The Politics of a Second Gilded Age

The mass inequality of America’s first Gilded Age thrived on identity-based partisanship, helping extinguish the fires of class rage. In 2021, we’re headed down the same path.

Illustration by Rose Wong

The most important election of our lifetime — until the next one — produced no fewer than three big, wet American winners. Amid plague, protest, and violence, three larger trends emerged to mark the landscape of twenty-first-century politics far more distinctly than any candidate or ideology.

In both a mathematical and a historical sense, America’s most notable winner was that heartwarming index of civic health, participation in the democratic process. More than two-thirds of eligible voters cast a ballot this fall, making 2020 the highest-turnout election since 1900. New coronavirus-related voting options may explain some of this surge, but not all of it, since participation also shot up in states that largely refused to expand ballot access. In other states, like Colorado, Maine, and Minnesota, turnout crested above the practically Scandinavian threshold of 75 percent.

This historic mobilization of the American masses led to the election of a Democratic Party placeholder, whose launchpad to the world-straddling power of the US presidency was a thirty-six-year career representing a province smaller than Cyprus. There is something both absurd and apt about the simple fact that Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in a contest that generated more mass participation than any of the campaigns that anointed Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, or Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The second winner of 2020, not unrelated to the first, was partisan polarization. As long-standing social and institutional ties wear away, and national politics increasingly takes the place of the union hall or the neighborhood club, party affiliation — Democrat or Republican, Biden or Trump, Blue or Red — has become a kind of “mega-identity,” in the phrase of the political scientist Lilliana Mason. American politics, as Obama himself has accurately pointed out, is now “a contest where issues, facts, policies . . . don’t matter as much as identity and wanting to beat the other guy.”

No figure embodies this truth so well as Biden, a nonentity who ran for office on the non-slogan “Build Back Better,” without a defining political goal beyond beating Trump — and rode that negative partisanship to win far more votes than any candidate in US history. Yet even this extraordinary victory only sharpened the boundary lines on our national political map, with the reds getting redder, the blues getting bluer, and Republicans losing the presidency but gaining seats in Congress.

November’s third major winner, filling out the picture, was America’s headlong march toward a party system entirely decoupled from the politics of class. To be sure, the class-aligned politics of the long New Deal era — which happened to produce virtually every worthwhile national law, from Social Security to the Voting Rights Act — began to erode decades ago. But the last four years have seen a rapid acceleration of this trend, with Republicans winning larger and larger chunks of the non-college-educated working class, while Democrats gain more and more votes from affluent professionals and managers.

The result is a party system in which “issues” and “policies” — that is, competing ideas about the exercise of power or the distribution of goods — can hardly expect to find meaningful expression, let alone material fulfillment.

Gilded Age Politics

Mass participation, feverish partisanship, and class dealignment: we have seen an American electoral politics organized along these lines before. Notwithstanding the noisy debate over Trump and the threat of “fascism,” a concept imported from interwar Europe, this country’s own history furnishes a more useful precedent for our politics today.

From the Civil War to the early twentieth century, two evenly matched national parties traded biennial bouts of apocalyptic rhetoric and claims of election fraud, amid an atmosphere of widespread, even routine, political violence. Across this “age of acrimony,” as the historian Jon Grinspan calls it in a forthcoming book, American electoral politics operated on a principle of partisan vituperation. As an Ohio governor lamented in 1885, it was a “common thing to call the man with whom they do not happen to agree, a liar, a thief, a villain, a scoundrel, a Yahoo, a marplot, a traitor, a beast, anything and everything they may be able to command in the way of an epithet.”

Democrats and Republicans hated each other as much as they ever have, and their antagonism revealed itself in Congress and at the ballot box. Partisans disputed election results, incited mobs, and enouraged paramilitaries, while high-toned pundits denounced the “Mexicanization” of American politics. If today’s elections feel less like a struggle over state policy than a series of mass entertainment or sporting events — complete with predictable fan riots at the end of each season — Gilded Age politics, too, became a kind of national pastime, bursting with color, drama, and spectacle.

The presidential races between James Garfield and Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880, or Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison in 1888, for instance, are not remembered for their ideological stakes, nor should they be. But they were contested as ferociously as any election today, and they both brought more than 80 percent of eligible voters to the polls. Despite the violent suppression of black votes in the post-Reconstruction South, late-nineteenth-century elections saw the highest sustained voter turnouts of any period in US history.

