Democrats passed an unapologetically progressive stimulus bill through the Senate this weekend, one that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has called “the most significant piece of legislation to benefit working families in the modern history of this country.”
This bill would not be on the brink of becoming law if Democrats did not have a governing trifecta in the White House, the Senate, and the House. And that trifecta in turn would not have been possible were it not for the defection into the Democratic column of a particular, and perhaps surprising, demographic: suburban whites with college degrees.
These voters, once a reliably Republican constituency, switched in large numbers in 2018, handing Democrats decisive House seats in places like California’s Orange County. In 2020, they helped elevate Joe Biden to the White House by turning out for him in places like Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County.
Despite the obvious political benefits of the suburban shift, some on the broader left see it as a Pyrrhic victory, one that will produce a Democratic Party that is inhospitable to working-class voters and that, as a result, embraces a policy agenda that favors the interests of the wealthy.
“If the future of the Democratic Party is in the rich suburbs, the future of American politics is another long Gilded Age,” Princeton historian Matt Karp writes in Jacobin. “A political agenda fixated on turning affluent suburbs blue is capable of building neither a stable long-term majority nor a policy blueprint worthy of the progressive mantle,” Lily Geismer and Matthew Lassiter, two scholars of suburban politics, wrote in the New York Times in 2018.
But a funny thing happened over the past few years: As Democrats made inroads into the suburbs, they also became more progressive on economics.
Consider President Biden’s economic policy agenda.
To date, it is almost certainly the most left-leaning since Lyndon Johnson’s. The stimulus is more than twice the size of the one passed by President Obama’s majority in 2009, and includes (among other progressive priorities) $1,400 checks for tens of millions of Americans and a generous child tax credit. His broader legislative agenda includes a $2 trillion climate change plan, a public option for health care, and a plan to expand Section 8 housing vouchers that would radically reduce the poverty rate. This ambitious program would be paid for primarily by deficit spending and tax hikes on corporations and Americans making over $400,000 per year.
Some leading political scientists and Democratic pollsters see this agenda as perfectly consistent with an influx of college-educated white suburbanites — for the simple reason that this demographic has, in recent years, become much more progressive on economic issues than it was in the past.
“Voters in suburban Philly and Chicago are very liberal now. These are formerly Republican places and they elect liberal representatives,” says David Shor, a prominent Democratic data analyst. “Educated voters consume lots of media and see things in ideological terms. And they’re just kind of swapping one set of ideology for the other.”
Shor’s assessment is backed by detailed public opinion data, voting patterns in state referenda on policies like Medicaid expansion, and even international comparisons. The Biden administration isn’t misreading the politics of its coalition but accurately reflecting it.
The most persuasive academic research suggests this is a function of rising partisanship. In our highly polarized system, supporters of a political party tend to support its entire policy package rather than only parts. This effect is stronger among educated voters, who are more likely to pay attention to elite policy discourse and adjust their beliefs accordingly.
In the academic literature on democracy and redistribution, there’s a distinction between “materialist” politics — in which voters tend to vote for progressive parties based on their financial and class interests — and “post-materialist” politics, in which voters for these parties are driven by support for things like same-sex marriage and environmental regulation.
The politics of redistribution increasingly resemble a kind of hybrid between these two paradigms — call it “post-material materialism.” White educated suburbanites are backing policies like a public health insurance option and higher taxes on the wealthy in larger numbers for basically the same reasons that they support Black Lives Matter: It’s part of the broader value system they embrace as Democratic partisans.
So yes, the Democratic Party is becoming beholden to college-educated white suburbanites, and in the past, that may have weakened the party’s commitment to redistributive politics. But things have changed.
“I’ve seen a lot of speculation that college-educated whites are just too affluent or maybe even selfish to support redistribution. I don’t think that’s the case,” says John Sides, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt.
White college graduates and white suburbanites are wealthier than the average American and were, for a very long time, heavily Republican. Between 1956 and 2016, Republicans won a majority of whites with college degrees in every single presidential election. Historically white suburban areas like California’s Orange County, birthplace of Richard Nixon, provided some of the most reliable Republican seats in Congress.
Yet the Republican edge in these two groups has decreased gradually over time, tracking with a broader national shift away from class-based voting. This decline accelerated in recent election cycles — and the rise of Trump — with striking results.
In 2018, Democrats defeated House Republicans in Orange County. In 2020, Biden won an outright majority of white college-educated voters nationwide — a critical factor in his victory in states like Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia.
Historical trends would suggest this is bad news for progressive economic policies. Over the decades, wealthier white voters have tended to be more hostile to redistribution; it’s a big reason they were such staunch Republicans for so long. An influx of white educated suburbanites into the Democratic Party — driven there by cultural liberalism and a backlash to Trump — should, per analysts like Karp and Geismer and Lassiter, make Democratic politicians beholden to voters who oppose higher taxes and social welfare spending, thus weakening the party’s commitment to those ideas.
