Social Class, NYC Election and Peak Woke

NYC election marks a turning point in the woke-antiwoke wars

I introduced a poll on Twitter yesterday that is still live: Are we past peak woke? A majority, so far, of my decidedly non-representative sample selected “no, not yet”. Nearly a quarter said, “yes, a while ago”. Only 6 out of 74 respondents said “yes, today”. I want to suggest that the last, minority answer is right. The NYC mayoral election marks a turning point in the fortunes of the woke counterrevolution.

Late last summer, at the height of the summer of rage, I wrote:

Boasian antiracism is riding high. Support has never been higher for BLM than as of writing. Biden seems to have such a tremendous lead over Trump in the polls that Democrats are salivating over longstanding red states. It looks like November is in the bag. More importantly, antiracism enjoys more prestige at the present conjuncture than it has since its birth. Statues are being toppled, racists are being canceled, and the streets are owned by antiracists. What is underway is the coming of age party of antiracism as the hegemonic ideology of the professional middle-class.

Policy Tensor, “The Origins of the Great Awokening,” July 9, 2020.

For a while it seemed that the woke shall rule the world. That hardline, theory-infused, color-conscious Boasian antiracism — the ideology of the cultural elites from the wrong side of the two cultures divide within the Ivory Tower — had emerged as the hegemonic ideology of the professional class. That turns out to have been too broad-brush. Turns out that there is resistance; not just from Tucker and the GOP, and the white working class behind nationalist populism — but from within the professional class and within the Democratic Party. I need to amend my schematic map of social classes in America.

Early pushback began when Democratic politicians started facing severe penalties for espousing the hare-brained scheme of defunding the police. From the time the idea emerged from the bowels of prestige schools, Democratic strategists with a leash to reality, including yours truly, had warned that defunding the police was going to be a political and policy catastrophe. It was guaranteed to be a political catastrophe for Dems because poll after poll showed weak to non-existent support for the defund outside the narrow confines of the prestige-schooled professional class. And it was going to be a policy catastrophe because of its effect on police morale, resulting in underpolicing and greater violence in American cities — whose principal victims were going to be black. Both these predictions have obtained.

After yesterday’s mayoral election in New York, that we shall examine shortly, it has become clear that defund is an unambiguous loser. If you can’t sell it in New York City, where exactly can you sell it? But before we turn to the election, I should also note another catastrophe that is brewing for Dems. The conflict over teaching theory to kids is coming to a boil. Resistance is growing not just among Republicans and working class, but also the middle class and Democrats.

In general, it is clear that the woke ideology will, in fact, not became hegemonic. Yes, it is not going to decline and vanish. But what I am saying is that we are past peak woke — the high tide of woke hegemony is behind us. Formidable forces, going all the way up to the White House, have now mobilized to contain the woke counterrevolution. In a sense, the message here is reassuring: the pushback from below has, through the electoral-strategic computations of Democrats, generated forces that will almost surely contain this corrosive elite ideology.

Alex Yablon argued in a recent piece that the struggle between renters and landlords explains the Left’s political fortunes. As I explained on Facebook, the correlation between renters and Left politics is confounded by social class:

Does ‘class struggle between renters and owners explain the left’s fluctuating political fortunes’?

NYC renters in Manhattan and Brooklyn are largely professional-class millennials with a high degree of social capital but challenging job prospects — they are indeed the power behind the Verso Left. In New York and other metropolises, they also happen to be renters. So, the micropolitics of renters vs. landlords does give us a good handle by proxy. Is this micropolitics of renters vs. landlords where the rubber meets the road?

Put another way, is the left losing in NYC today because of the lack of influence of renters vs homeowners/landlords? Or is it losing the election because they fucked up law enforcement policy by throwing their weight behind defund? I think the latter is the case. And the correlation between renter density and voting in NYC is due to the fact that professional-class millennials happen to be both renters and members of the Verso Left.

As I’ve shown before, Millennials are much more politically polarized than earlier generations. Professional class millennials are the social class behind the power of the Verso Left.

But let’s turn to the NYC election. We obtain election results by Assembly District from NYC’s board of elections. We obtain socioeconomic indicators by Assembly District from Social Explorer. Comparing the spatial pattern of the main candidates’ vote share against socioeconomic variables will hopefully give us a handle on their class coalitions.

To dispatch the Yablon thesis first, rentiers (percentage of people reporting rental or investment income) went for Garcia, who was, appropriately, endorsed by the New York Times. Meanwhile, the absence of rentiers predicts support for Adams.

But raw scatter plots and correlations are often confounded by age and race effects. We control for median age and shares of Hispanic, Black and non-Hispanic Whites. Then we estimate fixed-effects for our features, beginning with share of rentiers in the district. The Yablon thesis turns out to be completely wrong: Rentiers, not renters, supported AOC-endorsed Wiley. Rentier support was even higher for NYTimes-endorsed Garcia.

Turning to economic class, whether we use median household income, median family income, or median gross rent, we find the same pattern: Garcia and Wiley found support in posh districts; Adams and Yang found support in poorer districts.

As we have seen many times before, and Piketty has shown more recently, education gives a stronger handle on political affinity than income in the United States. The share of the district’s populace with a high school diploma is an excellent proxy for the working class. We find that they threw their weight behind Eric Adams. The effect for Yang is also similar, although he got only a third as many votes as Adams.

Here’re the raw scatters for college graduation rate. They tell the same story, at least for Adams and Garcia. Adams had unambiguous support from working-class New Yorkers; Garcia was the choice of the highly educated elites.

As Markovitz has explained, the professional class is better proxied by the share of people with professional and doctoral degrees. This class threw its weight behind Garcia and Wiley.

The raw scatters show the scale of the pattern. The share of people with professional or doctoral degrees, the meritocratic elite who dominate New York, is the strongest predictor of voting for Garcia. She is the candidate of the professional class if there was ever one.

The next table displays the gradients of candidate vote share against socioeconomic features after controlling for age and race. Note that the slope coefficients of all features are estimated separately to avoid confounding.

The story that emerges from this analysis is that Adams assembled a powerful coalition of working-class and middle-class New Yorkers to win the election. Meanwhile, Garcia and Wiley split the professional class between them. Interestingly and unexpectedly, even if he was soundly defeated, Yang’s class coalition was similar to that of Adams.

The result of the New York mayoral Democratic primary is going to accelerate the process that has been underway since the presidential election. It will provide ammunition to the forces now committed to containing the woke counterrevolution. It will become harder and harder to find a Democrat willing to toe the woke party line. No Democratic politician is going to touch defund with a pole. Prestige-schooled woke education policy wonks seem unlikely to back down. But they will find a great deal of pushback; not just from without (GOP/FOX) but from within the Democratic Party.

The NYC election marks a decisive turning point not just for the woke counterrevolution but also for Democratic politics and the future of the republic. The prospects for an exit from the secular downcycle have improved as risks associated with the woke counterrevolution have receded. Perhaps Powell, Yellen and Biden can pull it off after all. This is excellent news.

Postscript. Here’s the raw rank correlations between the candidates’ vote shares and socioeconomic variables. Without controlling for median age and race, Yang’s vote share is positively and significantly correlated with the proportion of people reporting rental and investment income. Although not as much as NYTimes-endorsed Garcia, who consistently emerges as the candidate of the elites. The correlations for Adams are consistent with a heavily working-class class coalition — a fact that is already obvious from the ‘sunny-side up’ pattern I predicted in the lead up to Tuesday.