Neoliberalism Is Driving Away Working-Class Voters of Color. They Need to Be Won Back.

Universal programs and economic redistribution, far more than rhetorical moderation and identity-based pandering, are the best bet for winning over workers of all races.

A polling station set up in the St Thomas Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Last month’s election was a mixed bag. Yes, Joe Biden got 12 million more votes than Hillary Clinton did. But Donald Trump added 9.5 million votes of his own. More than half of those new Trump voters — 4.6 million of them — came because he increased his share of nonwhite voters from 21 percent to 25 percent.

In some respects, these results are not entirely surprising. Trump’s better performance with nonwhite voters is due largely, though not exclusively, to higher support in Latino communities ranging from southern Florida, to Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, to the dense former mill towns of New England. Latinos are not a unified voting bloc, and prior Republicans outperformed expectations — the last Republican to perform similarly to Trump was George W. Bush in 2004.

Since most Latinos still voted for Joe Biden, some, like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, conclude that Democratic strategists are using Latino voters as scapegoats for Biden’s narrower than expected victory. This deflects attention from the Democratic Party’s more disappointing, and significant, loss with rural white voters.

Nevertheless, Trump’s performance with nonwhite voters deserves consideration because of what it says about the present and future of the Democratic Party. It may represent more of a trend than a blip. George W. Bush actively courted Latinos — emphasizing, for example, Latino members of his own extended family, which make his gains less surprising than Trump’s, who launched his campaign by referring to Mexican immigrants as “bad hombres,” rapists, and murderers.

And even if the 2020 results turn out to be more of a blip than a trend, they are a blip that has already been politicized by self-described moderates within the Democratic Party, who seek to use them to attack left-wing candidates. You have probably already heard the claim that Latinos are turned off by socialism and progressive policies, and that they identify more with gritty self-starters than with the recipients of social programs.

It’s a narrative that should be questioned, especially when considering how previous generations of voters were won to the Democratic coalition. Democrats did not incorporate constituencies like Southern and Eastern Europeans and African Americans by messaging alone. They used an organizational strategy that relied on local proxies such as labor unions, political machines, churches, and other grassroots organizations. And this, in combination with victories like Social Security and the Civil Rights Act, which created meaningful economic and social uplift, won the loyalty of voters for generations. Today, many of those capable of acting as Democratic proxies within communities of color are democratic socialists and other left-of-center activists.

Socialism and the Nonwhite Vote

Some within the Democratic Party claim that Trump won support by exploiting fears of socialism and the specters of “antifa” and Black Lives Matter. Trump is not the first Republican to use such a strategy. Republicans called FDR a Bolshevik. The American Medical Association stoked Americans fears of “socialized medicine” to defeat Harry Truman’s universal health care plan in 1947. Martin Luther King Jr was called a communist. Barack Obama was, according to vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a socialist who pals around with terrorists.

Republicans mounted the same attack on Biden, who has a long, virtually unblemished record of standing at the right end of the Democratic Party, and who explicitly denounced Medicare for All and proclaimed that his primary victory over Bernie Sanders was proof that the party was not socialist. But some Beltway insiders nevertheless claim that the mere presence of left-of-center politics dooms Democrats, particularly among nonwhite voters who supposedly have an innate distaste for socialism. Meanwhile, democratic socialists point to Bernie Sanders’s success among Latino voters to claim that socialism is popular among Latino voters; perhaps Biden hurt himself by not embracing more egalitarian economic ideas.

Both sides of this debate overestimate the degree to which most voters, including nonwhite voters, have fixed positions on socialism. Like other Americans, Latino voters have made no gains in real income since the mid-twentieth century and have seen a decline of household wealth relative to white households. There is a widespread feeling in many Latino communities that the system is not working fairly, a view shared by many other Americans.

However, as academic studies of political preferences show, only a tiny minority of voters, whether white or nonwhite, translate such sentiments into abstract political categories like “socialism” or “capitalism.” Most people instead use their intuitions about which side will hear, see, and fight for people like themselves — an intuition that could be born of a candidate’s support for specific policies, but also their messaging, outreach, or the views of one’s peers.

