In our polarized republic, it is rare for 70 percent of voters to agree on anything, let alone a point of bitter partisan contention. But Joe Biden’s COVID relief bill, and its impact on the working class, is an exception to the rule.
Multiple surveys show that a supermajority of the public approves of the recently passed American Rescue Plan. And a CBS News poll suggests that the electorate’s conception of whom the law helps — and whom it does not — may inform its warm feelings for the policy:
For Democrats, this poll result may be even more encouraging than the law’s overall popularity. The party’s core challenge over the past five years has been the erosion of its support among non-college-educated voters. How to stem this bleeding without compromising the existing coalition’s myriad priorities has been a source of heated intra-Democratic debate: Moderates point to the culturally conservative views of the party’s working-class defectors and call for triangulation; progressives recall the human (and political) costs of Bill Clinton’s poll-chasing on immigration, welfare, and crime, and call on their party to place social justice above correlations masquerading as causation.
But if the public comes to see Biden’s party the same way it sees his first legislative priority — as a friend to workers, not the wealthy — then reconciling blue America’s substantive commitments with its electoral imperatives could prove easier than feared. No political party would be well-advised to forgo message discipline. But there’s reason to think that the more Democrats become associated with working-class interests in the public’s consciousness, the less they’ll need to worry about disassociating their party from left-wing social causes.
Class war is the health of the Democratic state.
Democrats care about working people; Republicans care about the rich. From the dawn of the New Deal to the twilight of the Obama presidency, this partisan stereotype was one of the Democratic Party’s core political assets. The GOP had its own perennial advantages in the public’s consciousness: Republicans were routinely viewed as stronger on national security, public safety, and “the economy” broadly defined. But on the question of which party cared for the wealthy, and which for working people, voters said that Republicans were for the few, not the many.
After Donald Trump conquered the GOP, however, this perception shifted significantly.
In 2016, Trump campaigned as a different kind of Republican, one who disdained free trade, revered Medicare and Social Security, and believed in universal health care (in a manner of speaking). He also heightened the salience of immigration by centering his candidacy on luridly xenophobic proposals for restriction — policies that were unpopular with the general public, but which attracted more sympathy from non-college-educated voters than they did from Democratic or Republican elites. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, meanwhile, concentrated its paid messaging on impugning Trump’s character, not his class allegiance. Whereas Barack Obama’s ads had cast the 2012 Republican nominee as the embodiment of private equity’s disregard for working people, Clinton’s ads portrayed the 2016 GOP standard-bearer as a bad role model for small children.
These simultaneous developments — the Republican Party’s nomination of a self-styled “populist,” and the Democratic Party’s decision to center its general-election messaging on appeals to competence and inclusion rather than economics — appeared to reduce both the extent of the Democratic advantage on class, and its salience to the electorate.
Trump’s heterodox noises on economic policy led voters to see him as the most “moderate” major-party nominee in a quarter-century. And the American National Election Survey found that the GOP nominee’s deficit on “which candidate cares about people like you” was significantly smaller in 2016 than it had been in 2012. There is some evidence that this had a causal impact on voting behavior. In 2012, a voters’ level of “resentment of the rich” — as measured by their answers to questions like, “Do the rich have more money than they deserve?” and “Do you feel resentment for the wealthy?” — strongly correlated with support for the Democratic nominee, even when controlling for partisanship, self-described ideology, and demographic characteristics. In other words, a white “moderate” swing voter who had no strong feelings about “inequality” — but evinced strong resentment of the rich — was significantly more likely to vote for Obama than one who lacked such class hatred. All told, resentment of the rich was “associated with an increase in the probability of voting for Obama of 11 percentage points,” according to the research of Boston University political scientist Spencer Piston.
But in 2016, the correlation between upward-looking class resentment and support for the Democratic Party all but disappeared. Voters who resented the rich were barely more likely to vote for Clinton than those who did not. Meanwhile, the disproportionately working-class subset of voters who support universal health care but oppose “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants went from being a Democratic constituency in 2012 to a Republican one in 2016. In other words, a decline in the salience of class resentment coincided with an increase in the salience of xenophobia.
