What's the Matter With "What's the Matter With Kansas?"?

While there is much to admire in Tom Frank’s book, its thesis has been used to bolster the preposterous thesis that, in the 2004 election, Bush/Cheney won the votes of a right-wing majority. This could not have happened, as there’s no such animal in these United States.

And so the following critique of Frank’s book is exceedingly important.


Published on Wednesday, October 12, 2005 by The Nation
What’s the Matter With ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas?
by Katrina vanden Heuvel

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 [Tom[ Frank’s thesis [that “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]. 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.

* Has the white working class abandoned the Democratic Party? No
* Has the white working class become more conservative? No
* Do working class “moral values” trump economics in determining voting patterns? No
* Are religious voters distracted from economic issues? No

So what IS causing Republican wins?

From Bartels’ study:

Stonecash’s analysis suggests that net Republican gains since the 1950s have come entirely among middle- and upper-income voters, widening rather than narrowing the traditional gap in partisanship and voting between predominantly Democratic lower income groups and predominantly Republican upper income groups. Similarly, McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal (forthcoming, chap. 3) have shown that income has become an increasingly strong predictor of Republican partisanship and presidential voting since the 1950s.

[E]conomic status has become more important, not less important, in structuring the presidential voting behavior of white Americans over the course of the past half-century. Moreover, the general trend in support for Democratic presidential candidates among whites in the bottom third of the income distribution has been upward, not downward.

[So here’s the answer, friends. Democratic policies make many Americans richer, whereupon those Americans start to vote Republican. As Granny Bee might say, ain’t THAT a fine how d’ye do? I thought you might find this, below, interesting, too.-Caro]

[O]utside the South there is no evident trend in party identification among low-income whites. Indeed, a simple comparison of beginning and end points shows that Democrats outnumbered Republicans in this group by exactly the same 10% in 2004 (a 31-21 Democratic margin) as in 1952 (a 41-31 Democratic margin).

To a good approximation, then, the decline in Democratic identification among poor whites over the past half-century is entirely attributable to the demise of the Solid South as a bastion of Democratic allegiance.

[In the case of cultural issues there is no] evidence of a significant conservative shift since the early 1970s, either among low-income whites or among high-income whitesÅ  For abortion Figure 6 does show discernible movement, with both groups becoming more liberal (pro-choice) from the early 1970s through 1992 and more conservative (pro-life) thereafter. The net result of these shifts left both groups modestly more liberal in 2004 than they had been in the 1970s.

[T]here is no evidence in the NES data that the white working-class has become more conservative over the past 20 years, either on economic issues or on social issues.

It appears from these results that positions on social issues are considerably less relevant to the partisanship and voting behavior of working-class whites than of more affluent whites – and that this disparity has been growing, not shrinking, over the past 20 years. The “hallucinatory appeal” of “cultural wedge issues” (Frank 2004, 245), such as it is, actually seems to increase rather considerably with each step up the income scale. Meanwhile, the cultural concerns of working-class whites continue to be “far overshadowed by material concerns,” at least insofar as those concerns are reflected in their views about concrete economic issues like jobs, government spending and services, and aid to minorities.

The solid Democratic plurality in partisan attachments inherited from the New Deal era has eroded steadily and substantially over the past half-century. However, it is easy to overlook how much of that erosion is attributable to the demise of the artificially Solid South of the Jim Crow era – a development that should hardly be bemoaned by progressive observers.

Having lost two successive presidential elections, albeit by extremely close margins, some Democrats seem inclined to believe that their party must be reinvented for the new millennium. Indeed, according to one prominent political reporter, “The big conversation going on in Democratic Washington at the moment, at dinner parties and luncheons and think-tank symposia, revolves around how to save the party” (Bai 2005, 62). The prescriptions focus on ideology, infrastructure, linguistic strategy, and more.33 However, a surprisingly large fraction seem to be predicated on the notion that “Democrats need to give a more prominent voice to Middle American, wheat-hugging, gun-shooting, Spanish-speaking, beer-guzzling, Bible-toting centrists” (Kristof 2004b) in an effort to inoculate the party against the “hallucinatory appeal” among working-class whites of “cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion” (Frank 2004, 245).

My analysis implies no particular political strategy for Democrats (or, for that matter, for Republicans). Perhaps more gun shooting and beer guzzling would be all to the good; I don’t know. However, if the basis for that diagnosis is a belief that Democratic support has eroded more among working-class whites than among affluent whites, the belief is simply false. And if the proffered political cure is grounded in a belief that working-class whites are especially sensitive to cultural issues, that belief is also false. Insofar as the data presented here suggest anything about how to appeal to working-class whites, they suggest that bread-and-butter economic issues are likely to be more potent than social issues. At least, that has been the case over the past 20 years, and especially in 2004.

On the other hand, if the idea is to appeal to a large class of white voters who have become noticeably less Democratic over the past half-century, the place to find them is in the middle and upper reaches of the income distribution. These affluent whites are more liberal on social issues than working-class whites are, and if anything they have become increasingly liberal on social issues over the past 30 years. Moreover, their views about social issues are more closely connected to partisanship and voting behavior than those of working-class whites – and they have become much more closely connected since the 1980s. Those facts suggest that “recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues” may not be such a “criminally stupid strategy” on the part of Democr
ic leaders (Frank 2004, 243). Indeed, it may be a testament to the success of that strategy that affluent white voters have not become even more markedly Republican, despite the fact that they (still) attach at least as much weight to economic issues as to social issues.

Of course, the trick for Democrats, given the current configuration of the American party system, is to appeal to affluent voters who are liberal on social issues without alienating the core Democratic constituency of working-class voters drawn to the party primarily by economic issues. Likewise, the trick for Republicans is to appeal to working-class voters who are relatively conservative on social issues without alienating the core Republican constituency of affluent voters drawn to the party primarily by economic issues. Neither party will have an easy time of it, since economic issues continue to be at the heart of the American party system, as they have for most of the past 150 years. 34 Nevertheless, in a messy and closely contested majoritarian system, neither party can afford to stand pat – or to be fastidious about where it finds its support.

0 replies on “What's the Matter With "What's the Matter With Kansas?"?”

Then again, one could point to the fact the exit polls showed we won the last election, and all this is a word exercise in futility until we get paper ballots again.

Just me, but we won.

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