The Fight for the Working Class in 2022
It Could Be Make or Break for the Democrats
It’s not exactly a state secret that the Democrats face a very difficult election in 2022. Their margins are razor-thin inn both the House and Senate. Since 1946 the incumbent President’s party has lost an average of 26 House seats and 2 Senate seats in first term midterm elections. That’s enough of course for Democrats to completely lose control of Congress.
So, can the Democrats break the midterm curse? Much depends on whether and to what extent they can win the fight for the working class in 2022. That means preventing another surge of white working class voters toward the Republicans and stopping the attrition of nonwhite, particularly Hispanic, voters from Democratic ranks.
The Republicans have the reverse idea. In a widely-noted memo to House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, Jim Banks, a Republican House member from Indiana, urged the GOP to cement itself “as the working class party”. He said:
President Trump gave the Republican Party a political gift: we are now the party supported by most working-class voters. The question is whether Republicans reject that gift or unwrap it and permanently become the Party of the Working Class.
Donald Trump won the Presidency in 2016 by drawing working-class voters into the GOP. During the 2020 race, he drew on the same base of support, receiving an unprecedented number of votes and boosting Republican candidates across the country.
The Democrats are not without factors on their side to foil Republican plans and break the historical pattern. A Biden boom may be in the offing and economic growth is a known tonic for a President’s approval rating which, in turn, typically boosts the fortunes of the incumbent party’s Congressional candidate.
Moreover, the Democrats’ initial legislative salvo on the economy and the pandemic, the American Rescue Plan (ARP), is not only wildly popular in general but is perceived as benefiting working class communities and by people in those working class communities, including whites, as benefiting them personally.
There’s a reason for that. It does. Tom Edsall notes:
[T]he benefits [of the American Rescue Plan] are universal and, in some cases, families making as much as $150,000 annually will qualify for substantial payments and tax credits.
In addition, a plurality of the beneficiaries will be white. Of the 39.4 million people at or below poverty in 2019 who qualify for the largest benefits, 17.3 million were white, 8.2 million were Black and 10.2 million were Hispanic, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
From a transactional politics perspective — “Democrats gave us something we wanted,” a hesitant lower-income white Republican might say — this is a big success for the left. Further, modeling from the Tax Policy Center shows that the lower quintile of Americans by income will see their after-tax earnings rise by 20%.
That rate of growth is incredibly accelerated; to put it into context, it’s about double the percent change in mean household income for the bottom quintile across the past decade. It’s twenty four years of growth in one.
Perhaps that’s why support among lower income whites for the American Rescue Plan is running so far ahead of support among these voters for Biden in 2020. And why almost two-thirds of lower income Republicans say they support the ARP.
The administration is now trying to move the first part of its “recovery” legislation, the American Jobs Plan. Initial polling suggests the components of the jobs plan are very popular. By their nature, these expenditures should disproportionately benefit working class Americans, both white and nonwhite. Despite the efforts of some to portray the plan as an “equity” plan, assisted to some extent by administration rhetoric, it is not. The plan, by working through economic channels, should disproportionately benefit blacks and Hispanics because they are disproportionately working class. As I have noted previously, the attempt to portray a universal, working class-oriented plan as motivated by equity considerations is a very poor marketing strategy and logically antithetical to the Democrats’ need to win the fight for the working class in 2022 and beyond.
So the Democrats clearly have some arrows in their quiver to win the fight for the working class in 2022. But there are some problems, leaving aside the daunting historical pattern of these midterm elections. Start with the nature and extent of a Biden boom. How big will it be and how long will it last (which is not unrelated to progress on the pandemic)? We don’t know though we do know that if the economy hiccups in 2022 even after roaring in 2021, that could be a real problem.
There are also pitfalls in the American Jobs Plan and any subsequent recovery legislation. It is critical for the Democrats to focus on the most popular parts of this legislation and make sure they get through and are implemented quickly and effectively. It is one thing to pass legislation; it is another to ensure the legislation produces jobs and benefits for the target populations that are widely appreciated and understood by these populations.
Finally, the Democrats must do their best to defuse their cultural vulnerabilities, which are a constant impediment to their performance among working class voters and which Republicans hope to capitalize on. This includes dealing effectively with the immigration surge at the border, taking crime and public safety seriously in an era this problem is becoming more severe and distancing themselves from highly unpopular, stridently ideological “anti-racist” rhetoric and practices.
We shall see if the Democrats can negotiate all these challenges successfully. The prize is winning the fight for the working class, avoiding electoral disaster in 2022 and, potentially, making the Biden era truly transformational.