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Two decades ago, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira predicted that the Democratic Party was on the cusp of securing political dominance. In The Emerging Democratic Majority, the political writers noted that many of their party’s core constituencies — college-educated professionals, single women, and non-white Americans — were steadily growing as a share of the electorate. As these demographic groups swelled, blue America would become far more numerous than its red counterpart. This would not ensure perennial Democratic victory; the shifts would not be sufficient to deliver the overwhelming majority of the party’s New Deal heyday. But they would give the party a sustained advantage in national elections over a period of several decades.
The 2008 election appeared to vindicate this thesis. That year, Barack Obama’s strength with college-educated professionals in North Carolina’s research triangle helped him paint the Tarheel State blue, while his support with Hispanic voters buttressed his winning margins in Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ resilient strength with secular, working-class whites won them virtually the entire Rust Belt, from Pennsylvania through Indiana. Pundits drafted eulogies for the Republican Party. White conservatives began their ongoing freakout over their “replacement” by godless cosmopolitans and ethnic minorities.
The subsequent Tea Party wave dented this triumphalism, but Obama’s reelection in 2012 revived it. Although the president’s victory over Mitt Romney owed more to white Rust Belt voters’ antipathy for an opponent of the auto bailout than any growth in the Hispanic population, elites in both parties attributed it to the latter, partly as a means of abetting bipartisan immigration reform.
But a second red-wave midterm in 2014, combined with Donald Trump’s election two years later, buried the Judis and Teixeira thesis. The case for an “emerging Democratic majority” had rested on one fundamental but widely ignored premise: that the party did not have any more ground to lose with white, working-class voters, and would continue to carry 40 percent of that bloc nationally, and nearly half of it in the Rust Belt.
This proved to be an unsafe assumption. Between 2012 and 2016, the Democrats saw their presidential vote share among working-class whites in Iowa fall by 23 percentage points, in Ohio by 15.5, in Michigan by 11, in Pennsylvania by 9, and in Wisconsin by 13.3. The party’s simultaneous gains with college-educated voters mitigated these losses but did not fully offset them. Indeed, Blue America’s shifting class composition put it at a disadvantage in the Electoral College battlegrounds, Senate, and statehouses, which tend to overrepresent working-class voters and underrepresent college-educated professionals.
Joe Biden clawed back a small fraction of Obama-Trump voters in 2020, winning a single percentage point more support among non-college whites than Clinton had won four years earlier. Yet Biden actually lost ground with working-class non-white voters in general, and Hispanic ones in particular. In 2016, Democrats captured 71 percent of the Latino vote; four years later, they mustered only 63 percent. This development was as fatal to the Emerging Democratic Majority thesis as the Democrats’ Rust Belt collapse in 2016. If Democrats could not count on retaining their margins with non-white voters even when campaigning against an open racist, then there was little basis for presuming that demographic change would ensure their party’s political preeminence.
Now, Judis and Texeira have written a new book, which aims to account for the failures of their prophecy. More specifically, Where Have All the Democrats Gone? offers an explanation of their party’s declining support from working-class voters (defined as those without college diplomas who work for a wage rather than a salary), and provides suggestions for how to regain their loyalty.
To Judis and Texeira, what’s at stake in reversing the rightward drift of the working class is not just the health of the Democratic Party, but that of American democracy. In capitalist societies, the wealthy perennially threaten to leverage their economic power into political dominance. Working people can only combat this plutocracy with the aid of a party committed to their material interests, Judis and Texeira argue. And as the party of organized labor, only the Democrats can serve this vital civic function. Yet their tepid working-class support renders them increasingly ill-equipped to counterbalance the power of concentrated capital, as the party did (however imperfectly) in the New Deal era.
FDR’s coalition first fractured on the shoals of the Civil Rights Act. The Democratic Party’s embrace of racial equality estranged it from many of its erstwhile supporters in the South, a disproportionately working-class region of the country. Yet as Judis and Texeira note, Democrats retained the backing of white workers in the North long after it sloughed off its ancestral white supremacy.
In their account, the decline in white, working-class support for Democrats between the Carter and Biden presidencies has two primary causes. First, a succession of Democratic presidents failed to prioritize the economic interests of the working class in general and of organized labor in particular. This neglect of workers’ interests was self-reinforcing: By refusing to prioritize pro-union labor-law reforms, the party abetted the decline of the union movement, which increased its reliance on corporate money for campaign financing, thereby rendering it even less inclined to prioritize pro-labor policies. Similarly, the Democrats’ embrace of trade liberalization alienated blue-collar industrial workers, even as it endeared the party to cosmopolitan professionals whose employment was unthreatened by globalization. These professionals not only came to comprise a large share of the Democratic electorate but also dominated the myriad nonprofit organizations that increasingly wielded more influence over party governance than did institutions accountable to a working-class constituency (such as trade unions or political machines). This made the Democrats more sensitive to professional class interests and less responsive to working-class ones, perpetuating the shift in its class basis.
