A Populism of the Left Can Realign American Politics

It’s clear that the GOP is capturing new parts of the working class. It’ll take credible appeals to workers’ frustrations and economic interests to win them back.

Illustration by An Chen

Amid intermittent “Let’s go, Brandon” chants erupting at a Donald Trump rally in Conroe, Texas, in January, state agricultural commissioner Sid Miller summed up his party’s mood in the lead-up to the midterms: “It’s no longer about Republicans and Democrats. It’s no longer about conservatives and socialists. You know what it boils down to, folks? It’s a race between patriots and traitors. It’s that simple.”

Fueled by historically low levels of trust in institutions and off-the-charts polarization — not to mention persistent and growing inequality — Republicans have embraced the specter of civil conflict and turned national elections into referenda on American democracy.

Even if the most extreme liberal warnings about a Trumpian dictatorship are overblown, the fact remains that the Republican Party has been radicalized in recent years to an alarming extent. Indeed, 147 members of Congress voted not to certify the election of Joe Biden. And there’s more of them on the way — 60% of Americans this fall will have an election in which one of the candidates on their ballot is an explicit election denier. To make matters worse, more than 80% of Republicans now believe that “our country needs a powerful leader in order to destroy the radical and immoral currents prevailing in society today.” No one can say exactly what will happen after 2024 if any number of the relatively small factors that saved Biden in 2020 go the other way. Yet even in the best-case scenario, Republicans will continue to institute increasingly draconian policies in the many states they govern, and workers and the poor will continue to suffer from their rule.

Turnout vs. Persuasion

There are two basic schools of thought on how Democrats can stop the GOP’s assault on democracy. One wing of the party contends that turning out more voters from the progressive base is key. Progressive political strategist Anat Shenker-Osorio, for instance, explained in an interview on the Volts podcast that “Biden won 2016 voters by around a 1.5 to 2 percent margin; he won 2020 first-time voters by 12 points. It matters to turn out new people.” She believes that keeping the Right at bay hinges on offering a bold liberal vision that will motivate the base to turn up on Election Day — even if that vision might alienate those on the fence: “The fact of the matter is that the Democratic base is largely people of color, and if we are not attending to issues of racial justice, climate, women’s rights, immigrant rights, et cetera, we have a mobilization problem. We have people not turning out.”

Yet others contend that turnout is simply not enough. William Galston and Elaine Kamarck, for instance, note that while turnout increases among Democratic voters were indeed historic in 2020, turnout on the Republican side was similarly astronomical — the Trumpers being just as fired up as the Resistance. As a result, “because voters in both parties surged to the polls in record numbers, the shape of the electorate changed only marginally. . . . Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential contest not by changing the shape of the electorate, but rather by improving his share of the vote in key parts of the electorate.” In particular, they write, Biden’s vote share among men jumped to 48% compared to Hillary Clinton’s 41%, his margin among college-educated white men rose from 3 to 10 points, and he even made substantial gains among non-college-educated whites (31% to Clinton’s 23%), all leading to the somewhat surprising conclusion that white men were critical in Trump’s 2020 defeat.

The national numbers obscure another crucial reason why Democrats need to supplement base turnout with persuasion efforts. In four of the five states Biden flipped — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona — the white non-college-educated electorate was larger than the white college-educated, black, and Hispanic electorates combined. Democrats have no chance of controlling the US Senate without consistently strong showings in these states, and that cannot be achieved without reaching beyond the Democratic base.

Simply put, there’s no way to stop the antidemocratic putsch without winning a lot more white, non-college-educated voters, while also stopping the bleeding among non-college-educated Latinos, whose support for Trump increased by as much as 16 points in 2020 relative to 2016. Anyone who tells you differently is living in a progressive fantasy world.

From Suburban to Working-Class Blues

In 2020, Biden was saved by educated suburban moderates with sufficient buyer’s remorse from 2016 — so much so that they preferred voting for a Democrat over returning Trump to the White House. Yet many of these same people have since shown that they are more than comfortable voting for candidates with politics as destructive as Trump’s but who don’t offend the norms of middle-class decency. Indeed, while Trump managed to capture just 36% of the independent-rich Virginia suburbs in 2020, the well-dressed, polite, and Trump-endorsed Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin garnered 46% of the suburban vote only a year later.

The Democrats may again divert disaster in the 2022 midterms, thanks to a slate of abnormally terrible Republican Senate candidates like Herschel Walker and Dr Oz, plus an unearned electoral gift from the Supreme Court (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization) firing up anyone — left, right, or center — concerned about abortion rights. That all may motivate educated suburban voters once again. But those who favor more egalitarian politics cannot hope to prevail in the long term by banking on quirky turns like a noxious presidential candidate or a once-in-a-generation Supreme Court decision.

