Why Americans Don’t Vote Their Class Anymore
April 28, 2020 9:35 AM Subscribe
Why Americans Don’t Vote Their Class Anymore — New York Magazine's Eric Levitz on the declining correlation between American voters' socioeconomic class and their partisan voting behavior
For decades now, major left-wing parties throughout the West have been bleeding support from the working-class voters whose interests they claim to represent.
In the mid-20th century, a voter’s socioeconomic position strongly predicted his or her partisan allegiance: In Britain, France, and the United States, voters with low incomes and only a high-school education tended to support left-of-center parties, while high-income, highly educated voters aligned with those of the right. In all three nations, this is no longer the case. All else equal, lower-income voters are still more likely to “vote blue” in the U.S. But that tendency is much weaker than in the past. Meanwhile, the relationship between educational attainment and partisan preference has flipped: Now, college-educated voters are more likely to support putative workers’ parties, while non-college-educated ones tend to favor conservatives. [...]
What’s more, the declining salience of class identity has exacerbated the challenge of enacting progressive reform even when Democrats do manage to secure power. Corporate America and the typical worker do not meet each other on an even political playing field. Effective civic engagement requires resources. It takes money to finance campaigns, time to monitor legislative and regulatory developments, and organization to bend those developments in one’s favor. The Chamber of Commerce can shoulder these costs much more easily than isolated working people. Traditionally, the left’s formula for overcoming this fundamental disadvantage has been to (1) help workers collectivize the costs of political engagement by organizing into trade unions, and (2) exploit the working class’s numerical supremacy to overwhelm capitalist opposition. Or, as socialist sloganeers have summarized it: They’ve got money, but we’ve got people; we are many, they are few.
But once workers stop organizing into unions, and stop voting on the basis of class identity, they cease to be “many” in the operative sense. Both major parties become intra-class coalitions in which working people’s interests as workers are either balanced against those of corporate coalition partners (as in the Democratic Party) or ignored (as in the GOP). Meanwhile, absent the concentration of working people into one dominant partisan coalition, America’s veto-point-laden legislative institutions — and the tendency of staggered presidential and midterm elections to produce divided government — render large-scale reform of any kind a Herculean task.
So, the left is right to lament class depolarization. But some left-wing accounts of how this development came about, what implications it has for contemporary electoral politics, and how the working class can be “brought home” are less convincing.
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