There’s one big problem with that argument. Recent polling trends find that today’s white educated voters in general, and white college-graduate suburbanites in particular, are more progressive on economic issues than is widely appreciated.
The Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) is a regular survey of 50,000 Americans, a large sample useful for looking at the views and attitudes of specific subgroups. In 2008, the CCES found that 50 percent of white college-educated suburbanites supported paying down the federal deficit by cutting domestic spending. But in 2017, just 35 percent did (while 65 percent would prefer to fund deficit reduction by either cuts to defense spending or tax hikes).
Some shifts in opinion are even more recent.
In 2014, white college-educated suburbanites solidly preferred that their state legislature cut welfare spending rather than increase it (46 percent to 19 percent, with the remainder preferring to maintain current spending).
In 2018, those numbers were basically even (35 percent to 31 percent).
The CCES also finds that, in 2018, 63 percent of these voters supported states mandating higher levels of renewable energy use even if this causes their personal energy bills to go up.
A similarly large majority, 58-42, opposed repealing Obamacare.
These findings are reflected in other surveys. The UCLA-Democracy Fund Nationscape survey (conducted weekly between July 2019 and December 2020) asked about big-ticket items in American public life, like Medicare-for-all. The findings here are no less striking, especially when comparing answers across different electoral constituencies.
The survey found that college-educated whites are actually slightly more supportive of higher taxes on families making over $600,000, at 64 percent, than non-college educated whites are, at 62 percent. An equal number of college and non-college whites, 45 percent, also support a tax hike on families making over $250,000, a threshold that the median voter in neither group would meet (per BLS data).
Democracy Fund’s numbers show a similar pattern on other economic issues. Fifty-eight percent of college-educated whites supported a $15 minimum wage, compared to 59 percent of non-college whites. For college-educated whites, 49 percent support providing government-run insurance to all Americans, compared to 48 percent of non-college whites. Sixty-eight percent of college-educated whites support 12 weeks of federally mandated paid maternity leave, while 66 percent of non-college whites do.
There are only a handful of large differences between the groups, but they cut both ways. Non-college whites are considerably more likely to support a federal jobs guarantee; college-educated whites are significantly more supportive of a Green New Deal and a federal cap on carbon emissions. In general, however, these exceptions are just that.
One of the left’s worries about the white college-educated influx, articulated most clearly in Karp’s piece, is that the will for economic redistribution would fade “when the political party that claims to support progressive taxes depends, more and more, on voters who strenuously oppose them.”
On this view, only a coalition centered on the working class — requiring a much larger share of non-college whites than Democrats currently command — could sustain a push for a more egalitarian society. But as the Democracy Fund surveys show, there’s very little daylight on economic policy between whites with college degrees and those without them.
According to Sides, the Vanderbilt political scientist who helped conduct the Democracy Fund survey, the survey’s results reflect the political heterogeneity of these two demographics: There are still a lot of white college grads who vote Republican and white non-college voters who support Democrats. Some of these are voters for whom perceptions of class interest really matters — the MBA who just wants to pay less in taxes, or the industrial worker who belongs to a union.
But the percentage of voters who think about economic policy primarily in these narrow terms are dwindling. Data from the General Social Survey shows that Americans with advanced degrees — whose median income tends to be higher than voters with a terminal bachelor’s degree — have become more left-leaning on economic policy. The link between American voters’ own financial position and their views on economic policy, once tight, is weakening.
“These data generally do not show … that the growing loyalty of college-educated whites to the Democrats will somehow push the Democrats away from liberal economic policies,” Sides concludes.
Biden rode a coalition of college-educated whites and minorities of all educational backgrounds to the White House. Based on the polling, this alliance can sustain support for the progressive economic policies he’s pushed since taking office.
In theory, it’s possible that college-educated whites don’t vote the way that they talk. Maybe they think it sounds nice to support redistributive policies when asked by pollsters, but oppose them when they get to cast their ballots in secret.
That doesn’t appear to be the case. In recent elections, progressives have racked up a decent track record with white college-educated voters and in the suburbs where they disproportionately reside. Moreover, such voters seem far more willing to support progressive economics causes and candidates than the non-college rural whites whose support would allegedly power a more progressive party.
In one recent paper, economists David Matsa and Amalia Miller examined the demographics of Maine’s 2017 referendum vote in favor of expanding Medicaid. Their regression analysis found “a striking and robust relationship between the Medicaid vote share and educational attainment”: The more educated an area was, the more likely its residents were to vote for a policy that largely benefits the poor.
Similarly, residents of more densely populated areas (cities and suburbs) were more likely than rural voters to support Medicaid expansion. These results held true while controlling for race, indicating that the findings aren’t merely an artifact of Maine’s nonwhite voters being concentrated in Portland and Lewiston.
