Class Dealignment Is the Defining Political Challenge of Our Time

The evidence is overwhelming: workers are abandoning the Democrats and center-left parties around the world. Class dealignment is radically changing politics, and the Left needs a program to win the working class.

People vote on March 1, 2016, in Centreville, Virginia. (Paul J. Richards / AFP via Getty Images)

A battle is raging among US progressives over how to understand the political attitudes and strategic significance of the working class in American politics. Have workers really abandoned the Democratic camp? If so, what implications does this dealignment have for progressive strategy, and what are the most promising strategies for checking or reversing it?

Though the outcome of this debate will likely set the terms of class struggle in the United States for the foreseeable future, there is little agreement on the basic facts on the ground or the terms of the debate. My objective in this essay is threefold: to present the best available evidence of the state of working-class dealignment from the Democratic Party, to detail the key debates about whether and how dealignment matters, and to lay out the most prominent progressive theories for how working-class dealignment can be fixed. Along the way, I will make the case that dealignment is indeed a central strategic question in contemporary progressive politics, and I will offer a set of tentative propositions, based on a wide-ranging review of the dealignment literature, for the most promising paths forward.

The Three Dealignment Camps

There are three broad camps in the current intraleft struggle to define the views and political importance of the US working class, which I characterize as (1) dealignment defense — dealign­ment may be happening, but it doesn’t matter, and may even be good, (2) dealignment denialism — dealignment isn’t happening, and the broad, multiracial working-class is more progressive than is commonly understood, and (3) dealignment denuncia­tion — dealignment is happening, and it is a major problem.

Proponents of dealignment defense focus on what they see as Democrats’ pandering to the increasingly right-wing views of white working-class voters, and think the Left should forget about appealing to the capital-W working class and instead shift our focus to a more ideologically hospitable coalition of largely urban voters made up of middle-class professionals and voters of color.

For their part, dealignment deniers claim that no dealignment has occurred, since an inclusive understanding of the working class that considers the full occupational, racial, and ethnic range of the contemporary US working class shows that it is and has been broadly progressive across the board. This camp urges us to move past what it views as an outdated conception of the working class based on the stereotypical image of the (mainly white) male factory worker to embrace a broader definition that extends not only to service workers but also to graduate students, professors, tech workers, and other increasingly proletarianized professionals.

Finally, dealignment denouncers claim that there has been a precipitous dealignment of working-class voters away from the Democratic Party, and that this dealignment cuts to the core of Democrats’ and progressives’ strategic problems. Dealignment denouncers have sounded increasingly dire alarm bells on what they see as the abandonment of the working class by Democrats and the Left alike.

These three perspectives on working-class dealignment reflect highly divergent visions of contemporary American politics, with similarly contrasting strategic implications for the future of class struggle in the United States. Yet unfortunately, academic, jour­nalistic, and activist debates around this question have done little to move a constructive conversation forward that could help set a clear shared understanding of the nature and stakes of working-class dealignment. Proponents of each camp typically talk past each other, ignore valid criticism from their interlocutors, or base sweeping strategic claims on shaky empirical foundations.

The remainder of this essay aims to provide a modicum of clarity to these debates and to sketch a tentative path forward for strategic discussions of how best to address working-class dealignment. I first provide an empirically grounded portrait of the evolution and current state of working-class dealignment from the Democratic Party that responds directly to the strongest critiques of the hypothesis that dealignment has occurred over the past several decades. While acknowledging important nuances, this analysis offers clear and consistent evidence that working-class dealignment has in fact occurred — though perhaps more recently than some commentators assume — and that, especially over the last few election cycles, this dealignment has begun to encom­pass not just working-class white voters but also voters of color.

Just because dealignment has occurred, however, does not necessarily mean that it is a strategic problem for the Left. After reviewing a series of arguments that suggest dealignment may not be a hindrance and may even be an asset for the Left, in the following section I present three key reasons why dealignment poses grave risks for progressive politics in the United States and should be considered a top priority for Democratic and progres­sive strategists alike: Democrats cannot consistently win national elections without expanding their working-class base, Democrats’ increasing reliance on high-income and highly educated voters is a serious liability for achieving transformative reforms to help working people, and ceding entire regions of the country filled with working-class voters to the Republican Party will ultimately strengthen the Right more than the Left.

Even if we can show that dealignment has major strategic implications for the Left, it may be the case that there is little or nothing that can be done to reverse it. Extreme levels of polariza­tion and disillusionment with governing institutions impose severe constraints on a political project that depends on persuading disaffected, beaten-down, and apathetic working-class voters to come back to or join the progressive fold. In the next section of the essay, then, I survey four proposed remedies to the problem of working-class dealignment offered by scholars, journalists, and strategists in recent years: inclusive populism — which contends that a sharp focus on shared economic grievances combined with a bold progressive social agenda can deliver a stable working-class majority; anti-woke social democracy — which has a similar view on economic issues but sees “woke” social issues as the Democrats’ working-class poison pill; deliverism — which takes the view that economic appeals to the working-class can succeed, but only if voters personally experience the positive impacts of progressive economic policies; and institutionalism — a perspective that sees a reinvigorated labor movement embedded in local communities across the United States as the only conceivable means of prying back working-class voters from the clutches of Trumpism.

In the last section of the essay, I focus on a set of short- and medium-term solutions to dealignment that, building off the best insights of the approaches described above, are most likely to give the Left a fighting chance at winning back the working class. In sum, I argue that working-class dealignment is real and inten­sifying, that it poses major strategic problems for the future of progressive and left politics, and that, despite the comparatively weak position in which we currently find ourselves, there are viable paths forward for (re)building a durable working-class majority for (at least) a social democratic future.

Is Working-Class Dealignment Real?

Analysts of class voting patterns in the United States see wildly different realities, with many concluding that Democrats face a major crisis with historic implications, and others believing that what appears to be class polarization is actually geographic or educational polarization.