Yet the partisan politics of the Gilded Age, for all its storminess, was also the politics of class dealignment. Both Republicans and Democrats claimed the mantle of the American worker, accusing the other side of being owned by some privileged stratum of the elite — and they were both right. Although the two sides argued endlessly about economic issues, including tariffs and monetary policy, it was often difficult to identify any class-based fault lines underneath the ruckus.

The real divisions lay elsewhere. Blue-collar workers remained fiercely divided by geography, race, religion, ethnicity, and culture — in a word, identity — with white Southerners and Catholics voting for Democrats, while northern Protestants and African Americans (where they could vote) backed Republicans. The voracious capitalist class at the helm of the economy, of course, remained flexibly bipartisan.

This was a formula for half a century of ruthless capitalist domination, racial oppression, and imperial expansion. Though America’s streets, docks, mines, and rail yards overflowed with protest — with more riots, uprisings, massacres, and police crackdowns than any other era in US history — remarkably little of this mass frustration left a deep imprint on the electoral system.

All the while, as if on a parallel track, partisan conflict between Republicans and Democrats raged hotter than ever, borrowing the emotional intensities of the Civil War era but without their ideological radicalism. Instead, the grievances of millions were channeled into passionate but sterile identity politics — where the fires of that enormous class rage fizzled into smoke. Does any of this sound familiar?

A comparison between today’s politics and the battles of Gilded Age America lacks the moral urgency of the analogy to European fascism — and therefore is much less useful, in different ways, to progressive commentators along a broad ideological spectrum. (For liberals, the specter of fascism is a reliable tool to discipline wayward leftists; for the Left, it is an irresistible opportunity to scoff at liberal complacency in the face of apocalypse.) Unlike the struggle against Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini — a fight that fits the moral arc of a superhero movie — the grubby, confused politics of the late nineteenth century offer little promise of romantic inspiration or even wholesome, spine-tingling distress.

No doubt, this Gilded Age analogy shares the defects of all crude historical analogies. It underplays the substantive differences between today’s two parties. The Democrats, despite losing much of their working-class base, retain the entrenched support of organized labor. And the Republicans, while making feeble gestures toward populism, remain far more hostile toward the foundational democratic principle of majority rule.

But thinking about late nineteenth-century US politics may be more politically instructive than the ubiquitous comparisons to fascism or the American Civil War. For all its sound and fury, the strife between today’s Republicans and Democrats does not represent an ideological conflict on the verge of armed revolutionary struggle. Even the most outrageous breaches of normal procedure only underline this point. When the pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol Building on January 6, it was apparently driven by no larger social vision than keeping its televised hero in the White House for four more years. Briefly gaining control of the House chamber, Trump’s champions sought not to take possession of the US government but to take selfies.

Viewed soberly, the American political situation portends much scattered violence, but nothing that resembles either civil war or fascist coup. No General William Tecumseh Sherman or Red Army is marching along to save us, and it does the Left no good to pretend otherwise.

Contemporary US elections are, however, marked by widespread popular enthusiasm, bitter partisan feeling, and hardly anything that looks like effective class politics. Our fault lines, as Dylan Riley explains in the New Left Review, also lie elsewhere: between the dueling political logics of “neoliberal multiculturalism,” on the one hand, and “macho-national neomercantilism” on the other. (Or, as Chapo Trap House’s Matt Christman has put it: “the party of Don’t Be an Asshole” versus “the party of Don’t Be a Pussy.”)

As the electoral system spins toward these gendered politics of partisan identity — further and further away from questions of wealth and power — the possibility of a meaningful democratic challenge to capital recedes beyond the horizon. If we are ever to break out of our own second Gilded Age, this destructive order of things must be interrupted, beaten back, and eventually transformed.

Class Dealignment Is Real

Confronting the specter of class dealignment, liberal commentators have offered three major responses: denial, celebration, and resignation. None of them are adequate to the problem.

