Everyone Hates the Democrats

Progressives and moderates accuse each other of being unable to appeal to working-class voters — and maybe they’re both right.

Illustration by Rose Wong

The Democratic Party may have recaptured the White House, but its crisis remains as deep as ever. Though Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by 7 million popular votes, his Electoral College victory came down to 42,000 ballots in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin. Democrats barely won the Senate, lost seats in the House, and were stonewalled at the state level — of the twelve legislative chambers Democrats had targeted there, they won zero.

Far from celebrating a landslide victory, with hopes of a national realignment on the way, Democrats found themselves once more engaged in a tense debate about the future of a party that seems incapable of decisively winning control of all branches of government.

On this question, the progressive and centrist wings of the party are more divided than ever. Conservative Blue Dog Democrats like Abigail Spanberger blame radical rhetoric for the party’s poor results in Congress: “we need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. Because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter. And we lost good members because of it.”

In response, our left-wing leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez contend that the Democrats will fail to mobilize their most enthusiastic voters if big-ticket progressive ideas get dropped from the agenda. They argue that the party’s biggest liability was its unimaginative, uninspiring, and thoroughly orthodox economic conservatism. Joe Biden’s promise that “nothing will fundamentally change” might have won over some moderates disgusted with Trump, but it failed to inspire voters to elect a Democratic majority.

Meanwhile, despite losing a presidential reelection bid, many Republican leaders seem unconcerned with the results. After all, Trump managed to improve on his 2016 performance in nearly every demographic group, save college-educated voters and white men. Biden, however, failed to reverse the Democrats’ slow bleeding of working-class voters of all races, so much so that Republican senator Marco Rubio boasts that the GOP is now the party of the “multiracial working class.”

Democrats know they are in trouble, and most of them recognize the problem: their base is too narrow. It is too geographically metropolitan, too educated, and, increasingly, too wealthy.

What Democrats most need, then, is a way to build a larger working-class coalition. And this, too, is the crux of the debate between progressive insurgents and establishment politicians: each wing of the party accuses the other of being unable to win working-class voters.

Maybe they’re both right.

The Progressive Archipelago

“Left but not woke” was how commentator David Frum once described Bernie Sanders. In his 2016 bid for the Democratic nomination, Sanders’s economic platform was decidedly ambitious and his rhetoric indisputably populist. In an era of small-government austerity and technocratic solutionism, Bernie often sounded like a New Deal dinosaur, blissfully unaware that history had ended in the 1990s, or that Democrats had become a party of right-thinking college graduates rather than blue-collar workers. He offered a worker-centered economic agenda, without the alienating cultural aesthetic that dominates liberal media and the universities.

No one can deny Sanders’s influence on the future of the US left. His platform has upended the policy consensus on Capitol Hill, and his talking points are now regularly imitated by down-ballot candidates across the country.

Yet many of his most outspoken disciples fail to embody his unique appeal. Instead of the single-minded focus on working-class issues, they often embrace the liberal culture war while peppering in some of Bernie’s popular programs. So, if Bernie is the progressive exception, then what is the rule?

Consider Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, which even the ultraliberal magazine the Atlantic chided for its “Excessive Wokeness.” Warren combined a popular economic agenda with an often awkward attempt at courting Teen Vogue–reading radicals. This approach was admired among activists, media commentators, and some professional-class voters, but almost no one else — especially not the oppressed groups she aimed to attract. Warren came in fourth among black voters in her home state.

Warren is far from unique, though, and the brand of politics she championed is certainly not dead — in deep blue districts, it might even be the norm. The members of the Squad — long thought to be the successors to the Sanders mantle — have welded Bernie’s economic agenda to activist demands like “defund the police” and political appeals that, whatever their merits, seem best at attracting the hyperliberal and highly literate.

Progressives and socialists are now pairing ambitious and urgently necessary proposals like Medicare for All with wildly unpopular and sometimes counterproductive policy positions. Further, progressives have embraced a racialized worldview that reduces whole populations to their skin color. “Woke” ideology has prevented many on the Left from grasping the possibility that a Mexican American may care more about health care than immigration, that a woman might be more motivated by economic promises than electing a first female president, or that Trump might be able to improve his vote share among working-class black voters.

