We Can’t Ignore Class Dealignment

Matt Karp on class dealignment and why the Left’s weakening connection to blue-collar workers isn’t a problem we can wish away.

Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at North Coast Air aeronautical services at Erie International Airport on October 20, 2020 in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen / Getty Images)

In a recent article, Chris Maisano raises some important questions about the concept of “class dealignment” that many in the Jacobin orbit, including myself, have used to describe the recent shift in American voting patterns. Coming soon after Robert Brenner and Dylan Riley’s speculative essay in the last New Left Review, this suggests an element of dissatisfaction on the intellectual left with the dealignment idea.

I’ve written a longer reply to Brenner and Riley, which I hope will appear soon. But I wanted to respond to a few of Maisano’s points directly.

Maisano’s main critique seems to be about measurement. Using college education to stand in for class, he argues, misses a much more complex reality in America today. This is all true, so far as it goes, and Maisano’s sociological citations are helpful here. It’s one reason why the Center for Working Class Politics has designed our second study — which will appear later this spring — around fine-grained occupational data. (Much of it relies on the concepts and terms developed by Daniel Oesch, who Maisano cites. You can find a preview of the results in Jared Abbott’s essay in the latest Jacobin.)

It’s always good to have more precise evidence. But above and beyond a debate over measurement, two larger points must be kept in mind. First, the same basic pattern that we call dealignment is visible everywhere, no matter which categories we use. And second, the challenge that this historic shift poses for liberals and Democrats is a challenge for the Left, as well — a challenge we can’t hope to meet if we pretend it does not exist.

Maisano notes that dealignment appears to be weaker when tracked by income than by education. However, according to presidential exit polls (a crude but useful index), lower-income voters have in recent years moved toward the Republicans, while higher-income voters moved toward the Democrats. This is true broadly over time, and especially in the last decade.

In 1976, at the start of the dealignment era, the Democrat Jimmy Carter won the bottom rung of the income distribution by twenty-four points. He won the bottom 40 percent by eighteen points. But he lost the richest income quartile to the Republican Gerald Ford by twenty-four points. Measured by income (or by occupation, as academics showed), New Deal–era class alignment remained very much in effect.

This alignment atrophied across the next three decades, but Barack Obama’s semi-populist campaigns helped bring lower-income voters back toward the Democrats. In 2012, Obama beat Mitt Romney with the bottom 40 percent of income earners (under $50,000) by twenty-two points. He lost the top third (incomes over $100,000) by ten.

This puts Biden’s 2020 performance in perspective: a nine point win with the bottom third of incomes, according to Pew, alongside a thirteen point win with the top quarter. Other polls show a less dramatic shift. Regardless, it is almost certain that no Democrat in US history has ever won the White House with a coalition so heavily weighted toward the top of the income pyramid.

Yes, a thin majority of lower-income voters is still Democratic; and of course, many higher earners are still Republicans. But invoking these groups is a way of talking past the point. Dealignment has nothing to do with the minor auto-parts barons who voted for Trump, as they did for Gerald Ford, or the unionized health care workers who voted for Biden, as they did for Jimmy Carter. Dealignment, like most historical phenomena, is not an absolute; it is a process. Or, more prosaically, a trend: and it focuses attention on the voters who are in motion across the party system, in both directions. Not those who stay, but those who leave.

It is of course important to understand more precisely who these voters are. But after wading through all the sociological complexities, it turns out that the two key groups are relatively easy to describe, as Maisano acknowledges: lower-education, lower-income voters moving Right; higher-education, higher-income voters moving Left.

Looking at the data by occupational class, Ted Fertik found the same result: “skilled manual workers, lower-grade technicians, installers, and repairers” were the strongest Republican-breaking group in 2016; “higher-grade professionals, administrators, managers, and officials” the strongest Democratic-breaking group.

In other words, however you slice it, the essential trade-off comes down to the same constituencies Chuck Schumer called out in his famous dictum: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia.”

Indeed: between 2012 and 2020, indeed, Erie County in western Pennsylvania (median household income: $55,949) shifted Republican by sixteen points; Chester County outside of Philadelphia ($109,969) shifted Democratic by seventeen points.

How are we to describe this shift? Or, for that matter, the even more dramatic shifts in blue-collar places like Lee County, Iowa ($54,258), which broke Republican by thirty-five points from 2012 to 2020, or Zapata County, Texas ($34,406), which broke Republican by an improbable 48 points?

Is this “a complicated new set of alignments rooted in the social and occupational structures of a postindustrial economy,” as Maisano says? Yes, of course. Is that just another way of saying “class dealignment”? I think so.

For the Left, the primal question is what we are to do about it. Maisano invokes the long and honorable history of twentieth-century socialists making alliances outside their traditional industrial base. But today, as he notes, the social base for progressive or socialist politics is a different group: sociocultural professionals, mostly, with less active support from some groups of service workers.

No one on the Left has seriously suggested a politics that excludes core constituencies like teachers, nurses, or social workers. Yet this base — even if we optimistically include other loyal Democratic groups — remains far smaller, weaker, and less united than the organized industrial workers of the twentieth century. So which other social groups must be won over to form a coalition capable of winning power outside northwest Brooklyn?

It seems obvious that the critical group is the same one that Schumer and others have successfully helped push out of the Democratic party: blue-collar workers in places like western Pennsylvania, eastern Iowa, and southern Texas. Does the Left, in its current incarnation, have any better plan to reach these workers than the Democrats do?

The concept of dealignment offers nothing like a solution to this dilemma. But it begins, at least, by acknowledging the scale of the challenge.