Since its creation during the 1820s, the Democratic Party has always been a broad coalition of partners with little in common, at least demographically. During the nineteenth century, it brought together white Southerners, rich and poor and nearly all Protestant, with Catholic wage-earners from the industrial North. Until two-thirds of the way through the twentieth century, Democrats retained the loyalty of most whites from Dixie – who abhorred racial equality – while gradually winning over Black and Hispanic voters too. Organized labor, which first became a potent electoral force during the Great Depression of the 1930s, played a major role in convincing most working-class men and women of all races to trust the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman – and made the Democrats the nation’s majority party for the first time since before the Civil War.
They lost that status in the 1970s, and neither they nor the Republicans have regained it. Democrats increasingly depend on an alliance between voters from the socio-economic top and bottom: majorities among wage-earning “people of color” and among college graduates of every race whose incomes are, on average, far higher than those of the party’s other key constituency. Strong support from these two groups, and increasing margins from young adults as well, have enabled Democrats to win the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections. But this century, they have controlled both houses of Congress for only a four-year stretch.
The increasing popularity of Republican candidates among white working-class voters – a phenomenon that predates Trump’s victory in 2016 – means that Democrats approach every two-year election cycle fearful about their prospects. After all, only 38 percent of Americans over the age of 25 have a college degree. Center-left parties in Europe have struggled to respond effectively to the same drift toward education polarization among voters in their nations, of course.
Democratic campaign operatives and party loyalists are particularly anxious this fall because they believe the opposition is run, in President’s Biden’s words, by a “semi-fascist” tendency. More than half the Republican nominees running for office around the country refuse to accept the legitimacy of Trump’s defeat in 2020 or to condemn the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. When Democrats insist that “Democracy is on the ballot,” they are not conveying a traditional trope of alarmist rhetoric. They really mean it. On the other hand, the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Dobbs case to allow individual states to outlaw abortion – made possible only because of Trump’s three appointees to that body – has given Democrats hope that pro-choice women and men will turn out in great numbers to repudiate it.
Such appeals are unlikely to enable the party to retain its tiny majorities in Congress or to win offices in individual states now held by the opposition. As in Europe, the authoritarian inclinations of right-wing politicians may irritate native-born citizens from the working and lower-middle classes, particularly when they get justified by religious convictions. But members of those groups tend to vote more for whichever party they believe favors both their economic interests and seeks to preserve or strengthen their cultural status.
Republicans speak to that cultural anxiety when they attack Democrats as well-educated “elitists” who blame ordinary people for not being “woke” about race and gender inequality and hostile to undocumented immigrants. The rise in inflation since the waning of the pandemic has put Biden’s party on the defensive about the economy as well. It does not help that the president is a maladroit orator who, in contrast to Trump, inspires hardly anyone.
In the 1930s, Democrats became the “party of government” and their ability to use the state to benefit most Americans has been the key to lifting them into power or keeping them there ever since. Becoming a multiracial force since the 1960s has complicated that task, as has the desire and need to balance economic growth with a transition to renewable energy sources. But Democrats will neither be able to keep their current coalition intact nor win back large numbers of white working people unless they can find a way to update what worked for them in the past.
In the state of Nevada, a singular union provides a model that Democrats would do well to emulate. Culinary Workers Local 226 which represents some fifty-seven thousand men and women who serve guests in Las Vegas and Reno with food and drink, clean their rooms, and carry their bags is a formidable electoral machine. The union holds regular political education sessions for its members and rents buses to transport them to the polls. In its contracts with many hotels, it has even won the right for members to take a two-month leave from their jobs to campaign. When Democrats carry Clark county, where Las Vegas is located, the rural Republican base cannot muster enough votes to defeat them.
The union is a model of multiculturalism in political and workplace action. Its members hail from more than 170 countries and speak more than forty different languages. A majority are Hispanic – the fastest growing demographic group in the nation that is moving gradually to the Republicans in states like Texas and Mexico where unions are weak. Unions like Local 226, filled with workers who spoke with foreign accents as well as regional ones, have been critical to creating the New Deal order. Manufacturing has long been in decline in the United States and, with it, the working-class institutions that once made it possible for men and women with only a high school education or less to have a secure job that paid decent wages. But, as in the strong industrial unions of the past, members of Local 226 teach one another the stakes of local and national politics and spend many hours fanning out around Nevada to elect men and women who, they believe, will protect and advance their interests. Just as the Republicans could not tout themselves the “Christian party” if they did not have thousands of evangelical Protestant churches on their side, so Democrats will not become a true “party of the people” again unless they help build and support strong institutions of ordinary Americans to become potent forces in a broader coalition.