Amid these shifts in issue salience, a voter’s income level became less predictive of their voting preference, as Trump narrowed his party’s perennial deficit with low earners. And this change in the class composition of each party’s support ultimately cost Hillary Clinton the presidency; the affluent voters she gained were worth far less in the Electoral College than the working-class ones she lost.
This same dynamic nearly cost Democrats the presidency again four years later.
While Joe Biden greatly improved upon Clinton’s popular-vote margin, his gains were concentrated among college-educated voters, who remained far more prevalent in safe blue states than in Rust Belt battlegrounds: Biden won the national popular vote by 4.4 percent, but the “tipping point” state of Wisconsin by just 0.6 percent. Ultimately, the size of Biden’s coalition compensated for its geographic inefficiency at the presidential level. But down ballot, the growing concentration of Democratic support in highly educated cities and suburbs enabled Republicans to shrink Nancy Pelosi’s House Majority and limit Democratic gains in the Senate.
What made the 2020 results especially unnerving for Democrats, however, was the apparent spread of “education polarization” across racial lines. In the Trump-Biden race, non-college-educated Hispanic voters began voting more like non-college-educated white ones. Should that trend continue, the Democrats’ prospects in 2022 and 2024 will grow dim. Working-class voters heavily outnumber college graduates, and punch above their numerical weight in the Senate, House, and Electoral College. If educational attainment becomes the central cleavage in American politics, the party of college graduates will always lose.
Fortunately, the GOP loves plutocracy more than it hates losing elections.
But Republicans are staring down their own post-Trump nightmare scenario. The Trump coalition’s geographic efficiency has been a boon for the GOP in many respects. But it is nevertheless a minority coalition that’s heavily reliant on the support of working-class voters who were politically inactive before the party nominated a celebrity. If the GOP’s Trump-era losses among college-educated voters prove durable, while its gains in rural white turnout prove fleeting — or worse, if its support among non-college voters reverts to the pre-Trump mean — then the party will have great difficulty winning back the White House, even with a substantial Electoral College advantage.
The GOP’s concern with safeguarding its working-class gains is apparent in its rhetoric. As Ted Cruz declared at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, “The Republican Party is not the party of the country clubs, it’s the party of steel workers and construction workers and taxi drivers and cops and firefighters and waitresses.” House Republican Jim Jordan recently offered his own iteration of the same sentiment, proclaiming, “The Republican Party is no longer the ‘wine and cheese’ party. It’s the beer and blue jeans party.”
But if a desire to further erode the Democrats’ association with proletarian interests suffuses Republican oratory, it is wholly absent from Republican policy. For its opening act of the Biden era, the GOP chose to display unified opposition to a relief program that boasted 70 percent support in polls, and which was poised to deliver $5,600 in cold, hard cash, along with thousands more in child benefits, to every working-class family of four in the United States.
Senate Republicans proceeded to put forward their own conception of a timely economic relief bill: a proposal to lift the tax on inheritances worth more than $11 million (if bequeathed by a single individual) or $22 million (if bequeathed by a couple). As Jonathan Chait notes, GOP lawmakers aren’t selling this change on supply-side grounds. They aren’t quite brazen enough to suggest that swelling the inheritances of superrich kids is critical to job creation or wage growth. Rather, they are arguing that “the estate tax may be the most unfair tax on the books.” Taken together, the Senate GOP’s opposition to the American Rescue Plan and support for estate-tax repeal constitutes a remarkably frank reaffirmation of its class allegiance: The federal government owes no further benefits to those who lost work to the pandemic, but it does owe millions in tax breaks to the scions of billionaires.
Democrats must capitalize on the GOP’s fealty to capitalists.
