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The puzzle Democrats must solve

Democrats’ midterm election prospects are brightening as voters’ attention shifts from high prices to abortion and the Republicans’ subservience to former President Trump and rightwing extremism.   

By striking down the constitutional right to abortion, the Supreme Court has galvanized suburban women. According to liberal analyst Ruy Teixeira, Democrats now have a 27-point lead among white, college-educated women in party matchups. The ruling has thrown Republican candidates on the defensive and is spurring higher Democratic registration and turnout.

Damning testimony by former Trump White House officials in the Jan. 6 hearings, plus Trump’s inexplicable refusal to hand over top secret documents he illegally took home after leaving the White House, also seems to be moving independent voters back toward the Democrats.

Most political oddsmakers still expect Republicans to take control of the House, but they now call the Senate a tossup or favor Democrats slightly to hold it. Given the usual midterm trends, a split verdict in November would be a major victory for President Biden and his party.

But one key group – white working-class voters – hasn’t budged. Democrats trail by a whopping 25 points among these voters, whose unwavering support for Trump sustains his chokehold on the GOP.

Defusing their militant hostility is the toughest challenge Democrats face. It’s the puzzle Democrats must solve to break the red-blue deadlock and build a solid governing majority.

Education has become America’s key marker of class privilege. People with college and advanced degrees have mostly prospered, with many professionals rising into a distinct upper middle class. Meanwhile, the wages of Americans without college degrees have stagnated.

In tandem with fears of cultural displacement, this divergence in economic fortunes and the downward mobility of so many working Americans lies at the heart of our country’s political distemper.

Democrats won’t make concessions to the nativism, racism and looney conspiracy theories that fester on the far right. But as the party that has traditionally championed the aspiring many over the privileged few, Democrats can and should make a better economic offer to working-class voters without college degrees.

Their economic policies, however, mainly reflect the interests and outlook of liberal white college graduates in America’s cities and close-in suburbs. This class bias was crystallized recently when the Biden administration caved to progressive demands for canceling at least $10,000 of student debt for every borrower earning less than $125,000.

A reasonable case can be made for targeting debt relief on borrowers who earn college degrees but get stuck in low-wage jobs. But as my PPI colleague Ben Ritz has pointed out, broad debt relief is regressive, since it benefits students from affluent families and helps college graduates already likely to enjoy higher lifetime income.

It’s also expensive, more than wiping out the deficit reduction that gives the Inflation Reduction Act its name. Most important, it’s a distraction from the core policy challenge — getting college tuition costs under control so students won’t have to borrow as much.

But leave policy aside for a moment and consider the message the progressive fixation on debt relief sends non-college Americans. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 62 percent of Americans over 25 don’t have a four-year degree. Yet Washington invests far less in their economic future than it does in college-bound youth.

In 2018, the federal government spent almost $150 billion on higher education (aid to students and colleges), including some $42 billion in Pell grants and G.I. Bill benefits. It spent just $16 billion on workforce-focused education, employment and training, spread out over 17 separate federal programs.  

A similar pattern is evident in the states, which typically spend far more on subsidies to public colleges and universities than workforce programs.

Normally hypersensitive to any hint of inequality, liberals and progressives seem oddly oblivious to this glaring inequity. If they want to be the party of the people again, Democrats should reorient their economic policies around the hopes and needs of America’s non-college majority, which includes most Black and Hispanic voters.  

They should start by equalizing federal investment in college and non-college pathways to decent jobs and career prospects. Young Americans shouldn’t have to choose between an overpriced college education and a patchwork of low-quality public training programs and costly private ones.

Instead, it’s time for a major national commitment to high-quality, work-based learning with strong ties to private employers. For example, Democrats should dramatically scale up apprenticeships, which have proven to be a cost-effective way to reduce skill gaps, raise earnings and promote upward mobility. Yet the United States has only about 400,000 registered apprenticeships, mostly in traditional sectors such as building trades and heavy industry.

Washington spent $185 million for apprenticeship in 2019. This is a meager investment compared to those of other advanced countries. If the United States matched the size of Canada’s or Britain’s support for apprenticeship, it would spend roughly $8 billion annually.

How should that money be spent? Robert Lerman and Ryan Craig, who head the non-profit Apprenticeships for America, offer a creative proposal: Mobilize networks of intermediaries – nonprofits, job placement and business service firms, industry associations, unions – to work with U.S. employers to create roughly 1 million new work-study apprenticeships per year.

This is the kind of tangible hand up non-college workers expect from their government. More than redistribution and social services, or empty promises to “bring home” yesterday’s factory jobs, they want to regain the dignity and middle-class status of skilled labor in the new digital economy.

By speaking to these authentic blue-collar aspirations, Democrats can begin to solve the puzzle of working-class alienation from a party that was their political home not so long ago.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

Tags 2022 midterm elections Apprenticeship programs Ben Ritz Biden biden administration College tuition Student loan forgiveness Trump

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