Even the political style of the Left seems designed to turn away potential new recruits. Far from signaling a commitment to vital social causes, being “woke” has become synonymous with an embrace of niche cultural attitudes found only in highly educated urban districts and among Twitter users — 80 percent of whom are affluent millennials. The Sanders campaign attempted a break with the new online consensus when it rejected the fringe term “Latinx” in its historically successful efforts to court Latino voters. And while Sanders failed to win over infrequent, rural, and small-town voters, he recognized how important it was to craft a majoritarian message that could appeal to them.

It’s unlikely that younger progressive leaders will do the same. Standout representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib sit in districts teeming with young, liberal voters (each seat boasts a Democratic advantage of at least 29 percentage points). For urban progressive insurgents — who are cash poor and enthusiasm rich — the incentives are clear: “woke” messaging helps mobilize an activist volunteer base that allows these candidates to overcome their financial weaknesses vis-à-vis established incumbents, and since these districts are so uniformly Democratic, they need not worry about appealing to a broader group in a general election. But even as these progressives have marooned themselves on isolated blue urban islands, they insist more than ever on defining the terms of national debate. And thanks to their unusually strong access to media, they’ve been quite successful at this.

The political problem here is not the moral motivation behind the “Great Awokening” — there is no doubt that progressive Democrats have the best of intentions. The problem is the way in which that moral conviction is expressed, and by whom. Party insurgents today reflect the sensibilities and interests of a constituency that looks and sounds nothing like the kinds of voters the Left desperately needs to win.

After all, professional-class progressives only make up about 13 percent of the electorate, and they almost never vote for anyone other than Democrats. Alternatively, as Peter Hall and Georgina Evans show, about 22 percent of voters dislike cosmopolitan and increasingly out-of-touch liberal cultural appeals but believe in a progressive economic agenda — and these voters are largely working class. Winning the loyalty of the majority of working people in this country will require breaking out of the existing liberal fortresses and appealing to workers across our massive continental democracy. But pairing a popular economic program with alienating rhetoric, chic activist demands, and identity-based group appeals only weakens the possibility of doing so.

Blue Dog Blues

If progressives are trapped by an unpopular political style, many Democratic leaders have carefully distanced themselves from it. You didn’t catch Amy Klobuchar gushing about new activist campaigns. And Biden didn’t bother to even flirt with woke posturing and academic invocations of “intersectionality” the way that Hillary Clinton did in 2016.

Biden presented himself as a reliable and likable moderate — someone to steady the ship after Trump’s rocky tenure and the insurgent challenge of the Sanders campaign. And, since the election, establishment figures have seized on every opportunity to tie Bernie’s popular economic agenda to the more controversial ideas championed by some of his supporters. Spanberger chided the Left to “never say defund the police again,” but the congresswoman was careful to tie the slogan to “socialism” and other more popular economic policies. (Bernie himself never embraced “defunding the police,” and instead argued consistently for better training and more accountability.) Similarly, Representative James Clyburn insisted that the “defund” slogan was as much a liability for Democrats as Medicare for All. Progressives, therefore, have made it easy for moderates to attack an appealing left-wing economic program by simply associating it with the most unpopular pillars of the progressive agenda.

In contrast, centrist Democrats and conservative “Blue Dogs” have combined moderate rhetoric with a mostly orthodox economic program. Their charge to the Left is to “grow up.” To win seats, they argue, drop the socialism. But while Spanberger squeaked out a victory in Virginia’s rural heartland, dropping socialism — or even attacking it at every turn — hasn’t prevented her fellow Blue Dogs from becoming a nearly extinct political breed. The conservative Democratic caucus has only twenty-six members in the House, down from fifty-six under Barack Obama. As alienating as woke rhetoric is, a politics that does nothing to address wage stagnation and general economic and social decline isn’t winning many over either.

It’s undeniable that Democrats in rural areas face steeper challenges than their urban and suburban counterparts, but curiously, two outstanding victories for swing-district small-town Democrats were Matt Cartwright in perennially purple Pennsylvania and Peter DeFazio in Oregon. Both are Medicare for All cosponsors; both held on to their seats even as at least seven more Blue Dogs went down to defeat. It should be plain that Spanberger’s rage at progressives is at least as much an expression of frustration that the Blue Dog formula also seems to be failing.