The Case for Dealignment

The preponderance of available evidence suggests that class dealignment is real. The most unmistakable evidence is changes in working-class identification with the Democratic Party — changes that are not sensitive to how we measure class. Below I present these trends using education- and income-based measures with data from the American National Election Study (ANES) (figure 1) and using an occupation-based measure with data from the General Social Survey (GSS) (figure 2). While the occupation-based plot shows a more dramatic decline in working-class iden­tification with the Democratic Party between the 1970s and early 2000s, both graphs depict gradual trends away from the party that were briefly arrested or reversed during the Bill Clinton and early Barack Obama years, before dropping to historical lows during Joe Biden’s administration. Both also indicate that middle- and upper-class identification with the Democratic Party surpassed that of the working class by the end of the Obama administra­tion. Finally, as we can see in figure 3, this trend of working-class dealignment has been most pronounced among manual workers, but it is also evident among service workers and clerks, while middle- and upper-class professionals either held steady or, as in the case of managers, increased their identification with the Democratic Party over time.

When we look at class voting patterns rather than partisanship, we see similar trends. Yet viewed through this lens, working-class dealignment does not extend as far back in time and appears much less ineluctable than in standard left-wing accounts, which assume that Democrats’ increasing capitulation to neoliberalism has been the primary driver of working-class defections. Below I show the results for both the education- and income-based measure and the occupation-based measure of class described above. The trends with respect to presidential voting patterns are remarkably similar across the two measures.

Interestingly, class voting patterns in presidential elections since 1972 show a clear increase in support for Democrats among middle- and upper-class voters but an undulating pattern of sup­port among working-class voters. After a disastrous showing among working-class voters in the 1972 presidential election, Jimmy Carter was able to regain substantial working-class support, though these gains disappeared during the Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis campaigns. In turn, Clinton’s third-way populism brought many working-class voters back into the Democratic coalition, while Al Gore’s and John Kerry’s lackluster technocratic campaigns saw a fresh dip in working-class support for Democrats. Finally, Obama was able to recover most of the working-class losses suffered by Democrats in the early and mid-2000s, before many working-class voters abandoned the Democratic ship once again in 2016 and 2020 (though Democrats’ working-class losses even in 2016 were not as significant as those suffered in 2000).

Whether one sees working-class dealignment in the presiden­tial election results is, to a significant degree, a matter of which year the analysis begins. We have seen a clear decline in working-class support for Democrats since the early 1990s (with the important exception of the Obama years, especially when we look at the occupation-based results), but the decline is much less dramatic — even nonexistent — if we begin our analysis in the mid-1970s. Overall, then, it appears that working-class voters have moved away from the Democratic Party — at least since the early 1990s — but that this trend is far from secular, a point I will return to below.

It is important to emphasize that working-class movement away from the Democratic Party is not occurring solely among white voters. Indeed, looking at Cooperative Congressional Election Survey (CCES) data, we can see clear declines in working-class Democratic support since 2008 (the first year for which these data are available) among whites, blacks, and Latinos. It is clear that the largest decline has occurred among working-class (low-income, low-education) white voters, whose support for Dem­ocrats dropped 16 percentage points between 2008 and 2022. That said, we also observe 7.7 and 6.8 percentage point declines among African American and Latino voters, respectively. In the case of working-class Latino voters, we see a precipitous decline of 20 points between 2016 and 2022. This striking trend likely reflects Latinos’ initial aversion to Donald Trump, but by 2022 Latino support for Democrats had fallen even lower than where it stood before the Obama administration.

The survey data above are supported by large-scale voter file analyses such as those by the progressive analytics firm Catalist, whose analysis shows a clear negative trend in working-class sup­port for Democrats from 51 to 45 percent between 2012 and 2022. While a measure of class that also accounts for income would be preferable (the Catalist data only includes information about voters’ educational attainment), the data nonetheless provide additional support for the cross-racial picture of working-class dealignment painted above. Indeed, the Catalist data (which run from 2012 to 2022) show that while the Democratic vote share among working-class (non-college-educated) whites declined 5 percentage points (41 to 36 percent) between 2012 and 2022, Democratic support among working-class blacks declined 6 points (93 to 87 percent), and the party’s support among Latino voters also dropped 6 points (68 to 62 percent) during this period.

Dealignment Denialism

Critiques of the narrative just presented come in various forms. Some influential voices on the labor and progressive left deny the existence of working-class dealignment altogether. Michael Podhorzer, for instance, argues that any trend we have seen in working-class (non-college-educated) voters toward the Repub­lican Party in recent decades is less a story of class dealignment and more a story of diverging regional economic and political tra­jectories. He contends that a pro-Republican working-class bias only exists in red states, whereas non-college-educated voters in blue states are roughly split between the two major parties. In 2020, for instance, non-college-educated white voters in red states broke 69 to 29 percent for Trump, while the same demographic in blue states was evenly divided 49 to 49 percent between Biden and Trump. If we were seeing class dealignment rather than regionally driven dealignment, Podhorzer argues, we would not expect to see such a stark intraclass regional divide.

Other dealignment deniers do not disagree that we have seen a pattern of educational dealignment but argue that this is not a valid proxy for the working class. Chris Maisano, for example, argues that “educational attain­ment is surely an important dimension of class. But it is not, in itself, determinative of one’s location in the class structure. There are many others, including a rather important one that often goes overlooked in these discussions: income.” When we understand class in terms of income, Maisano writes, “the class dealignment perspective becomes difficult to sustain,” since the Democratic Party and social democratic parties in Europe continue to do very well among low-income voters.

Nonetheless, a look at recent class voting patterns in the United States that accounts for both education and income (where working-class voters are defined as voters without a bachelor’s degree and those making less than $50k a year) shows clear evidence of dealignment. My analysis of data from the CCES comparing trends in working-class voting with middle- and upper-class voting since 2008 shows that, in contrast to what Podhorzer and Mai­sano suggest, we have seen pronounced class polarization, and not only in red states but in purple and blue states especially. It is not likely that we would observe this cross-regional pattern if class were playing no role in shaping political attitudes.

We see a similar pattern using data from ANES (figure 10). While ANES uses a less specific income measure (income ter­ciles) and yields less precise estimates than CCES due to a much smaller sample size per survey wave, it has the benefit of offering a longer-term perspective. Looking at the ANES results, we see a similar pattern since 2008: in Democratic and Republican as well as swing states, working-class support for Democrats has declined and middle- and upper-class support has increased. We do observe a longer-term positive trend in working-class support for Demo­cratic presidential candidates that is only present in Democratic states, where working-class Democratic voting has increased by over 10 percentage points since 1980. In sum, working-class voters are indeed more likely to vote Democrat in blue states than in red or purple states, but they are trending away from Dem­ocrats in all partisan contexts — even if over the longer term we see a more positive story in Democratic states than elsewhere.

