Democrats must reach across the diploma divide

FILE – People walk on the campus at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. A new federal report finds that record-keeping failures by the Education Department may have left thousands of Americans stuck with student debt that should have been forgiven. A study released Wednesday, April 20, 20220, by the Government Accountability Office revealed flaws in the management of income-driven repayment plans. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Having lost the white working class decades ago, Democrats now see erosion in their support among Hispanic and even Black voters without college degrees. It’s a mortifying turn of events for a party that historically has defined its mission as standing up for working families.

It’s also the biggest threat to the party’s ability to enlarge its tenuous governing majority and prevent the Trump-mesmerized Republicans from taking power. If Democrats don’t find a way to do better among the two-thirds of registered voters who don’t graduate from college, even superhuman efforts to “mobilize the base” won’t save them.

Party pollsters spend millions trying to divine the mysteries of working-class alienation. But it’s not that complicated.    

Workers who live paycheck to paycheck don’t think the party establishment listens to them or sympathizes with their travails and aspirations. Instead, Democrats in Washington seem more attentive to the priorities of a rarified class of progressive activists, political operatives and interest groups, supported by like-minded donors, foundations, academics and media organs.

Today’s fixation on cancelling student debt is a classic example. Left-leaning activists are pressing hard for it, Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) endorse it and President Biden says he’s looking into it.

Yet there’s no public groundswell for it — the issue doesn’t even register when voters are asked to name their top concerns. Only 13 percent of Americans have federal student debt. For highly educated urban professionals, debt relief may seem like an urgent imperative; from a blue-collar perspective, it looks like more self-dealing among the nation’s political elites.

Most of the relief would go to borrowers who are not especially needy. Over 70 percent of student debt is held by Americans who have above-average incomes. Graduate students account for 37 percent of the loans. Yet most advocates flatly oppose capping relief or limiting it to low-income borrowers.

Because college and grad-school graduates reap higher lifetime earnings, broad debt relief is essentially “a regressive transfer of wealth from low-and middle-income workers to high-income professionals,” says PPI analyst Ben Ritz. It probably has not escaped working families’ notice that no one in Washington is talking about cancelling their mortgage or car payments.

The progressives’ rationale for this $1 trillion giveaway is mainly political. Activists are warning the White House that young voters may not turn out for the midterm elections if they don’t get debt relief.

But the electoral math is all wrong, too. Marginal improvements in youth turnout won’t be enough to prevent a midterm blowout or break today’s deadlock in national politics. To do that, Democrats will need to win back suburban moderates and independents, stem the defection of Hispanic voters (who had a 16-point margin shift toward Trump in 2020) and loosen the GOP’s grip on non-college whites.

Like “free college” – another progressive hobby horse — cancelling student debts would aggravate the already pronounced bias in federal policy in favor of families whose kids go to college. According to PPI calculations, Washington spends about $92 billion a year to help college students, and just $11 billion on job training programs for everyone else.

In short, it’s not just cultural issues that are driving a wedge between Democrats and non-college voters. The party’s economic agenda increasingly seems oriented around the desires of well-educated and upscale professionals, not the majority of Americans who lack college degrees.  

Here’s another example: Some moderate Democrats who represent affluent suburbs in deep blue states are agitating for repeal of “SALT,” the cap on state and local tax deductions included in the 2017 tax bill. That won’t curb inflation, spur growth or lift anyone’s skills, but it’s a big tax break for their upper middle-class constituents.

Or consider climate change. Working class voters worry about it too, but it’s far from their top concern. In a recent Gallup poll, only 2 percent identified it as the nation’s most important problem.

Compare that to the apocalyptic tone of progressive activists who see climate change as the overriding moral challenge of our times. In their rush to ban fracking and spur disinvestment in U.S. oil and gas companies, they offer little reassurance to millions of U.S. workers with good jobs in energy production, or to families worried about skyrocketing fuel costs.

So how could Democrats start reaching across the diploma divide to rebalance their lopsided political coalition?

The progressive left insists Democrats must “deliver” massive new public benefits in the name of social justice. The party needs to stand for “big change” to rein in profiteering corporations that ship jobs overseas, avoid paying taxes and corrupt politicians with big contributions.

But if economic populism were the magic bullet, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would be sitting in the White House instead of President Biden. No one detests big business, the superrich or free trade more than the irascible Vermont socialist. Yet Sanders’s support among working voters is negligible; his most ardent backers are young, college-educated white progressives.

By significant margins, U.S. voters trust Republicans more than Democrats to manage the economy. Instead of peddling tired business-bashing tropes and economic gloom, Democrats should champion U.S. economic dynamism and growth. Working class voters are focused on the rising cost of living, not inequality. They are not opposed to a bigger social safety net, but what they really want is a robustly innovative private economy that creates new jobs and pathways for upward mobility.

They also are patriotic — they want America to excel in global competition, not withdraw from it. President Biden says the United States is locked in a strategic competition for economic and technological primacy with China. He’s right, and Democrats should make economic patriotism the centerpiece of a new growth and opportunity agenda aimed squarely at working Americans.

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

Tags blue-collar voters Chuck Schumer debt crisis Democratic Party student debt cancellation Student loan debt student loans working class voters

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