The Morning: What’s the matter with Scarsdale?

Making sense of the Democrats' struggles.

Good morning. Democratic struggles with working-class voters seem to be getting worse.

Supporters of Glenn Youngkin in Virginia.Carlos Bernate for The New York Times

Culture over money

They are among the most affluent places in America: Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, in Northern Virginia; Upper Montclair, N.J.; Scarsdale, N.Y.; Wilmette, Ill.; Palo Alto and Malibu, Calif; and Mercer Island, Wash.

In each, six-figure incomes are the norm, and seven-figure incomes are not rare, which means that many residents would pay higher taxes if Democratic proposals were to become law.

And yet these places vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Even this week, which did not go well for Democrats, many affluent suburbs were colored blue on election maps. In Arlington, Va., Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor, won about 77 percent of the vote. Last year, President Biden won a similarly large share in Scarsdale and some other high-income towns — and about 90 percent in several California and New England suburbs. (Look up your town.)

Democrats often lament that so many working-class Americans vote against their own economic interests, by supporting Republicans who try to cut health care programs, school funding and more. A 2004 book summarized the liberal frustration with the title, "What's the Matter With Kansas?"

But working-class conservatives are hardly the only voters who prioritize issues other than their financial situation. The residents of the affluent towns I mentioned above — and I could have listed dozens more — also do. Which raises a different question: What's the matter with Scarsdale?

The answer, of course, is nothing. Pocketbook issues aren't the only reasonable ones to decide a person's vote. Other subjects, like climate change, civil rights, religious rights, abortion, immigration, crime, education and Covid-19, are important, too.

As Democrats try to make sense of this week's disappointments and look anxiously ahead to next year's midterms, one problem looms others: the party's struggles with working-class voters. Defined as people without a four-year college degree, these voters make up a majority of the electorate. And they tend to be more religious, more outwardly patriotic and more culturally conservative than college graduates.

From a survey of 2,508 people, conducted in Sept. 2021.Source: Public Religion Research Institute

A Virginia trouncing

For much of the 20th century, Democrats were the party of the working class, while Republicans were the party of suburban professionals. In recent decades, however, politics has changed.

People vote based less on their income and more on their cultural attitudes, as my colleague Nate Cohn has explained. Sometimes, these attitudes are related to specific matters of policy, like immigration or abortion. Other times, they involve more personal subjects, like religion or patriotism.

"As they've grown in numbers, college graduates have instilled increasingly liberal cultural norms while gaining the power to nudge the Democratic Party to the left," Nate wrote. "Partly as a result, large portions of the party's traditional working-class base have defected to the Republicans."

The defections have increased over the past decade. Barack Obama won voters without a bachelor's degree in both of his presidential victories. Biden lost them narrowly last year. In Virginia this week, McAuliffe was trounced — by between 10 and 20 percentage points, depending on the exit poll — among voters without a bachelor's degree. He particularly lost ground with white working-class women, according to CNN.

Race plays an important role here. Republicans — including Donald Trump, but not limited to him — have won more working-class votes partly by appealing to white identity. In Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, the Republican governor-elect, used a version of this strategy. He went so far as to release an ad in which a white mother complained about her son's high school class reading a classic novel by Toni Morrison.

But many Democrats have made the mistake of believing that the working-class shift is all about racism. It's not. Consider that the contemporary Democrat who fared best with the white working class was Obama. Or that some divisive cultural debates, like those involving religion, don't map neatly onto race.

The clearest sign that the shift involves both racial and other causes comes from recent election results: Democrats are no longer doing as well as they once did in Asian, Black and Latino communities. Trump fared better with voters of color in 2020 than in 2016. In Virginia, some of McAuliffe's most disappointing totals came in heavily Hispanic precincts, according to Nate's analysis.

This year's mayoral election in New York offered a similar lesson. Eric Adams beat more liberal Democratic candidates with an anti-crime message that appealed to a multiracial coalition of working-class voters across the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. The only borough Adams lost in the primary was affluent, highly educated Manhattan.

Values, not white papers

I don't mean to suggest that there are easy answers for the Democratic Party. The rightward drift of workers has been an international phenomenon. Yet unless Democrats try to address their working-class slide — which has room to become worse — they may struggle to hold power in coming years, especially in the Senate.

What are their options? Democrats can't win over the working class by talking about only economic issues, any more than Republicans can win Scarsdale simply by saying "Tax cuts now!" Policy proposals, of any kind, may not even be the full answer: Some political scientists believe that Democrats talk too much about policy and not enough about values. Regardless, Democrats likely do need to write off some voters because of their racial attitudes.

Still, that would leave tens of millions of working-class Americans who are open to voting for Democrats without being loyal to the party. These voters span racial groups. They tend to be worried about crime and political correctness, however they define it. They have mixed feelings about immigration and abortion laws. They favor many progressive positions on economic policy. They are skeptical of experts. Most believe in God and in a strong America.

If Democrats are going to win more of these voters, they will probably need to listen to them and make some changes, rather than telling them that they're irrational for voting Republican. Over the past generation, Democrats have won over more college graduates by listening to them — and then creating a party that reflects their views on almost every issue. Politics is hard, but it is not always mysterious.

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Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti, Ashley Wu and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at themorning@nytimes.com.

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