Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) departs a vote at the U.S. Capitol July 18, 2022.

The news for Democrats was mostly grim in early July. First, a New York Times–Siena poll showed working-class voters of all races steadily trending away from Democrats, continuing a class- and age-based realignment. Democrats had solidified their majority among educated whites and voters under 45—but at the expense of nearly every other demographic. Second, Democratic Representative Josh Gottheimer and his allies in the self-styled Problem Solvers Caucus have, along with Senator Joe Manchin, seemed to have scuttled any hopes of passing even the smallest and most popular parts of Biden’s domestic spending agenda by refusing any tax increases on the wealthy. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait describes Gottheimer’s determination to thwart tax hikes here.

Ironically, these two seemingly disconnected events provide the framework by which Democrats can begin to set things right. In the short term, the decision of the GOP to nominate a clown car of Senate candidates such as Herschel Walker in Georgia and the country’s roiling after the Dobbs catastrophe have buoyed Democratic midterm hopes. So have falling gas prices. The idea of Democrats holding the Senate seemed farfetched a few weeks ago. Now, it’s conventional wisdom. But to achieve lasting gains, Democrats will need to address core problems decisively.

On the question of electoral realignment, there’s been a lot of focus in political circles on the so-called Great Awokening, in which both left and center-left have dramatically increased the salience of identity and structural bigotry—ostensibly to the detriment of support among working-class voters. In this theory of the case, the Great Awokening gave the GOP a chance to demagogue issues like critical race theory and transgender athletes to increase their appeal to working-class voters with a combination of racist, misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic, and transphobic appeals.

There are a number of problems with this theory—beginning with the fact that the Great Awokening was a reaction to the GOP’s turn toward fascism, not the other way around. After President Barack Obama dismantled Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, Republicans faced a choice that now seems almost quaint in retrospect: Either court young voters and an increasingly diverse America or watch the future slip away. Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus’s famed autopsy advised moderating the party’s positions to save itself. But Trump-voting base Republican voters had other ideas. They chose to embrace Christian ethnonationalism, capturing the “missing white voter” and solidifying their base. Trump won, of course, and Priebus wound up ministering to him as chief of staff before being unceremoniously tossed aside.

Simultaneously, Democrats were arguing in 2016 over whether to pursue economic populism to try to win back the white working class. Bernie Sanders believed he saw a path to bringing them back through economic lures—free college tuition at public universities, Medicare for All, expanded child care, and so on. Another path was offered by Hillary Clinton to build a broad antiracist, suburban majority combined with younger voters and persons of color. Older base Democrats, especially African Americans, chose the Hillary path, which meant explicitly choosing to win over suburban voters while losing white rural ones.

There is a strange new consensus in punditry from voices like the journalist Matt Yglesias and the political consultant David Shor that Clinton was the candidate who was too far left. They questioned Clinton campaign lines like “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow—and I will if they deserve it—would that end racism?”  

But this critique of Clinton ignores the movement of Republicans toward ethnonationalism, which was well under way, no matter which strategy Democrats pursued. The GOP had made its choice. Progressives and centrists alike responded to Trump’s 2016 victory by addressing these bigotries head-on rather than continue to tread lightly on them as Clinton and Obama had done in the past.

In some ways, this is a perennial issue. Democrats, since the civil rights era, have always paid the price for being the party of social justice. Recall Lyndon B. Johnson’s famed lament after signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act about losing the South for generations. Advances tend to be unpopular until they are broadly accepted. And social advances have cost Democrats among the groups likeliest to embrace bigoted appeals—particularly southerners and rural whites. But the party has traditionally made up for it by also being the party of populist economics.

Socially conservative but economically liberal voters have always been the most contested portion of the electorate—by far the largest portion of cross-pressured voters. Democrats have won them through populist appeals to pay for popular programs by taxing corporations and the rich. There are many Democrats who may be uncomfortable with social positions like marriage equality but want benefits like universal health care, and they choose the economic angel on their shoulder over the social devil.

This is why, for all the handwringing about woke young progressives, the poison in the Democratic Party lies with what might be called destructive centrists like Gottheimer, Manchin, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, and the “No Labels” faction.

Constructive moderates like Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar were never going to dynamite the Build Back Better bill. The destructive centrists have at least had a clarifying effect. Democrats know that they can’t abandon climate change or tax hikes to pay for their agenda just to appease Manchin. To do so would be immoral and lousy policy. It would also be bad politics because desperate and increasingly alienated voters under 45 might decide that voting is pointless. Young and marginalized people face the brunt of the climate crisis and a rigged economy. Telling them that their LGBTQ friends and climate-imperiled children must suffer just to woo a 74-year-old Manchin—or, for that matter, a 75-year-old swing voter in Missouri—is a disastrous misstep. It’s a good way to get young and minority voters to pick up pitchforks instead of ballots—or just stay home.

Democrats can unite the Sanders and Clinton wings and do better at winning back working-class voters. The best thing is to increase their economic populist appeal. Economic inequality is increasing to a shocking degree. The housing crisis is becoming dire nationwide. American life remains precarious, especially for the young. The Hillary Clinton wing is right that Trumpism cannot be defeated without confronting bigotry directly. But the Sanders wing is right that it’s much easier to do that if you strike hard on class-based economic issues at the same time. This magazine has long championed vigorous antitrust enforcement as both good policy and good politics. In policy terms, anti-monopolism can help ease inflation, promote economic growth, and reduce regional inequality. As politics, it has an obvious appeal, championing the little guy against, say, the meat processing monopoly that’s driving up food prices.

Democrats cannot do that if No Labels Democrats get the final say about refusing to tax the wealthy and invest in popular programs. If the party wants to win back working-class voters, it must be willing to discipline and refuse to protect Democrats like Gottheimer, who seem to place the interests of the rich over those of the country. Perhaps Gottheimer will show more flexibility if he gets the state and local tax deduction his wealthy New Jersey constituents demand, but when even Jonathan Chait says you’re an obstructionist and not a clever centrist, you know you’ve crossed a line.

In the Senate, Chuck Schumer is yoked to Manchin and has to make do as best he can. But there is a chance now that Democrats could add two seats to their majority next year, which could put the Democratic Caucus on a much better course, as long as they can unite on core economic populist goals.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.