asking the wrong question

What is the matter with Kansas, anyway? Could it be the voting machines?

I'm sure you've heard of Tom Frank's book, What's The Matter With Kansas?, which examines why blue-collar, working-class, white Americans vote against their own economic interests - i.e., have abandoned the Democratic party and are voting Republican.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, says that the answer might be: nothing.
I'm a Tom Frank fan. I think he's a wonderful and passionate writer. But, now a respected political scientist is arguing that the "Great Backlash" Frank chronicled in his last book, in which "conservatives won the heart of America" and created a "dominant political coalition" by convincing Kansans and blue-collar, working-class people to vote against their own economic interests in order to defend traditional cultural values against bicoastal elites "isn't actually happening--at least, not in anything like the way Frank portrays." (Thanks to Doug Henwood--editor of the invaluable Left Business Observer and longtime Nation contributing editor--for turning me on to this new study.)

In a fascinating paper called "What's the Matter With What's the Matter with Kansas?", Princeton professor Larry Bartels uses data from National Election Study (NES) surveys to test Frank's thesis. He examines class-related patterns of issue preferences, partisanship, and voting over the past half-century. Bartels concludes that the white working class hasn't moved right and that "moral values" are not pushing them to vote Republican.

Moreover, for the most part, voters' economic and cultural attitudes are either both liberal or both conservative rather than the bifurcated split Frank sees. Bartels also disproves the argument that there's been a long-term decline in turnout.
Vanden Heuvel gives a summary of Bartels's conclusions:
Has the white working class abandoned the Democratic Party? No. White voters in the bottom third of the income distribution have actually become more reliably Democratic in presidential elections over the past half-century, while middle and upper-income white voters have trended Republican. Low-income whites have become less Democratic in their partisan identifications, but at a slower rate than more affluent whites--and that trend is entirely confined to the South, where Democratic identification was artificially inflated by the one-party system of the Jim Crow era--itself a holdover from the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

* Has the white working class become more conservative? No. The typical views of low-income whites have remained virtually unchanged over the past 30 years. (A pro-choice shift on abortion in the 1970s and '80s has been partially reversed since the early 1990s.) Their positions relative to more affluent white voters--generally less liberal on social issues and less conservative on economic issues--have also remained virtually unchanged.

* Do working class "moral values" trump economics in determining voting patterns? No. Social issues (including abortion) are less strongly related to party identification and presidential votes than economic issues, and that is even more true for whites in the bottom third of the income distribution than for more affluent whites. Moreover, while social issue preferences have become more strongly related to presidential votes among middle- and high-income whites, there is no evidence of a corresponding trend among low-income whites.

* Are religious voters distracted from economic issues? No. For church-goers as for non-church-goers, partisanship and voting behavior are primarily shaped by economic issues, not cultural issues.
Here's vanden Heuvel's blog post, also found here on Common Dreams.

This reminded me of our discussions about George Lakoff's ideas: here, here, a little bit here, and a lot more here.

I don't have much to add. I'm just reiterating my long-held belief that the Democrats, by moving farther and farther to the right, trying to mimic Republicans, end up shooting themselves in the foot. Or the head.


James Redekop said...

The political climate in the US is not maintainable. The Democrats keep moving right because the Republicans have been so successful in propagating the notion that anyone to the left of Leo Strauss is the equivalent of Joseph Stalin -- and the Democrats just let that happen.

I don't pay a lot of attention to the dynamics within the US parties, but I get the impression that the rightward drift is more the work of the DNC rather than the Dems as a whole -- and so the DNC is abandoning their real base in an attempt to steal votes away from the Republicans. But the current Republicans are doing such a good job of alienating people that the Dems don't need to steal votes away. Napoleon once said, "Never interrupt your enemy while he's making a mistake" -- this is a perfect example of that.

In any case, loosing two loyal voters to get one iffy convert is hardly a good deal.

laura k said...

But the current Republicans are doing such a good job of alienating people that the Dems don't need to steal votes away.

It's so true. If only the Dems would take advantage. Ah well. It's not like I believe they'd fix things either.