But the Democrats’ difficulties with working-class voters are only partly rooted in economics, according to Judis and Teixeira. The party’s challenge also derives from its embrace of and/or association with “cultural radicalism” on questions of race, gender, and environmentalism. Passionately left-of-center, college-educated Americans who live in coastal cities or college towns constitute a small, and highly idiosyncratic segment of the U.S. population. On culture war issues, this subgroup is a vanguard, espousing views on policing, gender identity, racial justice, immigration, and climate policy that put it at odds with the vast majority of the American public.
And yet, this demographic now supplies the vast majority of blue America’s congressional staffers, policy intellectuals, commentators, and advocacy-organization employees. They have leveraged their outsize influence over party governance to push the Democrats into politically hazardous positions on energy, racial preferences, and gender identity. And where elected Democrats have held the line against vanguardism, such as on police funding, the party still suffers politically from its association with radical interest groups and intellectuals.
Judis and Texeira therefore argue that “America needs a Democratic Party that is liberal on economics and moderate and conciliatory on cultural issues.” They stress that being “moderate” does not mean splitting the difference between the stances of the left and right. Rather, they largely advise the party to retreat to its Obama-era positioning on social issues.
Their book’s critique of contemporary social liberalism is liable to be its most discussed aspect. The authors’ objections to anti-racism, “climate catastrophism,” and “gender ideology” are not just pragmatic but normative, and at times scathing. In my own view, some of their arguments have merit, while others don’t. For example, I think they’re right that some strands of “antiracist” thinking are incoherent, but are wrongly dismissive of the moral case for reparations.
Here though, I’d like to focus on the economic dimension of their argument. Judis and Teixeira’s case for Democrats to show more deference to the interests of organized labor and less to the entreaties of corporate America is well-founded. Nevertheless, their vision for how Democrats can raise working-class living standards — and thus endear themselves to working-class voters — puts excessive weight on economic nationalism. On the one hand, the authors encourage their party to embrace various forms of trade protection and industrial policy to revive American manufacturing. On the other, they counsel reducing admissions of low-skill immigrants, so as to increase native-born workers’ bargaining power.
There are considerable merits to subsidizing forms of industrial production that serve the national interest. But as a means of improving the fortunes of working-class Americans writ large, industrial policy has limited promise. Even if the U.S. cultivated domestic production with radically larger subsidies and stiffer tariffs, manufacturing would still account for a small fraction of all U.S. employment, due to rising demand for services and the declining labor intensity of goods production.
Judis and Teixeira’s economic case for immigration restriction, meanwhile, is simply wrong. There is little evidence that large-scale immigration has significantly impaired native-born workers’ wages or employment prospects. By contrast, there is abundant reason to believe that such immigration will help mitigate the economic challenges posed by America’s aging population.
Judis and Teixeira often accuse progressives of allowing their policy preferences to distort their political analysis. In their account, left-wing Democrats start with the conviction that their party must take maximalist positions for substantive reasons, and then torture data until it shows these positions to be electorally advantageous. Yet in their analysis of immigration, Judis and Teixeira indulge in an equal and opposite form of motivated reasoning: They begin with the correct observation that liberal immigration policies are a political liability for Democrats, then engineer a dubious case for why such policies are substantively undesirable.
Judis and Teixeria argue that a “great divide” now separates the Democrats’ political class from the party’s erstwhile blue-collar supporters. This divide manifests in culture war conflicts but is fundamentally rooted in economic geography. On one side lie thriving, post-industrial metropolitan centers that specialize in financial services, technological innovation, and electronics. These metro areas, and the professionals who run them, have largely benefited from the past four decades of globalization. Trade liberalization did not challenge NYC’s supremacy in finance, Hollywood’s in entertainment, or Silicon Valley’s in myriad forms of technological production. Rather, globalization expanded the markets available to American employers in those sectors. U.S. integration with foreign economies therefore did little to erode the typical big-city professional’s job security, even as it increased the value of their portfolios and reduced the cost of their consumer goods. Meanwhile, the great cities’ working classes, being largely composed of recent immigrants, also benefited from the growing porousness of national borders.
