Eric Levitz | June 15, 2021
In the primary’s early days, the media treated him like an afterthought. At cocktail parties in Martha’s Vineyard and happy hours in the East Village, economic and cultural elites agreed that the candidate was more of a has-been — or a punch line — than a serious contender for the presidency. After all, he had the ineloquent uncouthness of a pretender and the political record of a traitor; myriad activist groups within the party firmament distrusted his ideological commitment to their cause. At the early debates, the press pounced on his gaffes and declared him a goner. Coverage focused on rivalries between other candidates even as he retained pride of place in national polls. A lackluster showing in Iowa prompted autopsies for his candidacy. But once the calendar shifted from states with caucuses that discourage mass participation to ones with primaries and large non-college-educated populations, working-class voters upended elite assumptions: The man the media had deemed a joke was the man the forgotten Americans would make their president.
That paragraph summarizes one common narrative about Donald Trump’s triumph in 2016, but it just as accurately describes Joe Biden’s ascent to the White House last year. The Democrats’ big-dollar donors flocked to Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar until the anti-socialist imperative finally forced them to grudgingly ride with Biden. The party’s activist base, meanwhile, quarreled over Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders while focusing the bulk of its criticism at the aforementioned (relative) moderates. The media panned Biden’s debate performances and declared him dead after Nevada. But working-class voters in South Carolina broke hard for the former vice-president, as did non-college-educated voters (along with affluent college-educated ones) on Super Tuesday.
In November’s general election, meanwhile, Biden won 47 percent of the non-college-educated vote, according to an analysis of voter-file records from the data firm Catalist. That isn’t a majority, but it’s no negligible fraction, either. In absolute terms, Biden received more votes from working-class Americans than he did from college-educated ones. And that holds true even within the white population: The president won more total ballots from white working-class voters than from white college graduates; he also won more votes from non-college-educated whites than he did from Black voters of all stripes.
You wouldn’t know this from mainstream discourse. In sharp contrast to its post-Trump self-correction — in which outlets ordered countless insta-ethnographies of Trump’s postindustrial strongholds — the press has carried on ignoring Biden’s working-class base.
Discussions of America’s partisan divide routinely define the Democrats as the party of affluent professionals and the Republicans as that of blue-collar laborers. This disconnect between how the Biden coalition is characterized and its actual demographic composition is understandable. Election coverage naturally emphasizes marginal shifts in groups’ voting behavior, and it is true that the GOP’s gains with working-class voters won it the presidency in 2016, while the Democrats’ gains with college-educated professionals won them the White House last year. But the press’s relentless focus on the marginal Democrat (rather than on the typical one) yields analytical errors. One such error lies at the center of George Packer’s new opus on the nation’s contemporary political divides.
In “The Four Americas,” the Atlantic columnist sets out to name our country’s dominant political tendencies while lamenting their mutual failure to articulate an inclusive national narrative. Packer argues that, during the golden age of postwar growth, partisan competition in the U.S. centered on two stable, superficially inclusive ideologies: Republicans “spoke for those who wanted to get ahead, and the Democrats spoke for those who wanted a fair shake.” But the middle class’s declining fortunes in the decades after 1980 undermined faith in both parties’ accounts of who they were and how America could be. According to Packer, in the place of the old stories, “four rival narratives have emerged, four accounts of America’s moral identity” — two on the right, and two on the left.
The GOP is divided between the gospels of “Free America” and “Real America.” The first evangelizes for a solipsistic species of liberty, as Packer describes it, a “personal freedom, without other people — the negative liberty of ‘Don’t tread on me.’” Through 40 years of stagnant wages and rising inequality, Free America drifted away from Ronald Reagan’s sunny (if subliminally racist) rendition of this story — which assured every temporarily embarrassed millionaire that they had a rendezvous with destiny if only big government would get out of the way — toward the nihilistic negation of all social responsibility, implicit in anti-mask protests.
Real America, meanwhile, is Packer’s name for “white Christian nationalism.” Its narrative is anti-intellectual, anti-elite, provincial, and at once democratic and authoritarian: It insists on the right of the common people to govern themselves but defines the “common people” narrowly and has little tolerance for dissent from Christ’s (and/or Jerry Falwell’s) revealed truth. Real America overlaps with Free America somewhat, in that there are GOP voters who fit comfortably into both camps. But the two tendencies are nevertheless distinct and antagonistic on some issues, including trade and immigration. Free America was long the dominant creed in the Republican coalition thanks to its outsize support among conservative elites. But Real America is a larger nation, and in 2016, Trump roused it behind his banner.
The Democrats, meanwhile, are split between “Smart America” and “Just America,” Packer explains. The first is populated by cosmopolitan, “knowledge economy” workers who subscribe to a bleeding-heart version of meritocracy. Their narrative says that a person’s “talent and effort” should determine their rewards. But Smart America also acknowledges that, in reality, social inequities prevent personal aptitude from determining life outcomes in many cases. Therefore, racial injustice must be remedied through “affirmative action, diversity hiring, and maybe even reparations”; child poverty must be mitigated by higher government spending on education and health care; and trade-induced unemployment must be ameliorated with job-training programs — at least up to the point at which such redistributive initiatives start taking a bite out of Smart America’s 401(k)s. Notably, Smart America’s commitment to meritocracy doesn’t end at the nation’s borders: Brilliant minds should prosper no matter where they were born. In Smart America’s worldview, individuals have an inherent moral worth; homelands don’t. Thus, patriotism doesn’t figure prominently in its creed.
