More than a year into Joe Biden’s presidency, it’s clear that the president is not, as some had anticipated, the “second coming of FDR and LBJ.” His signature infrastructure bill, which the White House touted as being “twice as big” as the New Deal, is no New Deal at all — it doesn’t even hold a candle to the Great Society.
Biden’s failure to fulfill the liberal punditry’s most breathless predictions about his administration is bad news for America’s working class, most of whom are living paycheck to paycheck. It’s also bad news for the Democratic Party, which has been hemorrhaging working-class voters for decades and has now entered triage.
The Democratic Party’s top brass has portrayed this shift as a conscious strategy. As New York senator Chuck Schumer put it, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia.” But those numbers don’t add up electorally. To stay afloat, the party needs to win back the working-class voters it’s lost. And to do that, it needs to demonstrate that it’s able to enact policy in workers’ favor, which the Biden administration has so far been unable to accomplish.
In light of this troubling state of affairs, debates are raging about the reason the Democratic Party has lost its way with much of working-class America. One thesis is that we’re witnessing a dramatic and devastating process of class dealignment: that with neither party successfully appealing to voters on the basis of class, noneconomic issues are coming to dominate voter decision-making instead of class interests. A recent Jacobin article by Matt Karp lays out the argument from a socialist perspective, making the case that the Democrats have largely failed to serve as a party for the working class, and so voters are ultimately distributing their support based on cultural rather than economic ideas.
A major dilemma for class dealignment theory is that it is difficult to prove. Political commentators, journalists, and theorists can offer plenty of anecdotes — and often eloquent and thoughtful explanations — about the phenomenon, but it’s difficult to support with data. We can prove that traditional working-class Democratic Party strongholds are disintegrating, but it’s harder to find evidence that the shift is occurring because class interests are being replaced by cultural affiliations. It may be the case instead that working-class voters simply no longer support progressive economic ideas.
To better understand the particulars of American working-class voter behavior, I conducted a study that analyzed the beliefs and political attitudes of a particular subsection of working-class Americans: those who are susceptible to labor automation. This research supports the dealignment thesis — and perhaps points the way out of the ever-escalating culture wars.
A Case Study in Class Dealignment
It is quite common for political pundits and analysts to frame the presence of automation as an abstract concept, a cause for concern on account of its future but not present-day implications. But research shows that technological change is already widening inequality and reducing worker power. This doesn’t always take the form of the complete automation of an entire occupation; in fact, it more frequently involves the automation of individual tasks within an occupation. For example, packing boxes has not been completely automated (yet), but box-packing jobs are shrinking in number as many of the traditional tasks involved in the work are now done by machines.
The economic consequences of this technological change are well-known: power shifts away from workers and toward capital owners. Meanwhile, wages rise for individuals who work in already highly paid white-collar occupations and stagnate for blue-collar, low-wage workers. This technology-driven divergence is compounded by a basket of other regressive and disequalizing trends, from financialization and indebtedness to the gutting of the American welfare state since the 1970s. The short of it is that the demographic most susceptible to automation has borne the brunt of the damage wrought by neoliberalism.
All of this is why the people most susceptible to labor automation offer a salient case study in the presence or absence of class dealignment. This demographic’s recent and ongoing experience with economic disempowerment should, it seems, firmly align their interests with a progressive economic agenda bent on greater redistribution, broader ownership of assets, and the public provision of social goods like health care, housing, and education. Since Democrats are more likely than Republicans to support these policies (which isn’t to say their support is guaranteed, given the stranglehold of moderates on the party), one would expect automation-susceptible individuals to gravitate toward the Democratic Party.
But that hasn’t happened. Instead, they’ve shifted their support toward Republicans and away from Democrats in the last few decades. This shift has not corresponded with an abandonment of left-wing economic views, suggesting that this group is in fact undergoing a process of class dealignment.
My study, which relies on data spanning from 1990 to 2016, defines automation-susceptible individuals as people with automation potential rates at 70 percent or higher. They are disproportionately in the lowest third of the income bracket, concentrated in the American South and Rust Belt, and they tend to have lower levels of education on average. Hispanic and black Americans tend to have the highest rates of automation susceptibility, as do individuals seventy years or older, those who are unemployed or disabled, and those who are from a non-Judaic or non-Christian faith. In total, they represent a significant portion of working-class America.