Does Dealignment Matter?

Given their differences on the question of whether dealignment is even happening, it should not be surprising that the three dealign­ment perspectives — defense, denial, denunciation — also diverge on the question of whether and how dealignment matters. On one side, we find the dealignment defenders and deniers, who take the view that dealignment either does not matter or is a positive devel­opment for the Left. On the other, we find dealignment denouncers, who see working-class dealignment as a fundamental threat to both progressives’ future electoral competitiveness and their commitment to transformative pro-worker government policies. 

Embrace (or Ignore) Dealignment

Even when dealignment defenders and deniers concede that working-class dealignment is a real phenomenon, they insist it is not necessarily a problem. Dealignment may even be a solution for progressives and the Left. In this account, the better angels of the Democratic Party’s nature have been held back by short-term, pragmatic arguments from centrist party strategists exhorting Democratic candidates to avoid alienating white working-class voters whose views, they believe, are driven by racial resentment against blacks and other minority groups. The fact that so many of these voters have left the Democratic coalition may actually pose an opportunity for the party to appeal more robustly to its progressive base without worrying about a potential backlash from the party’s right flank — in much the same way that the post–civil rights era realignment of the Democratic Party did.

According to the historian Gabriel Winant, abandoning conser­vative and often rural working-class white voters in favor of a more racially diverse and urban working-class coalition is critical to the Left’s future success: “A socialist program that confronts white supremacy as its immediate object — rather than trying to find a majority by navigating around the edifice of white supremacy — is the principle of unity for this bloc. Its social basis lies in an alliance of low-wage workers and high-debt workers, disproportionately young, who are concentrated together in cities and increasingly in suburbs.”

While not all commentators in this camp would go as far as Winant, dealignment defenders at the very least argue that there is no longer any need (if there ever was) for the Democratic Party to appeal to conservative, working-class white voters by watering down the more progressive planks of its platform. Alan Abramowitz has summarized this perspective most clearly:

Downplaying or abandoning liberal positions on cultural and racial issues would potentially risk alienating voting blocs that make up key components of the party’s current electoral coali­tion including Blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites. . . . 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 or shifting to the right on issues like immigration and gay rights are unlikely to bear much fruit. Moreover, tacking to the right to win votes from a shrinking population of white working class voters might turn off large numbers of college educated white voters with liberal views on these issues.

The upshot of this perspective is that a new working-class coalition is emerging that, unlike the white working class, is con­sistently progressive across issue domains and is large enough to deliver electoral majorities for the Democratic Party. As Winant explains, the distinguishing features of this coalition compared to the traditional working class are “feminization, racial diversi­fication, and increasing precarity: care work, immigrant work, low-wage work, and the gig economy.”

Dealignment defenders and deniers are particularly sanguine about the possibility of building a post-white-working-class Demo­cratic coalition because, in addition to the low-wage and precarious urban workers among its ranks, it also includes an increasingly large number of highly educated professionals such as teachers, professors, and medical professionals who, unlike their coun­terparts in decades past, are very progressive not just on social and cultural issues but also on economic issues. As the political scientists Tarik Abou-Chadi and Simon Hix argue, “among left party supporters . . . those with higher levels of education show more support for redistribution than those with less education.”

Similarly, William Marble finds that college-educated voters, who were always more progressive than non-college-educated ones on social and cultural issues, have become substantially more progressive on economic issues than noncollege voters over the past several decades. As a result, according to this perspective, progressives have little to fear by welcoming more highly educated voters into their coalition.

Virtually every point made by dealignment defenders and deniers about the political stakes of working-class dealignment is challenged by scholars and strategists in the dealignment denunci­ation camp, who hold that dealignment — and the progressive and left response to it — involves real and difficult electoral, political, and policy trade-offs.

Dealignment as a Threat to Working-Class Politics

Dealignment denouncers take issue with the denial and defense camps on three main grounds. First, they reject the claim that Democrats and progressives can build durable electoral majorities in national politics without maintaining — and likely expanding — their support among the white working class. Second, they challenge the claim that relying more heavily on highly educated or high-income professional voters will not undermine the Democrats’ capacity to center a bold social democratic policy agenda. Finally, dealignment denouncers hold that a key unintended consequence of accepting or even cham­pioning dealignment is to strengthen the hand of the radical right by completely ceding ever larger swaths of “flyover country” to Republican control.

The first reason denouncers give for why dealignment could be a threat to working-class politics is a pragmatic one. Dealign­ment defenders and deniers’ insistence on the possibility of coalition-building without holding on to what’s left of the white working-class vote is unrealistic given the current reality of the US political system. Dealignment denouncers, in contrast, argue that the Democrats simply can’t consistently win national elections without holding on to the white working class and stopping further erosion of support among nonwhite working-class voters. This is demonstrably clear in the short term. First, as I have argued else­where, the white, non-college-educated working class in the key swing states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona is sufficiently large that no version of the electoral math works for Democrats in national elections without at least maintaining current levels of support among these voters in these states. A recent simulation by States of Change concurs, showing that, all else equal, a strong surge in turnout among the white working class in battleground states in 2024 would deliver the election to the GOP.

A dealignment defender might grant these points but argue that longer-term demographic trends still point to the wisdom of leaving white workers to the GOP wolves. As John Judis and Ruy Teixeira explain, for instance, dealignment defenders such as Steve Phillips contend that, since the nonwhite population of the United States will become the majority by 2045, at that point Democrats will only need 30 percent of whites if they can get two-thirds of nonwhites. Unfortunately for this thesis, however, as I showed above, Democrats’ working-class problems extend well beyond white workers, and there is no reason to assume that nonwhite working-class voters will continue voting for Democrats at their current rate. In short, even the positively underwhelming prospect of maintaining Democratic congressional majorities and control of the White House — let alone any more ambitious leftist strategic objectives — requires a serious reckoning with working-class dealignment.

