A Response to Stan Greenberg on the New Politics of Evasion
By William Galston
We wrote “The New Politics of Evasion” to spark a discussion about the future course of the Democratic Party, and we are pleased that Stan Greenberg has responded to it at length. While he agrees with us about the counterproductive stances that Democrats have adopted on cultural and identity issues, he accuses us of constructing a “myth” that keeps us from seeing the working-class voter.
As far as we can tell, Greenberg does not challenge any of the data we presented in a detailed 25-page report to support our picture of the electorate. Still, he flatly rejects our claim that “Most Americans want evolutionary, not revolutionary change,” arguing that “voters are hungry for big change, after decades of spiking economic and political equality.” Perhaps so, although the Democratic Party twice rejected the candidacy of a politician who described himself as a socialist and called for a political revolution. In any event, the electorate’s alleged hunger for big change is the assumption that guided the Biden administration’s first year, with decidedly mixed results. Let us try to analyze our disagreement.
Greenberg’s response to our report begins, oddly, with a history of economic policies during the Clinton administration in which we all served. If Greenberg sees the Clinton administration’s program as evidence that the American people want revolutionary rather than evolutionary change, then our disagreement is merely verbal. And we greatly prefer Greenberg’s take on the Clinton administration to the standard progressive charge that Clinton was a neoliberal shill who gave away the store to multinational corporations while middle-class and working Americans languished.
The subtitle of our article reads “How Ignoring Swing Voters Could Reopen the Door for Donald Trump and Threaten American Democracy.” This points to the analytical source of our disagreement with Greenberg. While he focuses on working-class voters, our “swing” category includes not only the working-class but also moderate, independent, and suburban voters.
In our view, swing voters are those whose votes are not determined by partisan affiliation and who shift between the parties depending on candidates, policies, and circumstances. In 2020, Joe Biden improved over Hillary Clinton’s performance in the suburbs by 9 points, from 45% to 54%; among independents, by 10 points, from 42% to 52%; among moderates, by 12 points, from 52% to 64%. Biden’s gain among white working-class voters was a more modest 5 points, from Hillary Clinton’s dismal 28% showing to a more respectable 33%.
This relatively small swing among white working-class voters was no anomaly. As Greenberg knows as well as anyone, Democrats’ struggles with white working-class voters, the heart of the vanished New Deal coalition, are not of recent vintage. These voters began to break away from the Democratic Party in the late 1960s, moved by discontent over the increasing support within the party for anti-war sentiments, the counterculture, feminism, environmentalism, civil rights, and social policies for minority groups.
The impact of this discontent was immediate and profound. In the 1960 and 1964 elections, white working-class support for Democrats averaged 55%. In the 1968 and 1972 elections, this support fell to 35%. As Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz put it, after 1972, “the Democrats were the party of the white working class no longer.” In 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan averaged 65% of their vote, compared to 35% for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. The last Democrat to get even a plurality of their vote was Bill Clinton. Al Gore lost them by 17 points, John Kerry by 23. Barack Obama lost them by 18 points in 2008 and 25 points in 2012.
This is not an argument for ignoring white working-class voters, who make up above-average shares of the electorate in the key swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. But it is a reminder that their disaffection from the Democratic Party is deep-rooted and longstanding — and that in the 21st century, other groups of voters are more likely to “swing” in response to positions that the Democratic Party’s coalition embrace.
Joe Biden worked harder to reach white working-class voters than any other Democratic candidate in decades. He emphasized his working-class roots at every turn and campaigned on what he termed a “transformational” economic agenda. As we have seen, he moved the needle, but not much. Democrats’ positions on social and cultural issues limited the impact of their economic agenda for this portion of the electorate, as they have for half a century.
In addition, there is reason to doubt how popular the Democrats’ economic offer to the white working class really was. According to a Marist poll conducted in December 2021, 67% of this group reported receiving $1,400 stimulus payments, but just 17% said that these checks had helped them “a lot.” Thirteen percent received the monthly expanded child credit, but only 4% said that these payments had helped their households significantly. And as of last December, just 32% supported the administration’s Build Back Better bill, versus 43% opposed. Reaction to Build Back Better was muted across most of the electorate, with 41% in favor, 34% opposed, and 25% unsure. The bill did better among suburban voters (51% approval) but worse among Independents (36%). The Marist poll did not provide a breakdown by ideology.
We expected that white working-class voters would be more supportive of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and they were, with 45% indicating their approval. But even here, they were significantly less favorable than were all voters (56%), whites with college degrees (61%), non-whites (65%) Independents (54%), and suburban voters (67%). In today’s low-trust environment, white-working class voters seem even less likely than other groups to believe that government can improve their lives.
The subtitle of Greenberg’s article summarizes what he terms the “real lesson” for the entire Democratic Party: “Offer a hopeful vision where all Americans make progress.” We could not agree more. Here’s what we said in the concluding section of our report:
“The American people favor policies that expand opportunity and mobility while protecting them against negative economic developments with which individuals and families cannot cope on their own. And they favor fairness, including asking corporations and wealthy individuals to contribute more to build an economy that works for all, not just a favored few. They do not favor limited government as Republicans have long defined it; they want protection against the excesses and inadequacies of the market, but they do not want socialism. The administration should offer policies within this framework, and they should defend them by appealing to these widely held values.”
Although we may disagree with Greenberg on some policy specifics, we see no inconsistency in principle between our message and the “hopeful vision” that he urges the party to offer. And we agree with Greenberg that the Democratic Party’s stance on issues such as crime is getting in the way of this vision. In words that Democrats of all stripes should ponder, he insists that Democrats’ emphasis on systemic racism “doesn’t align with the vision of America as an immigrant country where all ultimately make progress” and alienates Hispanic as well as white working-class voters. He reports that Black voters in his focus groups “want to be part of an American story where their community continues to make progress.” This is consistent with our view.
In the end, we are encouraged by Greenberg’s critique of our report. If the disagreement between center-left and progressive political analysts goes no deeper than this, then we are more unified than we had dared to hope. In the difficult days ahead, Democrats will need all the unity they can get.