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The Democrats' Oliver Anthony Problem
Get ready for more education polarization.
By this I don’t mean that future political outcomes will depend directly on reactions to any specific song by any specific singer. But I do think that Democrats’ reaction to “Rich Men North of Richmond” by Oliver Anthony tells you a lot about where the party is today and where our politics is likely to go in the next year or two.
Consider that Anthony’s song is powerfully directed above all at economic unfairness and a system that screws the working class and favors the rich who want to “have total control.” Catnip for Democrats right? Wrong. Because Anthony neglected to scrub his lyrics of lines that might offend the tender sensibilities of the liberal commentariat his song has been excoriated as “welfare-bashing and conspiracy-tinged,” “in the wheelhouse of the Q-anon movement,” and of course racist. More generally, the song has been summarily right-coded and Anthony dismissed as an agent of the other side, despite Anthony’s stout denials that he is, in fact, on the right.
More to the point, does the fact that Anthony complains about those taking unfair advantage of government programs make him a screaming racist reactionary as many liberals seem to think? Andy Levison correctly notes:
[A]nyone who reads the hundreds and hundreds of pages of focus groups where working-class people complain about welfare cheating will notice one interesting fact. A vast number of the anecdotes the participants offer are not repetitions of conservative clichés about African-Americans and “welfare Cadillacs” but rather very specific stories about these workers’ able-bodied friends, neighbors and relatives who are drawing undeserved disability payments or workman’s compensation or cashing social security checks that should be going to someone else in the person’s family and their sense of contempt for these people who they know personally is far stronger than it is against any abstract stereotypes.
But might Anthony be influenced by conservative media, therefore disqualifying him and his songs from serious consideration by good Democrats? Levison has some choice words about that:
[W]hat alternative media do you expect a working-class person to be reading or listening to instead—the latest issue of the Nation? The 7 o’clock news on MSNBC? Special issues of Jacobin? The information world in which millions of working-class Americans live is filled with conservative material and if reading that stuff automatically makes a worker an extremist, even if he is as pro-worker as Oliver Anthony, then Democrats might as well give up any hope right now and move to Norway.
Just so. The fact that Democrats responded with visceral dislike to a song that expressed the complicated populist views of an actual working-class person shows how unwelcoming the party has become to actual working-class people, as opposed to mythological proletarians who combine hatred of (Republican) corporations with reverence for “Bidenomics” and careful usage of all the approved intersectional language.
Speaking of Bidenomics, it’s important for Democrats to understand just how poorly the Biden economy has played with working-class voters so far, which is interacting with these voters’ general sense that Democrats don’t much like them and their uneducated, uncouth manner of speaking and thinking. Take Biden’s approval rating on the economy. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, his rating on the economy is a shockingly low 25 percent approval vs. 71 percent disapproval (minus 46 net approval!) among white working-class (noncollege) voters compared to 52 percent approval vs. 46 disapproval (plus 6 net approval) among white college voters.
That’s quite a difference. What might explain such a chasm in outlook? A good chunk of this is differing reactions to a period of high inflation. As noted in a recent CNN article by Ron Brownstein:
[F]rustration over high prices is especially acute among voters with fewer resources and less financial cushion, which generally include those with less education. “Nobody likes spending more, but the degree to which you can absorb inflation, those at the higher end of the economic scale have less difficulty doing so,” said Democratic pollster Jay Campbell, who studies economic attitudes as part of a bipartisan team that conducts surveys for CNBC…
Biden’s ads are emphasizing the slowdown in inflation over recent months. But as Campbell points out, moderating inflation only means prices are rising less quickly; it doesn’t mean prices are returning to their levels before the Covid-19 pandemic. All voters, but especially those of moderate means, are acutely aware of that distinction, Campbell says.
“You are still paying more for eggs and your other necessities than you were a year ago, and you are paying a lot more than you were 2-3 years ago,” Campbell said. “And interest rates being really high compounds the problem in reality and in people’s minds, because now if you have to put something on your credit card you are paying even more—twice.” Higher interest rates are also making it more difficult for people to buy homes or finance cars.
Nor are these voters particularly sanguine about the future. In a new CBS News poll, 25 percent of white working-class voters say that looking ahead they are optimistic about the national economy, while 75 percent are pessimistic. And just 18 percent are optimistic about “the cost of goods and services”, compared to 82 percent who are pessimistic. These do not sound like happy campers about Bidenomics.
Perhaps the whole enterprise was just not what these voters—and most voters—had in mind when they elected Joe Biden. As Janan Ganesh has pointed out in the Financial Times:
His brief was to end the dark carnival of Donald Trump and lead the US out of the pandemic. What followed—profuse spending, subsidies on a scale that might scandalise a Gaullist—was not just startling. It also allowed Republicans to draw a circumstantially plausible (even if you think ultimately false) link between the administration and rising consumer prices…Since his cavalier early months, the president has grown more sensitive to concerns about inflation. But members of his government still talk with messianic bombast about a “new economic order” for the world, as though price rises are so much collateral damage in a grand experiment on behalf of the People.
This is the hard reality Bidenomics and the Democrats have run into. The typical working-class voter just sees and has experienced things in a way that does not comport with Democrats’ preferred narrative. These voters’ “lived experience,” as it were, is just too different to generate buy-in to that narrative.
Nor does recent economic news seem likely to help much. Inflation went back up in August, with gas prices shooting up over 10 percent. And the latest income data from the Census Bureau show continued decline in median household income in the first two years of the Biden administration, leaving it 4.7 percent lower than its pre-pandemic peak. But the pre-pandemic years of the Trump administration saw an increase of 10 percent in household income. Clearly, that colors voters’ perception of the recent past and is a key reason why the working class, by more than two to one, believes Trump did a better job handling the economy than Biden is currently doing.
Taking all this into account, it should not be too surprising that education polarization is stark in recent horse race polling between Biden and Trump. In a new CNN poll, Biden loses the working class by 14 points to Trump, while carrying college-educated voters by 18 points. That compares to Biden’s 2020 loss to Trump of “only” four points among working-class voters.
We’ll likely see more of the same in 2024. As Brownstein observed in the article referenced above, it is likely that Biden, despite his “middle class Joe” persona, will wind up relying more, not less, on upscale voters than he did in 2020. Those are voters who are less sour on the economy and more susceptible to appeals around abortion, democracy, and Trump’s boorish personality.
It just might work. Certainly it’s mathematically feasible to compensate for working-class losses by gains among the college-educated (though those gains have to be larger because the college-educated are a smaller group). But besides being risky, one has to wonder what kind of party the Democrats are becoming. Is this really the party they want to be, where the views, priorities, and values of the educated take precedence?
We are getting very far indeed from FDR’s party of the common man and woman. Both political prudence and the core historic commitments of the Democratic Party should lead them away from their current path and back toward the working class. And should they make this course correction, they might want to give Oliver Anthony another listen. I’ll give the last word to Andy Levison:
Progressives need to apologize to Oliver Anthony. He understands working people better than they do, he can talk to them better than they can and if Democrats ever want to regain their lost working-class support they need to shut up and listen to guys like him instead of telling him to shut up and listen to them.