The 2020 election once again showed that the pursuit of affluent, white, college-educated suburbanites dominates the political strategies of both parties. Donald Trump made a transparently racist appeal to the so-called suburban housewives of America, warning that liberals were plotting to “abolish the suburbs” by flooding their neighborhoods with low-income housing and Black Lives Matter protests. And while Joe Biden acknowledged the increasing diversity of American suburbia, his campaign continued the decades-long centrist Democratic project of crafting electoral appeals and calibrating policy positions toward moderate, upper-income voters.
The obsession with upper-income, white suburban professionals provides myopic understandings of the past and flawed lessons for the future. In 2010, the US Census revealed that, for the first time, a majority of African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos in America’s one hundred largest metropolitan regions resided in suburban areas and not in central cities. More than half of all poor people, and of first- and second-generation immigrants, in these major metropolitan regions also lived in the census-designated suburbs, where fewer than one-fourth of households conformed to the mythical suburban ideal of a married couple with children under the age of eighteen.
Suburbs today are more working-class, and more diverse, than ever before. But it is not clear that the Democratic Party establishment, including the incoming Biden administration, is ready or willing to embrace the suburban electorate on its own terms.
The Roots of the Affluent Suburban Strategy
The Democratic Party’s suburban strategy of chasing affluent white-collar professionals, and simultaneously marginalizing its traditional working-class base, has deep roots in the racial upheavals and economic crises of the 1960s and 1970s. During the intraparty warfare of the 1980s, a faction of professional-class politicians labeled the “Atari Democrats” argued that embracing high-tech corporations and suburban knowledge workers represented the best path forward to a prosperous future and an electoral realignment.
In the aftermath of the 1988 election, when George H. W. Bush defeated the technocrat Michael Dukakis, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the self-styled centrist outfit of professional class Democrats, commissioned political scientists William Galston and Elaine Kamarck to draft a postmortem. The resulting document, titled the “Politics of Evasion,” insisted that the party needed to fashion its appeals to middle-income white voters in the suburban Midwest and affluent white professionals in the high-tech suburban Sunbelt. It was a direct repudiation of the multiracial, working-class “Rainbow Coalition” strategy of Jesse Jackson in his 1984 and 1988 presidential bids, which sought to mobilize the “desperate, the damned, the disinherited, and the despised.” Jackson responded that the DLC, which he dismissed as the “Democrats of the Leisure Class,” was seeking to “suburbanize the Democratic party.” He was quite right.
The “Politics of Evasion” shaped the DLC’s centrist agenda in the 1990s, most notably Bill Clinton’s approach to the white suburban electorate and his “Third Way” rejection of a progressive policy agenda, especially after the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 midterms. During his 1996 reelection campaign, Clinton elevated America’s “soccer moms” — imagined as affluent, college-educated, white married suburbanites — as the archetypal swing voter and captured 53 percent of the suburban female vote.
During the nadir of the George W. Bush administration, the Democratic Party’s quest for dominance in the white suburbs seemed hopelessly adrift. But in 2008, Barack Obama captured 51 percent of the diversifying suburban electorate during a severe recession by promising progressive economic policies that “invest in our middle class.” Obama proved able to thread the needle electorally, galvanizing record turnout among African American and young voters while also making inroads in the white suburban swing districts of new battleground states such as Virginia and Colorado.
In 2016, Donald Trump’s racist campaign and shocking victory convinced many mainstream Democrats that their path back to power required writing off white workers and rural America in favor of rebuilding the unstable coalition of white college-educated suburban professionals and reliably Democratic nonwhite voters. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer famously argued that the party could regain control of Midwestern battlegrounds by targeting moderate Republicans in the white-collar suburbs, rather than trying to win back blue-collar white voters in places such as Western Pennsylvania. Leading Democratic strategists termed this the “Panera Bread” strategy, a blueprint for retaking Congress in 2018 and the presidency in 2020 by focusing on moderate and conservative white suburbanites across the nation who were alienated by the rhetoric and character of Donald Trump.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” initiative intervened in the primaries in a number of suburban districts to thwart progressive challengers, helping to bring moderate Democrats such as Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia into the US House of Representatives. These centrist suburban politicians have urged the party to reject the progressive left and double down on its white-collar suburban strategy.
But it is becoming increasingly clear that this is a strategic cul-de-sac, with fewer and fewer moderate Republicans left to convert — and a misguided path for anyone invested in a progressive policy agenda.
The Dangers of Courting Moderate Suburbanites
In the lead-up to the 2018 midterms, we argued in an op-ed in the New York Times: “Democrats cannot cater to white swing voters in affluent suburbs and also promote policies that fundamentally challenge income inequality, exclusionary zoning, housing segregation, school inequality, police brutality and mass incarceration.”
