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Ideas | David M. Shribman

Democrats — the party of the professional class?

Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter (right) spoke with a miner during a tour of a Pennsylvania coal mine in April 1976.ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE/Associated Press


This rock-hard, remote mountain redoubt, where generations of the brawny and the brave stripped the forests for timber and traveled deep into mines for coal, used to constitute an impregnable Democratic fortress. For 14 of the 17 elections since Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed his New Deal, Democrats won easy victories in presidential elections in this state.

But with the new century, a new political reality has unfolded here, perhaps best viewed as a tale of two governors from faraway Massachusetts.

Michael S. Dukakis, the Democrats’ 1988 presidential nominee, won the state by 5 percentage points. Mitt Romney — the Republicans’ presidential nominee 24 years later and a figure with no plausible personal or cultural affinity with voters here — won all 55 counties in the state in the last election, taking West Virginia’s five electoral votes by a landslide 27 percentage points.

Yet the GOP has swept the state the past four presidential elections, and Hillary Clinton’s prospects are so dim that she probably won’t bother to campaign here. Even as Donald Trump’s national poll numbers cratered after a disastrous first debate and the leak of an explosive video, the Republican nominee’s grip on West Virginia appeared firm.


“I never worried about West Virginia,’’ said Dukakis. “It is working-class America, but now we’ve just kind of basically said: Well, it’s a red state.’’

American political parties are always in transition. This year, Trump has revealed deep cracks in the traditional Republican coalition and gone to war with party leaders. Yet while the Democrats are more united behind their 2016 nominee, they’re arguably more divided over their party’s vision and future. And if Trump self-destructs and delivers the White House to them, Democrats should contain their glee, because their victory will have only delayed their day of reckoning.

The Democratic Party’s core identity, far predating its embrace of various civil rights movements, is as the defender of rank-and-file workers. Yet today’s Democrats are caught in a political scissors: the emergence of a new professional class that is progressive on social issues but, according to Michael Haselswerdt, a political scientist at Canisius College in Buffalo, “Their progressivism is moving them away from working-class voters, and the weakness of the labor movement is only accelerating that.’’


For politicians and campaign operatives who for a generation or more have been working for the Democrats — or against them — the party’s growing dependence on the prosperous and well-educated is disorienting.

“This is a very different Democratic Party than the one we ran against in the 1980s,’’ said Sig Rogich, the Las Vegas publicist who created advertisements both for George H.W. Bush and for Ronald Reagan, including the iconic “Morning in America’’ spot.

Are the Democrats the party of working people anymore or is their future with college-educated professionals? Can a party whose 2016 nominee raised money at fund-raisers for the wealthy this summer at the rate of $150,000 an hour lay claim to being the protector of labor and its dwindling union workforce? Can the Democrats marry their identity as the party of government with the “outsider” profile that voters seem to embrace with such fervor? Does a party that draws its strength from the richest and the poorest places in America have any logical rationale? Is a party of working women, minorities, and university liberals poised for a bright future — or an electoral disaster?

These questions, and more, bedevil a party that is completing two terms in the White House but that is in the minority in both houses on Capitol Hill, holds barely a third of the nation’s governor’s chairs, and can’t seem to get its less upscale, or its younger, voters to turn out for nonpresidential elections. Hence this question, perhaps the most devastating one of all: Have the Democrats replaced the Republicans as the party of the social, cultural, and economic elite?


“I’ve been in groups of workers, who used to be so closely aligned with the Democrats, where I’m more welcome than a Democrat would be,” said Senator Rob Portman, a Republican running for reelection in the swing state of Ohio. “The Democrats have become a little more elitist, less in touch with the life experiences of middle-class Americans, and more attuned to the college-educated, urban-dwelling segment.”

Portman is hardly impartial. But is he wrong?

Not since the party’s serial White House losses in the 1980s have the Democrats been engaged in such a searing, searching examination of their prospects and identity. For followers of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, it’s obvious which way the party should go. “It is very clear that not only is the Democratic Party moving in a more progressive position, the American people are,” Sanders said in an interview. His insurgent candidacy bedeviled Clinton all winter and spring, nudging the eventual nominee to the left. “Simply having a megaphone — talking to almost a million and a half people — gave the public a different perspective,” Sanders added, “and they said, ‘I think this guy is right.’ Political leaders started listening.”