Even in the face of an obvious statistical trend, some Democratic Party loyalists continue to downplay their party’s growing problem with working-class voters. Armed with a fistful of (rather dubious) exit poll data, partisans can boast that Biden beat Trump by 8 to 11 points among voters with incomes under $50,000. But even if these numbers are correct, they only underline the fundamental point: lower-income voters are narrowly divided between the parties, and the division is getting narrower. Eight years ago, already waist-deep in the era of class dealignment, Obama won this same group of lower-income voters by 22 points.

Far more than any Democratic president in US history, Biden’s victory in 2020 depended not on blue-collar workers but on white-collar professionals. When class is measured by education, rather than income — “education polarization,” as liberal wonks prefer to call it — the working-class retreat from the Democrats looks even more dramatic.

The most influential version of denial acknowledges that Democrats have lost enormous support from white workers since 2012: the numbers here are simply too large to ignore. But by touting the loyalty of black and Latino voters, liberal pundits can still cast a narrative that flaunts Democrats as the party of a multiracial working class. They’re not wrong, exactly — no more than Gilded Age Republicans were wrong to claim that their support from Mississippi sharecroppers and Vermont dairymen made them the party of a multiracial working class. But it’s not a very convincing way to describe a party that is less and less competitive with over half the blue-collar workers in America.

If the denialist narrative of 2020 — call it the “Stacey Abrams saved us!” theory — makes sense as partisan hoopla, it is baffling as electoral analysis. There is no doubt that Abrams, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and other influential black Democrats deserve credit for Biden’s historic victory in Georgia, their party’s first since 1992. But examinations of county and precinct data paint the same picture: the decisive swing toward Biden and Kamala Harris came not from working-class black Georgians, whose Democratic turnout probably did not rise as much as other groups, but from voters in Atlanta’s prosperous suburbs.

The Georgia precincts that broke hardest for Biden, the New York Times found, were those with median incomes over $100,000 a year. If Stacey Abrams saved the Democrats, it was not primarily because she turned out new voters in the hardscrabble black neighborhoods of southwest Atlanta, where Biden performed about as well as Hillary Clinton and a bit worse than Obama. It was because Abrams helped engineer truly massive gains in the upscale precincts of Sandy Springs, where the Democratic vote soared almost 40 percent from 2016.

At the national level, the denialist narrative is even harder to sustain, since Trump’s gains in 2020 extended not just to working-class whites, but to working-class Latinos and African Americans, too. The massive shift among Hispanic voters in South Texas and Florida cannot be attributed strictly to conservative Tejano oil workers or older Cuban émigrés with long-standing GOP loyalties. The overwhelmingly Latino voters of Sweetwater, Florida, a working-class Miami suburb, voted for Obama twice and gave Clinton a 17-point victory in 2016. This year, they also voted for Florida’s $15 minimum wage amendment by a landslide margin of 33 points. But these same voters broke strongly for Trump, who carried Sweetwater by 16 points.

A similar if less dramatic pattern played out all across the nation, with Trump improving his margins in seventy-eight of America’s one hundred Latino-majority counties. A closer look at this phenomenon, which extended from Dominican-American communities in Massachusetts mill towns to Mexican immigrants on the California border, underlines the working-class character of this year’s Latino shift away from the Democrats.

Trump improved his margins with black voters, too, though his gains were much smaller. The real story here is the same as in 2016: working-class African Americans aren’t voting Republican en masse, but they are showing up to vote Democratic at lower rates than the rest of the party’s coalition. Some of this is visible in national and state data, but as usual, it is even more vivid at the local level.

Trump’s hapless legal effort to overturn the election results in Michigan made much of Biden’s large margin in Wayne County, but, as many liberal commentators noted, the city of Detroit itself was one of the few places in the state where the Democratic vote actually shrank, in absolute terms, since 2016. In the highest-turnout presidential election in over a century — where Michigan’s turnout climbed from 62 percent to more than 73 percent — Detroit’s largely black, working-class residents voted at roughly the same rate they had four years ago.

In the black-majority wards of northern Flint, Michigan — whose contaminated drinking water has been a national scandal for six years — Biden ran behind Hillary Clinton, both in total votes and in share of the vote. Although 2020 turnout spiked all across Michigan and Genesee County, it actually declined in black working-class Flint. Results from rural black-majority counties in Alabama and Mississippi, and precinct-level returns in largely black districts like Chicago’s South Side, West Philadelphia, North St. Louis, East Cleveland, and central Akron, show a similar pattern compared to 2016: small but consistent shifts toward Trump, alongside flat or declining turnout rates.