The second reason dealignment poses a challenge to working-class politics is because relying more heavily on highly educated and high-income, middle- and upper-middle-class voters will make passing key economic reforms on the progressive agenda more difficult. That is, an increasingly affluent democratic coalition means the party will cater more to the interests of upscale voters, and progressives will have a harder time passing redistributive policies. As Sam Zacher has convincingly argued, even though a range of scholars have found that more affluent voters often claim in surveys to hold quite progressive views on certain eco­nomic issues — particularly around social-insurance spending that imposes minimal costs on them — a wealth of evidence suggests that both their revealed (as opposed to stated) preferences for redistributive economic policies and the intensity of those prefer­ences are weaker than those of working-class voters. For instance, Zacher finds that when affluent voters are asked to respond to survey questions where it is made explicit that the well-off would have to pay more in taxes, those voters are significantly less likely to express support than other Democratic voters.

In fact, there is substantial evidence that working-class voters are consistently more progressive on economic issues than their middle- and upper-class counterparts. To show this, I examined twenty-nine questions related to economic policy and redistribu­tion included in ANES, GSS, and CCES. I chose these questions because data was available for a wide range of years, allowing me to draw conclusions about trends in class attitudes around eco­nomic and redistributive issues over time. For this analysis I use the education-plus-income measure of class described above. For each question, I report whether there is a consistent difference between working-class and middle- and upper-class respondents over time, and whether there have been recent changes in relative attitudes between classes.

The results, presented in table 1, show that working-class respondents have been consistently more progressive than their middle- and upper-class counterparts on nineteen of the twenty-nine (66 percent) questions analyzed. There were only two ques­tions where middle- and upper-class respondents have been reliably more progressive than working-class respondents (support for increased spending on roads and for increased transporta­tion spending), with no significant class divergence over time on the rest of the questions. Put simply, in a large majority of cases, middle- and upper-class respondents showed less progressive attitudes on economic issues than working-class respondents, indicating that there may indeed be a trade-off between focusing on issues important to working-class voters and on those preferred by middle-class voters.

That said, I do find limited evidence of a trend toward class con­vergence, as middle- and upper-class respondents have become more progressive in recent years on support for unions, government health insurance, and spending on welfare and the poor. These are welcome changes that may indicate new coalition-building opportunities for advocates of progressive economic policies. But the big picture remains largely the same: even when accounting for recent progressive trends among middle- and upper-middle-class respondents, working-class respondents were still more progressive on 55 percent of the questions, whereas the reverse is true for just 17 percent of them.

These observed class differences are consistent with a range of other studies. I have also found stark class differences in support for economic redistribution in my own previous work. According to my analysis (with Fred DeVeaux) of data from the Nationscape project, class differences in attitudes on economic issues can even overwhelm partisan ones:

When it comes to certain key progressive issues like a jobs guarantee or raising taxes on incomes $250,000 and above, working-class Republicans are even more supportive of eco­nomic redistribution than wealthy Democrats. A Republican voter without a college degree making $40k a year, for instance, is nearly twice as likely to support a jobs guarantee than a college-educated Republican making over $80k, and nearly 10 percentage points more likely than a college-educated Democrat making over $80k.

Finally, the third reason why class dealignment is so important for the future of working-class politics is because it strengthens the far right. If we cede working-class whites to the Republicans, we will hasten the complete delinking of conservative communities from any kind of progressive countermessage, thereby strength­ening the far-right political echo chamber in those communities. Andrew Levison has made this point forcefully:

Challenging the dominance of the extremists in Deep Red white working class and rural districts across America is cru­cial. Right now in many Deep Red districts Democrats are essentially invisible and the Republican Party organization is entirely committed to defending MAGA extremism. Challenging what is now essentially the unchallenged ideolog­ical hegemony of the extremists in these districts may seem irrelevant in purely electoral terms but in sociological terms the effect of weakening their hold would be profound. Even if a community generally continues to vote Republican, if a person’s next door neighbor or the captain of his children’s baseball team rejects candidates who spout extremist conspiracy theories or even dismisses the candidate who circulates the myths as a corrupt hypocrite it becomes much more difficult for a person to passively accept the lies he or she reads on Facebook posts that Democrats are all secret degenerates running child sex slave rings or crypto-Stalinist subversives plotting the creation of massive nationwide concentration camps.

Levison’s argument about the need for progressive organi­zations to be present in communities even where their electoral chances are slim to nil is echoed by a recent analysis by Lainey Newman and Theda Skocpol of the decline of unions in the Amer­ican Rust Belt that I will discuss in detail below.

Four Paths to Realignment

Even if we grant that dealignment is a problem in need of a solution, it is not obvious that such a solution exists. Increasing ideological constraint among working-class voters is likely to limit the efficacy of appeals to voters based on issue bundles that do not correspond to conventional ideological placements — for instance, making progressive appeals to voters on economics and centrist appeals on social issues. In turn, as many commentators have pointed out, the Democratic brand has become so toxic to many working-class voters that there may simply be no way for Democrats to reach significant numbers of these voters or even stem the tide of working-class erosion they are currently experiencing. As Nate Cohn has argued, working-class dealignment is “largely baked”: “The idea that Iowa’s going to lean Blue again, or that Dems are going to [win] 60% in the Mahoning Valley [formerly industrialized Youngstown, Ohio], seems far-fetched.”

Yet such conclusions may be too hasty, especially once we consider the significant fluctuations in working-class support for Democratic presidential candidates since the early 1990s described above. Polarization may be more entrenched and working-class disenchantment with Democratic politicians more intense today compared to the mid-1990s or mid-2000s, but these are differences of degree rather than kind. There is little reason to discount the possibility of a dealignment course correction in the 2020s similar to those observed in the 1990s and 2000s under Clinton and Obama. Not surprisingly, then, the current landscape of Democratic and progressive strategic thinking is awash with possible solutions to the problem.

There are four primary schools of thought on how Democrats and progressives can most effectively reach working-class voters, which I categorize as inclusive populism, anti-woke social democ­racy, deliverism, and institutionalism. Inclusive populism claims that progressives should appeal to working-class voters’ sense of resentment at economic elites and stress how elites use racial resentment to divide segments of the working class that share a common interest in economic justice. Anti-woke social democrats contend that Democrats could reach more working-class voters if only they made a clean break with factions of the party that embrace unpopular social and cultural messaging that alienates working-class voters. Proponents of deliverism claim that mes­saging can only get the party so far, and that the only real solution to the problem of working-class dealignment is for Democrats to pass and implement large-scale economic reforms that benefit working Americans. Finally, institutionalists take the view that any meaningful revival of a Democratic or progressive working-class coalition depends on a reinvigorated labor movement capable of advancing working-class interest in politics and re-embedding Democratic and progressive politics into the lived experiences of working-class communities.