He has a point. Now hardly any mainstream politicians besides President Obama are outspoken proponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that had the strong support of, among many others, Clinton herself. A year ago, Democrats were talking about raising the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour, to $10.10 an hour; now the conversation almost invariably speaks of a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

“More and more politicians — Democrats and some Republicans — are realizing that we cannot sustain the income and wealth gap,’’ Sanders said in the interview. “I think our campaign had an impact on the country.”

The debate about the future of the party has been kept out of public view as party leaders rallied around Hillary Clinton to fight off the Sanders rebellion and has been dampened down by the urgency of defeating Trump. But it is simmering below the surface and surely will emerge into public view, when the party confronts how progressive a freshly elected administration Clinton is assembling might be — or when the party asks how it can recover from a defeat at the hands of a force like Trump.


Many Democrats — not only the legions who rallied behind the Sanders banner but others as well — believe their heritage as sentinels of workers’ interests is at risk.

“I thought we could pull the party back into the model that was the basis of the party since Andrew Jackson: You take care of working people,” said former senator Jim Webb of Virginia, who ran a brief presidential campaign earlier this year. “But it’s gone the other way. White working people outside of unions think the Democratic Party doesn’t like them.”

If some Democrats look back longingly to Jackson, or at least to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, others point out how Bill Clinton modernized the party in 1992 by tugging it to the center and redeeming its hopes after losing five of the six elections between 1968 and 1988.

Will Marshall, president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, which was created in the wake of the Dukakis defeat, points to how much stronger right-wing populism is than left-wing populism — the Tea Party versus, say, Occupy. He believes the party’s emphasis should be on college-educated suburban moderates. “The swing voters who hold the balance of power in key battleground states aren’t particularly angry and don’t see the economy as rigged against them,’’ he said. “They give priority to growth over fairness and are more inclined to help US businesses succeed than to punish them.’’


In this version of the story, moving beyond traditional constituencies such as organized labor freed the Democrats from impulses that kept them from sculpting a modern liberalism. As a result, according to this thinking, they have relinquished the support of generations-old Democratic families in pursuit of support from college-educated suburban whites, as well as racial and ethnic minorities — growing demographic groups that, polls show, are relatively confident that the future will be brighter.

By this logic, the party is on the precipice of a promising new start, liberated from its past and poised to prevail in large measure because it lost the struggle to retain places like West Virginia.

“For years, we were in the fight for the guy in the truck with a gun rack,” said James Carville, the veteran Democratic strategist. “We lost those guys, by a rate of 80 to 20. Dukakis carried them, Hillary won’t. The best thing that happened to us is that we lost that war.”

Yet within the party, there’s considerable resistance to this view. It is inconceivable that, say, after Lyndon B. Johnson’s reelection in 1964 a high-profile group of Democrats would make demands and assemble lists of acceptable administration appointees such as the one Senator Elizabeth Warren and her allies developed late last month. In remarks at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the Massachusetts Democrat belittled the customary Washington appointees who speak of progressive policies “coupled with a sigh, a knowing glance, and the twiddling of thumbs until it’s time for the next swing through the revolving door, serving government and then going back to the very same industries they regulate.”

The Warren viewpoint — plus her twin convictions that federal regulators should aggressively protect consumers and that Washington’s ties with Wall Street are too close — were among the main currents that ran through the Bernie Sanders campaign, and they have special appeal to the younger voters who, early this autumn, the Clinton camp determined were essential if she is to win the White House.

That conclusion spawned a remarkable recent offensive, including a candidate op-ed, the mobilization of surrogates such as Sanders himself, and an appearance at a climate-change event with former vice president Al Gore Tuesday, all aimed at younger voters, a demographic group that doesn’t customarily vote as often as its elders — and that has shown a persistent reluctance to see Clinton as an ally or even as an appealing choice. According to transcripts released this month by WikiLeaks, Clinton praised global trade at events sponsored by Wall Street institutions. Those comments seem unremarkable to a well-heeled Democratic donor class. But for the young progressives on whom the party depends to knock on doors every other November, they’re a betrayal.

“Bernie’s candidacy demonstrated that the energy in the Democratic Party is around a very progressive agenda,’’ argues Tad Devine, who spent a lifetime in conventional Democratic politics before leading the Sanders campaign. “The party right now is powered in large part by young people, minorities, and women, particularly single women. These people want a very progressive set of policies.”

Even the most establishment-oriented Democrats agree. “Now we have a more ‘left’ Democratic Party — more diverse, watching government in action after so much inaction,’’ said William Daley, son and brother of important Chicago mayors and the former campaign manager for the Al Gore.