Nationally, of course, African Americans remain the most steadfast voters in the Democratic coalition — and in some places, like the thriving, diverse Atlanta suburbs, black turnout may well have jumped in 2020. But in poor and working-class black communities, especially, where “economic anxiety” has been a problem for decades, Biden and Harris again struggled to turn out voters.

At this point, the scale and specificity of the evidence — across almost every racial group — is too large for all but the most committed denialist to ignore. “Across the country’s working-class zones,” writes Gabriel Winant in n+1, “Republican organization has tapped into actual living sociality and lent it reactionary meaning while Democrats are surviving on existing and anachronistic ‘norms’ like an inheritance they are spending down.”

In the New York Times, David Leonhardt was more direct: “The Democratic message is failing to resonate with many working-class Americans.”

Class dealignment is all too real. But what does it mean for American politics?

Class Dealignment Is a Disaster for Left Politics

For one prominent cluster of think-tank liberals, the changing Democratic coalition is not a fact to be mourned but an opportunity to be seized. As Trump draws the Republicans to “populism,” New America’s Lee Drutman argued after the 2016 election, the Democrats should work to win over “upscale cosmopolitan Republicans.” After Biden rode this advice to victory in 2020, the Brookings Institution issued a blunt pronouncement: “The future for Democrats is in the suburbs.”

The strategic case for dealignment on these terms is straightforward. The voters Democrats are losing (“blue-collar” workers “in Western Pennsylvania,” as Chuck Schumer infamously put it in 2016) represent a shrinking share of the US electorate; the voters they are gaining (“moderate Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia”) represent a growing share. The new highly educated Democrats are also much more reliable voters in off-year elections, as the 2018 midterms demonstrated. As more and more Americans graduate from college, the theory goes, both the electorate and the future become more and more Democratic.

Yet if class dealignment works to raise the floor of Democratic support, it also lowers the ceiling, blunting the party’s ability to compete for the 65 percent of adults without college degrees. The 2016 election showed what a Democratic defeat looks like under this arrangement — a total wipeout in every branch of the federal government, with losses at the state level, too. Perhaps just as troubling, 2020 has shown what victory looks like: just enough suburban votes for Democrats to win back the White House and Senate, but not enough to retake a single state house or summon a convincing majority in Congress.

Of course, divided government is no disaster for the investor class or the politicians who serve it. A Republican stake in government, as centrist leaders like Andrew Cuomo understand, offers both a reliable guardrail against progressive ambition and a convincing excuse for unmet campaign promises.

But everyone else should be concerned. As Jonathan Rodden shows in his book Why Cities Lose, the combination of class dealignment and metropolitan concentration puts Democrats at a massive disadvantage in the Senate, in the Electoral College, and in state governments. Even in the House of Representatives, just 26 out of 435 districts contain a majority of eligible voters with a bachelor’s degree. In 288 of those same districts, meanwhile, non-college-educated voters make up at least two-thirds of the potential electorate.

These numbers put a hard cap on any coalition that depends on educated metropolitans. If even huge Democratic mobilizations under this alignment, like Biden’s 81-million-vote victory in 2020, can produce only razor-thin majorities, it becomes difficult to imagine, let alone enact, a big-ticket reform like Medicare for All. And if the rising Democratic coalition is electorally punchless, it is also ideologically inert. To be sure, some progressive commentators have trumpeted the possibilities of a professional-class Democratic Party, arguing that affluent suburban voters are no obstacle to economic populist policy. But this species of argument — call it the “Katie Porter will save us!” theory — was unconvincing last year, and it is no more convincing today.

It’s true that Porter, an outspoken progressive from a wealthy district in Southern California, cruised to reelection in her House seat. But for every Porter, since 2018, the newly blue suburbs have elected far more pro-business “New Democrats,” like Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton (VA), Tom Malinowski and Mikie Sherrill (NJ), Colin Allred and Lizzie Fletcher (TX), Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens (MI), Lucy McBath (GA), Sean Casten (IL), Dean Phillips (MN), and Jason Crow (CO). None are cosponsors of Medicare for All.

In 2019, the ideological limits of a Democratic Party centered around professional-class voters were already visible, where state governments from Connecticut to Washington proved unable to take even the gentlest baby steps toward economic redistribution. The 2020 election underlined that point in dark blue ink.

