Alexander Jones: Democrats need the working class

Published 11:59 pm Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Between the year 2000 and 2020, the percentage of Americans with a college degree nearly doubled. At the turn of the millennium, a college degree was still a relative rarity in many American communities, with only 20% of the country’s population holding a Bachelor’s or more. By the time of last year’s presidential election, 37.5% of US voters had graduated from college, and in some places the proportion was even higher than that. This trend benefitted the Democratic Party, which has won the college-educated vote by larger and larger margins since the beginning of the Clinton era.

And yet, a supermajority of Americans have not completed a college education. While college voters have become much more Democratic – indeed, extraordinarily Democratic in the case of women and people with graduate degrees – the working-class, or non-college, vote has migrated steadily towards the GOP. Working-class support for Republicans also jumped significantly when Donald Trump entered the political arena. For Democrats, that trend has become a major obstacle to building a majority coalition, no matter how severely the Republicans misrule the country.

In 2020, 62.5% of the American electorate fit into the working-class category. In certain swing states, such as Michigan and even Sun-Belt Arizona, the dominance of the working class was even greater. The shift of working-class voters into Trump’s circus tent has by no means been limited to white voters. Hispanic and even Black voters without college degrees also moved by small, but still meaningful, numbers in a Trumpian direction. North Carolina has a roughly average split between working-class and college-educated voters, but its white working class votes Republican by stunning margins. As long as Democrats are losing white working-class communities, they will not be able to achieve a sustained majority.

Let’s look a bit more closely at our home state. North Carolina is not as working class-dominated as the Rust Belt, with our thousands of college-educated professionals moving here from other parts of the country. But the land of the long leaf pine, like the land of the small Midwestern farmer, remains a majority-working class state. As across the country, the Democratic party has been demonstrably failing to connect with working-class voters. For example, the old working-class-Democrat county of Richmond went for Barack Obama by one point in 2008. Twelve years later, and despite the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, conspicuously flaunting his lunch-pail credentials, Richmond County went for Trump by 17%.

With North Carolina’s striking and long-standing polarization along racial lines, our state has not seen as much of a shift among Black working-class voters as was seen nationally. But it could happen. The greatest Republican shift in North Carolina’s 2020 political geography took place in the heavily Black northeastern quadrant of the state. This may have reflected further racial polarization, with white people in heavily Black counties affirming their support for Trump. However, it is conceivable that some Black voters in this economically depressed region may have, like working-class people of color elsewhere in the country, voted marginally more Republican in 2020. We simply don’t know.

The rise of the college-educated vote, both in America and North Carolina, bodes well for Democrats politically, assuming that the trends we have seen in the college vote hold steady in the years to come. But the blunt logic of our state’s political landscape shows that Democrats must appeal to a larger proportion of the working-class vote. Unless and until they stanch the bleeding among non-college voters, the Democrats will struggle to maintain their national majority; or, in North Carolina, win back a majority at all.

Alexander H. Jones is a policy analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill. Email him at