I turn now to a deeper exploration of each school of thought, accompanied by an assessment of the strategic strengths and limitations of each.

Inclusive Populism

The first approach to reaching working-class voters is what Jon­athan Smucker calls inclusive populism, which purports to turn right-wing, demagogic, xenophobic populism on its head to “artic­ulate a ‘We the People’ that’s inclusive of everyone . . . the people versus the elites at the top.” According to this model, a sharp focus on shared economic grievances and condemnation of economic elites combined with a bold progressive social agenda can deliver a stable working-class majority. For example, in a case study of an unsuccessful 2018 congressional campaign in Pennsylvania’s 11th District that explicitly employed an inclusive populist approach, Biko Koenig and Lee Scaralia note that

surprisingly, given the Republican majority in the district, the … campaign did not run on a centrist platform. Instead, Medicare for All, debt free public college, immigrant rights, racial justice, and climate change activism were the main platforms of the campaign. But the candidate’s progressive policy positions only tell part of the story, as the core talking points of her campaign involved populist critiques of establishment politics: elected representatives who do not listen to regular people, control of the political system by special interest money and lobbyists, a rejection of corporate donations, and upfront criticisms of both political parties.

The contention here is that what voters really care about is a cri­tique of the establishment and the promotion of candidates who will authentically represent ordinary, working-class people — even if those candidates also promote progressive social and cultural policies that might be less appealing to some of them. Inclusive populists argue that candidates should run on progressive social issues precisely because they expose racialized political subtexts that have to be confronted for progressive politics to succeed. As Maurice Mitchell and Ted Fertik explain,

There’s a view in some parts of the left that we can win downwardly mobile white voters on the basis of economic self-interest, so long as we avoid questions of “identity pol­itics,” and especially race. But the problem with this is that racial capitalism structures every aspect of our society, and affects the way all voters understand who deserves what. If you oppose free health care because you don’t want to pay taxes to those you consider less deserving, then not talking about race means not talking about why someone opposes free health care in the first place. If we don’t address it with our own story, the ones told by Trump and Fox News will prevail.

Systematic evidence in support of or in opposition to the inclusive populist approach remains limited, though this may be because very few of these candidates have ever appeared in com­petitive districts where their approach could be put to the test. My analysis of 2022 congressional TV ads by Democratic candidates running in competitive districts shows that only around 20 percent critiqued economic elites in any way, and virtually no one focused on progressive social issues — except for candidates who took a negative view of defunding the police. The only social issue of any kind that featured prominently in the ads was abortion, which is unsurprising in the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

The limited evidence we do have on the effects of inclusive populism is mixed. A study by the Center for Working-Class Politics (CWCP) found that campaigning on progressive social policies decreased support for populist candidates by 7.5 percentage points. That discouraging result was not the full story, however. The negative effect of progressive social issues was highly sensitive to the types of social policies candidates advocated: progressive policies around immigration were more damaging to economic populist messaging than progressive abortion or gun control policies. In addition, saying nothing about key social issues that many voters in the Democratic base care about harmed candidates’ appeal among core progressive constituencies. An earlier CWCP study yielded similarly ambivalent results. It concluded that, while making racial justice a top priority may limit progressives’ appeal among working-class voters, using language discussing the impor­tance of combating racial inequality could have a positive effect on candidates’ appeal among many working-class voters.

A well-known variant of the inclusive populist approach is the Race-Class Narrative Project, which focuses less on the efficacy of centering or decentering certain types of policies and more on the degree of racial inclusiveness embedded in economic populist messaging. Proponents of this approach argue that pro­gressives can reach working-class voters most effectively by invoking cross-racial solidarity as the antidote to the economic and social harms that are caused by political and economic elites and affect all working-class people. In a 2018 report testing race-class narrative messaging, the authors relay that “adding race improves the efficacy of economic populism, and reduces support for opposition views.” Specifically, the researchers found that adding an explicit mention of race to economic populist messaging that would otherwise be “color-blind” increased support for that messaging and decreased support for conservative opposition messaging by 4 percentage points.

Despite these promising findings, however, the empirical record remains mixed. A study by political scientists Micah English and Joshua Kalla tested the effect of adding an explicit racial frame to a range of class-based policy appeals and found that at worst, race-class narratives are outperformed by class-only frames, and at best, both frames perform equally well. Similarly, a CWCP study found that economic populist candidates employing color-blind messaging were viewed favorably by a majority of working-class respondents, while candidates who employed a simplified version of the race-class narrative framework were not, but the difference between these two effects was not statistically significant. Finally, a recent wide-ranging review of studies that have examined the effects of policy messaging around explicit racial framing found that such messaging “can undermine support for racial equity–promoting policies among White respondents.”

In sum, existing evidence suggests that the impacts of inclu­sive populist messaging — ranging from negative to positive — are highly dependent on context and sensitive to the manner and degree to which candidates emphasize race and progressive social issues. Further research and candidate experimentation are needed to provide more precise and generalizable insights into where and why inclusive populism works or does not.

Anti-Woke Social Democracy

In their study of the recent history of the Democratic Party and its relationship to working-class voters, Judis and Teixeira point to two key sources of working-class dealignment. The first is the growing influence of third-way Democrats in the party beginning in the 1970s, which produced consistent betrayals of working-class interests by Democratic presidents going back to Carter. Next Judis and Teixeira single out what they see as the colonization of the Democratic Party by a progressive “shadow party” made up of lib­eral activist groups, think tanks, and foundations that, they argue, have pushed the party to take a range of extreme (and unpopular) positions on issues from immigration to LGBTQ rights. Their simple prescription based on this analysis is for the Democrats to return to their liberal and social democratic New Deal roots on economic issues while moderating social and cultural ones, what I refer to as “anti-woke social democracy”:

Our argument is that America needs a Democratic Party that is liberal on economics and moderate and conciliatory on cultural issues. And being “moderate” doesn’t mean simply splitting the differences between positions. On the headline issues of race, immigration, gender, and climate change, the Democrats have advanced substantive reform measures that take seriously racial inequality, illegal immigration and border security, discrimination against transgender people and the rights of women, and the genuine threat posed by climate change, but under the influence of cultural radicals, it has abandoned these positions.

