by Jeff Polet, Director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation
Political parties are a bedeviling feature of democratic politics. Most people know that the framers of our Constitution feared the emergence of political parties, but also made no provisions for them in the document itself. As a result, political parties are, like bureaucracies, extra-constitutional entities that largely determine our politics.
Bureaucracies tend to be static entities, except for their ability to keep growing, while parties are far less stable. It should come as no surprise that party identification is the single greatest predictor of electoral behavior, in part because the main purpose of political parties is to nominate and elect office-holders. Nor should it surprise us that party identification tends to be closely held, which means that citizens don’t slip into and out of it like a coat, but the identification matters to them and they won’t give it up easily.
For all that, parties constantly shift their identity, and this is because they are coalitions of different groups of voters. I have a lot to say about “voting studies” and how we categorize voters, but I’ll set that aside for now to make the simple observation that we can aggregate individual voters into shared group identities, and these aggregated populations tend to behave in a predictable fashion. For example, we can take “boys who grow up in a household without a father” and generate predictions of correlative behavior.
Same with party identification. African-Americans, for example, are far more likely to identify as democrats than they are as Republicans. But these groups can shift their party allegiances, which is why the party that ended slavery now finds itself on the outside looking in at African-American voters. Since new voting blocs can emerge (often by Constitutional Amendment — 15, 19, and 26, for example) the political parties will attempt to capture these new voters. During periods of mass immigration, the parties will try to capture the votes of this emergent bloc. Parties thus constantly shift their shape and form in order to maximize their appeal within the electorate. But as they shift they may lose current groups in the process, and once those groups are cut loose the opposing party may quickly move in to capture them. A significant example of this is the so-called Southern Strategy pursued by Republicans in the 1960s.
All this by way of introduction. Parties are constantly shifting coalitions of different groups. Political scientists refer to broad and enduring shifts as “realignments.” Many times the population will be realigning but the effects won’t be noticeable until they result in a “critical” election. The elections of 1800, 1828, 1860, 1892, and 1932 all revealed that the party coalitions had significantly altered. The election of 1932 marked the beginning of Democratic ascendancy, its coalition composed of blue-collar workers, racial and religious minorities, and immigrants, while maintaining their base with white southerners. These coalitions are always fragile, and because the Democratic party was at the forefront of civil rights legislation that satisfied the interests of parts of their coalition, it lost its appeal with other parts of the coalition.
One lasting perception of that era is that the Republicans are the party of the rich and the Democrats the party of the downtrodden. By any measure we can think of, this is no longer true. Democrats raise more money, command more allegiance from high-level corporate executives, and their voters have a higher average household income than Republican voters. We live in the age of “woke capitalism.” That itself is significant because it indicates that the party has moved away from the “bread-and-butter” (economic) issues that defined it for nearly a century and toward a complex of social issues that tend to be popular with a particular class of people. This helps explain why Donald Trump saw an increase in the percentage of black and hispanic voters between his 2016 and 2020 campaigns.
The Manhattan Institute recently issued a report exploring the consequences of the Democratic Party becoming more and more dominated by college graduates (and thus, by extension, less so by blue-collar workers, who I can testify by personal experience are suspicious of college graduates and often rightly so).
In 2020, for the first time on record, the college-educated white share (27.3%) of Democrats exceeded that of non-college-educated whites (25.2%). The largest Democratic majority is now made up of non-college-educated nonwhites (32.8%) and college-educated whites (27.3%).
The report notes that this will lead to tensions within the coalition that currently makes up the Democratic party, because
Those with a college education tend to be wealthier and have higher socioeconomic status than those without, but they also tend to be more socially liberal and more likely to prioritize post-material moral concerns over kitchen-table issues.
The consequences of this for both parties are significant:
Owing to their greater political influence, the attitudes of white Democrats are more likely to shape the rhetoric and agenda of party elites. A potential consequence—which may already be happening—is that white progressives’ dominance over the Democratic Party agenda will alienate at least some socially conservative working-class nonwhites, thereby driving a small but electorally consequential subset of them into the arms of Republican Party candidates, if not into the party itself.
The report argues that college-educated whites are setting the terms for the identity and future of the party, and that is a strategy that could produce a backlash within the coalition itself. For one thing, the party coalition will be marked by greater disparities is wealth since the data “indicate that the white vs. non-Asian/nonwhite Democrat median personal income gap … more than doubled between 2014 ($7,390) and 2016 ($15,428).” As educated whites exercise their unrivaled authority, they’ll be less likely to take the concerns of other party members into consideration, but will play more and more to their power and wealth base.
Instead, the concern increasingly becomes whether they are pressing the right “buttons” to attract and/or maintain the support of white liberal activists and donors. And the resulting party’s priorities are only more attractive to college-educated whites.
But money isn’t the only wedge in the coalition. College-educated people tend to be more politically engaged (in the 2020 election, for example, the voting rate gap among white and non-white Democrats was 18.7)and also tend to be more politically knowledgeable, and thus can set the political agenda. The gap in basic political knowledge between white and non-whites in the Democratic party is both significant and growing. The report doesn’t go into this detail, but college-educated people also tend to be rather smug and assume they are entitled to rule by virtue of their advanced education.
The Republican party certainly has problems of its own, but the cracks in the Democratic party coalition are already showing and are likely to widen in the coming decade. Americans like to complain about partisanship, but the fact is that our parties are pretty weak. That’s a different reflection, but I think it means we can expect a resorting of the population, and thus our parties, to happen in the near future. That will likely mean that the Republicans will become the party of the working class and the Democrats of the wealthy and educated. That division could well destabilize our politics even more. Stay tuned.
- How do your perceptions of our two major parties differ from the actual composition and beliefs of the party?
- Are strong parties good or bad for democratic governance?
- What causes a party coalition to shift?
- What are the major cross-cutting issues in our current politics that might get people to change party allegiance?