In Illinois, billionaire governor J. B. Pritzker spent much of the year attempting to sell voters on a progressive tax on income above $250,000 a year — funding needed to avoid dire cuts to the state budget. But in a statewide referendum, the bifurcated Democratic coalition failed him. In Chicago, nonwhite working-class voters strongly backed Pritzker’s tax, with the South Side’s 8th Ward (97 percent black) and the West Side’s 22nd Ward (89 percent Latino) supporting the measure by over 50 points. Yet overall Democratic turnout in both these inner-city wards — where Joe Biden’s vote share also dropped — was down from 2012 and 2016.

Meanwhile, wealthy and well-educated Illinois Democrats backed Biden with far more enthusiasm than they mustered for Chicago’s own Barack Obama, but their support did not extend to the progressive tax. Here, it is worth distinguishing among three different kinds of upscale neighborhoods. In the very posh, very liberal 43rd Ward, home to Lincoln Park, voters turned Obama’s healthy 31-point lead in 2012 to a 64-point Biden landslide in 2020 — but they only supported the tax by 7 points. In the moderate, affluent North Shore suburbs of New Trier Township, including the $1.58 million house where Home Alone was filmed, Biden extended Obama’s margin from 10 to 46 points — but residents voted against the tax by 23 points. And in the traditionally Republican village of Barrington, where reality TV star Kristin Cavallari and NFL quarterback Kirk Cousins grew up, a 28-point Obama deficit turned into a 4-point Biden victory — but the tax was defeated by a whopping 40 points.

The gap between Barrington and Lincoln Park suggests that not all rich Democratic districts are created equal. But the similar results across the wealthy Chicago burbs, from Northfield to Naperville — with Biden collecting from 30 to 70 points more than the income tax — also suggest that this is not a Democratic coalition willing to pay for public goods.

In Arizona, a similar ballot measure — to fund teacher salaries by taxing income over $250,000 — managed to get over the finish line, winning 52 percent support statewide. Yet a glance at metro Phoenix precincts reveals a familiar pattern. In wealthy resort communities like Scottsdale and Paradise Valley, where the recent blue swing has been most dramatic, Biden and Democratic Senate candidate Mark Kelly proved much more popular than teacher salaries. The ballot measure only passed, it seems, due to residual support in red-trending, working-class exurbs like eastern Mesa and Apache Junction — areas where Trump won a majority but where taxing the rich still ran well ahead of the Democrats.

In California, finally, new-blue rich suburbs were not the only areas that voted for Proposition 22, which overturned labor protections for app-based drivers. (The unprecedented $200 million spent by Uber, Lyft, and other companies helped win votes everywhere outside the state’s most reliably liberal areas.) The most revealing fault line, as in Illinois and Arizona, was a fiscal measure — Proposition 15, which proposed to fund schools and local governments by raising taxes on business property worth more than $3 million. Despite a corporate propaganda campaign against it — unfortunately abetted by the California NAACP — Proposition 15 proved popular in working-class Los Angeles, winning large margins from black and Latino voters in Compton, Inglewood, and Bell Gardens. But once again, the newest wing of the Biden coalition stepped up and batted down an attempt to tax the rich.

In the very wealthy, ex-Republican LA beach suburbs of Rancho Palos Verdes and Manhattan Beach — where Biden ran 25 or more points better than Obama — the business property tax failed by over 20 points. Orange County as a whole, which turned blue for the first time in 2016, swung hard against Proposition 15. Even Katie Porter couldn’t help save California schools and governments: in her own very wealthy congressional district, voters rejected the property tax, 61 to 39 percent.

Summoning the democratic will for economic redistribution is difficult in the best of circumstances. But it is harder than ever under conditions of accelerating class dealignment — when the political party that claims to support progressive taxes depends, more and more, on voters who strenuously oppose them.

If the future of the Democratic Party is in the rich suburbs, the future of American politics is another long Gilded Age.

