The Democratic Party has come a long way from the days of Andrew Jackson — and also from the days of Barack Obama. While recognizable as a force for activist government and rectifying of historical injustices, Democrats today differ in important ways from the party that held 60 Senate seats at the outset of Obama’s epic presidency. Some of these changes represent an improvement from the perspective of public policy and political strategy. But these advances are accompanied by a transformation on cultural issues that has left the party persona non grata in too much of the country.

Way back when, the Democratic Party was originally founded in part to advance the interests of white male workers purportedly left out by a market revolution and a corrupt government. Black workers and women were not included. As the party moved beyond its Jacksonian origins, Democratic politicians like Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman expanded the circle of working people for whom the party advocated in the sphere of economic policy. It was within this broad tradition that centrist Democrats like Obama and even Bill Clinton attempted to govern despite a national climate in which skepticism of government held sway.

Clinton and Obama pursued policies like the Family and Medical Leave Act and better overtime pay rules. These policies benefited workers, but at the same time both Democratic presidents were unwilling to challenge basic free-market absolutism. Ambivalent neoliberals though they may have been, Clinton and Obama aligned the party too closely with Silicon Valley and Wall Street and put forth a four-year college education in science and technology as their primary prescription for economic opportunity. Too many working-class white voters felt rightfully left out, and though Obama did remarkably well among white workers in the Midwest, winning even Ohio and Iowa, he and Clinton did not stanch the outflow of their party’s historic base.

Enter COVID-19. The pandemic utterly discredited free-market fundamentalism, with the ideology’s obstinate dogma of small government and spending restraint. Freed from two generations of anti-government claptrap, President Joe Biden sought to restore the old Truman-FDR faith in working-class economics. While supporting higher education, he emphasized a program of building opportunities for the majority of Americans who do not have a college degree: the working class.

So, why is the working class so cool to President Biden, and to his party? And not only the white working class. Strikingly, Democrats have lost 18 points off their margin among nonwhite working-class voters since 2012 despite running against an avowed racist twice in a row. Hispanic working-class voters are moving, slowly but measurably, toward the Republicans, and even Black workers — the core of Barack Obama’s coalition — have moved a bit as well. Meanwhile, Biden’s approval rating among white working-class voters is a putrid 24%.

Partly, this working-class exodus was caused by the decline of labor unions. As Hillary Clinton observed, union membership gives people an identity as a worker. Because politics is mostly about identity, union workers are often moved to vote their class interests instead of their cultural identity. But with private-sector union density down to a historic low of 6%, far fewer working-class Americans are swayed by political appeals for a fairer economy.

The far more important force, however, is the movement of some Democratic activist elites on cultural issues. When they think of the Democratic Party, many, perhaps most, American workers imagine a censorious and zeal-infused left-wing vanguard seeking to transform the country through radical means. Many positions associated with the hard left are extremely unpopular: defunding the police, opposition to most immigration enforcement, alleged racial essentialism in various spheres of American life, widespread policing of language and attitudes. Even though not embraced by mainstream Democrats, that group is nevertheless tarred by association. Without trade unionism as a buffer, more and more working-class Americans of all races are voting their revulsion toward what they see as an unappealing turn in the cultural left.

The result has been what I call “Fortress Liberalism.” Democrats are increasingly unbeatable in a select group of highly educated, high-income locales, but their support outside of regions like Chapel Hill (where I live) has declined. Working-class communities, both rural and suburban, are losing their connection to a party that culturally resonates less with the people, in Ted Kennedy’s words, “whose cause has been our concern.”

Alexander H. Jones is a Policy Analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill.