Between the year 2000 and 2020, the percentage of Americans with a college degree nearly doubled. At the turn of the millennium, a college degree was still a relative rarity in many American communities, with only 20% of the country’s population holding a Bachelor’s or more. By the time of last year’s presidential election, 37.5% of US voters had graduated from college, and in some places the portion was even higher than that. This trend redounded to the benefit of the Democratic Party, which has won the college-educated vote by larger and larger margins since the beginning of the Clinton era.
And yet. A supermajority of Americans still have not completed a college education. For Democrats, the the persistence of our country’s working-class majority has become an obstacle to gaining majority status no matter how severely the Republicans misrule the country. That’s because while college voters have become more Democratic–indeed, extraordinarily Democratic in the case of women and people with graduate degrees–the working-class, or noncollege, vote has migrated steadily into the GOP ranks. Working-class support for Republicans jumped significantly when Donald Trump entered the political arena.
In 2020, 62.5% of the American electorate fit into the working-class category. In certain swing states such as Michigan and even Sun-Belt Arizona, the dominance of the working class was even greater. The shift of working-class voters into Trump’s circus tent has by no means been limited to white voters; Hispanic and even Black voters without college degrees also moved meaningfully, even remarkably, in a Trumpian direction. North Carolina has a roughly average split between working-class and college-educated voters, but its white working class votes Republican by stunning margins. As long as Democrats are getting nearly annihilated in working-class communities, they will not be able to achieve a sustained majority.
Let’s look a bit more closely at our home state. North Carolina is not as working class-dominated as the Rust Belt, with thousands of college-educated professionals moving into the state from other parts of the country. But the land of the long leaf pine, like the land of the small Midwestern farmer, remains a majority-working class state. And as has been the case across the country, working-class voters here are abandoning the Democratic Party. For example, the class working-class-Democrat county of Richmond went for Barack Obama by one point in 2008. Twelve years later, and despite the Democratic nominee conspicuously flaunting his lunch-pail credentials, Richmond County went for Trump by 17%.
With the state’s striking polarization along racial lines, North Carolina may not have seen as much of a shift among Black working-class voters as was seen nationally. But it may have. The greatest Republican shift in North Carolina’s 2020 political geography took place in the heavily African American northeastern quadrant of the state. This may have reflected further racial polarization, with white people in heavily Black counties affirming their support for Trump. However, it is conceivable that some Black voters in this economically depressed region may have, like working-class people of color elsewhere in the country, voted marginally more Republican in 2020. We simply don’t know.
The rise of the college-educated vote in America and N.C. bodes well for Democrats, assuming that the trends we have seen in the college vote hold steady in the years to come. But the blunt logic of mathematics proves that the Democrats must win a larger proportion of the working-class vote. Unless they stanch the bleeding among noncollege voters, the Democrats will struggle to maintain their majority, or, in North Carolina, attain a majority at all.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.