You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

Yes, Joe Biden Can Win the Working-Class Vote

Since 2020, Joe Biden’s support among working-class voters of all races has fallen alarmingly. Here are seven ways he and his party can reverse the slide.

Last year, a team working for Navin Nayak, president of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the advocacy arm of the liberal nonprofit Center for American Progress, or CAP, reviewed a database containing every press release, tweet, and Facebook post from every House and Senate Democrat during the midterm election year of 2022. These added up to 570,000 individual communications. The goal was to quantify how frequently congressional Democrats addressed the economic concerns of working-class voters, traditionally the Democratic Party’s core constituency, and to consider necessary adjustments for 2024.

The results were a bit of a shock.

The search words “workers,” “wages,” “jobs,” “working families,” and “costs,” the CAP Action Fund researchers found, appeared in only 6 percent of the congressional statements. When you added “economy” and “economic,” the search words appeared in only 11 percent of the documents. These were percentages you’d expect to see for Republicans, not Democrats. It was almost as though New Deal liberalism, once the Democrats’ prevailing ideology, had stopped being an ideology at all but instead had become some ancient language, like Latin or Sanskrit, that Democrats no longer knew how to speak.

CAP Action Fund’s findings were no outlier. The Center for Working-Class Politics, a small research group co-sponsored by YouGov and the socialist quarterly Jacobin, compiled its own database of 892 campaign websites, representing about 92 percent of all Democratic primary and general election candidates who ran for the House and Senate in 2022. The researchers found that fewer than 30 percent of the Democratic candidate websites mentioned the need for higher-paying jobs. Fewer than 20 percent mentioned the need for paid family and medical leave. Fewer than 10 percent mentioned the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a bill to strengthen labor rights that a Democratic House passed in March 2021. About 5 percent mentioned a $15 minimum wage, perhaps the most politically popular economic policy of our time. Two months after the 2022 midterms, a poll by the nonprofit American Family Voices asked 600 likely voters living in industrial counties across six Midwestern states to name the top issues. “The rising cost of living” led, with 37 percent, because at the time the Consumer Price Index was twice what it is today. But ranking second was “jobs and the economy”—which Democratic candidates had avoided in the election.

Don’t blame President Joe Biden, who has lavished more attention on working-class issues than any president since Harry Truman (and considerably more than Biden’s three modern Democratic predecessors Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter). Blame Biden’s fellow Democrats. Only half of the Democratic-candidate websites surveyed by the Center for Working-Class Politics bothered to mention Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Only about one-quarter mentioned Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, which is spending another half-trillion on technologies to reduce climate change. And only 15 percent mentioned the CHIPS Act, signed into law three months before the election, which will spend another $53 billion to boost domestic manufacture of semiconductors. The combined effect of these three bills has been to nearly triple the construction of manufacturing facilities since Biden took office.

Part of the Democratic reticence was perhaps attributable to Biden’s low approval rating, then stuck around 40. Still, however unpopular Biden was (and remains), Biden’s policies are very popular, especially among working-class voters—on those rare occasions when they hear about it. The IRA, for example, was favored in a March 2023 poll by 68 percent of people earning between $50,000 and $99,999. But these working-class people needed the pollsters (from Yale and George Mason) to first explain what the Inflation Reduction Act was. A 61 percent majority had no idea.

When Election Day 2022 came, the Democrats only lost nine House seats (about one-third of the usual for the governing party) and maintained a razor-thin majority in the Senate. Turnout was high, and Democrats mostly maintained their 2018 and 2020 gains in suburban swing districts by spotlighting Republican extremism, especially on abortion. But the Democrats’ support among working-class voters—defined conventionally as “noncollege,” that is, workers who possess a high school but no college diploma—slipped 5 percentage points compared to the previous midterm year of 2018. That included 7 points lost among noncollege Latinos and 5 points lost among noncollege African Americans.

