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Declining union membership

Membership in a union is a strong predictor of identifying as a Democrat. In fact, male union members were 13 percentage points more likely to vote for President Joe Biden and female union members 21 percentage points more likely to cast a vote for team blue, according to analysis from the Center for American Progress.

Union membership has drastically declined, though. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports just 10% of workers were in a union 2023, compared with 20.1% in 1983 (the first year for which comparable data is available). Recent investigations also showed union membership no longer plays a defining role in the social lives of working class individuals, with many who formerly spent time at the union hall opting for the gun club instead.

With unions no longer steering millions of working class Americans to the left, many have drifted to the right — especially as Republicans, led by Donald Trump, have moved away from their prior focus on tax cuts and entitlement reforms and instead begun embracing more populist ideals.

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Changing demographics

Since World War II, white voters with college degrees have been trending left and making up an increasing share of the Democratic party.

Donald Trump accelerated their exodus, with his abrasive political style alienating many who view his behavior as a violation of accepted social norms. In fact, with Trump at the helm of the GOP, for the first time in history, starting in 2020, there were more college-educated whites in the Democratic party than white Democrats without a degree.

There's a strong correlation between education and class identity in America. That's why you might hear a white college professor describe themselves as middle class while a plumber or electrician with a higher income identifies as working class. As the base has become better educated, it's no surprise more Democrats now identify with the middle or upper class.

This trend is likely to continue as credentialed progressives are more likely to hold positions of power within the party — and take positions that drive working class voters away.

Increased focus on cultural issues

Finally, a shift towards focusing on cultural issues has also pushed working class voters away from the democratic side of the aisle.

The culture wars date back to at least the 1980s, and arguably to the 1960s, but have accelerated in recent years as politicians on both the right and left now focus less on the economy and more on women's rights, parents' rights, LGBT+ rights, and immigration.

With these issues at the forefront, some working class voters are turned off by the progressive positions that have increasingly become the norm in the Democratic party. In fact, the Progressive Policy Institute found 45% of working voters strongly agree that Democrats have moved too far left, and four in 10 strongly agreed that the party is overly influenced by “public sector unions, environmental activists and academics.”

Ultimately, these factors have shaken up the political landscape and this major shift could play a defining role in the 2024 election and beyond.

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Christy Bieber Freelance Writer

Christy Bieber a freelance contributor to Moneywise, who has been writing professionally since 2008. She writes about everything related to money management and has been published by NY Post, Fox Business, USA Today, Forbes Advisor, Credible, Credit Karma, and more. She has a JD from UCLA School of Law and a BA in English Media and Communications from the University of Rochester.

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