Democrat Upward Mobility: From a Party of the Working Class to a Party of the Elite

Democrat Upward Mobility: From a Party of the Working Class to a Party of the Elite November 24, 2018

Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. The Republicans at one time were the party of civil rights while the Democrats supported racial segregation. So why do people of color overwhelmingly prefer Democrats over Republicans? The southern strategy of Richard Nixon focused on catering to white Southerners at the expense of people of color. This led to a major voter realignment as Republicans obtained the support of southern whites at the expense of the support of racial minorities. This gambit likely helped the Republicans lock up the South as an electoral block, but in the long term it may have force them to pay a heavy price as racial minorities increased as a percentage of our overall population.

We may be witnessing another voter realignment. When I was young, the Republicans were the party of the elite, and the Democrats were the party of the working class. It seems that now the Republicans are the party of the white working class, and the Democrats are the party of the wealthy and educated. Democrats have decided to go after those elite voters and have done so in ways that have made them less attractive to working class whites. It remains to be seen if this realignment is temporary, or whether we are at the beginning of a larger migration of elite whites to the Democrats and working class whites to the Republicans. But the recent midterm elections seem to have strengthened this switch.

I have a theory about such realignments. My theory is that they occur because a political party attempts to reach out to new constituencies with the hope of adding more overall supporters. But in doing so, they have to take measures that often act in ways that alienate other members of their political party. It simply may be the case that a political party cannot be all things to all people and that those parties which try to do so will drive members away from them in their efforts to recruit other members.

We see this quite clearly in the Southern Strategy effort. Attempts to attract white southerners were often implicit, and sometimes even explicit, appeals to racism. Naturally people of color were going to drop their support for a political party that not only failed to address their concerns about racism, but may have even exacerbated the problem of racism.

Likewise, Democrats in their effort to attract wealthy and highly educated whites have acted in ways that clearly signal to working class whites that they are not interested in protecting their interests. Most Democrats will object arguing that they are fighting for economic resources for those whites. But money is not everything. After all how would you feel about a political party that offers you higher wages but talks about you as a “deplorable?” You probably would not see that party as looking out for your best interest. But this sort of attitude plays well among the educated elite. So to become palatable to white elites Democrats have acted in ways that have made their party more alienating to the white middle class.

Even the economic argument some Democrats want to make is suspect. What is likely to happen is that to court the socially progressives in “woke” industries such as tech, that Democrats are going to become more willing to economically accommodate them. This economic accommodation may not always work out well for the working class.

For example, consider the latest controversy over Amazon’s headquarters being relocated to New York and the DC area. The details of the deal certainly favor Amazon. According to estimates Virginia is going to pay Amazon $22,000 for every job the company is going to provide to the state. New York offered Amazon 1.5 billion dollars in incentives to locate their headquarters in Queens. The government is paying rich people to come and work with them. Sounds like something Republicans would do right? Except that is the Democrats who are running Virginia and New York. Of course you can make the argument that this is what we have to do to get big business into our cities and that the benefits of those businesses make the expense worth it. But you should also understand that bringing in Amazon is going to increase the taxes on the working class, since the company will benefit from tax rebates, and it will raise the rents for those working class folks as well. These deals seem great for the white elite, but it is questionable whether the working class will benefit from them.

One can argue that the poor will benefit from such deals since the wealth of the elites will make its way into the pockets of the poor. That sounds quite a bit like trickle down economics which is generally associated with political conservatives. And given the type of economic inequality we see in places where rich tech companies have proliferated, such as northern California, one can reasonably be dubious that the poor and working class in Virginia and New York will benefit from the presence of Amazon.

But where are our social justice warriors doing while all of this is going on? True some have criticized the move and there will be others. What is also interesting is that some conservatives are also complaining about this move as well. In the past, the Democratic party was a party of the working class, and one would expect near universal condemnation of deals such as this from that party. On the other hand, the Republican party was the party of nearly unbridled capitalism, and one would expect a wall of support for these deals. The mixed messages we are getting on the left and right suggest that it is no longer the case that addressing the concerns of the working class over the concerns of the elite is the exclusive domain of progressives. I suspect that over time the interest of white elites is going to eat up more of the efforts of the Democratic party and right now we are in a transition towards that reality.

Let me offer another example of how this prioritizing of courting the well educated whites over the working class can play out. I remember watching a Beto/Cruz debate a few weeks ago. The debate moved to the topic of gun control. And right on cue, Beto whipped out one of the favorite talking points of highly educated whites that we need to do more than give gun victims “thoughts and prayers.” At that point I knew that Beto did not have what it took to cut into the hold Cruz had on the lower class white voter and in a state with a lot of small towns filled with such voters that Cruz was likely to win.

When you think about it, this is a pretty insulting line for someone who was pitching himself as a Senator who could work across social and party lines. It implies that all white conservative Christians want to do is pray and hope to end gun violence. Of course that is not true. They, like all of us, have ideas about how to deal with gun violence. One does not have to agree with their ideas, and I do find some of their ideas too extreme, to recognize that those ideas exists. By reducing them to a ridiculous Christianophobic stereotype, Beto sounded just like the typical highly educated progressive who has disdain for those lower class white individuals. It placed him, and his candidacy, squarely on the side of the white elites over the white working class. The real irony of that was Beto was trying to run a campaign of inclusiveness across racial, economic and even political lines. Yet, he could not quite leave out this little bit of snark.