Class Dealignment Is a Choice

The most understandable liberal response to class dealignment is a kind of resignation and acceptance. After all, the larger pattern of education polarization is not unique to the United States in the age of Trump; as Thomas Piketty has shown more thoroughly than anyone, it’s a broader trend that has marked much of the postindustrial world since at least the 1970s. And as Piketty also notes, the class-centered politics of the early twentieth century emerged from economic forces and social movements — in particular, industrial development and mass labor organization — that do not exist in the same form today. So why should we expect electoral politics to look the same?

We shouldn’t. But too often, for liberal pundits, the mere recognition of class dealignment doubles as a meek surrender to its power, as if the rich suburban conquest of the Democratic Party were a law of physics. In the eyes of such tough-minded progressives, leftists who pine for the New Deal coalition — or any electoral politics grounded in class — might as well be howling at the phases of the moon. It’s seen as a mark of intellectual maturity to recognize that the future of progressive struggle lies in the office parks and PTA meetings of Scottsdale and Sandy Springs, not the warehouses and hospitals of northern Minnesota or Western Pennsylvania.

This logic, of course, enthrones Chuck Schumer’s butt-headed 2016 campaign strategy as a driving force of world history.

Yes, some form of class dealignment has emerged all over the developed world, and no, its US iteration cannot be reduced to particular national conditions — either unique Democratic Party malfeasance or the deep history of American racism. But all this only underlines something we already know well: that center-left parties in postindustrial countries, facing similar social and economic currents, have followed similar paths, prioritizing global markets, cosmopolitan values, and professional-class voters rather than unions, wages, and blue-collar workers. Our world contains many Chuck Schumers. The death of class politics is not an outcome these party leaders feared; it is a goal they have zealously pursued. Just as laissez-faire was planned, class dealignment was chosen.

Ironically, in the United States, the best evidence for this comes from the political figure who appears to symbolize the Democrats’ transformation from a party of workers to a party of cosmopolitans: Barack Obama. The irresistible rise of class dealignment, as marked out in the alpine slopes of Piketty’s charts, suffered a major hiccup in 2008, when blue-collar voters flocked to Obama over John McCain. Judged by income levels, Obama’s first victory may even have seen more class-based voting than the New Deal–era heyday of the 1950s and 1960s. Even the march of education polarization, perhaps the strongest electoral meta-trend of the twenty-first century, was halted and reversed in 2008.

Since 2016, however, dealignment has soared like the Matterhorn. Viewed from the pivotal swing state of Michigan, the class differences between the Obama and Biden coalitions are both stark and enlightening. In 2008, Obama swept across white working-class Michigan like the second coming of Franklin Delano Roosevelt — in fact, he won the state by a larger margin than FDR did in 1932. In deindustrializing Bay County, formerly a base for General Motors, he won by 15 points; in rural Menominee County on the Upper Peninsula, he won by 10, the best Democratic showing there since Lyndon B. Johnson. And in black working-class Detroit, Obama walloped McCain by 316,000 votes.

The 2020 election was a different story. Biden’s Detroit margin over Trump shrunk to 221,000 votes, a reduction that far outpaced the city’s population decline in the same years. In Bay County, Biden lost by 12 points, a 27-point swing to the GOP; in Menominee, he lost by 30, a whopping 40-point reversal. And yet, even in the context of a much tighter Michigan race — with a winning margin that shrank from 16 to 3 points — Biden nevertheless managed to make gains in the richest parts of the state. In prosperous, ancestrally Republican Kent County, home to Grand Rapids, the Democratic vote in 2020 outpaced Obama and FDR alike. In the affluent Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills — the single richest municipality in Michigan — Biden and Harris ran 17 points ahead of Obama and Biden in ’08 (and 15 points ahead of the ’12 ticket).

These are differences that a single decade has made. The broad historical forces that helped produce today’s dealigned electorate — global markets, weak unions, disappearing jobs, and stagnant wages — were all operative, in their essential form, in 2008. They cannot be responsible for such a dramatic shift in such a short period of time.

Nor can it be chalked up to the unique political talent of Barack Obama. After all, that talent did not seem so impressive to wealthy voters in Bloomfield Hills — nor in the country clubs of Houston and on the private beaches of Southern California, where he received many fewer votes than both John McCain and Joe Biden.

In retrospect, Obama’s political skills seem to have been especially spectacular in the very blue-collar precincts that many progressives now regard as lost to the Democrats for a generation. What was it about Barack Obama that made him so attractive to Youngstown, Ohio, and so unwelcome in Newport Beach, California? Maybe it had something to do with the political energy of the 2008 campaign, which rallied around a historic outsider’s bid to change Washington, get out of Iraq, and guarantee universal health care — all while chanting the slogan of the United Farm Workers.