Even if Democrats are able to fend off a Republican government takeover in the short term, they must confront the slow creep of what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has called “democracy fatigue.” Ordinary Americans are experiencing increased political alienation, causing them to lose confidence in government institutions and turn to antidemocratic alternatives. If Democrats can’t find a way to reverse this trend, as Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign manager Faiz Shakir bluntly summarized on the Wilderness podcast, “people are gonna move to the authoritarian autocrats who want to disrupt [the system] because [they think] the whole government ain’t worth shit.”

The sociologist Jennifer Silva vividly captures how working-class Americans’ frustration with the state of American democracy leads many to either sit out elections entirely or support outsiders like Trump. Silva recounts her conversations with a 24-year-old African American construction worker named William in Northeast Pennsylvania leading up to the 2016 presidential election. William says he “has no intention to vote. I don’t see no point in voting. . . . Everything’s just all screwed, you know. . . . our country is ran by the government and big business. Which isn’t worried about the small guy.”

Yet if William were forced to pick a candidate, “It probably would end up being Trump.” Trump, the young worker tells Silva, didn’t have a background of being involved in politics. “He just wants to take out the bigger people. Which is right, all the big organizations, he wants to split them up. Cuz they take out all the small people.”

Working-class defections to the far right or to the sidelines of American politics, combined with the nature of the US political system — especially the Senate’s geography that grossly enlarges the influence of Republican voters — suggests that we had better find ways to refurbish progressives’ allure among persuadable working-class voters in pivotal districts — and find them fast. Because it’s no longer just a question of Democrats needing to win but of them needing to win big.

As data scientist David Shor argued recently, even if Democrats get 51% of the vote in 2024, the GOP still “could win not just the presidency and both houses of Congress — they could get sixty Senate seats.” This would give a Republican president, possibly Trump, “more power than anyone in American history since FDR. It could make the Reagan Revolution look like child’s play.”

Can MAGA Be Divided?

But even that 51% might be too optimistic. Democratic politicians already face an uphill battle with their appeals to suburban moderate voters, historically a Republican voting bloc. Winning durable majorities would mean moving the battle to even less hospitable terrain, namely non-college-educated voters who are currently enthralled by Donald Trump. With levels of interparty animosity at historic highs, how could Democratic candidates even get Trump voters to hear them out?

Of course, many or even most non-college-educated Trump voters may resist, reject, or sneer at Democratic candidates’ overtures. But Biden’s gains among this group relative to Clinton should reassure us that there are grounds for hope. And even if we assume that many of those inroads came down to Biden being a more “relatable” candidate, that still leaves many votes up for grabs. There is a substantial group of Trump voters who are driven, at least in part, by frustration with politicians’ failed promises and apparent incapacity to deliver meaningful material gains to working-class people. Democrats just need to effectively tap into this frustration.

Recent scholarship, however, finds little evidence that class-based economic appeals to Trump voters are likely to tip the scales. Alan Abramowitz’s careful study of Democrats’ capacity to win back white working-class voters finds that the class divide between college-educated and non-college-educated voters “appears to have little or nothing to do with economic self-interest and everything to do with the diverging racial attitudes of these two groups. . . . Efforts by Democratic leaders to win back the support of white working-class voters who have been voting for Republican candidates in recent years by appealing to their economic interests,” he claims, “are unlikely to bear much fruit.”

Abramowitz’s sobering conclusion is supported by recent academic literature finding that while economic insecurity may fuel support for right-wing authoritarians like Trump, the reverse appears untrue: political parties’ support for economic redistribution seems to make little difference in their electoral fortunes. So despite the fact that many polls have uncovered support for progressive economic policies among Trump’s base, that does not mean many of those voters could be persuaded to support Democrats based on progressive economic messaging.

Many Democratic pundits agree, claiming that the party shouldn’t waste its time wooing non-college-educated “deplorables” who are driven by racial, not class, resentment. Joshua Holland, in a post-2016 election autopsy for Rolling Stone, implores us to “stop obsessing over white working-class voters”: “Any effort,” he says, “to court voters who are animated by racial grievance wouldn’t just be morally dubious, but would also risk alienating the fastest-growing groups within the Democratic coalition. Non-college-educated whites represent a demographic that’s in decline as college graduation rates rise and the electorate becomes more diverse.”