These warnings are even more critical two years later, as the United States confronts an interlocking set of social, economic, and political crises that are rooted in both the bipartisan policymaking of recent decades and the inept and reactionary leadership of the Trump administration. Immediately following the 2020 election, a coalition of progressive groups issued the “Memo to Interested Parties,” which laid out the electoral drawbacks in stark terms. The groups warned of the risks of alienating grassroots organizations of color and other progressive activists that have spent the last four years mobilizing the party’s “core base of support: young people, Black, Brown, working class, and social movements.”
The relentless pursuit of moderate white suburbanites is at once a symptom and cause of the Democratic Party’s unwillingness to fight for a working-class agenda that attacks economic inequality, systemic racism, and the global climate crisis by guaranteeing quality housing, health care, and employment; freedom from police brutality and the carceral system; and enacting a Green New Deal. This moment plainly calls for the Democratic Party to stop viewing economic redistribution and far-reaching criminal justice reform as political liabilities and instead to understand that tackling entrenched problems of economic and racial inequality offers an alternative way to mobilize the American electorate, including the diverse, working-class populations that live in suburbs and metropolitan regions.
The Democratic breakthrough in Georgia in the 2020 election offers a case in point. The Biden-Harris campaign won Georgia because the voter registration drives led by Stacey Abrams’s New Georgia Project helped to mobilize a multiracial electorate, regardless of where they lived. While some moderate white professionals and typically Republican suburbanites did vote for the Democratic presidential ticket, it is a profound mistake to equate the suburban counties north of Atlanta with the demographic category of the white college-educated professional vote.
Joe Biden won 56.3 percent of the vote in Cobb County and 58.4 percent in nearby Gwinnett County, both of which were overwhelmingly white and Republican strongholds as recently as a quarter-century ago. Today Cobb County is less than two-thirds white, and Lucy McBath, an African-American progressive activist, easily won reelection in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, which includes parts of Cobb and two other suburban counties. Gwinnett is now a majority-minority suburban county (30 percent African American, 22 percent Latino, 13 percent Asian), and in 2020 a progressive white Democrat, Carolyn Bourdeaux, flipped the Seventh Congressional District thanks in large part to the multiracial get-out-the-vote efforts of progressive organizations.
In Arizona, the Biden-Harris victory in the 2020 election also depended upon grassroots progressive organizations targeting a multiracial, increasingly working-class electorate in new battleground areas. Maricopa County once gave Ronald Reagan more than 70 percent of its vote and Trump carried it by a 3.5 percent margin in 2016, leading the Democratic establishment to treat it as hopeless in presidential contests. Groups such as the Latino-oriented Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), however, mobilized working-class families in Maricopa, where the population is now almost one-third Hispanic, through an agenda of economic and racial justice. Biden narrowly won the suburban county.
At the same time, there is ample evidence that the Democratic Party’s prioritization of affluent white suburbanites actively undercuts a progressive policy agenda. It is extremely optimistic to expect a meaningful number of affluent white suburbanites to accept such priorities even if more of them have been reading White Fragility and throwing out terms like “institutional racism.” Despite the conventional wisdom about hyper-partisan polarization, many affluent white suburbanites are still inclined to split their tickets and vote for Republicans in down-ballot elections. This is true even in very “blue” states such as Massachusetts, Maryland, and Vermont, where a significant subset of white college-educated voters who are reliably Democratic in presidential contests prefer moderate Republican governors that support fiscal conservatism and cultural tolerance.
It, therefore, should not be surprising that a sizable number of the moderate and generally Republican suburbanites who rejected the extremism and incompetence of Trumpism on the presidential ticket simultaneously voted for GOP candidates and divided government in congressional races and in contests at the state level. Even in California, where Trump received barely one-third of the vote, the majority of the statewide electorate, along with the majority in blue-trending suburban areas such as Orange County, handily rejected ballot initiatives aimed at increasing corporate taxes to fund social welfare programs, restoring affirmative action in higher education and public employment, and curtailing Uber’s and Lyft’s assault on workers’ rights.
The Changing Shape of American Suburbia
In the aftermath of the November election, centrist Democrats loudly insisted that progressive activists had cost the party control of Congress and state legislatures by elevating demands for climate justice, economic redistribution, and radical policing reform. Yet these cries were self-interested at best and catastrophic at worst, representing a fundamental failure to imagine a different and better future.
The traditional strategy of chasing college-educated professionals, and thereby prioritizing their policy interests, risks hamstringing progressive social movements, misdirecting scarce resources, and thwarting the potential for bold policy reforms. Focusing on moderate, upper-income voters will squander the momentum of the mass protest movements demanding racial justice and systemic change and undercut attempts to draw in suburban-dwelling workers of all colors.
Unless the Democratic Party wants to become a safe house for Republican defectors and a reflection of their policy priorities, it is time to stop worrying about the nation’s most affluent suburbs — and finally see the realities and potential of working-class suburbia in all of its hues.