Democratic House and Senate candidates still won, as they typically do, the noncollege Latino vote (61 to 38 percent) and the noncollege Black vote (86 to 13 percent). These two subgroups represent about one-quarter of the total noncollege vote. But the victory margins from these two groups were smaller than in the past. As for the noncollege white vote (which represents about 70 percent of the total noncollege vote, and which Democrats typically lose), the Democratic slippage in 2020 of only 3 percentage points compared with 2018 was actually less than the slippage among noncollege Black and Latino voters. That made it hard to attribute this more recent loss of working-class support to white racism.

To prevail in 2024, Biden will need to win the working-class vote. Over the past century, no Democrat—with one exception—has ever won the presidency without winning a majority of working-class voters. The single exception was Joe Biden in 2020; Biden lost noncollege voters that year to President Donald Trump, 47 to 51. That was slightly worse than Hillary Clinton did with noncollege voters in 2016. Biden performed better than Clinton among noncollege whites, but 8 percentage points worse among noncollege Latinos and 3 percentage points worse among noncollege African Americans. Biden became president anyway, but under a unique set of circumstances—a deadly and economically costly pandemic that the incumbent mishandled badly. It’s doubtful the president can remain an exception in 2024 and win reelection.

Granted, the working class (again, defined as noncollege) represents a shrinking portion of the electorate. Three decades ago, according to Pew, 76 percent of all registered voters were noncollege; today it’s more like 63 percent. But that’s still nearly two-thirds of all voters. As Democrats lose working-class voters, they’re picking up a larger share of college-grad voters repelled by the GOP’s thuggish turn under Donald Trump. But electoral math compels the Democrats to pick up two college graduates for every noncollege voter who leaves. Given some slackening in college enrollment during the previous decade and demographic projections of an “enrollment cliff” in the next, that calculus likely won’t change anytime soon.

President Joe Biden spoke at Intel’s Ocotillo Campus in Chandler, Arizona, on March 20, as he unveiled nearly $20 billion in new grants and loans to spur U.S. chipmaking.

The electoral math gets even worse when you consider this year’s battleground states. Battleground swing voters will likely determine who becomes president (not to mention whether the Senate remains Democratic), and they skew more heavily toward noncollege voters (72 percent) than the nation as a whole (63 percent). Democrats in those crucial states, according to Jared Abbott and Fred DeVeaux of the Center for Working-Class Politics, will need to pick up not two but three college grads for every noncollege voter they lose. Rather than obsess about further expanding its share of college voters, the party would do better to think hard about how it can shore up a working-class constituency that, even at this late date, remains essential to winning the White House.

The Democrats’ leakage of working-class voters has inspired much griping in recent years about the party’s half-century of gentrification and its presidential candidates’ tin-eared gaffes about deplorables, guns, and religion. We’ve heard much less about practical solutions to rebuild the Democrats’ working-class support. If liberals, as the sociologist Matthew Desmond has written, are “fluent in the language of grievance and bumbling in the language of repair,” I’ve set out to find at least a few political professionals who are working to fix this problem. They have, it turns out, some plausible, concrete ideas about how to revive the Democrats’ working-class support—or, at the very least, to stanch the bleeding. I’ve collected what strike me as their best ideas here.

Don’t Despair!

Many political observers view Trump’s political realignment of the working class into the GOP base as irreversible—“largely baked,” in the words of The New York Times’ Nate Cohn. But, as noted above, Biden has accumulated an unusually strong record on issues that mattered to working-class voters in the past, and this cohort has never voted so predictably as many suppose.

You hear a lot about how reliably Democratic the working class was through the mid–twentieth century. But that overlooks the 1950s. The New Deal coalition was in full flower, and organized labor’s power stood at its historic peak. Yet Republicans won House and Senate majorities in 1946 and 1952 and the presidency in 1952 and 1956. You can argue that Eisenhower was a special case—a war hero courted by both parties. But the margins by which Adlai Stevenson lost noncollege voters—14 percentage points in 1952, nearly 18 points in 1956—exceeded the margins by which Stevenson lost the overall popular vote. That was because Stevenson had no clue how to connect to working-class voters.

