The U-Shaped Party
What will their increasingly affluent coalition mean for Democrats’ policy priorities?
For a century, Kansas’s Johnson County pulled the lever for Republican presidential candidates—choosing Herbert Hoover over Franklin Roosevelt, Tom Dewey over Harry Truman, and Barry Goldwater over Lyndon Johnson. Containing some of the most prosperous suburbs in the Kansas City metropolitan area and home to many major corporate offices, the county eagerly voted for Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, and Mitt Romney. Yet, as the 2000s went on, Republican margins in the county slipped, from 20 percentage points in 2000 to just 2 in 2016. And in 2020, Joe Biden won this wealthy county by 8 points. This trend is not confined to presidential races. In 2002, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius won the Kansas governor’s race by close to 8 points but lost Johnson County by 6. By 2022, Democratic governor Laura Kelly barely squeaked to reelection by 2 points but racked up a 20-point victory margin in Johnson.
Like its sociocultural counterparts—parts of Fairfax County in Virginia, Bergen County in New Jersey—Johnson County exemplifies a trend: wealthy communities are swinging from the Republicans to the Democrats. A new study by Yale political science graduate student Sam Zacher details the growing popularity of the Democratic Party among wealthy voters.
In the second half of the twentieth century, Republicans often ran strongest among wealthy communities, while many working-class voters favored Democrats. Building on the work of other political scientists, Zacher illustrates how this dynamic began to change in the 1990s. In the 1980 presidential election, Democrats got just over 35 percent of voters in the top third of incomes. By 2000, Democrats garnered over 45 percent of this group; in 2016 and 2020, Democrats won higher-income voters outright. Looking at the top 20 percent of incomes reveals an even sharper trend in Democrats’ favor. By 2020, Democrats won voters in this group by close to 15 points.
Zacher explains that the Democratic coalition is now “U-shaped”— garnering the greatest support among voters in the bottom fifth and top fifth of incomes and doing worst among voters in the middle 20 percent to 80 percent. The shift of the affluent to the Democratic Party can be seen across ethnic groups and even cuts across education levels; voters from families making over $150,000 annually have moved 15 points in the Democratic direction if they have a college degree and 10 points if they lack one. The trend is particularly accentuated in larger metropolitan areas; wealthy voters in smaller towns and rural regions have not shifted as much in the Democratic direction and remain more supportive of Republicans.
The causes for these trends are complex and open to debate. Zacher flags certain possibilities. Bill Clinton helped consolidate an “an anti-welfare, anti-organized labor, and ideationally pro-free market” turn among Democrats, he argues, which, in turn, made the party more palatable to wealthy Americans. Globalization, the tech revolution, and financialization led to expanded economic opportunities for college-degreed Americans and intertwined with the consolidation of financial capital in key urban hubs. College-educated elites became more sympathetic to a certain brand of left-leaning cultural politics, which have come to define the contemporary Democratic Party. The tumult of the Trump presidency may have accelerated some of these trends, Zacher argues, but it is far from their sole cause.
The sorting of the affluent toward the Democratic column could have major implications for the trajectory of Democratic policymaking and coalitional politics.
As president, Joe Biden has simultaneously tried to pivot away from the centrist policies of the Clinton era and to adjust to new coalitional political realities, needing as he does the wealthy voters whom Clinton helped bring into the party. In his recent State of the Union address, Biden defended federal entitlements and his record in industrial policy. His rhetorical turn toward a state-capacity politics is in part an appeal to working-class voters, an attempt to wrest the banner of populism from Republicans. But industrial policy and infrastructure programs can also speak to the interests of many upper-income voters—fortunes can be made in federal subsidies for computer chips, for example. And Biden’s record more broadly has directed benefits toward the affluent, educated voters who constitute a growing portion of the Democratic base. His student-loan forgiveness plan is clearly aimed at benefiting the higher-education sector as well as many college-educated Democratic voters; under his plan, a married couple making up to $250,000 would still qualify for debt forgiveness, indicating that beneficiaries could include many upper-middle-class families.