Just America is the nation of Smart America’s “woke,” disaffected children. It’s a land of downwardly mobile millennials who are burned out by the meritocratic rat race, disillusioned by a lifetime of governing catastrophes, and radicalized by the harrowing discrepancy between the post-racial nation they were promised and the racist police state depicted in an endless procession of “viral” summary executions. Just America indicts this nation’s putative ideals — of universal rights and equality before the law — as lies spun by dominant groups to perpetuate their rule. Its narrative defines “American history (or literature, philosophy, classics, even math)” as “white, and therefore supremacist,” Packer writes. Its vision of justice entails the elimination of all inequalities between groups, not individuals. By asserting that even facially humanist ideas are only veiled assertions of power, it forecloses the possibility of “true equality, based on common humanity.” By insisting that white supremacy is the sole cause of Black disadvantage, “it can’t talk about the main source of violence in Black neighborhoods, which is young Black men, not police,” Packer argues. In its way, Just America is nearly as fundamentalist and chauvinistic as Real America.
There are many problems with Packer’s essay. For one, its characterization of Just America is a tendentious description of one ideological tendency in a single segment of the millennial left. There are no small number of racial-justice advocates whose vision is unabashedly universalist. And their inclusive brand of anti-racism isn’t exactly politically marginal; it is, after all, the one extolled by the millennial left’s standard-bearer in the 2020 election.
But an even bigger problem with Packer’s schema is this: It completely ignores the majority of Democratic voters who are neither professional-class meritocrats nor millennial anti-racists. Packer hasn’t described the central division within Blue America but the generational cleavage within his own professional circle.
As noted above, the median Biden voter was not college educated or, one must presume, familiar with the works of Ibram X. Kendi. A majority of the president’s coalition would not even faintly recognize itself in any of the Americas Packer describes. They don’t work in the knowledge economy or attend anti-racist protests; they have no reverence for globalization or antipathy for patriotism.
And they have no place in George Packer’s America(s).
One may defend Packer’s elision of this constituency by claiming it has no narrative. Sure, in numerical terms, non-college-educated non-activists may dominate the Democratic coalition, but their limited participation in politics renders them voiceless. They aren’t setting the terms of Blue America’s story, one may argue. Yet this is also patently false. The forgotten Biden voters not only have a narrative but their story is more or less the one Packer suggests that our nation is missing.
The Atlantic columnist’s own creed is written between the lines of his critique of the four Americas. Packer wants a liberalism that disavows meritocratic elitism, champions economic redistribution, brims with unabashed patriotism, and recognizes the persistence of racial injustice — but also the feasibility of racial progress and the necessity of policing. In other words, he pines for the narrative of America’s sitting president.
Let’s table all debate about Biden’s policies. Our concern here is with narrative — with the vision that various political tendencies are oratorically offering. And in his rhetoric, Biden unquestionably disdains Smart America’s self-congratulation. One of the president’s refrains, on the campaign trail and in office, has been “Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built the country. And unions built the middle class.” In his April address to Congress, Biden went out of his way to boast that “nearly 90 percent of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan do not require a college degree” and described his economic agenda as “a blue-collar blueprint to build America.” The president can scarcely be described as unpatriotic. He routinely spouts jingoistic nonsense like “We are the United States of America. There is not a single thing — nothing, nothing beyond our capacity.” He (of course) rejects Free America’s anarcho-capitalist conception of personal freedom as well as Real America’s white Christian nationalism. He tells “transgender Americans” that “your president has your back” and decries the “systemic racism” in “our criminal-justice system.” But he also believes the existing political order is more than capable of rooting out such racism, and he venerates the “vast majority” of police officers.
This is Blue America’s dominant political narrative; it is the outlook most commonly espoused by Democratic officeholders. And unlike Smart America’s Bloombergism or Just America’s radical anti-racism, Bidenism is competitive in Democratic primaries in just about every part of the country. In New York City today, an ex–police officer is poised to win the mayoralty while campaigning as the “blue-collar” candidate who wants to rebuild the economy through mildly progressive reform and improve the NYPD without cutting its funding. If Eric Adams does prevail, he will do so on the strength of his support among working-class Biden voters, as the candidate’s base is far less educated than those of his closest competitors.
That Packer ignores the existence of these voters and casts Biden’s political vision as beneath mention — but Robin DiAngelo’s as a top-four American ideology — is bizarre. That he portrays himself as politically homeless when his preferred brand of liberalism remains hegemonic in the Democratic Party is gobsmacking.
Nevertheless, Packer’s essay has its insights, the most incontestable of which is this: The American republic is in grave trouble. But that trouble does not derive from Blue America’s failure to put forward an inclusive, patriotic vision for realizing our nation’s highest ideals. It derives from an invidious economic system, a constitutional order that underrepresents urban areas, decades of bipartisan misrule, and the craven timidity of marginal Democratic lawmakers. No story can solve these problems. But stories that reinforce popular misimpressions about who Democratic voters are — and what their party stands for — certainly do not help.