Deconstructing the Liberal Myth of What's the Matter with Kansas

Remember back in 2008 when then-candidate Obama said this at a fund-raiser in San Francisco:

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.

And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Now, you can almost be sure that this comment got a bunch of knowing nods and "uh-huhs" from the limousine liberals who were at that tony San Francisco fundraiser.

And, indeed, many wealthy Democratic voters believe the essence of this story in no small part due to Thomas's Frank's polemic What's the Matter with Kansas and lazy national media types (e.g., David Brooks): the essence being that white working class voters vote against their economic interests because they're concerned with abortion, guns and gay marriage. That is, they've been snookered by the GOP elite who are mostly concerned with providing succor to the wealthy. They didn't go to college and are simply ill-educated.

The problem with this story is that it is not true. Indeed, since 1980, whites, whether or not they have a college degree, have voted Democratic in almost the same proportion.

One of the first problems is simplistic definitional work by pundits and the media about who makes up the non-college educated white working class. Political scientist Larry Bartels has shown that the definition of the white working class being thrown around is imprecise:

Even in 2004, after decades of increasingly widespread college education, the economic circumstances of whites without college degrees were not much different from those of America as a whole. Among those who voted, 40% had family incomes in excess of $60,000; and when offered the choice, more than half actually called themselves "middle class" rather than "working class." Meanwhile, among working-class white voters who could even remotely be considered "poor" - those with incomes in the bottom third of the national income distribution - George W. Bush's margin of victory in 2004 was not 23 percentage points but less than two percentage points.

Moreover, as Jeffrey Stonecash (another political scientist) showed in his 2000 book Class and Party in American Politics, "less affluent whites have not moved away from the Democratic Party and that class divisions have not declined in American politics" (p. 118).

What is more, the conclusion of Andrew Gelman's (a poli sci professor at Columbia) 2008 book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State is this: while rich states tend to vote Democratic, rich persons vote Republicans, and while poor states tend to lean Republican, poor voters vote for the Democratic candidate. (See here for a PDF which condenses the book's finding). The empirical fact is that income has been a strong predictor of support for Republicans among voters since the 1950s. Let's turn again to Bartels. He has shown that while there has been a decline in support for Democrats among the most affluent of the white working class of about 15% (e.g., among those who voted, 40% had incomes over $60,000) -- and remember, the national median income for a family of four is $66,000 -- among the poorest members of this group support for the Democratic party actually increased by 5 percent.

The liberal shibboleth does seem, at first blush, to have some truth for non-college educated whites in the South: support for the Democratic party among this group has declined by 20 percent; outside the South, 1 percent. But this is attributable to the realignment that happened in the South after the 1964 civil rights bill. More and more, whites (wealthy or otherwise) in the South felt ideologically comfortable in the GOP, whereas before they had simply been conservative Democrats (remember, it was conservative Southern Democrats who fought the civil rights bill most fiercely). For an-depth analysis see here.

So, what we have here is a "thesis" that may be simply regional in character, but upon further inspection falls apart completely. The decline in support for Democrats among working class whites from the South almost certainly has a racial aspect to it rather than these voters simply being overwhelmingly concerned with "values" issues. In fact, it those whites with college degrees who place more importance on social issues than those without degrees.

This is the problem with reading political polemics, whether it be Thomas Frank or Ann Coulter. They reason backwards from a conclusion, cherry-pick evidence or simply don't get the analysis right. And this is not to say that culturally conservative working class whites do not exist, but when the thesis that ill-educated white voters are simply clinging to guns and god because the GOP's message machine is so superior (and, implicitly, these poor folks are just too stupid to know what's best for them) is put to the test, it does not hold true. Political polemics are the middle-brow version of talk-radio -- they are simply meant to reinforce one preexisting priors. Whether you are a liberal or conservative, don't believe everything you read.

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