Manhattan Institute policy analyst Zach Goldberg joins Brian Anderson to discuss the growing prominence of college-educated whites in the Democratic Party, how this group increasingly sets the party’s agenda, and the implications of the changing Democratic coalition for the GOP.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Zach Goldberg. He's a Paulson policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute, and recently earned his Ph.D. in political science from Georgia State University. He's the author of a major new research report entitled “The Rise of College-Educated Democrats” that looks at the consequences of demographic change within the Democratic coalition. Zach, welcome.

Zach Goldberg: Brian, great to be here. Thanks for having me on.

Brian Anderson: American politics has changed considerably since the turn of the millennium, the beginning of the century. We've come a long way from the old stereotypes of the two parties when the Democratic Party was considered the party of the common person and the GOP was the home of the wealthy and well-educated. Now, your report takes a close look at one of those transformations. The Democratic Party you show has become a party of educated white elites and non-college educated racial minorities, yet its coalition of voters is on the cusp of being majority non-white. I wonder if there are tensions within those trends as you present them.

Zach Goldberg: Yeah. As you eloquently summarized, until roughly 2016, the largest constituencies within the Democratic Party or the majority constituencies, the largest majority was non-college educated whites and non-college-educated non-whites. I remember in the 1990s associating the Republican Party with the wealthy, the educated, the elites. And for decades, wealth or income and education was positively associated with Republican self-identification.

Now, what's changed over time and is causing tension is that the two parties started adopting divergence. I'm oversimplifying it here, but just in broad-brush, the two parties started adopting divergent positions, particularly on social issues. The previous Democratic Party, the party of the common man, consisted of a lot of socially conservative working-class whites. And ultimately, as the parties are sending out these divergent signals, Republicans are starting to become more socially conservative, Democrats more socially liberal, educated and non-educated whites start to sort themselves accordingly into the two parties.

So in the Democratic side, it starts bleeding non-college-educated whites, and it starts gaining college-educated whites. Now, because the rates of educational attainment of non-white Democrats, and non-whites overall, excluding Asians, are relatively about half the rate of growth as whites. And then you have this influx of educated whites into the party. Now you start to have a faster-growing constituency of white Democrats, even though the share of white Democrats as the share of the party as a whole is in decline. So you have on one hand, a very rapidly growing segment of educated whites within the party, and you have a much more slowly growing constituency of college-educated non-whites.

So right now, the educated whites and the non-college-educated non-whites comprise the largest majority within the party. And the tensions that you speak to—David Shor has been speaking somewhat to this—is that college-educated voters tend to be much more concerned about, let's say post-material or morally related issues like abortion, climate change, the LGBT or sexual minorities. They're much more interested in these post-material issues, whereas the less educated are much more concerned about quality-of-life issues, practical issues.

So there is a tension here, because educated voters tend to be much more politically engaged, much more politically sophisticated, have higher rates of turning out to vote, are more likely to donate to clinical campaigns and candidates, are much more likely to pick up the phone and contact their representatives or go down to the office. They're much more motivated. So if you have this growing constituency of educated whites, and you have a much smaller constituency of educated non-whites, and there's still a very large constituency of, the balance of power is going to be tilted towards the faction within the party that is disproportionately comprised of the politically sophisticated, politically motivated and engaged, and that's the educated whites.

So while it is true that, as you said and as I mention in the article, probably within the next 10 years, whites will become a minority in the party. Per capita, they're actually going to be even more influential than they've ever been before. Their influence has shot up to the point that there is now a disconnect between the whites’ declining share of the Democratic Party as a whole, and their share among the politically active and politically influential Democrats.

Just to give you a very, striking example, in 1980, whites comprised about 80 percent of Democrats, and they comprised 90 percent of all large donors to Congressional democratic candidates, the large donors being those that donate beyond $200 or more. And so you would think that, okay, 40 years have passed since 1980, surely the white share of large donors to democratic candidates has at least noticeably declined, and the truth is that it has not. The whites were 90 percent of the large donors in 1980, and in 2020 they're roughly 88 percent. There's barely any movement whatsoever.

Now, how do you explain that? Well, I think part of that is that even though their share of the party has declined, they have lost the less-educated, they have gained the more-educated who tend to be much more politically active. So this is serving to offset their diminishing weight within the party at large. So they are able to punch above their weight while other groups within the coalition are struggling to punch at their weight, let alone above it.

Brian Anderson: Where, Zach, do you see the gaps in worldview between these different groups within the Democratic coalition become the widest?

Zach Goldberg: The widest gaps that I can see right now—and some are relatively recent gaps because, well, I guess this trend and the phenomenon is fairly recent as well, but we do see gaps, particularly when it comes to the value or the emphasis placed on traditional family values. You do see a widening gap that has grown significantly over the past 10 years. You also see a widening gap on the transgender issue, with white Democrats much more likely to say, for example, that people that are transgender should be allowed to use the bathrooms that align with their own gender self-identification, whereas non-white Democrats aren't really as convinced that that's the best way to go.

You also see an emerging gap in the data on the issue of federal spending on crime, on resources invested for tackling crime. White Democrats, college-educated white Democrats are now significantly more likely to say that funding should be reduced, and they're less likely to say that it should be increased relative to non-white Democrats. And that's one of the things actually explored in my first Manhattan Institute report was that gap in support for defunding the police, that racial gap within the Democratic Party for defunding the police. And that is one issue, especially where it's like they're two different parties. There's two parties within the same party on that issue.

