more gauzy terms or never singled out at all. Vox, summing up the liberal groupthink at the time, called it the “strangest line” from Trump’s speech.

Trump, of course, is a hypocrite. He constantly brags about his own Ivy League degree and idolizes those who attended elite institutions. As president, he has governed as yet another trickle-down conservative, supporting policies that favor big corporations and oligarchs over ordinary people. His greatest legacy with be fulfilling conventional Republican priorities, like stacking the federal judiciary and appointing right-wing Supreme Court justices. 

As Joe Biden gains ground over Trump — who has run perhaps the most shambolic campaign by a sitting president in American history — some might imagine that the Democratic Party will soon be able to return to its roots as a party that knitted together a mass coalition of the country’s working class and poor. Polls have shown Biden making great progress with whites without college degrees, a category Trump famously won in 2016, and maintaining support from working-class blacks and Latinos.

But Biden, assuming he wins, is unlikely to reverse a shift that has been underway for some time: the Democratic Party is increasingly alien to people with only high school degrees. Nonwhites still overwhelmingly prefer Democrats to Republicans — Trump’s nativism and bigotry has helped in that regard — but those who lack college educations (like their white counterparts) vote at much lower rates than the college-educated, and party elites can no longer be complacent about continuing to dominate the working-class black and Latino vote indefinitely. Biden is underperforming with voters of color relative to Hillary Clinton, whose own struggle to excite nonwhite voters to the same degree as Barack Obama contributed to her defeat. This racial divide can also be understood through educational attainment: in 2019, 40 percent of whites over the age of twenty-five had attained a college degree, compared to 26 percent of blacks and 19 percent of Hispanics, according to Census data.

What does this all mean? For leftists who hope the Democratic Party can again become a vehicle for uplifting the poorest among us, it should translate to an emphasis on priorities that don’t always neatly dovetail with the needs of the highly educated. Bernie Sanders was right to champion tuition-free college and the cancellation of student debt, as was Elizabeth Warren. But it’s easy to forget that there are many working-class and poor Americans who don’t view this as a pertinent issue in their own lives. Student debt isn’t their issue because they never went to college in the first place. 

Ideally, there should not have to be a choice between making higher education free and eradicating poverty. Unfortunately, political capital can only be spent in so many ways. Simply manufacturing more college graduates will not be enough to rectify the scourge of income inequality or keep the working class from sliding further into the clutches of the Right. 

More recognition must be afforded to what Trump said so crudely back in 2016. Those without higher education — people who are not encultured as liberal and conservative elites are, who either don’t live in big cities or spend their lives in neighborhoods that have little to do, culturally or economically, with wealthier areas — deserve the same level of dignity, respect, and opportunity. For Democrats, an obsession with education has been the holy grail: get more poor kids or people of color into Yale or Dartmouth, and the problem will solve itself. Meritocracy is always the answer, throwing more ladders to the best and brightest of the economically ravaged towns and small cities across America. Uplift them — take them out of their environs, to the promised land of New York or Los Angeles — and all will be right with the world. This intellectual “strip-mining,” in the words of the writer Chris Arnade, devalues working class life and weakens struggling localities at the expense of big cities and affluent suburbs. 

The next phase of left organizing will need to prioritize those who are hardest to organize. There is good news in the interim: the Right, beyond fighting never-ending culture wars and championing the Koch-style austerity, offers no serious solutions. Trump is a tin-pot populist. 

Leftists should continue to advocate for free college and far better funded public universities. But they should not make the mistake of liberal Democrats by assuming the ultimate goal must be catering to the needs of upscale cosmopolitans. Universal, publicly provided health care, a commitment to full employment, and income security — perhaps through some form of basic income — will go a long way toward fundamentally altering the lives of millions of people and cementing their allegiance to the Left. 

There are headwinds working against the Left, both at home and across the world. Left-of-center political parties have been bleeding voters with lower incomes and education as they gradually transform into the champions of affluent cosmopolitanism. For those working to seize the Democratic Party and make it a vessel for radical change, this trend can’t be ignored. Policy must be imagined and designed with this dispiriting reality in mind. Only then can history begin to reverse itself.