On the other side of the divide are small towns and midsize cities oriented around manufacturing. Many of these municipalities have suffered wrenching economic decline in recent decades, as employers decamped for foreign nations with lower labor costs. Displaced factory workers found themselves consigned to service-sector jobs paying a fraction of their old wages. Small businesses reliant on the purchasing power of well-compensated laborers failed or relocated. Now, young people with academic aptitude generally leave, while those without too often fall prey to addiction. In some cases, inflows of working-class immigrants mitigate population decline. But, in Judis and Teixeira’s telling, these migrants drive down wages for native-born workers, while catalyzing unwelcome cultural changes. All of this instills in longtime residents a sense of decline, alienation, and dispossession.
Judis and Teixeira are not wrong to insist that the divergent fortunes of major cities and manufacturing towns are central to Democrats’ losses with northern whites. In the private sector, manufacturing was long a stronghold for organized labor. Shifting workers out of factories and into retail or food service did not just lower their wages but also severed their ties to organizations aligned with the Democratic Party.
Further, as the authors emphasize, Democratic politicians abetted deindustrialization. Judis and Texeira’s assessment of Bill Clinton’s economic record is especially withering. Clinton championed both NAFTA and China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization in defiance of the AFL-CIO. Wall Street–funded think tanks assured the administration that integration with China would actually reduce America’s trade deficit while having a minimal impact on employment. This proved wildly wrong. Between 1999 and 2011, import competition with China eliminated 985,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs, according to the economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson. These job losses were heavily geographically concentrated. Although cheaper Chinese goods increased the purchasing power of most U.S. consumers, regions that had specialized in labor-intensive manufacturing were still suffering from reduced per-capita income in 2019.
As the consequences of Clinton’s trade policies made themselves felt, the Democrats’ claim to represent labor’s material interests started ringing hollow in the Rust Belt. The party’s identification with trade liberalization, expansive immigration policies, and urban professionals who benefited from both alienated globalization’s losers. “To me, there are only two groups of people, the globalists and the nationalists,” a onetime Democratic steelworker tells the authors. “And unfortunately the Democrats have wound up appearing to be the friends of the globalists.”
The profoundly inequitable consequences of globalization constitute a real policy problem. And the Democrats’ culpability in deindustrialization is a genuine political liability in many communities that boast disproportionate electoral influence. Yet the program of economic nationalism that Judis and Texeira recommend seems inadequate to either challenge.
The authors endorse the Biden administration’s embrace of tariffs and subsidies for domestic manufacturing, although they suggest these measures have not gone far enough in promoting domestic industry. They also call for labor-law reforms that would aid the union movement, higher taxes on the wealthy, stronger regulations of finance, and campaign-finance reforms. They caution, however, that the American working class remains suspicious of “huge programs that will cause higher taxes” and therefore recommend that liberals temper their ambitions for expanding the welfare state.
There is much to be said for subsidizing domestic production in the global economy’s most advanced industries. It is in the entire world’s interest for wealthy nations to invest public resources into the innovation and deployment of green technology. And requiring that a significant portion of this tech is produced in the U.S. helps to build a political base for such public investment.
America’s reliance on Taiwanese semiconductors is also a major economic and national security liability. Trying to get a U.S. chip industry off the ground makes good sense. More broadly, channeling resources toward growing, high-value industries serves America’s long-term economic interests.
As a program for advancing the material interests of American workers writ large (and thereby winning their political allegiances), however, this agenda has severe limitations.
For one thing, manufacturers employ only 8 percent of U.S. workers. Judis and Teixeira’s agenda aims to increase that figure, of course. But even in 1992, before NAFTA and normalization with China, manufacturing workers accounted for only 16 percent of the American labor force. Given advances in automation and the strength of demand for services in wealthy nations, there is no plausible world in which manufacturing workers don’t constitute a small minority of the American labor force.
Further, automation has also changed the nature of the manufacturing jobs that remain. As machines have gained proficiency in a wider array of manual tasks, the skills necessary for a human to add value to the production process have grown more refined. Today, most manufacturing workers have some postsecondary schooling.
These realities have significant economic and political implications. First, any vision for raising the living standards of the American working class must center the interests of the overwhelming majority who don’t work in goods production. And second, policies that favor American goods producers to the detriment of consumers are liable to have political costs. This is especially clear when one remembers that 15 percent of U.S. adults are retired and that this population votes at a disproportionate rate. If manufacturing workers constitute 8 percent of the labor force, they comprise an even smaller share of the electorate.