Contemporary progressive climate policy is in other ways targeted to the interests of upper-income voters. The Inflation Reduction Act’s $7,500 tax credit for electric vehicles directly helps a corporate lawyer who fancies a new electric BMW, but not the retail-store worker who can afford only a $6,000 secondhand gas-powered sedan. Government-imposed efforts to phase out fossil fuels would demand massive public investment to expand an electrified power grid and create major new financial opportunities for “green” entrepreneurs. The spike in energy costs as part of this transition could function as a kind of “green tax” on energy, which wealthier voters would be more able to pay.
Recent years have also demonstrated the influence of a U-shaped coalition on Democratic tax policy. A politics of taxing the rich becomes much harder when “the rich” have become important stakeholders in your coalition. While Barack Obama pledged not to raise taxes on families making less than $250,000, Joe Biden went even further in promising not to hike taxes on those making less than $400,000 (about 98 percent of the population, according to Zacher). Democrats have even made a show of attempting to cut taxes for the wealthy. After the 2018 Republican tax bill significantly curtailed the state and local tax deduction, congressional Democrats have repeatedly attempted to expand it, which would disproportionately benefit high-income earners in high-tax locales.
At the same time, many parts of the Democratic coalition demand the expansion of federal programs and subsidies—on health care, childcare, transportation, education, and so forth. Many upper-income Democrats might benefit from these programs and are sympathetic to them. As Zacher explains, the growing clout of the professional class in Democratic circles (and center-left parties in Europe) has led to support for greater government spending on such items. Political psychology may also play a role: many of those attracted to the Democratic Party see it as a redistributionist faction and a vehicle for social justice.
Paying for all this spending without endangering the economic interests of wealthier Democratic voters won’t be easy. In the Biden years, Democrats have leaned on deficit spending as a way of resolving these coalitional tensions. Borrowing money would allow the federal government to fund expansive social programs and to avoid imposing higher taxes on upper-income earners to pay for these programs. The White House’s latest budget projects deficits over 4.5 percent of GDP until 2027.
Ironically, Democrats’ growing reliance on affluent voters may cause the party to focus even more on attempting to tax the super-wealthy. But even here, the picture is mixed. The Biden White House has persistently called for a 20 percent minimum income tax on “billionaires” (in reality, households worth more than $100 million), but congressional Democrats blocked that proposal. The Inflation Reduction Act did institute a 15 percent minimum tax on companies that made more than $1 billion annually. Raising taxes on corporations and corporate transactions (such as stock buybacks) may be an appealing revenue stream for Democrats in the future: such taxes would not be felt as directly by many upper-income earners.
The affluence-infused Democratic coalition faces other tensions. Zacher posits that the “moderate nature of the Democrats’ economic policy agenda” was a necessary condition for successful outreach to affluent voters. Yet this need for moderation sits uneasily with the demands of a resurgent economic Left. The economic concentration that has helped expand the Democratic coalition among the affluent has also fueled a self-described “socialist” backlash, which is itself anchored in college-educated urban voters. And many of the new Democratic voters seem willing to go only so far to redistribute wealth. In 2022, Massachusetts barely passed a referendum that would apply an additional tax surcharge on incomes above a million dollars. In the governor’s race, Democratic nominee Maura Healey (who backed this referendum) romped to a 29-point win against a weak Republican opponent, but the millionaire-tax proposal ran far behind her totals in many wealthy suburbs. The town of Wellesley, for instance, backed her by 45 points but opposed the referendum by 26 points.
The increasing dominance of wealthy and credentialed urban voters in the Democratic coalition could also influence cultural politics, as Zach Goldberg has observed. It may lead Democrats to embrace more fully an identity politics out of step with many working-class Americans. Biden might manage to evade those risks with his new rhetorical emphasis, but a GOP that more effectively targets kitchen-table issues could complicate that Democratic strategy.
Growing support for Democrats in affluent metropolitan areas has changed the policy calculus for the party, and more disruption may be ahead. Emphasizing the importance of national resilience, many Republicans and Democrats have moved away from the policy commitments that once characterized their parties. The continuities between the Trump and Biden presidencies are as striking as some of the differences. How this policy shift will affect both coalitions remains to be seen.
Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
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