Along similar lines, Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher describes non-college-educated white voters as “a shrinking, increasingly resistant market” for Democrats — one that it just doesn’t make any sense to try to win back. “We’re spending all of our resources on broadcast television chasing this mythical unicorn white swing voter,” he told the New York Times.

As we know, however, it’s not just working-class white voters who are abandoning the Democratic Party but also Hispanic voters. This fact underscores a key insight missed by commentators who think working-class white voters are a lost cause for Democrats: the working class — including working-class whites — is an extremely diverse group. On partisanship, for example, 44% of working-class whites are reliably Republican voters, 33% are reliable Democrats, and 24% are independents — half of whom may be considered genuine swing voters. There may not be a wide path into the MAGA heartland, but there is a path.

Amazon and McDonald’s Workers to the Rescue?

To better understand which Trump-curious working-class Americans may be open to Democratic appeals, it helps to take a closer look at occupational differences among working-class voters. The political scientists Peter Hall and Georgina Evans found that two groups of working-class voters who supported Trump in substantial numbers hold among the most progressive views on economic issues: manual laborers (including factory and warehouse workers) and workers in service roles that employers consider less skill-intensive. This latter group, what I will refer to, for lack of a better term, as “low-skilled service workers,” includes delivery drivers, baristas, custodial staff, cashiers, and telemarketers. According to a recent survey by the Center for Working-Class Politics (CWCP), “available voters” — defined as those who do not identify as strong supporters of either party — from these groups supported Trump in 2020 by a margin of 53% to 47%. For comparison, 56% of available voters without a college degree supported Trump, and 44% supported Biden.

There are a number of reasons why manual and low-skilled service workers fall so far to the left on economic issues — and why they have moved progressively further left over the last several decades. In essence, they boil down to the fact that these workers have a particularly strong material interest in restoring economic opportunity and security for working Americans. Manual laborers are more likely than other Americans to have personally felt the impact of losing a good job to automation or outsourcing, and of having to find a lower-paying job with no security and few or no benefits. For their part, low-skilled service workers are the most likely of all voters to hold precarious, low-quality jobs with no prospects for advancement — jobs that most Americans would never willingly take.

While other voters may express positive attitudes toward progressive economic issues in general, in most cases, their commitments to those policies are overwhelmed by other factors — partisanship, noneconomic issues, candidate quality — on Election Day.

Is it possible that Democrats can connect with manual and low-skilled service workers through progressive economic policy commitments, even as these appeals fall short with other working-class Americans? If so, the electoral implications could be substantial, since manual and low-skilled service workers make up around 22% of available voters from 2020 battleground states, and since there is real potential for increasing turnout among these voters — especially available low-skilled service workers, whose abstention rate in 2020 was 35%, between four and five times higher than among middle-class voters.

And it is clear that manual and low-skilled service workers are receptive to turnout or persuasion appeals: the CWCP survey found that 30% of low-skilled service workers either switched from not voting for a Republican to voting for a Republican or from not voting for a Democrat to voting for a Democrat between 2016 and 2020 (not voting for a party in 2016 can mean either voting for a different party or not voting at all) — more than any other occupational group.

To test whether manual and low-skilled service workers might be more likely to support Democrats who make progressive appeals to working-class voters’ economic self-interest, the CWCP survey presented thousands of hypothetical Democratic candidate profiles to 1,650 voters, all of which included a range of economic campaign priorities related to jobs, taxes, and the minimum wage. Since a candidate being a Democrat or a Republican is such a strong predictor of support, and since campaigns do not occur in a media vacuum, all hypothetical candidates were explicitly identified as Democrats, and their profiles were preceded by one of several different opposition messaging frames.

The survey found that employing progressive economic policy messaging around jobs had a large effect among low-skilled service and manual workers — even after accounting for partisanship and opposition messaging. These candidates rated as much as 10 percentage points higher than those who employed alternative appeals.

The specific policies favored by manual and low-skilled service workers were a $15 minimum wage and an ambitious federal jobs guarantee to provide all Americans with a stable job at a living wage. These findings are in line with other recent surveys that have found focusing on good jobs is a winning strategy for Democrats among working-class voters. By contrast, progressive economic appeals had a minimal effect on non-college-educated respondents as a whole.

What’s more, while issues that are often understood through a cultural lens — like guns, abortion, and immigration — helped to shape the candidate preferences of low-skilled service and manual workers, these issues were far more influential among non-college-educated voters as a whole. In other words, there is a substantial group of working-class voters who are generally pro-Trump but who appear much more open to progressive economic appeals and less susceptible to right-wing cultural appeals than other working-class Trump voters.