The reality is that, for most Americans, globalization has not been an economic calamity. Although integration with China was devastating for discrete manufacturing communities, research indicates that it increased jobs and real incomes in a majority of U.S. regions.
As noted above, certain forms of trade protection may nevertheless be justified. But one should not expect policies that benefit domestic manufacturers at consumers’ expense to be politically beneficial on net. Judging by Biden’s approval rating, voters have been much more dismayed by the trajectory of prices on his watch than cheered by his stewardship of a manufacturing revival.
Meanwhile, for Democrats to become a party dedicated to the material interests of ordinary workers — as Judis and Teixeira advise — they will need a vision for increasing wages in high-growth service industries. According to federal projections, no occupation will add more jobs to the U.S. economy over the next decade than “home health and personal aides.” The average income of workers in that field is under $30,000.
Enacting labor-law reforms that improve such workers’ bargaining position would help matters. But since so much of this work is publicly financed through Medicaid, it will be difficult to substantially increase labor standards in the field without also increasing federal spending on eldercare. Yet Democrats would struggle to do that without running afoul of the imperative to avoid “huge programs that will cause higher taxes.” Judis and Texeira might be right about the political inviability of such programs. But in an economy where a steadily growing share of workers labor in publicly financed service industries, a party incapable of substantially increasing social-welfare spending will be one with a highly limited capacity for advancing the interests of the working class.
Further, it is conceivable that the imperatives of economic nationalism may exacerbate the difficulty of winning majoritarian support for large public programs. Judis and Teixeira applaud a Biden administration executive order that compelled the federal government to buy American-made goods. Yet the American public’s aversion to higher taxes derives in part from its low estimate of the government’s efficiency and competence. Prohibiting public projects from utilizing the best or most affordable components, irrespective of their national origins — even as the private sector remains free to avail itself of global markets — is a recipe for reinforcing the public sector’s reputation for relative inefficiency.
Few issues divide college-educated urbanites from the median working-class voter as sharply as immigration. Across the developed world, the highly educated are consistently more supportive of immigration than those without college diplomas. In 2016, working-class Obama voters with conservative views on immigration swung heavily toward the GOP and were largely responsible for Trump’s winning margins in the Rust Belt battlegrounds.
Today, the Republican advantage on immigration is overwhelming. In a recent NBC News poll, voters said they trusted Republicans over Democrats to handle immigration by a margin of 45 to 27 percent. A recent national survey from Marquette Law School, meanwhile, found Donald Trump leading Biden on the issue of border security by a 52 to 28 percent margin.
Democrats have long been aware of the white working class’ antipathy for liberal immigration policies. But as Judis and Teixeira note, the party had assumed that such policies held strong appeal among non-white voters in general and Hispanic ones in particular. Trump’s gains with Hispanic voters in 2020 called that belief into doubt.
In September 2022, the authors observed a focus group of middle-age Hispanic women who had voted for Biden but hadn’t decided whether they would be turning out for the midterm election. The moderator solicited their views on Biden’s immigration policy and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s decision to fly migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. The women expressed far more concern with the administration’s border policies than DeSantis’s cruel political stunt. Among their responses:
We’ve allowed the undocumented to be insured fully. When does it end?
Trump’s border policy was not to have an influx of migrants. President Biden reversed that. There are now more than two million expected this year.
They are dumped on our doorstep. It stinks …
We’re taking in more than we can. Our homeless problem
is worsening …[DeSantis and Texas governor Greg Abbott] are from bor-
der states. They are the first line of defense. They are not
getting the support they need …
I haven’t heard much from the Democrats [on what to do
about the border] …
Make it harder for them to cross. It is getting out of control.
Don’t have them live off the government.
For these reasons, Judis and Teixeira’s argument that Democrats have political incentive to move right on immigration is hard to dismiss. But they also argue that such moderation would be substantively desirable, as it would benefit working Americans. And there is little reason to believe that this is the case.
To be sure, the notion that American workers’ bargaining power is undermined by the existence of a super-exploitable, undocumented workforce is plausible enough. So the authors’ proposal for providing the existing undocumented population with citizenship, while preventing employers from hiring people in the country illegally going forward, has some merit.
But they also call for a reduction in legal admissions of low-skill workers on the grounds that such immigration is detrimental to the economic interests of the native-born.
Americans do benefit from tight labor markets, in which the supply of workers is scarce relative to the demand for them. But high levels of immigration are not incompatible with tight labor markets. When immigrants enter the country, they increase the nation’s labor supply, but also its labor demand, since immigrants (like all people) consume goods and services.