This gives Democrats an opportunity to further clarify which party stands for workers and which for elites. And the Biden administration just might capitalize on it. As Bloomberg reports, the White House is preparing to tee up a partisan skirmish over whether corporations and the wealthy should pay higher taxes:
President Joe Biden is planning the first major federal tax hike since 1993 to help pay for the long-term economic program designed as a follow-up to his pandemic-relief bill, according to people familiar with the matter … For the Biden administration, the planned changes are an opportunity not just to fund key initiatives like infrastructure, climate and expanded help for poorer Americans, but also to address what Democrats argue are inequities in the tax system itself …
“His whole outlook has always been that Americans believe tax policy needs to be fair, and he has viewed all of his policy options through that lens,” said Sarah Bianchi, head of U.S. public policy at Evercore ISI and a former economic aide to Biden. “That is why the focus is on addressing the unequal treatment between work and wealth.”
Biden himself has previewed this argument. “We’ve seen time and time again that that trickle-down does not work. And by the way, we don’t have anything against wealthy people,” the president said Friday, “but guess what? You gotta pay your fair share. Because folks living on the edge, they’re paying.”
Thus, Democrats and Republicans are about to have a national debate over whether the tax code is unfair because the wealthy pay too little, or because they pay too much. This is favorable terrain for Democrats: Not only does the party hold the more popular side of the tax argument, the debate itself serves to heighten the salience of each party’s class loyalties.
One might imagine that the Democrats face a hard trade-off between attempting to stem their losses among non-college-educated voters by appealing to class resentment and retaining their support among affluent Romney-Clinton voters. This is theoretically possible. But there is no reason to presuppose it. As promised during the 2020 campaign, Biden’s tax plan will not raise the income tax rate of any household that earns less than $400,000. Its proposed increases in the corporate and capital-gains tax rates will take a bite out of some upper-middle-class families’ incomes. But the indirect nature of these levies — and their modest consequences for non-superrich households — makes them unlikely to provoke much backlash in the newly blue suburbs. Biden’s tax plan doesn’t pit the proletariat against the bourgeoisie; it pits the 99 percent against the one percent. Given the immense gap between America’s affluent and its working class, this may not be ideal in substantive terms. But as a political matter, nothing beats a policy fight that unites your opposition with the interests of a tiny, and widely resented, minority of the population.
Republicans understand this. As the New York Times reports, the GOP is barely bothering to message against the American Recovery Plan, opting instead to direct public attention toward immigration, where the party’s policy commitments have a bit more working-class appeal.
At the weekly news conference of House Republican leaders, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming spoke about the stimulus for 45 seconds before changing the subject to the rising number of migrants at the Southern border.
And by the end of the week, Mr. McCarthy announced he and a group of House Republicans would travel to the border on Monday in a bid to highlight the problem there — and change the subject.
Maybe this “let them eat asylum seekers” platform will satisfy newly Republican working-class voters. The GOP’s hope — and the left’s fear — is that such voters value their cultural resentments more than their objective material interests, if only because the former are typically easier for lay people to ascertain (for a pro-life, working-class voter, it is easier to figure out which party agrees with her on abortion than it is to determine which party is telling her the truth about the impact of corporate tax rates on wage growth). Trump may have campaigned as a heterodox populist in 2016. But he governed as a loyal servant of the Koch network, and nevertheless gained ground with non-college-educated voters in 2020.
From another angle, however, Trump’s 2020 gains don’t look like an argument against the relevance of material interests to voting behavior but for it: Before the pandemic, Trump presided over best labor market in decades; after the pandemic’s onset, he presided over the most generous stimulus policy America had ever enacted. In September 2020, amid a raging pandemic, 55 percent of Americans told Gallup they were “better off now” than they had been four years earlier.
Last year, Biden offered working-class voters the cheap currency of campaign promises; now, he’s depositing thousands of dollars into their bank accounts. When it comes to making class warfare great (for Democrats) again, money may speak louder than words. If Democrats can preside over a post-COVID economic boom, while keeping class divisions salient by picking partisan fights over the minimum wage and PRO Act, they just might be able to have their progressive social policies and electoral dominance too.