Another Populism Is Possible

A growing number of politicians and strategists within the Democratic Party have begun calling for candidates to campaign in more explicitly populist, “us-versus-them” terms pitting ordinary Americans against economic and political elites. Progressive activist and strategist Jonathan Smucker, for instance, advocates a left-wing version of populism he terms “inclusive populism.”

He explained to me that his “version of populism actually names and stays focused on the economic culprits: the billionaires, Wall Street, and the big corporations that have rigged the political system to dismantle the gains of working people.” This means instigating a fight that goes beyond the GOP and includes Democrats who “have been doing the bidding of those economic culprits.” The other side of the polarization, for Smucker, is articulating a “we the people” that’s inclusive of everyone else.

Advocates of this approach came together at a recent conference in Washington, DC, to compare notes and work on a shared path forward. As one of the event’s organizers, political writer Adam Jentleson, explained to the New York Times, “Democrats must find a more effective way to meet working-class voters where they are, and channel their very real anger — or else Republicans will.”

Armed with fresh data from a survey of working-class voters commissioned by the advocacy group Fight Corporate Monopolies — which found that voters across the political spectrum are concerned about the outsize influence of corporations in American politics and would be persuaded to vote for candidates who proposed solutions to curb corporate power — Jentleson claimed that “a populist economic message is highly effective, and it’s crazy that Dems aren’t already moving in this direction as fast as possible.”

Yet not all progressive strategists agree that demonizing economic elites is a winning strategy to reach working-class voters. A multiyear collaborative research project by a range of progressive advocacy groups found that if Democrats hope to reach more non-college-educated voters, they should certainly not cast corporations as heroes — but neither should the latter be portrayed as the unequivocal bad guy. The report concluded that “people push back on statements that broadly indict corporations or the rich, and they counter with specific examples of corporations and wealthy people doing good things.”

To get a clearer sense of how the question of economic populism might play out among different groups of the US working class, in the same survey mentioned earlier, the CWCP presented respondents with hypothetical candidates who incorporated a range of populist-style appeals into their campaign messaging to see which, if any, affected working-class Americans’ perceptions of Democratic candidates.

Some candidates highlighted the need for more politicians to listen to ordinary or working Americans, and some framed a sharp contrast between people who were being “sold out” and corrupt political elites, while others put the tension between working Americans and superrich economic elites front and center — similar to the messaging style used by Senator Bernie Sanders during his presidential runs.

The survey found that while Sanders-style economic populism was viewed favorably by available voters overall, it performed no better than messaging focused solely on the need for politicians to listen more to ordinary Americans.

Among the key demographics of low-skilled service and manual workers, however, only candidates using Sanders-style appeals performed better than those who avoided any populist-style messaging, indicating that voters in these groups find economic populist appeals particularly persuasive. This is consistent with previous research that has found frustration with political and economic elites to be a key driver of support for populist politicians among working-class voters. And economic populist appeals only had an effect among manual and low-skilled service workers, not among all respondents without a college degree. This means that the importance of economic populism to key working-class constituencies would be hidden if we only looked at non-college-educated voters.

Likewise, while candidates’ class had a minimal effect on non-college-educated respondents’ views of them, candidates from a non-elite background were much more popular than upper-class candidates among manual and low-skilled service workers. For instance, moving from an upper-class candidate to a pink-collar worker candidate like a teacher or a nurse led to an 8.4 percentage point increase in support among these voters.

Putting all the pieces together, the CWCP survey found that reaching a key group of Trump-curious working-class voters is possible if Democrats focus on progressive economic issues related to jobs, employ economic populist messaging pitting ordinary people against economic elites, and run candidates from non-elite backgrounds.

The Broad Appeal of Left Populism

Manual and low-skilled service workers may be among the most promising groups Democrats can reach with a left populist approach, but they are far from the only ones. The same study showed that candidates who take this approach are also appealing to key groups within the Democratic coalition, including African Americans and rural voters.

Among black respondents, candidates who ran on a jobs guarantee were more popular than all other candidates. Candidates who ran on a jobs guarantee were supported by black respondents in 58% of contests, whereas candidates who ran on a small tax hike for the rich, for instance, were favored in just 46% of races. For their part, rural respondents were favorably inclined toward economic populists relative to non-populists and preferred candidates with a jobs guarantee plank over all other candidates.

There is also little reason to expect that left populism will alienate other key constituencies in the Democratic coalition. For instance, college-educated and professional respondents (such as doctors, lawyers, and professors) were just as open to economic populist messaging and non-elite candidates as they were to other messaging styles and candidates — though they were less favorably inclined toward a jobs guarantee. Self-identified liberals also had positive views of candidates who used economic populist messaging, and they were more likely to approve of candidates from all class backgrounds than of upper-class candidates.

