Historically, white-collar business professionals were usually Republican, and the blue-collar working classes were Democrats. But this has been gradually changing… Working folks who used to be the staunchest Democrats voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020. And many Republicans have been voting blue.
So is the Democratic Party becoming the party of Big Business, while the GOP will now be a workers’ party? Republican Senators like Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, and even Ted Cruz have used the phrase “working class” to describe their party’s future base.
The idea of a party realignment might not be arising out of anything the GOP is accomplishing (even their own constituents are unhappy with them), but out of what the Democrats are in large part no longer doing – namely, looking out for workers. What is certain is that the Democratic Party is becoming the party of corporate, tech, and financial power.
In January 2020, when the Democratic primary elections were about to begin, President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign chairman Steve Ricchetti met with 90 Wall Street donors to tell them it was time to fund Biden’s efforts against the other candidates. After Biden finished off his opposition, Obama’s former defense secretary urged Goldman Sachs staffers to place a big bet on Biden against Trump.
This seems to have worked… According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Wall Street contributed more than $74 million directly to Biden’s campaign. Conversely, they only gave Trump $18 million, even less than the $20 million he received in 2016. Their reason for preferring Biden? Trump’s lack of “predictability,” said one unnamed GOP adviser. In other words, with Biden, the system will become easy to control again.
And it’s not just Trump who is getting shorted by the financiers… It’s the rest of the GOP as well. Of Wall Street’s total 2020 contributions, not only to campaigns but to all political organizations, including “dark money” groups, 62% went to Democrats and 38% went to Republicans. Comparatively, in 2016, they gave 50% to Republicans and 49% to Democrats. In 2012, they gave 69% to Republicans and 31% to Democrats. The Chamber of Commerce, which has long been the top-spending lobbying client, endorsed 30 Democratic House candidates in the 2020 election.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the Chamber’s Executive Vice President Neil Bradley explained why… Members of the Republican Party had embraced populist positions on trade and immigration with Donald Trump’s rise. This was a big problem for the Chamber, which, for example, spent about $26 million in the fourth quarter of 2018 lobbying against Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs.
Bradley expressed further disappointment by writing off many Republicans’ calls to bring back manufacturing jobs that had been outsourced to China and other countries as “too simple.” With some members of the Democratic Party embracing socialism on top of it, Bradley said the lobbying giant was forced to reach out to centrists in both parties since the business community prefers a vital political center and an economy focused on shareholder profits. He added that responding to the rise of populism with centrism will continue to be the Chamber’s modus operandi when Congress reconvenes.
To identify as a “centrist” right now is a luxury only available to comfortable entities, like major corporations. The rest of the population is fraying into extremisms, and not without reason.
Besides the decades-long general trend of escalating inequality between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of the population, small businesses (which employ almost half of the American workforce) are being crushed by excessive lockdown policies. In September, Yelp estimated 60% of small businesses closed during the COVID lockdowns will never reopen.
Meanwhile, America’s 651 billionaires collectively gained more than $1 trillion since March. That makes their total wealth standing at $4 trillion, not far from doubling the $2.1 trillion held by the bottom 50% of the U.S. population.
CEOs of tech companies, which account for a record-breaking 40% of the S&P 500 Index, gained the most. The highest earner was Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who raked in $90.1 billion. Bill Gates saw a 20% increase in wealth, Zuckerberg an 85% increase.
All of these billionaires are friendly with the Democrats and their nonprofits. This new administration was already deeply beholden to them and their interests, but to add insult to injury, Biden decided to fill his cabinet with their cronies.
For example, Neera Tanden, who worked closely with corporate donors during her nine years as president of the Center for American Progress, has been chosen to run the Office of Management and Budget. In this position, she will be responsible for crucial budgeting decisions that will affect the entire economy, including regulations on corporations run by her friends. She was well-known for getting into Twitter battles with the Bernie wing of the Democratic Party during the primaries, particularly on health care and foreign policy, areas that she will undoubtedly be asked to weigh in on.
Biden’s appointee choices range from Democratic establishment careerists (Rahm Emanuel, Janet Yellen, Antony Blinken, John Kerry) to executives fresh from Wall Street and Silicon Valley… Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, Google, and Facebook. This has not gone unnoticed by the socialist Left. One Jacobin writer cataloged the hypocrisies of liberal media outlets that attacked Trump for appointing people with such backgrounds but have neglected to scrutinize Biden for doing the same.
So much for Biden’s line about the election being a battle “between Scranton and Park Avenue.”
The lucrative wars don’t seem to be ending any time soon either. Biden is appointing liberal hawks like Blinken to critical positions (more than a third of his Defense agency review team come from arms manufacturers or have worked at think tanks funded by them). And defense contractors like Raytheon are cheerful about the election outcome, optimistically looking forward to years of generous defense spending.