John F. Kennedy coaxed the working class back into the Democratic fold in 1960, but only barely, with a 50.4 percent majority of the noncollege vote; by a comparably slender margin Kennedy lost the white noncollege vote (probably due to anti-Catholic prejudice). In 1964, Lyndon Johnson, who revered Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal (and carried the mantle of the martyred Kennedy), expanded the Democrats’ noncollege majority to nearly 70 percent, a proportion never matched since by either party. Then, legend has it, Johnson threw it away by signing civil rights legislation into law.

The truth is a little more complicated. Yes, the Republican share of the (then still overwhelmingly white) noncollege vote skyrocketed after 1964, peaking at 65 percent in 1972, when the Democrats ran George McGovern. But Watergate reversed that gain, and for the next half-century, the working class, which remained majority-white but grew less so over time, stayed in play. Bill Clinton won white noncollege voters in 1992 and 1996—the core demographic sent packing by LBJ—and Jimmy Carter nearly did in 1976.

Granted, as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira document in their 2023 book, Where Have All the Democrats Gone?, Democratic slippage among working-class voters worsened during the past decade. According to Gallup, the proportion of Black and Latino voters willing to identify themselves as Democrats or Democratic leaners fell during the past 10 years from 70 percent to 47 percent for Blacks, and from 24 percent to 12 percent for Latinos. This is very bad news, but it needs to be considered in context. Party identification has been declining for both Republicans and Democrats in recent years; each now claims 27 percent of voters, and the proportion claiming to be independent has ballooned to 43 percent. Disaffection with the Democratic Party doesn’t mean a working-class voter won’t pull the lever for a Democrat. It just means that working-class voters will need a lot more persuading than in the past.

Shut Up and Listen

Nearly every expert I interviewed for this article said some version of the following: If Democrats want to win back the working class, they have to go out and ask working-class people what they need. (Odds are they’ll be met with skepticism about whether government in general, and Democrats in particular, can supply it.) Listening is a slow and exhausting process, largely conducted door to door, and it won’t yield much of a tangible electoral benefit in 2024. The good news is that this work is already underway at the local level by groups with names like TakeAction Minnesota, Isaiah (also in Minnesota), We the People Michigan, Living United for Change in Arizona, Down Home North Carolina, Carolina Federation (also in North Carolina), Florida Rising, the New Georgia Project, and the Southern Economic Advancement Project.

Stacey Abrams, the charismatic former Democratic leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, is the founder of the New Georgia Project, the Southern Economic Advancement Project, and various similar groups. She plays a Johnny Appleseed role inviting ordinary citizens to demand democratic accountability that’s comparable to the role Ralph Nader assumed in the 1960s. Abrams’s calling cards are Biden’s Georgia victory in 2020 and the two Georgia Senate victories that put Democrats in the majority. But that’s a by-product of her efforts, not the goal. “I create, fund, and support organizations that put forward year-round engagement,” Abrams explained to me. “When we reduce people just to voters, we lose them.”

Most such groups work within a given state or region, but Working America, which was founded in 2003 by Karen Nussbaum and is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, operates nationally. It has more than four million members (dues are optional).

Canvassers travel door to door engaging with residents who are neither strong Democrats nor strong Republicans. “We are organizers, and that is different than being a communicator in the political space,” Matt Morrison, Working America’s executive director, explained to me. “Every conversation starts with, ‘What issue is most important to you and your family?’” The term of art for this activity is “deep canvassing.” Nussbaum told me she’d talked recently to a Black woman who went eight days without heat during a cold spell and to a Latino man who was evicted and had to move further away from his place of work. “Rent has emerged as an enormous issue,” she said. Some of this deep canvassing gets compiled into research reports—what Working America calls Front Porch Focus Groups—and some becomes an opportunity for Working America to acquaint voters with where politicians at the local and national level stand on issues related to their concerns. This year, the organization is deploying canvassers in four battleground states—Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin—targeting 25 million people Working America has identified as “persuadable.”

