In recent years, we have witnessed a political realignment, with ancestral Democrats in rural areas voting Republican, while traditionally Republican suburbanites vote Democrat. This realignment has led many in the media, and in both political parties, to claim that Democrats are now the party of the elite, while Republicans have become the party of the working class. Voting data, however, tells a different story: Democrats clearly remain the party of the working class, and this false narrative about elitism rests on the distortion of the term “working class” to mean “white working class,” thus excluding people of color and perpetuating stereotypes around race and work.
Since at least the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Democrats have been the party of the working class. Although Roosevelt battled with a hostile Supreme Court for the first half of his presidency, he orchestrated the New Deal, in which the National Industry Recovery Act, Social Security, fair labor standards and other pro-labor laws were enacted. As such, union workers, especially those in rural areas, were staunch supporters of the Democratic party for their pro-union stances.
However, the battle over civil rights began to threaten the Democratic hold on rural voters, particularly in the South. In 1948, conservative white Democrats formed the Dixiecrat party in opposition to civil rights, nominating Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate. Even after the Dixiecrats ceased to exist, many southern Democrats continued to harbor more segregationist views, and a large bloc of Democratic voters grew more and more opposed to the increasingly progressive social and cultural views of the Democratic party, although they continued to vote for it.
Republicans attempted to capitalize upon this discontent by employing the Southern Strategy, a plan to bring white southerners, disaffected by Democrats’ pro-civil rights stance, into the Republican coalition. Lee Atwater, the primary orchestrator of the Southern Strategy during the Reagan and Bush I years, is on the record strategizing exactly how Republicans can appeal to racists without being called racist themselves. The Republican party has time…