fb-pixel Skip to main content

Working-class voters didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left them.

The GOP is now the party of blue-collar America.

Then-presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz campaigns at Penny's Diner in Missouri Valley, Iowa, on Jan. 4, 2016.Nati Harnik

Marcy Kaptur, the longest-serving woman member of Congress in US history, has represented Toledo, Ohio, in the House of Representatives since 1983. Nicknamed “Glass City” because of its many glassmaking companies, Toledo is known to fans of TV’s “M*A*S*H” as the hometown of Corporal Max Klinger — who was played by Jamie Farr, a Toledo native. It’s also the city where Jeep is headquartered and where the Mud Hens have played Minor League Baseball for well over a century. “But perhaps nothing sums up the Glass City better than hard work,” the Toledo Blade observed in 2019, describing the city as a place whose “collar was blue” almost from the day it was settled.

Kaptur, a Democrat, was born and raised in Toledo and absorbed its working-class ethos. But her party, she fears, has lost touch with blue-collar voters like the ones she represents.


For years Kaptur — who describes herself as “a hardscrabble working-class person” — has been warning Democratic leaders that they are losing their traditional connection to working-class Americans. She has compiled a chart that ranks every congressional district by median income, with Democratic-held districts highlighted in blue and those held by Republicans in red. The wealthiest district in America, with a median household income of $157,049, is California’s 17th Congressional District, represented in the House by Democrat Ro Khanna. At the bottom of the list is the Puerto Rico district represented by Republican Jenniffer González-Colón, with a median household income of just $22,237.

That is no anomaly. In Washington today, Democrats overwhelmingly represent the wealthiest districts in America, while those with lower incomes are far more likely to send Republicans to Congress.

Things were different when Kaptur came of age.

“In the era in which I was raised, Democrats represented those who have less and Republicans represent those who have more,” she has said. In an interview with Business Insider last week, she asked: “How is it possible that Republicans are representing the majority of people who struggle? How is that possible?”


The answer is that Democratic priorities are increasingly out of step with the needs and concerns of voters in poorer, working-class communities.

Upholding the dignity of blue-collar work used to be an integral element of Democratic messaging. In 1968, for example, Lyndon Johnson urged Congress to authorize a manpower program that would help unemployed Americans find jobs — not merely for income, but because work would give them “dignity, independence, and self-sufficiency.”

But while Democrats continue to pay lip service to the interests of the working class, they have become the party of cultural elites and intellectuals who have little in common with the non-college-educated working people in heartland communities. “The sad truth,” University of California, Davis professor Lisa Pruitt wrote last year in Politico, “is that coastal progressive condescension toward workers has become second nature to many Democrats.”

At times that condescension is so raw it makes headlines. Speaking at a San Francisco fundraiser during his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama notoriously described blue-collar residents of “small towns in the Midwest” as “bitter” individuals who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” Even more notorious was Hillary Clinton’s remark in 2016 that half of all Donald Trump’s voters fit in a “basket of deplorables,” which she characterized as “the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.”


Such disdain helps explain why so many voters who once would have been firmly in the Democratic camp have migrated to the GOP — and why so many Democrats have been unmoved by their departure. “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania,” Senator Chuck Schumer said in July 2016, “we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” That strategy proved a bust: In the November election four months later, Trump carried Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

At least in a numerical sense, the GOP is now the party of blue-collar America. In 2022, Republicans won an outright majority of working-class votes cast in US House races. Last month, a new Harvard/Harris poll found that in a hypothetical 2024 contest between President Biden and Trump, or between Biden and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, voters without a college degree would support the Republican by a 10-point margin.

Kaptur’s valiant efforts to move her party back to its traditional focus on the interests of working people aren’t likely to succeed. The Democratic base — blue America — is now in the nation’s wealthiest, most highly educated enclaves. Democrats have bid goodbye to the working class, and working-class voters are returning the favor.


Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit https://bit.ly/ArguableNewsletter.