Judis and Teixeira’s analysis of the Democrats’ slide away from representing the interests of working-class voters is excellent and dovetails nicely with recent econometric work by Kuziemko et al. that shows a strong correlation between the rise of the third-way Democratic Leadership Council in Congress and the share of pro-worker roll-call votes in the US House during years of Democratic control. They estimate that around half of the working-class (non­college) dealignment we have seen over the past several decades can be directly attributed to the Democrats’ economic policies.

Judis and Teixeira are also right to point out that working-class voters — across race and ethnicity — are often more moderate on social and cultural issues than many progressives assume, and that campaigning on progressive social issues and rhetoric that is too far removed from working-class voters’ preferences can be a real political liability. This analysis supports the work described above that candidates who employ progressive messaging on social issues can lose support among working-class voters who might otherwise find their economic populist messaging appealing, though much more work is needed to understand which specific types of progressive issues and messaging are liabilities for Dem­ocratic candidates.

Judis and Teixeira’s analysis misses at least two important points. First, while it is possible that Democrats’ association with progressive social issues is hurting their credibility among working-class voters, they are simply not campaigning on the controversial issues that Judis and Teixeira highlight. The CWCP’s analysis of all 2022 Democratic congressional candidates’ web­sites found that none of the “woke” language that Judis and Teixeira would consider controversial or polarizing — such as reparations, abolish ICE, defund the police, critical race theory, birthing person, etc. — was used by more than 5 percent of all Democratic candi­dates in 2022. And the vast majority of candidates who employed this language were running in uncompetitive general election races or were electorally marginal primary candidates. If Democratic candidates are still having trouble reaching working-class voters (as they certainly were in 2022) even when they studiously avoid controversial cultural rhetoric, then there is reason to doubt Judis and Teixeira’s claim that steering clear of woke rhetoric will help Democrats with working-class voters.

But Judis and Teixeira argue that merely avoiding contro­versial social issues is not enough: Democrats must go further and actively repudiate progressive stances on these issues. The CWCP’s study reported that just twelve of over nine hundred Democratic congressional candidates in 2022 explicitly critiqued any kind of progressive social language or policies on their cam­paign websites. It may be that Democrats’ neutrality on these issues allows Republicans to portray them as extremists on the campaign trail, which in turn undermines working-class support for Democrats. But when recent candidates have taken up Judis and Teixeira’s call to anti-woke action, the results haven’t been particularly impressive. Of the ten Democrats in competitive House races who portrayed “defund the police” negatively in their TV ads in 2022, only four were successful, and they were all incumbents. On balance, then, it’s hard to know just how much we can attribute Democrats’ declining electoral fortunes with working-class voters to their association with controversial social issues.

Second, Judis and Teixeira do not adequately consider the potential negative effects that shying away from the progressive social issues held dear by many in the Democrats’ base — partic­ularly young voters — might have on their electoral results. While it is difficult to tease out the causal impact that staying silent on or denouncing controversial social issues might have among the base, the CWCP’s 2023 study did exactly that by comparing respondents’ favorability toward candidates who employ progres­sive social policy language with those who say nothing about those issues. While staying silent on progressive social issues clearly helped Democratic candidates among Republican respondents, it had the opposite effect among Democrats, who were signifi­cantly more favorable toward hypothetical candidates who ran on progressive social issues (assault rifle ban, on-demand abortion, decriminalization of the border) than candidates who stayed silent on them. These results indicate that Democrats may face a trade-off between appealing to more conservative swing voters and sacrificing voter enthusiasm among their progressive base.


Progressive policy analysts Matt Stoller and David Dayen have championed the notion of “deliverism” as an antidote to dealign­ment. Theirs is a simple proposition:

Democrats, when in government, need to not only say popular things [as analysts such as David Shor have been characterized as arguing], but actually deliver good economic outcomes for voters. . . . It’s an argument that Democrats could reverse their toxic image in many parts of the country by reversing policy choices on subjects like NAFTA, deregulation, and banking consolidation, which have helped hollow out the middle class for decades.

In other words, Democrats could win back many working-class voters, but only if they implement large-scale policies that mean­ingfully benefit working-class Americans.

Empirical results examining the impact of government spending and policy implementation on political support in the United States does not point in a clear direction. On the one hand, many scholars have found little or no connection between fed­eral spending and electoral support. On the other, studies have uncovered convincing evidence that support for transformative social policies like the New Deal played a key role in the realign­ment of American politics during the 1930s and 1940s. Thus, there is no clear a priori expectation based on existing literature regarding whether the implementation of large-scale government policies meant to benefit working-class constituents could help to reverse working-class dealignment from the Democratic Party in contemporary US politics.

In spite of these conflicting results, there may still be reason for hope about the prospects of deliverism. If we assume, following Kuziemko et al., Judis and Teixeira, and others such as Choi et al., who argue that a large part of the reason working-class voters have abandoned the Democratic Party has to do with economic policies it implemented (or did not) that hurt (or did not help) working-class Americans. And if we assume, as poll after poll has shown, that economic issues are at the top of voters’ concerns, then the deliverism argument has a clear intuitive logic.

Given recent evidence from William W. Franko and Christopher Witko that the impact of economic policy preferences on political attitudes is greater when politicians highlight economic issues in their campaigns, the plausibility of deliverism is higher still when combined with concerted efforts by politicians, like those of the Biden administration, to publicize pro–working class economic policies they have passed.

Yet despite the fact that the Biden administration has marked a dramatic change in the scope and pro–working class ambition of economic policymaking relative to the several previous Democratic administrations — primarily with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPs Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act — Biden has benefited little from these policies in terms of voter perceptions of his handling of the economy or his general approval rating.