And you also see on immigration as well, maybe the gap isn't as large as some of the others, but you definitely see a much greater enthusiasm among white Democrats for higher levels of immigration, less concerns about the border security relative to non-white Democrats. Now, I'm speaking in broad-brush terms here. But my point is that on the average, non-white groups—Hispanics, blacks—actually are concerned more relative to white Democrats.

And I guess just to hone in on some of the tension here, or some of the consequences, because white Democrats are much more politically engaged—those that are much more politically engaged have an advantage when it comes to setting the agenda of their parties and the candidates, the issues that they speak to. So essentially LGBTQ activists are a small fraction of the Democratic Party, for instance, but the amount of time that politicians speak to that issue is disproportionate to their actual share of that democratic coalition.

Brian Anderson: Well, I wonder if you could explore a little bit the flip side of your analysis. So in your report, you don't see this kind of educational polarization reversing anytime soon. As you see, the Republican brand these days is probably too toxic to many college-educated whites for the foreseeable future. But what about the GOP's possibility of capturing alienated non-white voters by appealing to more kitchen-table issues? We're starting to see that happen a little bit, right?

Zach Goldberg: Yes. Yes, especially the last two election cycles, we've seen unprecedented movement. By the last exit poll in the midterm elections, the share of non-whites that said they voted for a Republican House candidate was the highest proportion on record going back to 1980. So there are some encouraging signs, and there is a clear opportunity for the GOP, and just to temper expectations a little bit, I don't think that you're going to see a massive exodus, like 40 percent of non-white Democrats leaving the Democratic Party, but that type of movement is not necessary to swing an election. So I think that there is an electorally consequential subset of non-white Democrats that are open to changing their allegiances.

And I think the Republican Party has a real opportunity here. And it's also an opportunity that they can't afford to really miss because of their steep losses among college-educated whites. They need to make up some of that ground somehow. And obviously you see a continuation of non-college educated whites aligning with the Republican Party, but it starts to have to dip into the non-college educated non-whites as well. And I think the conditions are right for such a feat for really prying away some non-white constituencies because the average Republican, socioeconomically speaking, is more similar to a non-college educated white Democrat than is a white Democrat similar to the non-college educated non-whites.

So it's really going to come down to whether, as I say in closing in this report, the Republican Party could credibly market itself as a saner, socially conservative, economically moderate alternative to the Democratic Party. Now, there's some tension in that. I still have some doubts as to whether the GOP will be able to capitalize on this shift. I think one of the tensions within the Republican coalition is that some of their bigger donors may not like economically moderate policies. So they're tugging politicians in one direction while the voters they need are pulling in another direction, so there's definitely some tension. Just like there's tension right now growing tension from the Democratic Party, there's also some tension in the Republican Party that may interfere with its capacity for capitalizing on these trends.

Brian Anderson: There's a new paper, Zach, by the political scientist, Sam Zacher, about the polarization of the rich. And it observes that the Democratic coalition is shaped like a U in terms of its income levels so that the party does best among the lowest and highest income quintiles in the country. And Zacher goes on to argue that the recent turn of wealthy Americans to the Democrats is going to render it harder for the party to advance a traditionally redistributionist economic agenda. So I wonder what your view is. Do you think the Democrats are going to struggle to impose punishing tax hikes on the wealthy to fund social services which they claim to want? Or when it comes down to it, are college educated whites going to vote on the basis of their cultural priorities over their economic interests?

Zach Goldberg: Yeah, I mean, I think that it's conventional wisdom to expect that the wealthy will vote according to their economic interest, which obviously, or at least traditionally has meant lower taxation, keeping more of the wealth for themselves. And I think this is especially the case among whites, is that the wealthy within the Democratic Party are not like the wealthy that voted for Republicans in let's say the 1970s or ‘80s in the sense that I think. They are much more likely to prioritize these post-material concerns. So that obviously includes LGBT-related stuff, that includes climate change.

So I think if your greatest priority are these moral concerns, that makes it easier for you to sacrifice a little bit economically for the attainment of your moral objectives. And research does suggest that donors to the Democratic Party tend to be very similar on economic matters to non-donors. Actually a little bit more liberal, even, than non-donating Democrats. Where they are significantly different, where the gulf emerges, is on these sociocultural issues, especially about protectionism and whatnot, and I think that's where the real cleavage lies.

As you said, it's a U-shaped distribution within the party, and I think that's really the opportunity for the Republican Party is to get some of those non-whites who care about economics, don't really care that much, or I guess of the same mind or similar mind of Republicans on the sociocultural stuff. But I guess a more direct answer to your question is, I think that the wealthy in the Democratic Party are in some ways going to behave differently than you might expect because of their prioritization of moral concerns and moral issues. If they see the inequality as a moral issue, that could encourage them to make some sacrifices.

Now, I know that's the joke, limousine liberalism. They say one thing and they actually live and do another, but I think that's a stereotype that doesn't necessarily hold across the board. I do think that there are some privileged white Democrats that really want to be on the right side of things and that really care and are willing to sacrifice some resources to get there. If I were to push back on the conclusion of the paper that you've cited, that's probably what I'd say, is that the wealthier people, they tend to be more educated, and more educated people tend to prioritize post-material concerns, and they're much more morally driven.

Brian Anderson: Well, Zach, thank you very much. It's a fascinating report. It's called “The Rise of College-Educated Democrats.” Zach has just published this through the Manhattan Institute. Don't forget to check out Zach Goldberg's work on the City Journal website, We'll link to his author page in the description so you can find his work there. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And as always, if you like what you've heard on 10 Blocks, please give us a nice ratings on iTunes. Zach Goldberg, thanks very much for coming on.

Zach Goldberg: Thanks for having me, Brian.

Photo: Gutzemberg/iStock

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