That is precisely the Democratic Party that regular Republicans see as their emerging opponents, though the contours and the inclinations of the post-Trump GOP are impossible to predict, except to say that they will be different if Trump wins.

“Today’s Democrats don’t want change around the edges,” said Frank I. Luntz, a top GOP strategist who is sitting out this year’s election. “They’re much closer to the democratic socialists of Europe. Bernie Sanders is to the left of [former British prime minister] Tony Blair. He may have lost the election, but he won the platform, and you now hear much more about higher taxes and free stuff and more regulation.”

Part of the Democrats’ problem is its identification with Washington activism in an era when Washington is in disrepute. “The degraded political culture we have hasn’t helped the Democrats,” said Ira Shapiro, author of the 2012 book “The Last Great Senate,” which celebrates the achievements of the last generation of Senate lawmakers, many of them prominent Democrats. “But it is especially difficult for Democrats because they believe in government.’’

The Democrats are at odds with liberals who think they have watered down their commitment to progressive policies and drifted out of touch with their traditional constituencies. At the same time, they are at odds with conservatives who regard them as so liberal — and, inevitably, so beguiled by what they deride as “politically correct” views — that they are out of touch with mainstream Americans.

Listen to Patrick J. Buchanan, an aide to both Nixon and Reagan and a two-time presidential candidate: “The McGovernization of the party that began in 1968 — that social, cultural viewpoint — became rooted deeply into the Democratic Party. Clinton brought it back to the center in 1992, but the center of gravity in the party now has moved to the left.”

Now listen to Todd Gitlin, a former Students for a Democratic Society president who now is a Columbia University sociologist: “If the Democratic Party in [my student days] had the profile it has today I would have looked askance at it. I would have thought that it was not a bridge to the future. The Trump people have a right to say they have been betrayed. Nobody has given a [expletive] about them in the Democratic Party.’’

Either way, today’s Democrats have changed perhaps as much or more than the Republicans since the 1970s. “The party has been taken over by professionals,” said Gitlin. “The startling thing is that the Democrats are hardly competing for the people that Trump is claiming.’’

Even with all these tensions swirling around the party, hardly anyone thinks the Democrats are on the verge of political oblivion, in part because the Republicans are in upheaval as well — and may have made a dangerous demographic bet.

Writing in the journal of the American Academy of Political and Social Science this fall, the political scientists Gary C. Jacobson of the University of California San Diego, argued that among younger Americans the Democrats have a distinct edge.

“Not many people in a generation that is ethnically diverse and comfortable with diversity, worried about a warming planet, supportive of same-sex marriage and LGBT rights, sympathetic to undocumented immigrants, and historically low in religious affiliation are likely to see themselves fitting into the current Republican coalition,’’ he wrote.

Yet even the possibility that an army of smartphone-wielding millennials will come to the Democrats’ rescue doesn’t sit well with some longtime party leaders. Two former presidential nominees worry that their party has come unmoored from its past — and are deeply troubled that Trump has claimed some of the Democrats’ natural constituents.

“We have badly neglected the work we should have been doing for blue-collar working folks, especially men,’’ said Dukakis, who now teaches at Northeastern University. “There’s no excuse for that. These are our people. They have no business voting Republican. But you have got to take care of people and pay attention to them.’’

Former vice president Walter Mondale, who lost in a landslide to Reagan in 1984, agrees, and he blames the Democrats’ problems in part on the party’s infatuation with metrics and with Internet communication.

“We had an established community of Democrats, volunteers activists,’’ Mondale said of the Democrats of the mid to late 20th century. “We communicated with each other by phone, by mail, and by meeting. We kept lists, and we organized that way. Increasingly people live their public and political lives on their devices. That’s how they do their politics. People in politics don’t have the personal contacts they once had, and that has created a gap between Democrats and the people we got into politics to serve.”

Overall the emergence of a new generation of voters, new technology, and new media has transformed the political landscape, making it unrecognizable to established politicians and rendering it confusing if not alienating to millennials.

“The polarization, the lack of engagement with people with views other than yours, the crudity in politics today — all that has changed our politics,’’ said David Demarest, who was the communications director in the George H.W. Bush White House. “And that has affected the Democrats and Republicans alike. It has cost the Republicans who still value civility, and on the Democratic side it has detracted from serious conversations they care about. All of our politics seems to be in transition.”

The civil war within Trump’s Republican Party is, to be sure, getting most of the attention. But as upscale professionals and working-class voters vie for influence within each of two evenly matched parties, there’s plenty of identity crisis to go around.

David M. Shribman, a former Globe Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.