Stoller and Dayen argue that the lack of any observable effect of Biden’s policies on political support is attributable to the poor or limited implementation of those policies. For example, despite the surprise shown by many pundits that the monthly child tax credits included in Biden’s American Rescue Plan did not improve recipients’ opinions of the administration, they argue that this outcome was quite easy to predict, since families knew from the beginning that the program would only last six months. Further, as Adam Tooze has argued, whatever the value of Biden’s economic policies as a signal of a new, pro-industrial policy direction in the Democratic Party, the reality is that, outside the specific industrial sectors they impact directly — such as the microchip and transport equipment industries — their overall fiscal impact has been and will likely remain relatively modest. Thus, it is conceivable that it is not deliverism that has failed, but that, to the contrary, Biden’s policies simply have not produced the quality and scale of posi­tive impacts in the lives of working people necessary for voters to reward him for his troubles.

Of course, this raises the all-important political question of how the Biden administration — or any other Democratic pres­idential administration in the near or mid-term — could muster the requisite political support for even more ambitious economic policies than those of the past two years. As Theda Skocpol and Lawrence Jacobs remind us, Obama was only able to pass a thor­oughly watered-down version of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 despite enjoying a decisive presidential victory and strong con­gressional majorities. Since Democrats are unlikely to regain these advantages anytime soon, let alone encounter the even more favorable political conditions that would be required for larger-scale reforms, it is likely that the brief window of expan­sive policymaking Biden had thanks to the emergency conditions produced by the COVID-19 pandemic was the best opportunity progressives will have on this score for some time.


The last path to realignment is persuasively presented in a recent study by Newman and Skocpol of the evolving role of labor unions in western Pennsylvania steel country from the mid-twentieth century to the present. Their basic story is that unions once played a major role in the day-to-day lives of working-class com­munities — from organizing recreational leagues and community events to being active in schools, churches, and fraternal organiza­tions — that afforded them the credibility to meaningfully influence the civic life and political attitudes of working-class people. The authors stress that unions’ political influence did not derive from formal political campaigning or candidate endorsements. To the contrary, unions shaped workers’ political views in a range of subtle and organic ways: people got their basic political information from union publications, and there was a social expectation, reinforced through the myriad union-related involvements in community life, that people would vote for pro-labor candidates because those candidates were important representatives of the community.

After the neoliberal hammer came down starting in the 1970s, industrial unions in the Rust Belt were obliterated. In addition to a dramatic decline in unionization rates, Newman and Skocpol document how the hollowing out of unions had profound con­sequences for the civic and political life of these communities: local union papers closed up shop, union halls were shuttered, and union donations to local sports teams and community groups dried up. All the subtle mechanisms through which unions had previously been able to push working-class communities toward pro-worker and Democratic candidates disappeared, leaving a civic-political vacuum that would gradually be replaced by gun clubs and evangelical churches. Just like the unions of old, these clubs and churches have become trusted fixtures in Rust Belt communities, and as a result shape the political attitudes of their members — though instead of pushing members toward the left, they offer an extreme right-wing vision of politics and champion the most conservative Republicans as true champions of the working class.

For Newman and Skocpol, it is the shift in the dominant social and cultural institutions of Rust Belt communities from unions to right-aligned organization that primarily explains why working-class voters — who have always been conservative on many issues both social and economic — have drifted away from the Democratic Party. The union-endorsed rhetoric of economic elites vs. workers has been replaced by the gun clubs’ “Rich Men North of Richmond” contempt for coastal elites screwing over working people.

Newman and Skocpol’s solution to the problem of working-class dealignment is straightforward: reverse the trend of union retreat from working-class communities. Currently, unions and Democratic candidates at best invest significant resources in advertising and outreach in these communities during electoral campaigns, and at worst ignore them altogether in favor of greener suburban, highly educated electoral pastures. They argue that to meaningfully counteract the rightward drift of the Rust Belt, unions need to do a much better job of re-embedding in communities and connecting with members as they did during their heyday in the 1950s and ’60s:

No matter how strapped for resources unions may be, high-level leaders need to realize that efforts to build and reinforce buy-in and community ties beyond as well as within work­places are not an expendable luxury; such efforts are vital to the member solidarity that is a core ingredient of organized labor clout in the economy and politics. A shared sense of pride among existing union members is also important to new member recruitment; new members need to hear not only that unions collect dues but also that they offer a community of brothers and sisters who “have each other’s back” for contract negotiations and much more.

Similarly, they argue that Democrats need to do a lot more work to compete in difficult districts. Democrats, like unions, need to

establish an ongoing, cooperative presence in states and districts where electoral wins seem impossible in the near term. Indeed, the meaning of electoral access itself should be redefined to include running locally attuned candidates in every contest at every level, doing community outreach everywhere, and aiming to improve Democratic electoral margins even in defeat. To do this at the local, state, and regional levels, Democrats cannot just send in operatives from afar every four years for presidential contests; there must be an ongoing progressive presence through credible local voices. And Democrats must prove to workers and others that they understand and are committed to meeting community needs well beyond the big cities and affluent suburbs.

Newman and Skocpol’s analysis is compelling, and their sober realism about the difficulties and long-term commitments that the realization of working-class realignment entails are commend­able. What is missing is something they do not claim to provide nor should be expected to produce, but which is nonetheless vital from a strategic perspective: a plausible theory to explain how this realignment might be achieved given the radically different social, political, and economic conditions that obtain today compared to sixty or seventy years ago, when unions first rooted deeply in these communities. After all, both the contemporary labor movement and Democratic Party are exceedingly weak institutionally at the local level, and there is, at best, only a remote likelihood that a new phase of capitalism will emerge in Rust Belt areas to provide the material basis for a revived union movement in the way that the post–World War II economic boom did. As a result, Newman and Skocpol’s prescriptions ultimately seem unworkable beyond small-scale experiments in specific locales and doomed to large-scale failure thanks to the myriad structural economic, political, and social forces arrayed against them.

Tentative Paths Forward

As the preceding analysis makes clear, there is no silver bullet or grand theoretical framework for us to deploy to produce a realign­ment of working-class voters with progressive politics. But neither is all hope lost. To the contrary, each of the four schools of thought above offers helpful insights from which to synthesize and draw future strategies. In this concluding section, I offer a set of ten­tative propositions that build and expand upon the perspectives reviewed in part III. I say “tentative” because these are only initial strategies for what will be a years- or even decades-long process of political transformation. Each proposition will require validation through extensive future testing, debate, and analytical refinement.