“We measure everything,” Morrison told me, including Working America’s own effectiveness. In the 2022 midterms, according to Morrison, Working America “generated an additional 407,015 Democratic voters,” and in the Arizona governor’s race and the Georgia and Nevada Senate races, it “generated more votes than the margin of victory for the Democratic candidate.” A series of studies co-written by Yale’s Joshua L. Kalla and Berkeley’s David E. Broockman demonstrated the benefits of deep canvassing. The first, published in 2016, showed that it shifted views of as many as 10 percent of those canvassed to a more sympathetic position on culture-war issues like transgender rights and immigration. Perhaps more tellingly, a later study, published in 2022, showed that it helped canvassers reduce their own “affective polarization.”

Forget Fox News

Yes, I know, Fox News is very bad, and it seems like it’s everywhere. Tim Ryan, former Democratic representative from Ohio, who lost a Senate bid in 2022, told me that when he was campaigning that year in Cleveland, he was shocked to see it playing in a Black barbershop. When working-class people watch cable news, it’s usually going to be Fox.

But not that many people watch cable news. According to Nielsen, only about 12 percent of the population tunes into Fox News in any given month. The Fox audience skews only slightly toward the working-class Fox purports to serve. Reviewing cable news demographics in 2020, Christopher R. Martin of the University of Northern Iowa found that 16.9 percent of Fox viewers earned in the $50,000 to $75,000 range—only a sliver more than the 16.5 percent of CNN viewers and the 16.4 percent of MSNBC viewers. A much larger proportion of Fox viewers—44.9 percent—earn less than $50,000, but that, too, is roughly comparable to CNN (40.9 percent) and MSNBC (39 percent). The demographic that defines Fox News (and all cable news) isn’t economic, but generational: Fox’s median viewer is 68 years old.

Do too many people watch Fox News? Of course. But the bigger problem is this: Most people don’t watch (or read) any news at all. Fully 80 to 85 percent of Americans pay little or no attention to the news, the political scientists Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan, both of the University of Michigan, reported in 2020. That indifference is more widespread among the working class; in their 2022 book, The Other Divide: Polarization and Disengagement in American Politics, Krupnikov and Ryan found that there is something particular to the liberal arts environment that increases political engagement, especially at more affluent private colleges.

The good news is that the 80 to 85 percent who don’t follow the news tend not to be hyper-partisan, so you can stop blaming that poisonous turn on the proletariat. “These are smart, thoughtful people who simply want to be able to take care of themselves and their families,” said Stacey Abrams. The bad news is that these voters will be the last to hear that (as the business press is finally reporting) the economy is in much better health than it was when Biden took office. The difficult challenge remains in how to reach working-class voters at the grassroots. But once Democrats find them, these voters’ resistance to persuasion won’t be as great as many imagine.

Forget the Brahmin Left

Judis and Teixeira have drawn much criticism (including in this magazine) for advising Democratic candidates to distance themselves from “woke” provocation espoused by what the economist Thomas Piketty calls the “Brahmin Left.” But just about every person I interviewed for this article said much the same. In 2021, the Center for Working-Class Politics surveyed 2,000 working-class voters in five swing states and concluded that “‘woke,’ activist-inspired rhetoric is a liability.” This survey was co-sponsored by Jacobin, a radical-left magazine that runs articles with headlines like “How Transphobic Moral Panics Fuel Authoritarian Politics” and “What’s The Difference Between Kyle Rittenhouse And The Police?” In effect, the Center for Working-Class Politics’ finding, published in a report (“Commonsense Solidarity”) that’s posted on Jacobin’s own website, consists of Jacobin telling Democratic candidates not to talk like Jacobin—at least on these issues.

