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Brahmin Left Vs. Populist Right
Welcome to Your 2024 Election
The basic contours of the 2024 election are coming into view. The two sides might be loosely described as “Brahmin Left” and “Populist Right.”
“Brahmin Left” is a term coined by economist Thomas Piketty and colleagues to characterize Western left parties increasingly bereft of working-class voters and increasingly dominated by highly educated voters and elites. The Brahmin left has evolved over many decades and certainly includes today’s Democratic Party.
Consider the class split in the latest New York Times/Siena poll. Among college-educated voters, Biden is favored by 22 points. Among working-class (noncollege) voters, Trump is favored by 13 points. That’s a 35-point gap. Compare to the 2020 election, where the gap was “only” 22 points (plus 18 points for Democrats among college voters and plus four for Republicans among noncollege voters). And in that election, modeled estimates by the States of Change project indicate that Trump carried the working-class vote in 35 out of 50 states, including in critical states for the Democrats like Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, as well as in states that are slipping away from the party like Florida, Iowa, Ohio, and Texas. The results from the NYT/Siena and other polls suggest Democrats are unlikely to do better among working-class voters in these states in 2024.
Another indicator of the Brahminization of the Democratic Party is the current distribution of congressional seats. Democrats now dominate the more affluent districts while Republicans are cleaning up in the poorer districts. Marcy Kaptur, who represents Ohio’s working-class 9th district and is the longest-serving female member of the House in American history, has said of this pattern:
You could question yourself and say, well, the blue districts are the wealthiest districts, so it shows that the Democrats are doing better to lift people's incomes. The other way you could look at it is: how is it possible that Republicans are representing the majority of people who struggle? How is that possible?
How indeed. Kaptur has a two-page chart that arrays Congressional districts from highest median income to lowest with partisan control color-coded. The first page is heavily dominated by blue but the second, poorer page is a sea of red. You can access the chart here. It’s really quite striking. Overall, Republicans represent 152 of the 237 Congressional seats where the district median income trails the national figure.
In light of all this, consider how Democrats are proposing to run in 2024. First, they are not going to back down an inch on the party’s commitment to cultural leftism, a key marker of the party’s Brahmin turn. Indeed, they believe the abortion issue currently gives them cover in this area due to the Dobbs decision, where the party has been able to occupy center ground in opposition to significant parts of the GOP who wish to ban the procedure. But crime isn’t the abortion issue. Immigration isn’t the abortion issue. Race essentialism and gender ideology aren’t the abortion issue. Even the abortion issue isn’t the abortion issue once you get past opposing bans and start having to deal with the nitty-gritty of setting some limits on abortion access (as the public wants).
The fact is that the cultural left in and around the Democratic Party has managed to associate the party with a series of views on crime, immigration, policing, free speech, and of course race and gender that are quite far from those of the median working class voter (including the median nonwhite working-class voter). These unpopular views are further amplified by the Democrats’ “shadow party” (as John Judis and I put it in our forthcoming book, Where Have All the Democrats Gone?), the activist groups, think tanks, foundations, publications and websites, and big donors, and prestigious intellectuals who are not part of official party organizations, as well as within the Democratic Party infrastructure itself, all of which are thoroughly dominated by the cultural left.
As a direct result of these associations, the party’s—or, at least, Biden’s—attempt to rebrand Democrats as a unifying party speaking for Americans across divisions of race and class appears to have failed. Voters are not sure Democrats can look beyond identity politics to ensure public safety, secure borders, high quality, non-ideological education, and economic progress for all Americans.
Instead, Democrats continue to be weighed down by those whose tendency is to oppose firm action to control crime or the southern border as concessions to racism, interpret concerns about ideological school curricula and lowering educational standards as manifestations of white supremacy, and generally emphasize the identity politics angle of virtually every issue. With this baggage, rebranding the party—making it more working class oriented and less Brahmin—is very difficult, since decisive action that might lead to such a rebranding is immediately undercut by a torrent of criticism. Judging from Biden’s actions so far, I don’t see him taking that decisive action and being willing to buck that kind of criticism. No “Sister Souljah moment” seems likely this cycle.
The Democrats’ refusal to back down on any of their cultural left commitments is twinned to aggressive attacks on GOP excesses, real and imagined, on culture war issues and linking those excesses to a “MAGA” Republican Party (and Trump of course) they characterize as anti-democratic and perhaps even fascist. This plays well with Democrats’ college-educated supporters, but less well with working-class voters who simply look at Democrats’ commitments and rhetoric differently.