Finally, the CWCP survey tested the effect of candidates employing populist-style messaging against the Democratic Party itself and found that virtually all groups viewed candidates who critiqued the Democrats for being out of touch with the needs of working-class and middle-class Americans favorably — even self-identified Democrats.

Left populism offers Democratic candidates access points to a range of key constituencies without generating any obvious electoral liabilities for the party. They should give it a try.

But What About Cultural Issues?

Appealing to workers’ economic self-interest is all well and good, but won’t those efforts be undermined if Democrats focus on potentially divisive issues often referred to as “cultural issues” that might alienate many working-class voters who tend to be progressive on economic issues but less so on cultural ones?

First, Democrats cannot avoid talking about cultural issues. As Shenker-Osorio explained, discussing the case of racial policy, silence on these issues “doesn’t mean those conversations go away. It means that the only thing our voters hear is the unrelenting race-baiting of the other side, which means our economic promises cannot cut through.”

Similarly, the recent CWCP survey found that candidates who abstained from talking about cultural issues — including guns, abortion, and immigration — were among the weakest-performing candidates tested, suggesting that when candidates stay silent on these topics, voters simply fill in the blanks with a caricature loudly and eagerly provided by the Right.

That said, the devil is in the details. Which cultural issues Democrats talk about and how they talk about them matter a great deal.

While taking progressive stances on cultural issues did not help candidates in the CWCP survey, the degree to which it hurt them varied considerably. In some cases, it didn’t matter whether candidates took a centrist or progressive position. Available voters were no more or less likely to support candidates who took a centrist stance on abortion (such as supporting legal abortion until the second trimester) or a progressive one (supporting legal abortion in all or most cases).

In other cases, like immigration, however, progressive messaging was a major liability. Candidates who ran on “commonsense immigration reform” were favored in 58.4% of contests, while those who supported “decriminalizing immigration” were favored just 42% of the time.

Interestingly, though, among manual and low-skilled service workers, the favorability gap between candidates running on centrist versus progressive immigration positions was dramatically smaller than among non-college-educated respondents overall — there was a 10.4 percentage point difference among manual and low-skilled service workers, and a 17.6 percentage point difference among non-college-educated respondents — suggesting, again, that manual and low-skilled workers may be an ideal working-class target group for Democratic candidates.

Not as Easy as It Sounds

Left-wing populist messaging isn’t anything like a panacea for the Democrats’ woes. Only a long-term process of rebuilding trust between working-class voters and the party — likely through sustained policy achievements that have a meaningful impact on the lives of working Americans — can produce the kind of working-class realignment we need in order to rid ourselves of Trumpism once and for all. And that, in addition to more effective messaging, would require a degree of organizational capacity and political leverage on the Left — particularly among the ranks of beleaguered private-sector unions — that today, sadly, still seems unlikely.

Yet Democrats need to do something to reach beyond their progressive base. If not, at best, they will be unable to implement reforms to improve the lives of working-class Americans; at worst, Republicans will consolidate a working-class coalition that hands them the keys to government for decades to come. Left populism is far from a sure bet, but it gives Democrats the best chance of reaching the persuadable working-class voters they need to win.

And it’s not as if Democrats have always been opposed to left populism. Indeed, Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign relied heavily on a similar approach. As the writer John Stoehr explains, Obama “labored mightily to secure the support of voters in rusting industrial states like Wisconsin and Michigan, sending Joe Biden, the scion of blue-collar Scranton, to fire up crowds before joining in the attack of Mitt Romney, the corporate raider bent on tearing down the economy, as he tore down factories and good jobs.”

With few exceptions, however, in recent years Democratic candidates have shied away from this kind of politics. As a result, in the words of historian Michael Kazin, Democrats have “had trouble articulating with force and clarity what kind of economy they believed in and how it would benefit most people who worked for somebody else.”

Democrats have struggled to tap into the class-based resentment that Trump has been so successful in channeling. As Shakir describes, Trump “talked about corporations, named them by name, blasted them on Twitter, blasted them in public speeches more than probably any modern president in history.” Democrats would be well-served by following Trump’s lead in this respect — if not in any others.

Finally, despite the clear evidence we have that working-class voters prefer non-elite candidates to wealthy, highly credentialed candidates, only around 2% of members of Congress are workers, and the overwhelming majority of Democratic congressional candidates have educational profiles that do not match those of most voters.

For progressives to defuse the right-wing authoritarian powder keg, this all needs to change.