Obama’s eight years in power, of course, delivered something very different from the populist energy of the campaign trail. Homeowners suffered foreclosure while Washington bailed out Wall Street; health insurance remained ruinously expensive and very far from universal; inequality rose as fast as ever. The rhetoric of class politics gave way to the reality of cautious, stakeholder-centered government, both materially and stylistically allergic to bold economic redistribution. As “Yes We Can” mutated into “Don’t Boo, Vote,” is it any wonder that the Obama coalition changed shape, too?

Yet somehow, according to today’s calculations, the truck drivers and cashiers who twice voted for a transformative, populist black candidate — only to grasp for another outsider in 2016 — have now revealed themselves as fascists in sheep’s clothing. Meanwhile, the corporate lawyers and realtors who spurned Obama twice, and only came around to the Democrats after they nominated the safest possible symbol of restoration — a white, six-term senator from Delaware — represent the progressive future of the party. Such is the logic of Gilded Age politics, where partisan identity transcends class, interest, and ideology.

A Gilded Age Pandemic

The difference between the Obama and Biden coalitions, of course, owes much to the emergence of Donald Trump. Trump’s aggressive anti-establishment rhetoric and his thinly coded racist appeals have clearly helped undermine Democratic support in white working-class districts.

But the shape of two-party electoral contests is determined by the political decisions of both parties. For the Democratic elites who always opposed class politics, Trump has been nothing less than a godsend. (There’s a reason why so many anti-populist liberals, from Neera Tanden to Jonathan Chait, were eager to see him win the Republican primary.) In 2016, Hillary Clinton went all in on the Schumer strategy, crafting a campaign that did not seek to discredit or outbid Trump’s rabble-rousing but actually amplified it, in hopes of scooping up disgusted Republicans in the suburbs. That choice, ratified by the 2018 midterms and Joe Biden’s victory in the Democratic primary, made the contours of the 2020 campaign all but inevitable.

Although Biden made a few feeble gestures toward populist politics, “Scranton versus Park Avenue” never really got off the ground. It was always going to be a tough sell, given that Park Avenue voted for the son of Scranton at an 80 percent clip. Instead, Biden focused like a laser on Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, making it the centerpiece of his campaign and the entirety of his closing statement at the final debate. For all the pundit chatter about defunding the police or the future of democracy, the vast majority of Americans, as the New York Times reported, understood the 2020 campaign as “the pandemic versus the economy.” For Biden voters, poll after poll demonstrated, the virus was the most important issue.

Amid an outbreak that has killed more than 300,000 Americans, public health was bound to take center stage in the election. But Biden’s brand of pandemic politics felt like it was designed in a biotech lab to accelerate the march of class dealignment. First, in the primary, he and his allies mocked Bernie Sanders’s effort to connect the lethal virus to the larger failures of America’s unequal health care system. COVID-19 relief for all, Democrats made clear, did not mean Medicare for All or anything like it.

Second, in the general election, Biden lambasted Trump for his incompetence, irresponsibility, and refusal to consult scientific experts. All these criticisms were richly deserved; judged by the death toll alone, the United States has one of the worst virus-response records in the world. But by limiting their attacks to Trump’s blundering leadership, Democrats positioned themselves not as advocates for expanded social welfare but as guardians of ideologically neutral “science.”

Considered on the whole, it was a politics of “high-minded white-collar rectitude,” as journalist Thomas Frank wrote in the Guardian, perfectly pitched to win over educated professionals in the suburbs. “Science is real,” announces the now-ubiquitous rainbow yard sign — above “love is love” and below “no human is illegal” — eloquently expressing the Trump-era liberal desire to reduce all politics to some combination of identity and tautology. This catechism’s failure to mention health care, jobs, or wages is not accidental. Within today’s Democratic Party — devoted to “a profoundly unequal but rigorously equitable form of capitalism,” as Riley argues — academic expertise ranks much higher than economic rights.