The establishment may credibly argue that hyperliberalism is an electoral liability for the whole Democratic brand, undermining House members who have never claimed any activist bona fides. But what do these Democrats make of the equally credible argument that policies like government health insurance and a $15 minimum wage are widely supported even in districts that make Spanberger’s look liberal?

Mainstream Democrats are fundamentally unwilling to renew their commitment to the New Deal ethos of social programs and union rights. Consequently, they are unwilling to rebuild the kind of electoral coalition that brought them a half-century of political supremacy.

Worse, the Clintonite commitment to economic “modernization” has led the party to a political disaster. The promise was that manufacturing job losses would be offset by widespread economic prosperity, built on Silicon Valley magic and the financial sector’s charge-card plastic. The reality was that the elite economic consensus — tax cuts and balanced budgets — resulted in unparalleled economic decline in midwestern “blue wall” states.

Disastrous trade agreements only helped accelerate the depression of wages and the inflation of despair in hollowed-out old factory towns and cities. History will judge the Democrats’ passage of NAFTA as nothing less than the first signature on their own death certificate.

For the Democrats to win back their New Deal (or even Obama-era) constituency, they need to credibly appeal to the economic interests of working people. Unfortunately, moderates in the party are unwilling to offer workers much more than a wry smile and a charming affect. Progressives, meanwhile, do promise real solutions — but only after they drench those appeals in a cultural style born in universities that most people will never attend. The effect in both cases is the same: Workers stay home. And the Democrats lose more and more of the country.

Listen to Workers

One way of looking at the past twelve years of American politics is to say that, in both 2008 and 2016, workers voted for the “change” candidate. They voted for perceived outsiders, and they voted against Washington. Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump argued that, through their personal charisma and skill, they could save workers. In both campaigns, workers voted for a candidate who promised to take on elites, renegotiate NAFTA, rebuild our education system, and stem the poverty, disease, and violence that plague so many American neighborhoods.

For over a decade now, the electorate has been screaming at the political class that something must be done and that the government must change course. But the government, under both Obama and Trump, largely ignored them. Nothing significant has changed in these last twelve years. Congress remains in a permanent state of dysfunction.

Meanwhile, the issues workers most prioritize are an afterthought in the media and among the political class. The domination of American politics by the affluent and the educated has led to a dramatic rift in the public sphere and a deep cleavage between rural and urban workers and those with and without a college degree. Within the Democratic coalition, in particular, the gap between workers and professionals has grown wide. In fact, the difference in priorities seems at least as significant as the self-identified ideological divide between the establishment and progressives.

According to a report from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, Democratic-leaning working-class voters ranked their top five issues as follows: health care, social security, Medicare, the economy, and jobs. But liberal professionals listed theirs as: environment, climate change, health care, education, and racial equality. By comparing rankings, we can see great chasms between groups: While crime was listed sixth for workers, professionals’ concerns about crime placed way down in position seventeen. And while workers listed the economy as their number-four concern, professionals saw it as twelfth in line. For professionals, climate change was a top issue in this election — for workers, it didn’t even break the top ten.

Across the board, professionals insist on issues far from the kitchen table, while workers vote almost entirely on direct economic concerns. The Democratic strategy of consolidating their urban and suburban electorate has only resulted in a deepening embrace of issues that narrowly reflect the interests of that constituency. After all, if your party is courting wealthy, mostly white, professional-class voters, you will pitch campaigns designed to attract those voters.

What’s more striking is that — though progressives insist on going much further than centrists on any given policy — the white-collar priorities of both wings of the party were represented in Biden’s campaign. In his victory speech, Biden reiterated his ultimate intentions:

To marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time. The battle to control the virus. The battle to build prosperity. The battle to secure your family’s health care. The battle to achieve racial justice and root out systemic racism in this country. The battle to save the climate. The battle to restore decency, defend dem-ocracy, and give everybody in this country a fair shot.

Notice that, of the top-priority issues for Democratic working-class voters, only health care was explicitly referred to — coincidentally, it is also a top issue for professionals. If you understand nothing else about American politics, understanding that professional-class issues dominate Democratic appeals will help you make a great deal more sense of the world than incessantly scratching your head during every election cycle about just why it is that workers keep “voting against their interests.”

The fact is, neither workers nor their interests are even on the menu.

A Progressive or Blue-Collar Congress?