A private analysis by Data for Progress, a progressive polling outfit and think tank, found similar results in 2018’s state-level referendums.
In Idaho’s vote in favor of Medicaid expansion, a larger share of suburban voters than rural voters (63 percent to 54 percent) supported Medicaid expansion. Colorado’s failed push for a state-level single-payer health care system performed worse in rural areas than suburban ones. The staunchest opposition to Colorado’s school tax — hiking rates on high earners and corporations to expand public school funding — came in the state’s rural areas.
House elections tell a similar story. As New York magazine’s Eric Levitz points out, white college graduates tend to support far more progressive House candidates than non-college whites.
“Democratic House members who represent districts with above-median levels of college-educated white voters are more likely to belong to the Progressive Caucus — and to co-sponsor Medicare for All — than those who represent districts with above-median levels of non-college-educated white voters,” he writes.
International comparisons are another important data point. Across advanced Western democracies, college-educated voters are shifting to support left-of-center parties while non-college voters are moving into the right’s column. Yet in the past 20 years, the continent’s center-left parties have moved away from the neoliberal “third way” policies they embraced in the 1980s and ’90s and have become more progressive on economics.
A new paper examining center-left party manifestos in 21 European and Anglosphere countries found that these factions have systematically shifted leftward over the past 30 years. “It is no longer accurate to describe social democratic parties as ‘third way,’” the study’s authors conclude. “Almost all of them have shed this over-arching policy approach.”
Other academics echoed this assessment.
“Mainstream left parties have basically completely reversed that centrist turn,” says Sophie Hill, a PhD candidate at Harvard who studies the politics of redistribution in Europe.
For all of these reasons, the progressive turn among white college-educated suburbanites does not appear to be a mirage. Far from just voting Democratic as a reaction to Trump, it seems these voters really are taking on more progressive economic policy views.
“It’s so blatantly obvious, it’s like writing that gravity is real,” Sean McElwee, Data for Progress’s director, tells me. “You really can’t look at elections and see anything else.”
So if white college-educated suburbanites really are turning to the left, why might this be?
The simplest and best explanation appears to be partisanship.
In their book Open Versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution, scholars Christopher Johnston, Christopher Federico, and Howard Lavine take a close look at the psychological underpinnings of people’s views on economic policy. What they find is surprising, and more than a little counterintuitive: Economic policy has become, to an extent, an annex of the partisan culture war.
Increasingly, Americans pick their party on the basis of cultural affinity: whether people like them, who share their cultural values on topics like race and immigration, are in one party or the other. This is why college graduates, who tend to be culturally progressive, are an increasingly Democratic bloc, and non-college whites, who have conservative cultural views, are increasingly voting Republican.
In contemporary America, identification with one of the two major parties is an exceptionally powerful psychological force. People who care about being a Democrat or a Republican tend to feel strong psychological pressures to adopt the entire policy slate of their party.
For this reason, Johnston and his co-authors argue that economic policy preferences flow downstream from partisan identity. Democratic partisans who are highly engaged in politics will tend to adjust their economic views leftward to fit more comfortably in the Democratic coalition, perfectly explaining the counterintuitive rise of the progressive white suburbanite.
“Individuals identify with the cultural liberalism of the Democratic party and adopt its approach to economic matters as a package deal,” they write. “Economic preferences [are] an expression of a more basic cultural division in the electorate.”
Open Versus Closed’s thesis fits in with a significant body of political science literature documenting that most ordinary citizens are only weakly attached to their policy preferences, and frequently adjust them based on cues from political elites.
And the core argument that educated voters will hold more down-the-line partisan views as polarization increases is supported by other studies.
A 2008 paper by NYU’s Delia Baldassarri and Columbia’s Andrew Gelman found that between 1972 and 2004, highly educated and politically engaged voters were much more likely than others to have consistently liberal or conservative views on all sorts of issues (social, economic, and foreign policy). A 2020 reanalysis using more recent data has found that voters have only become more ideologically aligned with their parties in the hyperpartisan 21st century — including on economic issues.
Hence “post-material materialism”: Material divides in the classic self-interested sense no longer define the contours of national American politics; people don’t vote their class. They still care about economic policy but come to their opinions for different reasons: They see them as an extension of their partisan identity and moral worldview.
This isn’t to say that white college-educated suburbanites are perfect progressive voters. At the local level, where issues feel more personal and less ideological, these voters often stand in the way of egalitarian policies. Think of the NIMBYs who oppose housing construction in their neighborhoods.
But politics is about working with the kind of supporters you have. And at the national level, the white educated suburbanites who have come over to the Democratic side in recent years are looking like solid supporters of a redistributionist party.