Survey participants were invited to choose between Candidate A and Candidate B, each of whom was given a sound bite; the woke-progressive candidate was furnished with one of several real sound bites from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. The survey found white working-class voters averse to Brahmin Left rhetoric and Latino working-class voters even more averse. Black working-class voters showed neither an aversion nor a preference. But in general, candidates who expressed themselves “in highly specialized, identity-focused language” fared poorly.

The Center for Working-Class Politics survey probed Brahmin Left rhetoric; a survey of working-class voters, weighted toward battleground states and conducted last October and November by the centrist Progressive Policy Institute (also in collaboration with YouGov), probed Brahmin Left issues, and found them to be unpopular. On gender reassignment, 48 percent said hormone replacement therapy should be available only to adults, and 27 percent said it should be available to children under 18. Another 24 percent said it should be available to nobody. On defunding the police, 27 percent favored it, against 31 percent who favored spending more on police and prisons, and 42 percent who favored the middle position of giving police better surveillance technology and supporting first-responder alternatives like mental health crisis experts.

The failure of Ron DeSantis’s primary bid suggests the Republican culture war against woke-ism has little appeal even to Republicans. But that doesn’t translate into political support for Brahmin Left rhetoric or positions. More likely, voters don’t want these matters brought into the political realm at all, because they’re divisive and lie outside their experience. For that reason, Democratic candidates tend already to avoid engaging these issues. That’s a sound instinct for the foreseeable future.

Tax and Spend and Support Labor

Democratic politicians may be wise when they distance themselves from the Brahmin Left, but they’re foolish when they distance themselves from the Economic Left. The two principal findings of the 2021 survey by the Center for Working-Class Politics were that working-class voters most favored candidates who focused on kitchen table issues like jobs and the cost of health care, and that “populist, class-based progressive” sound bites—think Bernie Sanders—worked best. Significantly, “progressive populist messaging performed equally well among independents as Republican messaging, while all other Democratic messaging styles performed worse.” To paraphrase Barry Goldwater: Economic moderation in pursuit of working-class voters is no virtue.

The Progressive Policy Institute study asked working-class voters whether inequality was the result of individual “differences in talent and drive” or the economy being “controlled by the rich and powerful.” Fully 65 percent blamed the plutocrats, versus only 35 percent who blamed lack of talent and motivation. Asked whether corporations create more good than harm, half said they caused more harm—not exactly a vote of confidence in the free market. A question about Biden’s “COVID relief, support for state and local governments, stimulus checks, infrastructure, and clean-energy investment”—mostly the same infrastructure bill, IRA, and CHIPS Act that Democratic midterm candidates were reluctant to talk about in 2022—showed these were supported by 46 percent and opposed by 47 percent, but the deficit-hawkish Progressive Policy Institute loaded the question by referring to the programs as “deficit-financed spending.” Without the dig, a clear majority would surely have expressed support.

A nonprofit called Patriotic Millionaires has been hosting sessions in Wisconsin and North Carolina aimed at persuading working-class voters to support higher taxes on the rich. That shouldn’t be difficult, because polls consistently show that a majority of Americans favor higher taxes on the rich. An April 2023 Pew Research Center poll found that 65 percent of Americans favored higher taxes on corporations, and among middle-income people (a rough proxy for the working class), it was a slightly higher 67 percent. Even among Republicans and Republican leaners, higher corporate taxes were favored by 45 percent of the middle-income cohort. Yet in 2021, when Biden proposed hiking corporate taxes from 21 percent to a mere 28 percent—as recently as 2017, the top rate was 35 percent—House Democrats knocked that down to 26.5 percent, and then Senate Democrat Joe Manchin killed it. Another Biden proposal to tax the rich—elimination of the “angel of death” loophole that exempts inheritances from the capital gains tax—never made it out of committee. Congressional Democrats need to catch up with working-class voters’ leftward drift on these issues.