Thus, the relationship between the number of annual immigrants to the United States and the number of employment opportunities available to each native-born worker is not straightforward. But in the aggregate, there is more reason to believe that high levels of immigration are economically beneficial to the native-born working class than there is to believe the opposite.
The hypothesis that immigrants reduce wages and jobs for the native-born has been exhaustively studied. And the overwhelming consensus of the empirical literature holds that they generally don’t. Researchers have looked for a negative impact on wages or employment from the mass influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey, from refugee migration to Sweden between 1999 and 2007, from refugees immigrating to Denmark in the 1980s and 1990s, from the mass migration of Russian Jews to Israel after the USSR’s collapse, and from Dust Bowl migrants dispersion to other parts of the U.S. during the Great Depression — and in every case, found none. Meta-analyses of the literature on immigration’s labor-market effects have found little to no negative consequences for native workers.
If immigrants do not appear to reduce wages or employment opportunities, they do increase labor efficiency. Immigrant workers are far more willing to move in response to shifting economic conditions than native workers with deep roots in particular communities. For this reason, they are uniquely effective at mitigating shortages in local labor markets. By filling these gaps, they render other workers in those markets more productive. The Harvard economist George Borjas has estimated that these productivity gains produce between $5 billion and $10 billion of economic value for native-born workers each year.
Judis and Texeira’s sympathizers might counter that local labor market shortages are desirable since they provide workers with leverage. After all, absent immigration, employers would be forced to fill these open positions by raising wages. This argument is plausible for any given job opening, but it does not hold at a national level, and for a simple reason: The number of foreign-born workers in the United States exceeds the number of unemployed ones. No matter how high firms raise wages, there simply are not enough American workers to go around. Without the immigrants, many jobs simply wouldn’t get done. Which is another way of saying that the economy would be smaller, and Americans would be collectively poorer.
To be fair, Judis and Teixeira are not arguing for an end to all immigration. But the economic case for reducing admissions at all is not sound given America’s demographic trajectory. By 2035, America will have 2.4 working-age adults for each person 65 and older, the lowest level on record, according to Census Bureau projections. That figure was 4.7 as recently as 2016.
The challenges posed by such a top-heavy demographic structure will be significant. To maintain Social Security and Medicare at their existing benefit levels, a higher share of every individual worker’s economic contributions will have to go toward supporting retirees. This will leave fewer resources available for sustaining and expanding social services and public goods for working-class households.
Immigration is far and away the most effective means of making the country younger and its workforce larger. As a 2017 report from the National Academy of Sciences noted, “The vast majority of current and future net workforce growth — which, at less than 1 percent annually, is very slow by historical standards — will be accounted for by immigrants and their U.S.-born descendants.” For this reason, Social Security’s trustees estimate that every 100,000-person increase in immigration improves the program’s long-range actuarial balance by .08 percent of taxable payroll.
All this establishes the desirability of increasing the supply of immigrant laborers in general. But the case is no less strong for increasing the supply of those who lack college degrees or other advanced skills. The U.S. economy’s demand for low-skill workers remains high, and many of our nation’s fastest-growing occupations do not require a postsecondary education.
None of this is to say that large-scale immigration creates no economic challenges. In a world where most American municipalities prevent the supply of housing from rising with demand, immigration can increase rental costs. But the rational solution to that problem is to reform zoning regulations, not condemn the nation to economic decline.
In sum, it’s plausible that Democrats may be able to increase their share of the working-class vote by embracing immigration restrictionism. But in so doing, they would be betraying the working class’ long-term material interests.
Where Have All the Democrats Gone? offers a sound description of the biggest challenge facing progressive politics in the United States. America does need a party of and for the working class to adequately counterbalance capitalism’s tendency toward inequality. The cultural divides between cosmopolitan professionals and communitarian blue-collar workers are an impediment to the emergence of such a party. And so is the Democratic Party’s association with economic decline in the Rust Belt’s small towns.
But Judis and Texeira’s answers for how Democrats can simultaneously deliver large economic gains to U.S. workers and resolve their immediate electoral challenges are unsatisfying, perhaps because these goals are not entirely commensurate. Large expansions of the social-welfare state financed by broad-based taxes and increases in legal immigration are in the American worker’s enlightened self-interest. But they are not necessarily popular with a working class that broadly distrusts the federal government, resents cultural change, and does not belong to progressive civic institutions that could plausibly reshape these views.
By embracing economic nationalism and cultural moderation, Democrats might well become the type of party that many working-class voters want, but not the one that our nation needs.