As David Brooks noted in a recent piece that has earned him the wrath of the online left:
Members of our [highly-educated] class…segregate ourselves into a few booming metro areas: San Francisco, D.C., Austin and so on. In 2020, Biden won only 500 or so counties, but together they are responsible for 71 percent of the American economy. Trump won over 2,500 counties, responsible for only 29 percent…. Armed with all kinds of economic, cultural and political power, we support policies that help ourselves. Free trade makes the products we buy cheaper, and our jobs are unlikely to be moved to China. Open immigration makes our service staff cheaper, but new, less-educated immigrants aren’t likely to put downward pressure on our wages.
Like all elites, we use language and mores as tools to recognize one another and exclude others. Using words like “problematic,” “cisgender,” “Latinx” and “intersectional” is a sure sign that you’ve got cultural capital coming out of your ears. Meanwhile, members of the less-educated classes have to walk on eggshells because they never know when we’ve changed the usage rules so that something that was sayable five years ago now gets you fired.
We also change the moral norms in ways that suit ourselves, never mind the cost to others. For example, there used to be a norm that discouraged people from having children outside marriage, but that got washed away during our period of cultural dominance, as we eroded norms that seemed judgmental or that might inhibit individual freedom.
After this social norm was eroded, a funny thing happened. Members of our class still overwhelmingly married and had children within wedlock. People without our resources, unsupported by social norms, were less able to do that.
This is the raw material a populist right campaign—whether Trump’s or, I believe, any other Republican candidate’s—will make good use of. The Democrats, as an unrepentant Brahmin Left party, will be highly vulnerable among working-class voters to such attacks.
They do believe, however, that they have an ace in the hole that can overcome these liabilities with working class voters: “Bidenomics.” The idea is that the improving economic outlook, especially lowered inflation, plus the jobs generated by the Democrats’ various spending bills, will endear these voters to the Democrats and allow them to overlook the other things they don’t like about the party and the Biden administration.
So far, this approach has decidedly not worked. As many outlets have reported, voters remain deeply unhappy about the economy and unconvinced by the Bidenomics pitch. In the most recent CNN poll, working-class voters give Biden just a 32 percent approval rating on the economy and a 24 percent rating on handling inflation; about four-fifths characterize the current economy as poor. And in the most recent CBS poll, most hadn’t heard much about Bidenomics and of those who had the term was mostly associated with higher inflation.
None of this should be surprising. Liberal journalist David Dayen points out, in a notably sober take on the situation:
The dominant economic story in the country during the Biden presidency is the spike in inflation. While the jobs numbers are prodigious, changes in employment by definition affect a smaller number of people than the price of everything, which affects everyone.
When inflation “goes away,” that doesn’t mean that every price reverts back to its previous level. For the most part, the rate of price increases just levels off. Anyone pissed off about prices at the grocery store is still going to be pissed off, because they’re still high relative to where they were in 2021….
The main prices that have fallen already are on gas and energy, but that has ended, in part because of the ongoing heat wave, which prevents refineries from running at full capacity and increases demand for air-conditioning. The positive trends on consumer sentiment are if anything going to go down in the near term, as the most publicly visible posted prices in the country rise….
What’s left of Bidenomics has long time lags: Manufacturing plants aren’t built overnight, bridges aren’t repaired instantly. Of course it won’t trigger an immediate reaction among the public.
Another problem with Bidenomics is that so much of it is bound up with Democrats’ commitment to a rapid clean energy transition based on renewables. This approach is simply not very popular with working-class voters (though it is wildly popular with Democrats’ liberal college-educated supporters) and, on current evidence, that situation seems unlikely to change anytime soon. Indeed, the populist right attack on Bidenomics is likely to target both the association with inflation and with the Democrats’ maximalist green agenda.
So Brahmin Left vs. Populist Right does indeed seem to be our lineup for the 2024 election. Either side could win. But no matter which side does, the contradictions at the heart of this clash are unlikely to be easily resolved without substantial changes in orientation by at least one of the parties. Brahmin Left and Populist Right can both win elections. But neither seems capable, without considerable change, of building the kind of broad, durable coalition capable of unlocking the country’s potential for a new era of dynamic growth and universal uplift.