Clearly those in the working class are not comfortable with the secular nature and the identity politics to which the Democrats have gravitated. And let’s be honest. When progressive activists poo poo the notion of religious freedom, it is not their religious freedom that they are willing to compromise. The religious freedom protections they want to do away with generally concern the culturally conservative Christianity that sustains many of the institutions that serve the white working class. The collapse of white working class support within the Democrat party can be linked to their efforts to make the party more comfortable for highly educated whites.

If my theory is true, then as the Democrat party has become more accommodating to the white educated elite, they have become less accommodating to the white working class. It may not be possible to keep both the white working class and the white educated class in the same political coalition. The larger implications of this theory is that a political party cannot be all things to all people. Ultimately the political party has to select which groups they want to serve and then target the members of these groups. A few decades ago the Republicans chose white Southerners over blacks. Today the Democrats choose highly educated whites over working class whites. If this is the path the modern Democrat party will take, then we may not think of them as the party of the working class any longer.

I think that we may be seeing the end of the usefulness of the Southern strategy for Republicans. But, overall it has been an effective way for these Republicans to hold onto political power. Think of it this way. Due to the southern strategy, the Republicans have had a powerful hold on the South for the past few decades. As it concerns presidential politics, the Republican candidate basically did not have to worry about gaining any of the Southern states with the exception of possibly Florida. Indeed, that candidate was free to look for enough non-South votes in order to secure the victory. In the House of Representatives and Senate, this lock on the South continues to pay dividends for the Republicans. So if I were a political expert and could go back to the 1960s to inform the Republicans on whether they should have engaged in what has been called the Southern strategy, I would have to say that from a utilitarian point of view, it was a good tactic for them.

Likewise, I suspect that moving away from the working class whites to attract more elite whites is going to be a great strategy for Democrats. These white elites are making it nearly impossible for Republicans to win statewide office on the West coast. Some Republicans have been able to win offices on the East coast but generally by co-opting some of the same issues that attract the white elite at the expense of the white working class. The educational and economic power of those white elites will fund progressive initiatives for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, white elites are also likely to use their social position to pressure organizations and corporations to further their political causes as well. So if progressives ask me from a purely utilitarian position whether going after white elites is the smart play right now then I would have to say yes.

But is it the moral thing to do? As a Christian I am consistently told that I must not favor the powerful (James 2:1-6, 2 Chron 19: 6-7, Deut. 1:17) and I must protect the weak (Psm 82:3-4, Prov. 31:8-9, Psm 14:31, Isaiah 1:17). I am told to fight for those who are relatively powerless in our society. One of the most basic reasons why the Southern strategy was wrong was that it favored those with more social power (southern whites) over those with less social power (blacks). I do not think I am reacting this way merely because I am black but rather as a Christian I should be hesitant to engage in any strategy that favors the powerful over the relatively powerless.

Likewise, I cannot help but feel the same with this new realignment. Almost by definition, elite whites are more powerful than working class whites. As the Democratic party begins to change to accommodate the elite whites, then we will see a situation in which the powerful is being given preference over the relatively powerless. Thus from the standpoint of being a Christian, this seems wrong to me.

A little sidenote. I have been talking about the split between working class and well educated whites. People of color remain in the camp of progressives for the time being. But I do wonder if over time socially conservative people of color will feel less at home in the Democratic party as well. I know that identity politics will keep many people of color in the party, but those who tie their socially conservative beliefs to their identity may feel less and less comfortable with some of the anti-religious freedom efforts of progressive. In time you may find more cases like Eric Walsh occurring and fewer people of color offering near unconditional support for political progressives. I think this is a potential development that bears watching.

Many will blow off these concerns since it is progressives who come up with nifty slogans such as the “1 percent” to describe their enemy. The reputation of Democrats as the party of the underclass will remain for a period of time. This transition will not happen overnight. But then again, not all of the white southerners instantly went to the Republicans. It took a while for the Republicans’ new brand to take full effect. Remember that Robert Byrd, and former KKK member, was a Democratic Senator until the day he died. Even if I am right, there will be voices for the downtrodden in the Democratic Party for some time to come. But I think we are going to see them become less and less prominent as time goes on.

Political realignment does not happen without changing the party that is realigning. People forget that it was Republicans that fought against slavery and was on the side of civil rights in the early part of the 20th century. But, the Republican party morphed into one that placated racism and ignored the plight of people of color in their efforts to capture the white southerners. Likewise, if I am correct, then I think in time you are going to see a Democratic party that becomes more callous to the concerns of the white working class and cultural conservatives. The desire to engage in identity politics and secularization will replace those concerns.

Of course it is impossible to completely foresee all of the changes of this political realignment. If I am correct, it will take decades for it to completely take place. Many of us who were raised thinking of Democrats as the party of the little guy will never let go of the images in our heads. But if I am right in time we will adjust to that new political reality. At least until we have the next political realignment.

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5 responses to “Democrat Upward Mobility: From a Party of the Working Class to a Party of the Elite”

  1. Elitism is not merely about income. Note the data on education. Also the income data is probably distorted by POC. I suspect that a look at only whites would show lower class whites more in the Republicans camp.

  2. It’s the “Democratic Party,” not “Democrat Party.” You have so little respect for the people of that party that you can’t be bothered to use the correct name, and that disrespect is most notable in your sweeping generalizations and insulting terminology like “social justice warriors.” I thought academics were more careful with that kind of thing.

  3. Conservatives are funny. The lefty history professor who makes $50k a year is an “elitist,” but the folksy right-wing billionaire is, of course, just a normal dude with good old fashioned values.

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