Ever since President Bill Clinton advised “mend it, don’t end it,” affirmative action has had an uneasy place in the Democratic coalition, as omnipresent as the party’s allegiance to abortion rights and its promises to expand financial aid for higher education — but unpopular with much of the public.
Now, in striking down race-conscious college admissions, the Supreme Court has handed the Democrats a way to shift from a race-based discussion of preference to one tied more to class. The court’s decision could fuel broader outreach to the working-class voters who have drifted away from the party because of what they see as its elitism.
The question is, will the party pivot?
“This is a tremendous opportunity for Democrats to course-correct from identity-based issues,” said Ruy Teixeira, whose upcoming book “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?” looks at the bleeding of working-class voters over the last decade. “As I like to say, class is back in session.”
Conservative voters have long been more animated by the Supreme Court’s composition than liberals have. But the last two sessions of a high court remade by Donald J. Trump may have flipped that dynamic. Since the court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, energized Democratic voters have handed Republicans loss after loss in critical elections.
Republicans’ remarkable successes before the new court may have actually deprived them of combative issues to galvanize voters going into 2024. Several Republican presidential hopefuls had centered their campaigns on opposition to affirmative action. And the court’s granting of religious exemptions to people who oppose gay marriage, along with last year’s Dobbs decision, may take the sting out of some social issues for conservatives.
In that sense, the staunchly conservative new Supreme Court is doing the ugly political work for Democrats. Its decision last year to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion elevated an issue that for decades motivated religious conservatives more than it did secular liberals.
Friday’s decision to strike down President Biden’s student debt relief plan enraged progressive Democrats, who had pressed the president to take executive action on loan forgiveness. A coalition of Generation Z advocacy groups, including Gen-Z for Change and the climate-oriented Sunrise Movement, said on Friday that the court “has openly declared war on young people.”
But while the Supreme Court made retroactive higher education assistance far more difficult, it may have boosted the Democratic cause of financial aid, through expanded Pell grants and scholarships that do not saddle graduates with crushing debt burdens. Democrats have long pushed expanded grant programs and legislative loan-forgiveness programs for graduates who embark on low-paid public service careers. Those efforts will get a lift in the wake of the court’s decision.
The high court’s declaration that race-based admission to colleges and universities is unconstitutional infuriated key elements of the Democratic coalition — Black and Hispanic groups in particular, but also some Asian American and Pacific Islander groups who said conservatives had used a small number of Asian Americans as pawns to challenge affirmative action on behalf of whites.
“They were using the Asian community as a wedge,” said Representative Judy Chu, Democrat of California, after the decision was handed down on Thursday. “I stand with the unified community.”
But while they have expressed anger and disappointment over the conservative decisions, Democrats also acknowledge their inability to do much to restore affirmative action, student loan forgiveness and the right to an abortion in the foreseeable future, as long as the 6-3 majority on the Supreme Court holds.
“There’s a constitutional challenge in bringing it back,” said Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, a longtime Democratic leader on the House education committee.
Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist pressing his party to expand its outreach to the working class, said adding a new emphasis on class consciousness to augment racial and ethnic awareness would fit well with Mr. Biden’s pitch that his legislative achievements have largely accrued to the benefit of workers.
Infrastructure spending, electric vehicles investment, broadband expansion and semiconductor manufacturing have promoted jobs — especially union jobs — all over the country but especially in rural and suburban areas, often in Republican states.
“By next year, Democrats will be able to say we’ve invested in red states, blue states, urban areas, rural areas,” he said. “We’re not like the Republicans. We’re for everybody.”
But bigotry, discrimination and the erosion of civil rights will remain central issues for Democrats, given the anger of the party base, Mr. Rosenberg said. The Supreme Court’s siding on Friday with a web designer in Colorado who said she had a First Amendment right to refuse to provide services for same-sex marriages cannot be separated from the affirmative action, student loan and abortion decisions.
Mr. Teixeira said Democrats were not likely to see their new opportunities at first.
“If you want to solve some of the underlying problems of the party, this should be a gimme,” he said of pivoting from racial and ethnic identity to class. But, he added, “in the short term, the enormous pressure will be not to do that.”
Indeed, the initial Democratic response to the Supreme Court’s actions was not to elevate economic hardship as a key preference in college admissions. Instead, Democrats seemed focused on striking down other areas of privilege, especially the legacy admission preference given to the children and grandchildren of alumni of elite institutions.
“What we’re fighting for is equal opportunity,” said Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas. “If they get rid of affirmative action and leave rampant legacy admissions, they’re making merit a slogan, not a reality.”
Republicans saw a political line of attack in the Democratic response to the court’s decision. Even before 1990, when a campaign ad by Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina featured white hands crumpling a job rejection to denounce “racial quotas,” Republicans had used affirmative action to their political advantage.
Mr. Clinton’s “mend it, don’t end it” formulation came after a 1995 speech before California Democrats in which he said of affirmative action programs: “We do have to ask ourselves, ‘Are they all working? Are they all fair? Has there been any kind of reverse discrimination?’”
A June survey by the Pew Research Center found that more Americans disapprove than approve of colleges and universities’ using race and ethnicity in admissions decisions, and that Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters are largely unified in their opposition, while Democratic voters are split.
After Mr. Biden expressed his opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision, the campaign arm of the Senate Republicans issued a statement calling out three vulnerable Senate Democrats up for re-election in Republican states: Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
“Democrats are doubling down on their racist agenda and want to pack the Supreme Court to get their way,” said Philip Letsou, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Will Democrats like Joe Manchin, Jon Tester and Sherrod Brown denounce Joe Biden’s support of racial discrimination and state unequivocally that they oppose packing the court?”
The House Republican campaign arm called Democratic outrage “the great limousine liberal meltdown.”
But the Supreme Court has offered Democrats a way forward with many of its decisions — based on class. The affluent will always have access to abortions, by traveling to states where it remains legal, and to elite institutions of higher education, where they may have legacy pull and the means to pay tuition.
Those facing economic struggles are not so privileged. Applicants of color may have lost an edge in admissions, but poor and middle-class students and graduates of all races were dealt a blow when the court declared that the president did not have the authority to unilaterally forgive their student loans.
Representative Marilyn Strickland, Democrat of Washington, said her party now needs to recalibrate away from elite institutions like Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the defendants in the high court’s case against affirmative action, and “respect all types of education and all types of opportunity,” mentioning union training programs, apprenticeships, trade schools and community colleges.
Mr. Scott agreed. “This is going to cause some heartburn,” he said, “but what we need to campaign on is that we’re opening opportunities for everybody.”