The consequences of neglecting workers’ interests are clear: Washington will remain dysfunctional. On the one hand, in order to reverse the bleeding of working class voters — especially in rural areas and small-towns — the federal government must act decisively to reverse the economic decline wrought by decades of reckless shortsighted policy making. On the other hand, until and unless progressive forces figure out how to win outside of large urban areas, the Left will remain legislatively impotent.

Centrism is a dead end that promises nothing but razor-thin victories, divided government, and an ever-shrinking share of working-class votes. But getting “woke” also means alienating most voters — of all colors — and handing the Republicans easy layup victories at the polls. Still, it will probably take more than a rhetorical adjustment to regain the confidence of working people.

Struggling Americans want jobs, health care, decent schools, safe neighborhoods, and somebody — anybody — in Washington to listen. But why would they listen? Democrats today represent the richest House districts in the country, and Republicans consistently send the wealthiest individuals to Washington. The median income in Congress is 500 percent greater than that of the nation at large — half of our federal legislators are millionaires.

Congress is richer than ever, yet both parties have gloated about their success in “diversifying” the chambers: today, 24 percent of lawmakers are women, 22 percent are racial or ethnic minorities, and more than 5 percent are of foreign birth.

Only 2 percent come from a working-class background.

The case for increasing the representation of minorities and women in Congress has rightly been accepted as both morally correct and politically effective. Yet, in recent memory, there has never been a forceful case for improving the representation of workers. But this is exactly what must happen if we are to avoid the two dead ends of centrism and hyper-liberalism examined above.

Depending on your definition, “the working class” makes up between  55 and 70 percent of the country. The vast majority of this group shares a great deal in common politically, but in our broader political culture, working people are more often expected to sort themselves into groups euphemistically called “communities” than they are encouraged to think of themselves as part of a class. What’s more, workers almost never get to vote for other workers on the basis of their shared experiences, aspirations, and interests as workers.

On almost all major economic questions, lawmakers from blue-collar backgrounds are reliably more progressive than their white-collar counterparts. Working-class legislators are also more likely to come from the districts they are seeking to represent, more likely to come from oppressed groups, and more likely to sound like and speak to the discrete interests of their potential voters.

In other words, there is no good reason not to run working people for Congress. There is only one very bad reason, and that is the fact that many progressives, moderates, and conservatives alike plainly think working people are stupid and culturally backward. As a result, no one asks them, or creates the material conditions that allows them, to run.

Political scientist and author of The Cash Ceiling Nicholas Carnes credits this fact as one major reason working people do not run for office. Democratic socialists have a special responsibility to change this — what does workers’ government mean if not workers in government? Doing so would also help us avoid many of the problems outlined here and potentially allow progressives to break out of their blue bubbles.

The good news is that representatives Mark Pocan, a longtime member of the painters’ union, and Donald Norcross, the House’s only electrician, have recently announced a new labor caucus in Congress that could provide a means for doing just that. The caucus seeks to advance the interests of organized and unorganized workers alike. Presumably, it will also endeavor to increase the representation of workers in Congress. If these labor legislators can develop a serious program for the recruitment of workers to run for office, financed by local union PAC contributions and buttressed by big volunteer get-out-the-vote campaigns — especially in the small-town and rural districts where liberals struggle — they could provide a path out of the morass.

In Norcross’s home state, the New Jersey AFL-CIO’s Labor Candidates Program has to date secured more than a thousand election victories for unionists and could serve as a model for candidate training and campaign development. In close connection with the congressional Labor Caucus, such local efforts could help develop the political arm of the labor movement while also exciting rank-and-file members who are more likely to mobilize and support their union sisters and brothers than they are any Johnny-come-lately Democrat who only shows up at election time.

For the Left, pivoting toward recruiting worker candidates and retooling a campaign message to speak primarily to the economic interests of wage workers — in rural and urban districts alike — is a function of will. Progressive leaders in Congress are not tied down by corporate donations or deals with party elites that would prevent such a change in direction. And left-leaning Democratic and independent voters are overwhelmingly in favor of the kinds of pro-worker legislation that trade-union candidates might put forward.

Of course, there is no guarantee that working-class candidates armed with a bold economic agenda will break the powerful geographic bias against the Left. At best, the strategy offers only a slow and uneven advance. But it is also true that we have no chance to deliver the reforms we hope to see with a constituency made up of high-earning and highly educated liberals.

Until then, the Democrats will remain the party everyone loves to hate.