Home > News > Can Democrats appeal to both professionals and blue-collar workers? Yes, but only on these issues.
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Can Democrats appeal to both professionals and blue-collar workers? Yes, but only on these issues.

Blue-collar workers’ greater economic insecurity is making them more conservative on many subjects

- January 10, 2022

As the 2022 midterm elections approach, Democrats are fretting about nearly all of the groups in their voting base. Will frustrated young people sit out the election? Will suburbanites defect because of school closures? Will Hispanics continue to shift toward the GOP?

Some also worry that Democrats have nearly given up on White blue-collar workers. Blue-collar workers’ economic circumstances have been faltering, given global competition, computer-based productivity gains, big finance and union decline. If citizens vote their wallets, the Democratic Party’s platform of strengthening the social safety net and increasing taxes on the wealthy should appeal to this group. Why isn’t it?

In a new paper, Michaela Curran, Matthew C. Mahutga and I examined blue-collar workers’ long-term shift away from the Democrats. We compared the opinion trends of professionals and managers — people who work in jobs like engineering and law — with those of blue-collar workers — people who work in jobs like welding and truck driving.

We find that blue-collar workers’ greater economic insecurity is encouraging conservatism rather than liberalism, while professionals and managers are heading in the other direction. But they do agree on a few issues. Emphasizing those might help Democrats succeed.

Professionals and managers are trending left. Blue-collar workers are not.

We analyzed trends on 15 political attitudes over a 44-year period from 1974 to 2018 using General Social Survey data. These attitudes range from morality and civil liberties to crime control and economic redistribution. They also include whether people identify with a political party or a particular ideological view.

We found that professionals and managers were trending in a left or liberal direction on 10 of the 15 attitudes. By comparison, blue-collar workers were trending left or liberal on only five and conservative on 10. In cases in which members of both groups were trending liberal, professionals and managers were, with few exceptions, trending liberal more quickly. Moreover, professionals and managers are now as or more liberal than blue-collar workers on 13 of the 15 attitudes.

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Most notable are the growing differences between the two groups on values related to authoritarianism, a term that social scientists use to mean a tendency to submit to leaders. We measured it using questions on child-rearing values, as social scientists usually do. If individuals thought it important for children to obey their parents, we categorized them as authoritarian. We found that when someone ranked high on authoritarianism — as increasing numbers of blue-collar workers did over time — they shifted further toward conservatism on the other questions. When they ranked low on authoritarianism, believing instead that other qualities are more important in children — as increasing proportions of professionals and managers did over time — they trended toward being liberal.

Higher education was the next most important influence. Having a graduate degree was associated with greater liberalism. And belonging to a non-fundamentalist religion, which is true of more professionals and managers, also was associated with greater liberalism on a number of attitudes we examined.

People whose incomes were in the top 25 percent of U.S. scale tended to hold more liberal attitudes about morality, civil liberties and women’s rights. But having high incomes was associated with being more conservative on several other issues, such as whether the government should do something about wealth inequality, try to ameliorate poverty or institute mandatory minimum sentences for crimes.

However, the higher incomes aren’t as influential as all the other factors put together: the fact that blue-collar workers’ greater economic insecurity is pushing them toward more authoritarian outlooks; the fact that people with graduate degrees are more liberal; and the fact that professionals and managers continue to identify more often with non-fundamentalist religions. Thus, professionals and managers are trending in a liberal direction despite the growing income gaps between themselves and blue-collar workers.

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What about race?

Surprisingly, race mattered less than we expected. Whites and racial minorities had different attitudes on only two of the 15 subjects: support for organized labor, where minorities were more conservative than Whites, and Democratic Party identification, where they were more liberal. This was true among both professionals and blue-collar workers.

Although Republicans have leaned on White racial anxieties to win campaigns, when there’s no race-baiting to divide voters, Whites and minorities actually agree on many issues. We can see that, for instance, in the fact that blue-collar Blacks and Whites both voted in significant numbers for Democrat Eric Adams in New York’s mayoral race.

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These two trends are narrowing the grounds on which Democrats can appeal to all voters

Since two economic groups’ opinions are growing further apart, Democrats have fewer issues on which they can appeal to both professionals and blue-collar workers. The issues where those groups overlap include government spending on health, education and the environment. They might also include other investments that would help families, such as child-care tax credits, or help them to feel more secure, such as gun regulations.

By contrast, these two groups have grown further apart on larger questions of how to structure or restructure the economy and society. On such issues as redistributing wealth, reducing poverty or economic inequality, tackling crime and policing, or limiting corporations’ social and economic influence, professionals and managers have become more liberal while blue-collar workers have become more conservative.

So how might Democrats appeal to — or drive away — blue-collar workers, without losing professionals and managers?

Democrats who wish to appeal to both may want to emphasize improving health care, education and the environment. They may, like Adams, want to vocally support business development and public safety, where Americans’ views are generally more conservative. And they may wish to downplay or sidestep issues on which their liberal base and others disagree.

Of course, many highly mobilized groups within the Democratic Party want to emphasize precisely those issues that are likely to erode blue-collar support further — issues such as regulating business, resolving racial rather than class inequities and reducing police budgets.

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Steven Brint (@BrintSteven) is distinguished professor of sociology and public policy at the University of California at Riverside and author, most recently, of “Two Cheers for Higher Education: Why American Universities Are Stronger Than Ever — and How to Meet the Challenges They Face” (Princeton University Press, 2018).