This election, along with years of polling results, further shows an enormous disconnect between the cultural meaning that voters attach to progressivism or socialism and their views on left policies themselves. One data point is exit polls, which suggest that programs like Medicare for All are supported by a majority of both Democrats and Republicans. Police reform, likewise, is popular as long as it does not mean abolishing all police. Another piece of evidence emerges from direct referenda, as in Florida, where a $15 an hour minimum wage passed 60 to 40 percent even though Trump beat Biden.

Conversely, voters in dark blue California and Illinois rejected progressive referenda that called for higher taxes on the rich and economic justice for gig workers — further evidence of the disconnect between cultural progressivism and tangible progressive policy. Democratic governors Gavin Newsom of California and J. B. Pritzker of Illinois (himself a billionaire) turned out not to be credible advocates for the tax propositions in their state. Like most mainstream Democratic politicians, they had past records of serving the rich, cutting social programs, and undermining workers. As a result, they lacked the credibility that consistent and committed socialists like Bernie Sanders have when they make promises.

How Voters Think About Politics, and Why a Left Strategy Will Work

What is certain is that voters like socialism once they get it. Universal or near-universal social programs like public K–12 education, Social Security, and Medicare were controversial when they were proposed — and the latter two were roundly decried as socialism — but they are now popular even among Republicans. Republicans succeed in demonizing means-tested programs like Medicaid and food stamps, which mainstream Democratic consider more pragmatic, because these pit the needs of poor Americans against those who earn too much to qualify for benefits. This allows Republicans to stoke racial resentment, even though a plurality of those who benefit from such programs are white. The same attacks on Social Security and Medicare fall flat, because these are widely utilized and popular among Americans of all walks of life.

Mainstream Democrats say that the party will never win elections and enact social programs by running on economic redistribution — especially among Latinos who supposedly identify with entrepreneurs. Naturally, some Latinos do, but recent electoral history debunks this as a wholesale explanation. Of recent elections, Obama’s 2012 contest with Mitt Romney hinged most on this issue. Romney famously quipped that 47 percent of Americans were dependent on state entitlements and would never vote for him, and demonized Obama’s supposed plan to punish “wealth creators.” Obama, whose policy record was decidedly mixed, nevertheless pushed back, needling Romney for his lavish lifestyle, ties to Wall Street, and what Obama described as a plan to “Make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules. You can . . . lay off the workers, strip away their pensions, and still make money.”

Barack Obama / Flickr

Obama not only beat Romney but earned a higher percentage of the Latino vote than any Democrat in the last twenty-five years: 73 percent.

By contrast, Trump is a skilled chameleon. He used socialism as a scare word, but he leaned less heavily on Republican economic orthodoxy in his messaging: he proclaimed his support for Social Security, Medicare, and a higher minimum wage, and he promised, even if he never delivered it, a massive infrastructure program and health care legislation. It strains credulity that he exceeded expectations against Clinton and Biden, who ran screaming for the political center, because nonwhite Americans developed a sudden aversion to economic redistribution and universal social programs.

And so, we must look for answers elsewhere — in the organizational weaknesses of the Democratic Party.

The Left Is Essential

In the franchise-like organizational structure of American political parties, down-ballot candidates serve as proxy ambassadors for the marquee presidential race. Presidential campaigns are ephemeral by definition, and they rely on local candidates and organizations like unions or advocacy networks to identify new voters and sell them on the party’s presidential nominee.

And throughout the country, down-ballot candidates in communities of color increasingly run and win to the left of the mainstream Democratic Party. Many nonwhite legislators entered politics through the Bernie Sanders campaign or progressive organizations like the Working Families Party, and they generally garnered more votes than the Biden/Harris ticket in 2020.

One of this article’s authors, for example, ran successfully for state senate and outperformed Biden on a platform of a $15 minimum wage, raising taxes on the highest earning households, increasing public education funding, legalizing marijuana, and implementing Green New Deal reforms. As in other parts of the nation, progressive Democrats generally underperformed the Biden/Harris ticket only in wealthy, largely white, and suburban districts.

Grassroots proxies are especially important to Democratic efforts to attract new voters in Latino communities. Online voter databases are the backbone of most campaigns, and candidates use them to target voters in their respective districts through door-knocking visits, emails, phone calls, and text messages. But these databases also lead campaigns to focus on high propensity voters — “super voters.” This systematically excludes young and newly registered voters.

In Latino communities, where young people, the elderly, and recently naturalized immigrants are a higher portion of the electorate, voters can easily fall through the cracks.