Perhaps you’re wondering whether the Democratic political class’s skittishness about tax increases reflects a zero-sum political calculation: Win working-class voters with redistributive economics, and you’ll lose suburban professionals. If that’s the thinking, the numbers suggest it’s dead wrong. The Pew Research Center poll showed that even upper-income voters favored higher taxes on corporations, by a 62 percent majority. Those same upper-income voters favored raising taxes on household incomes above $400,000 by a 56 percent majority (compared to a 63 percent majority among middle-income voters). In a December paper, a team of political scientists led by Yale’s Jacob Hacker noted that Biden’s leftward policy shift on economic issues does not seem to be costing the Democrats votes from their affluent new suburban constituency.

Democratic politicians know that voters across the board have moved left on economic issues. What really inhibits them isn’t the suburban haute bourgeoisie but rich donors. Organized labor is the issue with the greatest tension between what voters want and what political contributors want. The popularity of unions is higher today than at any time since the 1960s. Yet, most Democratic politicians treat labor unions like an embarrassing uncle who tells fart jokes at Thanksgiving. The reason is that Uncle Solidarity irritates Uncle Moneybags.

In 2009, Obama possessed the Senate votes to pass a bill enabling workplaces to organize more easily through the informal collection of union authorization cards, as occurred routinely before Congress passed the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. Obama had voted for the bill himself as a senator. The bill’s prospects in the Democratic House were less certain, but had Obama put the administration’s weight behind “card check,” there’s a fair chance he could have gotten it. He was persuaded not to, Judis and Teixeira write in Where Have All the Democrats Gone?, at the urging of “three Chicago billionaires”: Penny Pritzker, Obama’s campaign finance chair; Lester Crown, an industrialist and financier; and Neil Bluhm, a real estate tycoon. By doing so, they conclude, Obama “forfeited any chance to alter the Democrats’ increasingly narrow governing coalition and to create a genuine counterweight to the influence of business and Wall Street.”

Obama didn’t fully grasp how thoroughly Democrats have relied in the past on strong labor unions to keep working-class people voting Democratic. Union households are the only nonethnic subgroups of working-class voters that have remained consistently Democratic through labor’s long decline. But every year there are fewer of them, and an NBC News poll found that Biden’s advantage over Trump among union households fell from 56–40 in the 2020 exit polls to 50–41 at the beginning of this year. That’s shocking for a president as conspicuously pro-labor as Biden. Other Democrats need to get the message out that President Biden’s National Labor Relations Board has been expanding labor rights at least as vigorously as President Trump moved to restrict them. That matters to working-class voters. A Working America survey in 2020 asked “persuadable” voters in five battleground states whether the government should make it easier to join a union. A 59 percent majority agreed. When Biden walked a picket line during the UAW strike, Trump conspicuously gave a speech at a nonunion plant. Democrats mustn’t let voters forget that.

Talk Insulin

The question remains how Democrats can persuade working-class voters that Biden’s leftward shift in economic policy, way off in distant Washington, benefits them. The infrastructure bill, the IRA, and the CHIPS Act have spurred $220 billion in manufacturing construction, and it’s important for Democrats to highlight that. But it will be a while before those plants are up and running and creating manufacturing jobs. Better to start the pitch with something Biden has delivered already: affordable insulin.

“That $35 insulin that your mom is getting now?” Mike Lux, president of American Family Voices, advises Democrats to say. “Joe Biden did that.” A $35 price cap on insulin for Medicare patients took effect in January 2023. It’s one of the few items in the misnamed Inflation Reduction Act that actually addressed inflation. Steve Rosenthal, a former political director of the AFL-CIO who now runs a voter project called In Union, told me that when he conducted focus groups last November in Michigan and Pennsylvania, people “had no idea Biden had anything to do with it.” A Kaiser Family Foundation survey last July found that even among the target beneficiaries—Medicare-eligible adults age 65 and older—a 56 percent majority were unaware the cap even existed.

