“voters like bipartisanship more in theory than in practice. But that doesn’t mean bipartisan support isn’t still important politically. Voters may prefer more partisan policy results, but their stated desire for bipartisanship means that politicians can still benefit by at least trying to work together.”
“For four decades now, that historic upheaval and the quest for the support of Reagan Democrats has defined American politics, from the rise of Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats”—which Greenberg, as Clinton’s pollster, had a central role in crafting—to George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” to Barack Obama’s poll-tested evisceration of Mitt Romney’s venture capital experience, to Donald Trump’s white-grievance mongering and tirades against NAFTA. After Obama won Macomb in 2008 and 2012, Trump captured it in 2016 and 2020.
Then something important happened: In leaning too hard into white identity politics—and perhaps being too focused on what he thought Reagan Democrats wanted—Trump accelerated the rise of a new voting bloc that is, in many ways, the mirror image of the Reagan Democrats.
Call them the Biden Republicans.
Like the Reagan Democrats, they’re heavily white and live in suburbs. But where the Reagan Dems are blue-collar and culturally conservative, Greenberg sees the Biden Republicans as more affluent, highly educated and supportive of diversity. Historically, they identified with the Republican Party as their political home. But the leaders who were supposed to fight for them seem to care more about white grievance and keeping out immigrants; seem to care more about social issues and “owning the libs” than about child-care payments and college tuition. They don’t consider themselves Democrats—at least not yet—but they are voting for them, delivering them majorities in the House and Senate, and making Joe Biden just the fourth candidate in the past century to defeat an incumbent president.”
“So if white college-educated suburbanites really are turning to the left, why might this be?
The simplest and best explanation appears to be partisanship.
In their book Open Versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution, scholars Christopher Johnston, Christopher Federico, and Howard Lavine take a close look at the psychological underpinnings of people’s views on economic policy. What they find is surprising, and more than a little counterintuitive: Economic policy has become, to an extent, an annex of the partisan culture war.
Increasingly, Americans pick their party on the basis of cultural affinity: whether people like them, who share their cultural values on topics like race and immigration, are in one party or the other. This is why college graduates, who tend to be culturally progressive, are an increasingly Democratic bloc, and non-college whites, who have conservative cultural views, are increasingly voting Republican.
In contemporary America, identification with one of the two major parties is an exceptionally powerful psychological force. People who care about being a Democrat or a Republican tend to feel strong psychological pressures to adopt the entire policy slate of their party.
For this reason, Johnston and his co-authors argue that economic policy preferences flow downstream from partisan identity. Democratic partisans who are highly engaged in politics will tend to adjust their economic views leftward to fit more comfortably in the Democratic coalition, perfectly explaining the counterintuitive rise of the progressive white suburbanite.
“Individuals identify with the cultural liberalism of the Democratic party and adopt its approach to economic matters as a package deal,” they write. “Economic preferences [are] an expression of a more basic cultural division in the electorate.”
Open Versus Closed’s thesis fits in with a significant body of political science literature documenting that most ordinary citizens are only weakly attached to their policy preferences, and frequently adjust them based on cues from political elites.
And the core argument that educated voters will hold more down-the-line partisan views as polarization increases is supported by other studies.
A 2008 paper by NYU’s Delia Baldassarri and Columbia’s Andrew Gelman found that between 1972 and 2004, highly educated and politically engaged voters were much more likely than others to have consistently liberal or conservative views on all sorts of issues (social, economic, and foreign policy). A 2020 reanalysis using more recent data has found that voters have only become more ideologically aligned with their parties in the hyperpartisan 21st century — including on economic issues.
Hence “post-material materialism”: Material divides in the classic self-interested sense no longer define the contours of national American politics; people don’t vote their class. They still care about economic policy but come to their opinions for different reasons: They see them as an extension of their partisan identity and moral worldview.
This isn’t to say that white college-educated suburbanites are perfect progressive voters. At the local level, where issues feel more personal and less ideological, these voters often stand in the way of egalitarian policies. Think of the NIMBYs who oppose housing construction in their neighborhoods.