In Central Falls, Rhode Island, for example, where one of the authors of this essay was recently elected, Trump garnered 456 new voters between 2016 and 2020. But there were 1,179 voters who didn’t vote in 2016 or 2018. About 250 of these were new voters who recently turned eighteen, and the rest either immigrated or migrated to the state or chose to vote again after sitting out the last two elections. That’s nearly 1,200 voters — almost a quarter of all voters in Central Falls — who would have received virtually no outreach from either party.

We do not think that Trump’s improvement in 2020 is due entirely to new nonwhite voters. There are lots of indications that, as elsewhere in the United States, Trump performed better by turning out more white votes in Central Falls. But it is likely that Trump also won over some new Latino voters, and that situation makes the Democratic Party vulnerable.

In Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, for example, Democrats ran no coordinated campaign, while Republicans did and ate into the Democratic margin through sustained engagement with groups like law and border enforcement agents, Latino evangelicals, business owners, and young people disillusioned with chronic underinvestment in the region.

Whether this trend continues depends on the Democratic Party’s ability to coordinate with down-ballot candidates. The relationship can range from tightly coordinated campaigns to loose alliances built mostly on party affiliation. In the coordinated scenario, local candidates speak on behalf of the presidential candidate and build buy-in from their adherents. When there isn’t a tight relationship between the national party candidate and local proxy ambassadors, the latter can ignore the presidential candidate and spend more time emphasizing their own messaging.

Signs supporting Donald Trump and Joe Biden are posted side by side in the battleground state of Pennsylvania on October 26, 2020. (Andrew H Walker / Shutterstock)

The contrast between 2016 and 2020 in Central Falls illustrates this. In 2016, the popular mayor running for reelection worked hard on behalf of the Clinton campaign. He opened an office across from City Hall plastered with his signs right alongside Clinton signs. Secretary Clinton had paid the city a visit during her 2008 bid for office, and many restaurants still had Clinton’s picture up on their wall. Her popularity in the city was so high that she won the Democratic primary in Central Falls even though Bernie Sanders won Rhode Island as a whole.

In 2020, the coordination consisted entirely of an email to local candidates asking if they needed more lawn signs for their constituents. This year, there were noticeably fewer Biden-Harris signs across Central Falls than there were Clinton-Kaine signs in 2016. There was generally less enthusiasm, and the only invitation to be part of the presidential campaign came in the form of a phone bank volunteering effort to make calls to voters in other states.

Considering the election in this light, we see that it makes more sense to focus on party strategy, or the lack thereof, than to blame voters. In places like Georgia and Arizona, where the State Democratic party had a strategy for registering, activating, and messaging voters, we saw large levels of support for Biden. In places like Central Falls, where there was no discernible coordinated voter outreach effort, random variation and entropy may account for movers and the choices of recently registered voters.

A Way Forward

If they want to win the support of new as well as established voters, mainstream Democrats need to make peace with the left wing of the party. Activists have shown they are open to alliances of convenience with mainstream Democrats, but outright hostility is sure to demobilize them. Attacks on socialism or police reform efforts are especially counterproductive, because these are some of the key issues that bring newly elected candidates into politics to begin with. Such attacks do little to win voters, while needlessly throwing sand into the gears of the Democratic Party’s already feeble electoral machine.

Despite these organizational shortcomings, not all is lost. Yet if there is a way forward, it will not be found by shifting election data to assemble coalitions of voters seen through narrow identities. Rather, we should do what has worked historically to forge solid electoral coalitions: a combination of messaging and ambitious social and civil policies that, though initially controversial, make a meaningful change in people’s lives.

Those ambitious universal programs and economic redistribution, far more than rhetorical moderation and identity-based pandering, are the best bet for winning over workers of all races for generations to come.

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Jonathon Acosta is a PhD student in sociology at Brown University, where he focuses on political sociology, inequality, race, and ethnicity. He’s a member of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative and the Rhode Island District 16 state senator-elect. 

Richard Lachmann is professor of sociology at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He is the author of First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Powers.

Josh Pacewicz is associate professor of sociology at Brown University and a current Guggenheim Fellow. His research examines the root causes of contemporary political problems like the breakdown of traditional party politics, failures of urban governance, and political polarization across American states.

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