Suburbia Goes Blue

The blue wave buoying Democrats across the country has come to Delaware County. For the first time since the Civil War, Democrats control the County Council. It’s an impressive feat of political organizing, and an encouraging defeat for old-fashioned machine politics. But Delaware County’s flip is also a perfect example of a far broader trend: educated suburban voters switching to the Democrats, and dealing defeats to Republicans nationwide. It’s a change that’s sure to reshape the Democratic party and potentially make its already fractious coalition even harder to hold together.

These wins can be partially explained by the extreme unpopularity of President Trump. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won inner-ring suburbs by five million votes. Importantly, there was little regional differentiation; Clinton won wealthier suburbs in Texas, Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, and California, states with radically different political landscapes.

And since 2016, traditionally Republican suburban voters have made an important difference in a Senator’s race in Arizona, the gubernatorial election in Louisiana, and smashing Democratic successes in the suburbs of Virginia and Pennsylvania. Turned off by his populism and vulgarity, as well as his repudiation of previous GOP priorities, they held their noses and voted Democratic, or stayed home.

But focusing on GOP ballot-crossing risks obscuring a more important and long-running trend: the leftward drift of suburban voters, a decades-long shift that Trump accelerated. More precisely, relatively wealthy suburban voters have moved left, following growing class divides based on education. According to a 2018 Pew survey, 54% of college educated voters identified or leaned Democratic, against 39% support for Republicans, an exact reversal of numbers from 1994. And a whopping two-thirds of those with graduate degrees at least leaned Democrat. 

These voters were once part of the conservative movement’s backbone. Whether they were Atlanta commuters, transplants to Texas capitalizing off of oil booms (like the elder Bush), or the defense industry workers in Orange County, suburbanites were reliable Republicans.

But they aren’t anymore. Democrats are now the party of the rich, not necessarily of the “one percent” but the “ten percent,” as David Brooks puts it. The richest counties in Virginia enabled Democrats’ 2019 victory there. The four richest counties in Pennsylvania — Chester, Montgomery, Bucks, and (you guessed it) Delaware — used to be solidly Republican but are now blue. Even inside Delaware county, the wealthiest parts — those that lie on the Main Line —  have been more liberal, for longer. 

And now the concerns of suburban voters have more importance for Democratic candidates than at anytime before. Highly educated voters form by far the most liberal wing of the Democratic party; they tend to be to the left of the average Democrat on economics and even greater outliers on social issues (especially among white members of this bloc).

In America, more educated means more ideological. Education can serve to reinforce bias, by enabling better rationalizations of one’s political instincts. Even more importantly, higher education acts as an extremely effective means of social sorting, affecting who you socialize with, where you end up working, and who you marry. The end result is that places with high concentrations of college graduates are some of the least politically diverse places in America. And which places have high concentrations of wealthy, educated, people? Inner-ring suburbs like Delaware county.

Some clarifications here: there are still plenty of suburban Republicans. However, the standard suburban Republican is now more likely to be exurban, more working-class than white collar, more rural than urban. And those Republicans who crossed partisan lines, or stayed at home, in 2018 or 2019 are not suddenly staunch Elizabeth Warren supporters. But growing numbers of the suburban class — more wealthy, more white, more educated — identify with the Democratic party, and now make up its most ideological voters.

So what does it mean for a new block of highly ideological voters to enter (or, more accurately, emerge) within a party? It certainly means more internal competition, and clashes with the older parts of the Democratic coalition: white-working-class holdovers from the FDR coalition, African Americans, and a small group of Bloomberg/Booker/Klobuchar moderates. The first two groups of these voters tend to be more socially conservative than the new suburbanites, and all are more pragmatic economically, if still just as liberal. It’s the difference between expanding Obamacare and mandating public health care, for example.

So the suburbanization of the Democratic coalition has not, counterintuitively, made it more conservative. It’s actually made it more liberal, but more importantly, more ideological. What does this mean in practice? It means more policy ambition, as evident from the tenor of the campaign, but also more focus on philosophical purity. 

Take Elizabeth Warren’s health care saga. She earned points among highly educated liberals by relentlessly defending the banning of private healthcare on the debate stage, in contrast to more reformist plans offered by Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg. What was less important to voters than policy specifics was the fact that she was committed to getting rid of the perceived evil of private plans, of making no deals with the devil, or Cigna Health. As Peter Spiliakos of National Review put it, this “is a character issue” for Warren’s base. She needed to show that she would fight.

This attitude is far more common in the GOP historically. In 2010, there was also an emergent, highly ideological voting block within the Republican party: the Tea Party. Republican candidates in 2012 felt compelled to show their conservative credentials, leading to Mitt Romney, an extremely moderate former governor, advocating for a flat tax. This was an absurd, implausible idea, but he still had to do it, and it still hurt him in the general election.

In the same way, Warren’s health care plan is obviously unworkable, but the dynamics of this primary, and these new voters, forced her hand. And played into Trump’s. This then, is the balancing act that Democrats will have to perform. They must appease the emerging, energized voters of the suburbs while still appealing to the rest of their coalition, which is, after all, the majority. It isn’t exactly the worst problem to have: formerly red districts are now in play, as Republicans are forced to rely even more on running up the score in rural areas. But on an electoral map stacked against them, with ominous polling looming, Democrats may have little margin for error.

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