Are America’s Demcrats pro-worker or pro-wealth?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 11, 2020

Are America’s Demcrats pro-worker or pro-wealth? The question has taken on outsize importance in the weeks after the November 3 general election.

In 2016, the prevailing view was that Donald Trump’s win in the electoral college (but not of the popular vote) was racially charged. Pundits argued ceaselessly that Mr Trump’s appeals to white nationalism won out. The post-mortem did something an autopsy almost never manages. It gave a slim chance of life to the corpse. It suggested that the Democrats’ chances of enthusing working-class voters were not dead after all, just struggling to draw breath because of the racist impulses of the people Mr Trump cunningly winkled over.

It’s true that Mr Trump spoke a racist language and attracted some people over specifically because of this. But it’s also important to more honestly parse the Democrats’ showing in 2020.

So, here’s the truth: America’s Democratic Party is currently weak on working-class voters, a dispiriting reality also faced by Europe’s left-leaning parties.

Let’s zoom in on the US.

Many people who voted for Mr Trump also did so for Barack Obama in 2012. That clearly means they weren’t racist enough to refuse to mark their ballots for a visually black man eight years ago.

Move on to 2020 and it’s a huge revelation.

Mr Trump won by sizeable margins among working-class whites and he also did better with Hispanic voters than in 2016. One might have expected the Hispanic vote to be cheesed off about multiple things that Mr Trump has said and done. “Mexican…rapists”, he said. And then there was “build the wall”, “caravans” and on and on and on.

And yet, several heavily Mexican-American counties in South Texas swung to the Republicans this year. Mr Trump increased his vote share in the ethnically diverse New York boroughs of Queens and the Bronx by roughly 10 points compared to 2016.

We can all agree that these voters aren‘t self-harming types so what might explain their decision to not vote Democrat?

David Leonhardt of the New York Times recently put it rather well. “Many working-class voters, across racial groups, are moderate to conservative on social issues: They are religious, favor well-funded police departments and support some restrictions on both abortion and immigration. On economic issues, by contrast, they tend to back Democratic positions, like a higher minimum wage and expanded government health care.”

Obviously, what this means is rejigging course slightly to sensible liberalism, as well as being obviously and totally pro-worker rather than pro-wealth.

In this latter context, America’s Democrats are doing just fine. I was very taken by Rana Foroohar’s recent piece in the Financial Times on whether the Democrats are doing enough to show they are putting the interests of workers before wealth. She ticked through Joe Biden’s key cabinet appointments so far and noted that largely the Democrats are on course to do the right thing. She also singled out Janet Yellen at the Treasury. “If you have any doubts that this is a woman who cares about average people, listen to her nomination speech here. When was the last time any Treasury secretary spoke about dock workers, union labour, and how her dad put his business by a bus line so that average people without cars could reach it?”

I’m not sure this will prove to be quite enough, but it’s a start.