One argument for why this is happening is that the private sector no longer wants the government to leave them alone… It wants the government to be involved in business affairs to have leverage. Tim Carney convincingly argued that big businesses like regulations because, while they can weather a few extra taxes or protocols, their smaller competitors can’t. By teaming up with bureaucracies to implement revenue-killing measures, corporations can artificially shield themselves from market forces while garnering highly profitable and recurring contracts with the government, whether in defense, health, or tech.
The faster one conceives of the difference between the market and corporations, the faster he will understand the current situation. The dynamic market contrasts wildly to the corporation, as the latter thrives on monopoly and immobility.
The top 9.9% of the wealth distribution, the professional class, likewise votes for politicians representing big government and big business because they work in industries where these worlds overlap, such as consulting and lobbying. The elites don’t usually start businesses of their own, unlike lesser-educated adults hoping to remain the core of what’s left of the middle class. And so the top 10% really don’t really care if the formerly fluid social mobility of America, conditioned on fluctuating per a free market, hardens into a caste system.
Counties composed of college-degree-credentialed, high-earning professionals have been increasingly swapping from Republican to Democratic candidates since 1980. According to an analysis of Census data by the Wall Street Journal, the 100 counties with the highest median incomes voted for Biden over Trump by 57%. The 100 counties with the largest share of college degrees in the country voted for Biden 84%.
According to Brookings, Trump won 83% of the nation’s counties, but those counties only accounted for 30% of the national GDP. Biden, on the other hand, won only 17% of counties, but those accounted for 71% of the GDP.
The socialists are angry about this trend, and fuming even more about the two-time humiliation of Bernie Sanders, reduced to endorsing the establishmentarians that had him removed from both primaries. The Democratic Party will never allow the radicals to wield actual political power, as they’re too entrenched with special interests.
So, what is the future of their movement beyond street activism?
The best figure to follow for this question is probably Marxian economist Richard Wolff and his nonprofit “Democracy at Work,” which seeks to reconceive “socialism” as workers’ self-management rather than Leninism’s state capitalism. But as for electoral politics, it’s implausible the Democratic-Socialist movement will make significant ground soon.
How will they respond to Bernie Sanders’ second loss? By trying to regroup in a third party or forming a new one, by perpetually harassing the Democratic Party leadership until they collapse from exhaustion, or by seizing every opportunity to riot until their demands are met, is yet to be seen. Most likely, all three…
The Right-wing populists would love to start referring to the GOP as the working-class party, but they should hesitate… Conservative Inc. does not like that talk, as they very well know. A more accurate description of the current GOP is the party of the petite bourgeoisie and a rural, dispossessed subset of the working class that richly appreciated Trump’s aspirational rhetoric about reshoring jobs.
Some may say that Trump’s populist campaign platform was ultimately overshadowed by his run-of-the-mill accomplishments – the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and the nomination of three conservative Supreme Court justices. While he helped bring back about 500,000 manufacturing jobs, that number started to steeply decline even before the pandemic. He didn’t comprehensively reform health care, nor did he significantly ameliorate the plight of forgotten workers dealing with the “American carnage.”
But he brought populist issues to the forefront when politicians had neglected them for decades, and he became wildly popular with the GOP’s base for doing so. Trump’s appeals to rust-belt workers were clearly successful, as Biden himself shamelessly stole his talking points, like “Buy American” and “It’s past time to end the Forever Wars, which have cost us untold blood and treasure.” It would be foolish to abandon this winning platform, and Republicans like Rubio realize this. But just because the corporate elite has deserted the GOP doesn’t automatically empty the GOP of Paul Ryans, who desperately want to win back their favor.
While Trump has dropped the opportunity to become the working-class party into the GOP’s lap, that doesn’t mean they have. The GOP needs to support workers in substance, not just in rhetoric.
“Working class” is not an empty moniker… It refers to a living swath of people with direct, material interests. As it is a class, appealing to them must necessarily preclude cultural appeals, as economic identity unites people across racial and religious boundaries.
It would also require Republicans to vociferously fight against policies that are objectively contrary to workers’ interests. Identifying these can be controversial, but for starters, a workers’ party would not pursue outsourcing, nor would they try to inflate the labor supply with immigrant workers to undercut wages and break strikes. There’s also the gig economy, busting unions, lowering or getting rid of the minimum wage, and a host of other class war tactics the party used to support.
There will no doubt be an intense fight within the GOP to prevent this change from happening. For instance, National Review recently published a piece calling the GOP-as-working-class-party notion a “myth,” arguing that culture-war issues, not economics, drive voters.
Whether this is true or not, if the GOP is to become a workers’ party, it would need to base its policies on what its working constituents want. Workers would decide which types of reforms would allow them an economic advantage, and the party would respond by turning these reforms into legislation. Some might argue that the GOP is at risk of losing whatever donors they have left by fully committing to working-class policies.
But who needs donors when you already have the votes?
This article first appeared in American Consequences on January 2021.