As the 2020 campaign unfolded under the shadow of the pandemic, Trump helpfully played his part, doubling down on the buffoonish antics that culminated in his infection with COVID-19. The deadly outbreak — an actual extension of class war, in which thousands of manual workers have died while bosses and professionals complain about Zoom calls — was thus dressed up as another episode in the never-ending struggle between Team Red and Team Blue.

Both major party establishments joined the effort to convince a plague-stricken, protest-riddled country to bring its righteous anger to the ballot box. The corporate media, whose own business models now expect Gilded Age levels of partisanship — 91 percent of Americans who depend on the New York Times for news are Democrats — eagerly played along. And potential frustration at the for-profit health care system, or mass unemployment, or the literally murderous shape of our economy, was rerouted into familiar sectarian sniping about experts, masks, and individual misbehavior.

By accepting the false zero-sum choice of “the pandemic versus the economy,” Mike Davis notes, Democrats practically advertised their unseriousness as a party of material politics. But who needs material politics in an era of feverish culture war? Ultimately, it was much easier to make Anthony Fauci a sex symbol than to campaign on anything that bore the slightest whiff of resentment against the rich and powerful. In so many senses, both the pandemic and the politics that emerged from it took place deep within our second Gilded Age.

Forging a Class Interest

Where does this all leave the Left? Class dealignment may be a choice, but if Democratic leaders keep choosing it, what hope is there to break the cycle? The two Sanders presidential campaigns represented one effort, but they ended in a defeat that only confirmed the supremacy of the Biden coalition.

The current order leaves the post-Sanders electoral left in a painful bind. To woo polarized primary voters in deep-blue districts, and to build lasting institutional strength, left-wing candidates feel that they must, as a matter of tactical necessity, lean further into Democratic partisanship. That means concentrating their fire on Republicans, making a degree of peace with the Democratic leadership, and accepting the burdens of the Democratic Party “brand.”

And yet it is that same brand, that same leadership, and, above all, that same system of partisanship that drives the march of class dealignment. The more left-wing candidates present themselves as “like the Democrats, but more so” — on the model of many progressives today — the faster they accelerate this fatal process. A post-Bernie progressive movement that puts partisan identity ahead of class politics is a progressive movement that has abandoned class politics altogether, except as a recruiting slogan for college students. Nothing could make Chuck Schumer or Mitch McConnell happier.

The hard truth is that there are no real victories to be won within the current partisan order. Our only hope is a political struggle on two fronts: first, and most fundamentally, against the forces of economic reaction that have sapped class solidarity for over a century. This is not primarily an electoral fight — it begins, above all, in the effort to rebuild and reorient labor organizations. “The immediate unity of class interest,” as political theorist William Clare Roberts writes, “is a myth that obscures the hard work of forging a common interest.” Across the first Gilded Age, it took decades of savage labor struggle to accomplish that work. In the very different conditions of the twenty-first century, it will no doubt look very different, but it may take just as long.

Forging a real class interest, though, also requires fighting back against a national political order that works to undermine it at every turn. That means a left-wing electoral struggle aimed strategically not just at Republicans, or even at “moderates,” but at the partisan alignment itself — the gargantuan clash of identities that sucks all material politics into the infinity war of blue versus red.

Such an electoral struggle is not so simple as the familiar pundits’ pivot from “culture” to “economics,” especially when “culture” refers to fundamental commitments better described as civil rights. But it does mean refusing the temptation of today’s relentless partisan culture, where party affiliation stands in for personal virtue, and incessant manufactured outrage — over rude tweets, mean op-eds, “foreign” attachments, and shocking episodes of personal misconduct — drowns out real clashes of economic interest.

Class dealignment is both a historical process and a political choice. The history of the Obama presidency underlines the larger forces and figures that have driven the developed world away from class politics. But the history of the Obama campaigns — alongside some elements of the Sanders primary runs — reminds us that other political choices are possible, and other political coalitions are achievable. In the 2017 UK election, Piketty shows, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party also halted the march of dealignment by income and wealth.

As labor organizers battle in the trenches to challenge the power of capital, left electoral politics must continue to fight, against the partisan grain, for a working-class coalition. It is no great mystery why Democrats like Biden, Clinton, and Schumer have chosen the path of class dealignment, which suits both their electoral fortunes and the larger interests they serve. But for the fragile, fledgling Left that has emerged from the Sanders era, no choice could be more disastrous.