To make more effective working-class appeals, candidates should run on bold anti–economic elite platforms. Newman and Skocpol emphasize that Trump, unlike most Democratic politicians, speaks directly to the feelings of working people not just on the level of policy ideas but on a guttural, emotional level that connects with their sense of being taken advantage of and left behind by elites. Along these lines, Bhargava et al. contend that progressives “will need to better identify and make clear for people the culprits fueling our discontents. Stories without villains make no sense to anyone. The mainstream Democratic Party’s tendency to avoid naming corporations as bad actors, whether pharmaceutical companies or big banks, is politically disastrous.” Is there any empirical evidence that this can work? In short, yes. A 2023 study by the CWCP found that hypothetical candidates who employed rhetoric that explicitly called out economic elites and called for raising up the voices of working people were preferred over candidates who employed anti-populist rhetoric by a margin of 7.2 percentage points among working-class voters (defined by occupation), and were especially popular among manual workers. Inter­estingly, non-working-class respondents in the survey were indifferent with respect to candidates’ populist rhetoric.

Consistent with this finding, a 2024 CWCP report finds that Democratic candidates in 2022 performed significantly better than other candidates when they employed anti–economic elite rhetoric in their campaign messaging, even when accounting for a wide range of potential confounding variables such as incumbency, district competitiveness, and district demo­graphics. Unfortunately, however, even in the context of high inflation and quite negative assessments of the economic direction of the country among working-class Americans, Democrats in 2022 generally shied away from calling out eco­nomic elites, with less than 20 percent mentioning the rich or wealthy, Wall Street, billionaires, the 1 percent, or corporate greed on their campaign websites.

To make more effective working-class appeals, candidates should run on economic policies that people care about and should try to raise the salience of economic issues on the campaign trail. Despite the limited evidence that deliverism has worked for Biden, there is reason to believe that candidates who at least run on economic policies that working-class people care about connect better with those voters. For instance, a 2023 CWCP report found that hypo­thetical candidates who ran on a progressive jobs guarantee were viewed favorably by working-class respondents, though not by the middle and upper classes. The ANES, GSS, and CCES surveys indicate that substantial majorities of working-class respondents support policies to protect American jobs, strengthen labor unions, put workers on corporate boards of directors, limit executive pay, and increase the federal minimum wage, among others. Yet Democrats are just not running on these policies: the CWCP found, for instance, that around 5 percent of all the Democratic candidates in 2022 mentioned raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour on their websites, and only about 3 percent mentioned a jobs guarantee or jobs for all. Likewise, our analysis of 2022 Democratic television ads found that just 18 percent mentioned jobs at all, and fewer than 2 percent mentioned good, high-paying, living-wage, or union jobs.

One caveat, as Judis and Teixeira are right to underline, is that the specific economic policies Democrats run on matter a great deal. Many working-class voters remain skeptical of big government programs that require large tax hikes or might be perceived as having a negative impact on economic growth — at least ones that are not framed effectively. Along these lines, a 2021 CWCP study found that candidates who ran on big government programs like Medicare for All were much less popular among independent working-class voters than those with a more modest policy of increasing access to affordable health care, and a 2023 CWCP study found that working-class voters viewed candidates who ran on raising the minimum wage to $20 an hour unfavorably, but did not have a negative opinion of candidates who sought to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

To make more effective working-class appeals, candidates should run more working-class candidates. One of the clearest findings from recent CWCP studies is that working-class voters respond better to working-class candidates. The center’s 2023 study found that working-class voters of all partisan affiliation had favorable views of working-class candidates, while they viewed professional and upper-class candidates negatively. These working-class preferences varied by partisanship — with Democrats more likely to support pink-collar candidates like nurses and teachers and Republicans preferring blue-collar candidates like construction and ware­house workers. In research with Fred DeVeaux drawing on the same CWCP survey, we found that working-class voters respond more favorably to working-class candidates because they believe they are more likely to represent their interests. Research suggests this is indeed the case. In his analysis of the relationship between candidate class and roll-call votes on economic issues, for instance, Nicholas Carnes finds clear evidence that working-class members of Congress are better tribunes of working-class interests than other members.

Sadly, working-class candidates remain few and far between. The CWCP’s analysis of the class backgrounds of 2022 Dem­ocratic congressional candidates found that, by virtually any measure, the working class is dramatically underrepresented, making up just 2 to 5 percent of candidates. As one would expect given their class background, working-class primary candidates face major hurdles — especially limited fundraising potential — that limit their success relative to their non-working-class counterparts. Encouragingly, when working-class Dem­ocratic candidates reached general elections, they performed just as well as others. This last finding is consistent with exper­imental evidence from Carnes and Noam Lupu, who find that working-class candidates are not viewed more negatively by the electorate than others.

In the medium term, Democrats and progressives will have to find ways to re-embed unions in working-class communities. Encouragingly, Americans in general, and working-class Americans in particular, are very approving of unions: analysis of data from ANES shows that, regardless of how one measures class (education, income and education, self-identification, or stock ownership), working-class Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of unions (between 70 and 80 percent). Likewise, polls have shown that 75 percent of Amer­icans sided with the United Auto Workers (UAW) over the car companies during the auto strikes of 2023. But while these figures suggest unions have a real opportunity for making gains, we are not yet seeing this realized in the reversal of the decades-long decline in US unionization rates.

Clearly, greater investments in union organizing efforts are necessary, and recent examples like the UAW’s campaign to organize nonunion automakers are a welcome development. That said, nontraditional forms of working-class organization will also need to be part of the story, from the efforts of large-scale worker advocacy groups like the 3.5-million-member Working America to ballot initiatives aimed at improving working-class living standards, such as the minimum wage initiatives that have consistently outperformed Democratic politicians in deep-red states from South Dakota to Florida.

Ultimately, however, a major working-class realignment toward the left will only occur if progressives deliver major, epoch-defining legislation that creates broad new working-class constituencies on a scale approaching the impact of the New Deal. The prospects for this outcome appear grim at present, and the basic conditions for such a transformation would likely require a strategic reorientation of progressive forces along the lines described above. Progressives fail to take dealignment seriously at their, and the working class’s, own peril. Without reaching more working-class voters, any hopes of a realignment, a dirty break, a clean break, or any other kind of left alternative is dead in the water.