But politics is about working with the kind of supporters you have. And at the national level, the white educated suburbanites who have come over to the Democratic side in recent years are looking like solid supporters of a redistributionist party.”
“Here’s the Democratic nightmare: Biden and congressional Democrats pass a few major bills over the next two years but leave the filibuster in place, preventing the passage of major reforms to America’s electoral system. A federal judiciary stacked with Trump appointees strikes down all or parts of many of the laws the Democrats do pass as well as many of Biden’s executive actions, leaving Democrats few permanent policy victories and driving down the president’s approval ratings.
Meanwhile, Republicans use their control of most state legislatures to draw state legislative and U.S. House district lines in ways that are even more favorable to the GOP than the current ones and enact laws that make it harder for liberal-leaning voting blocs to cast ballots. Combine gerrymandering, voting limitations, lackluster poll numbers for Biden and the historic trend of voters rejecting the party of the incumbent president in a midterm election, and it results in the Republicans winning control of the House and the Senate and making even more gains at the state legislative level in November 2022.
Post-2022, Republicans in Congress block everything Biden tries to do, further driving down his approval ratings. Meanwhile, Republicans use their enhanced power at the state level to continue to adopt laws that make it harder for people in liberal-leaning constituencies to vote and harder for Democrats to win in swing states. Then, these laws are upheld by lower courts and a U.S. Supreme Court still packed with Trump appointees. In 2024, Biden (or whomever the Democrats nominate) wins the popular vote but still loses the Electoral College — in part because Republicans have limited Democratic votes in some swing states. A GOP with control of the White House, Senate, House and most state governments in 2025 then effectively creates a system of “minority rule” in which Republicans can keep control of America’s government for decades even if the majority of voters favor Democrats as well as liberal and left-of-center policies.
In this scenario, the Democratic Party is in peril, but in some ways so is American democracy more broadly. So to this camp, Democrats must act aggressively and quickly over the next two years to forestall this outcome, by getting rid of the filibuster as it currently operates (most legislation requires 60 votes to pass in the Senate) and enacting an aggressive “democracy agenda.” This is a pro-democratic (small “d”) agenda in many ways, particularly in giving residents of Washington, D.C., representation in Congress and enhancing protections of the right to vote for Black Americans who live in GOP-dominated states. But it’s also clearly a pro-Democratic agenda (big “D”) in that it would, for example, add the two senators from D.C., who would almost certainly be Democrats.
Pfeiffer describes whether the Democrats get rid of the filibuster in the next two years as “the decision that will decide the next decade.” He argues that keeping the filibuster may be effectively “a decision to return to the minority and stay there for at least a decade.”
“The door is closing quickly in terms of us staying a functioning democracy. We have no time to waste,” said Meagan Hatcher-Mays, director of democracy policy at Indivisible. “Democrats have been handed this power to save it. We don’t have two years. We have a year. The window to actually get things done is really closer to 10 months.””
“Democrats would need every Democratic senator on board to get rid of the filibuster, so these members are super-important. And over the last few months, Manchin and Sinema have said they are strongly opposed to getting rid of the filibuster. Longtime senators like Feinstein have hinted in the past that they are wary of such a move too.
Part of this opposition to getting rid of the filibuster reflects ideological differences — Manchin in particular is more conservative than most (if not all) congressional Democrats. So he probably isn’t dying to get rid of the filibuster to vote for a $15 federal minimum wage, for example, because it’s not clear he favors that idea anyway.
But this bloc also disagrees with the this-is-an-emergency camp about the state of American politics right now. Feinstein is fairly liberal on policy issues. But she, like Manchin and Sinema, has suggested she wants to work in a Senate that is not hyperpartisan and seems to believe that is possible. In the view of people in this camp, the Republican Party is not completely dominated by an anti-democratic wing that won’t work with Democrats. So members in this camp view getting rid of the filibuster and other more aggressive moves as not only unnecessary but potentially really bad — making the Senate and Washington overall even more gridlocked and polarized than they already are.”