When I asked Working America’s Morrison how Democrats can improve outreach to working-class voters, insulin was the first thing he mentioned: “Start with every Medicare beneficiary in every community that you can geo-indicate as having disproportionate levels of diabetes and push like crazy the $35 price cap.” The insulin cap is a good example of something Biden did that Trump merely pretended to do. During the last year of his presidency, Trump created a voluntary program inviting Medicare drug-prescription plans, which are privately managed, to cap insulin prices at $35 in exchange for a premium hike. Trump then boasted at a presidential debate that he’d made insulin “so cheap, it’s like water.” In fact, insulin was retailing at the time for $300. Biden, by contrast, imposed a mandatory price ceiling under Medicare that does not permit a compensating premium hike. No Medicare enrollee pays more than $35 for insulin. Last year, Biden proposed extending that same price ceiling for insulin to all private health care plans, regardless of the patient’s age.

Be Working Class

A working-class message is good. A working-class candidate is better. “Commonsense Solidarity,” the Center for Working-Class Politics’ 2021 survey of 2,000 working-class voters in five swing states, found that the race and gender of its hypothetical candidates didn’t matter much to working-class voters,

but candidates with upper-class backgrounds performed significantly less well than other candidates…. In our sample, corporate executives were seen as the least favorable by far, with lawyers the second-least favorable. Teachers, veterans, small business owners, and construction workers were more or less equally popular.

Judis invited me to consider the divergent fates of Jeff Ettinger and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, two Democratic nominees in rural districts in the 2022 midterms.

Ettinger was a former chief executive of Hormel Foods, running in Minnesota’s First Congressional District, the site of a bitter strike at Hormel’s Austin plant that cost 80 percent of the strikers their jobs. The strike had occurred four decades earlier, before Ettinger worked at the company, but memories were long, and Ettinger lost by 12 points to Republican Brad Finstad, a farmer and former rural development director for the Agriculture Department in Minnesota.

Gluesenkamp Perez’s story was quite different. A 34-year-old auto body shop owner, she campaigned in Washington state’s rural Third District in her work clothes and talked up “right to repair,” or the removal of barriers certain manufacturers impose to prevent consumers from being able to repair cell phones, farm equipment, and various other products. Gluesenkamp Perez won a narrow victory, 50–49, against Joe Kent, a hard-right Trump ally.

Clearly the Democrats need to run more Gluesenkamp Perezes and fewer Ettingers. But they do just the opposite. In his 2018 book, The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run for Office—and What We Can Do About It, Nicholas Carnes, a political scientist at Duke, reports that working-class politicians, defined as politicians who held blue-collar jobs immediately before entering politics, pretty consistently occupied only about 2 percent of the seats in Congress between 1961 and 2011. During roughly the same period, state legislatures saw their proportion of working-class politicians fall from 5 percent to 3 percent. Of course, being working-class is no guarantee that you’ll support the economic left. But according to Carnes, working-class politicians in both the Democratic and the Republican parties are “more likely than their fellow partisans to take progressive or pro-worker positions on major economic issues.”

Running more working-class candidates for political office would reinforce something that Art Reyes, executive director of We the People Michigan, told me. We the People, he said, is “rooted in a deep belief that the only way our communities are going to have dignity is by building multiracial, working-class power.” In 2022, a We the People organizer named Betsy Coffia, who grew up working-class and had worked as a social worker in Michigan’s Head Start program, ran for Michigan’s state House of Representatives. The working-class communities that We the People Michigan helped organized canvassed for her, and she won, flipping the House to Democratic control and giving Democrats their first “trifecta”—control of both houses of the legislature and the governorship—in four decades.

“You often see a pretty paternalistic narrative” from the Democrats,” Reyes told me, in which politicians tell voters how they’re going to help them. “It’s very different when a community is organized around their self-interest.” When working people help themselves, they help Democrats, too.