Their economic experiences are also, perhaps unsurprisingly, matched with a dimmer, more cynical, and more apathetic view of the world and humanity. When compared with the third of Americans that is least susceptible to automation (hereafter referred to as the lowest third), the third that is most susceptible to automation (hereafter referred to as the highest third) is over 5 percentage points less likely to be politically engaged, 15 percentage points more likely to be disapproving of the media, 4 percentage points less likely to have an optimistic perspective on life, and over 23 percentage points more likely to have a negative view of humanity and a more authoritarian outlook. These results are presented below in Figure 1.
But despite antagonistic views on globalization and liberal cultural beliefs, the highest third is over 7 percentage points more supportive of progressive economic ideas than the lowest third. This includes beliefs in affordable health care and housing, the presence of a strong social safety net, and the need for economic redistribution.
In 1990, the highest third was over 4 percentage points more likely to support Democrats than the lowest third. But when I looked at data only in the years since 2000, I saw that the highest third is over 1 percentage point more supportive of Republicans. Throughout this more contemporary window, antagonism to globalization and liberal cultural values has persisted, which may offer a cogent explanation of exactly why the shift toward Republicans is occurring.
The fact that the most automation-susceptible demographic swung from Democrats to Republicans while maintaining overall support for left-wing economic ideas is significant, especially in a particularly tribal and polarized political moment. It suggests that class dealignment is in fact occurring: this group still wants progressive economic change, but since it’s not on offer, the matter is deemphasized and replaced with cultural issues more prevalent in the discourse.
The Politics of the Working Class
At any point over the last few decades during which this troubling shift has occurred, a more left-wing economic agenda might have been alluring to this demographic. But the Democrats either didn’t see or ignored the writing on the wall, shifting instead toward more centrist economic politics.
The policies championed by Democrats in recent decades have coincided with a significant increase in household debt, a decline in inflation-adjusted standards of living for many working-class Americans, and a significant increase in both wealth and income inequality.
Meanwhile, as the Democratic political establishment has shifted away from progressive economic ideas, it has chosen to advance cultural ones. The problem is that advancing progressive cultural ideas in a vacuum is a recipe for class dealignment.
Democrats talk a big game about Black Lives Matter, women’s empowerment, acceptance of all LGBTQ individuals, and the welcoming of immigrants. Yet when it comes to legislating, many of these same Democrats will resist every opportunity to enact the broad economic policies that would provide greater security, opportunity, and health to people of color, women, LGBTQ people, and immigrants (the vast majority of whom, of course, are working-class themselves). The result is a political mixture that is both ineffective on its own terms and also unpopular with working-class voters, who might be more amenable to progressive social ideas if they were packaged with an economic agenda they support. Instead, Democrats have traded working-class support for the support of socially liberal professionals.
Unfortunately for both the Democratic Party’s electoral prospects and the future of progressive legislation, the party’s embrace of class dealigning politics is likely to bring any opportunity for meaningful change to a halt. Republicans seem poised to dominate in the 2022 midterm elections, and working-class frustration is increasingly manifesting as political support for far-right populism. That frustration could have been harnessed by the Democrats if they hadn’t gone out of their way to deemphasize economic issues, but instead it’s now suppurating in a grotesque far-right form.
This rise of the populist far right should be disquieting to everyone. Donald Trump demonstrated the hunger for a strong, culturally conservative, and authoritarian leader among one segment of the working class. Yet Trump was bumbling and incompetent, incapable of pursuing a clear political agenda and crystallizing his political influence under a coherent set of ideals.
For that reason, Trump is not the political figure progressives should worry most about. Indeed, as the backlash to decades of disequalizing, anti-worker, and elitist economic conditions continues to kindle resentment among the working class, and the Democrats continue to cede ground to the Right, Trump may be succeeded by another opportunistic right-wing populist — one more calculating, principled, maneuvering, and ultimately effective in remaking society. If that comes to pass, class dealignment will have played a significant role.