At least as far as the House of Representatives was concerned, this year’s midterm elections were a success for the Democrats. They gained a decent majority, won 40 seats off the Republicans, and won the popular vote by roughly nine million people in what was the highest midterm turnout since 1914. While not a complete disaster for Trump, the results show a high degree of dissatisfaction with his presidency.
But dig deeper into the demographics driving the results, and its clear this wasn’t the populist anti-Trump resistance of the Democratic imagination. Rather, they confirmed the Democrats’ status as the party of the rich. Democrats now control all twenty of the most affluent congressional districts in the country- affluence here being defined as median household income. In districts in the highest income decile, Democrats won by an average of 65-34%; substantially higher than their 53-45 margin nationwide. Democrat districts are now 15% richer and 22% more productive than their Republican counterparts, and are responsible for 61% of all economic output.
Not only were Democratic voters and districts richer, Democrats also dominated in their fundraising efforts, continuing Hillary Clinton’s ability to out-fundraise Trump. They had the support of the tech companies, the sports industry, academia, a surprisingly high number of businesses and financial institutions, the trade unions and most media networks. Democrats have long warned of the pernicious influence of money in politics, but it seems as if money is working to their advantage. The party has achieved both an economic and a cultural hegemony, owed in no small part to their increasing popularity amongst college graduates.
There are two caveats to the Democrats’ status as the party of the rich. The first is that they are still the party of the most deprived. 69% of those in the poorest decile of congressional districts voted Democrat, and these included a disproportionate number of ethnic minorities, young people and immigrants. Secondly, Democrats’ policy preferences do not favour the rich as overtly as the Republicans’. A party that has just cut income taxes when they were already low by developed world standards, as well as slashed corporation taxes, can hardly claim to be a party for the working man.
Having said that, the Democrats’ increasingly elite nature will pose serious challenges for the party going forward. Representing the interests of both the upper class and the working poor is inherently contradictory, particularly for progressives and socialists who believe the interests of the two are intrinsically opposed. Even if economics isn’t a zero-sum game of class war, the upper class and the working class obviously have different priorities. Many Democrats want the party to embrace a more generous welfare state and single-payer healthcare, but will that be possible if they become too reliant on the votes of those naturally sceptical to economic populism? Taking the donations of the wealthy and progressive businesses may be good for get-out-the-vote drives, but it could look hypocritical when trying to critique money in politics generally.
Ultimately, the reason why both the wealthy and the working class vote Democrat is because both groups embrace social and cultural liberalism. For them, Trump’s emphasis on toughness, his crass nationalism, his prejudices and insularity, and his intolerance of dissent are an anathema. Add to that Trump’s trade war, which will hurt the businesses owned by the rich and increase the poor’s cost of living. More importantly, the trend for both the wealthy and the poor to vote for the Left is not a uniquely American phenomenon. The UK’s Labour Party represents wealthy constituencies like Hampstead and West Bristol, while also dominating in poor cities like Birmingham or Liverpool. In Spain, the hard-left Podemos party performs better in prosperous Catalonia than any other region. In Germany, most of the wealthy cities have socialist mayors.
So Democrats shouldn’t try to reverse what seems to be a structural change in the party’s support. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being more popular amongst the wealthy and well-educated. But the party will need to make a concerned effort to win back the votes of Middle America, instead of assuming voters believe they are the working man’s party, as they may have done in the past. Ad hominem attacks on the Republicans as the party of the rich will be as ineffective as ever. Equally poor would be to emulate Hillary Clinton’s decision to ignore white working class voters as a crucial voting bloc. Instead, Democrats should espouse a unifying, moderate message, focusing on the failures of Trump’s policies, his propensity towards corruption and his lack of temperament. Democrats may be the party of the rich, but they can also be for everyone else.