Political Animal


June 20, 2012 5:15 PM Party, Class, Race, Region

By Ed Kilgore

There’s been a vibrant debate going on at (and beyond) Ten Miles Square this week regarding that hardy perennial topic, the political direction of the “white working class.” I want to highlight two posts in particular.

Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels is mainly concerned with addressing the sloppy language and definitions that lead to over-general, sweeping conclusions—notably psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s recent claim that “Republicans are increasingly becoming the party of people that currently hold jobs.” Bartels’ rejoinder is: “He really means white people without college degrees who currently hold jobs. Or maybe southern white people without college degrees who currently hold jobs.”

Bartels goes on to note that defining “working class” in terms of education rather than income—perfectly defensible in itself (and even necessary to avoid generational issues that can decisively affect current but not lifelong income)—can be misleading insofar as plenty of relatively affluent people still don’t have college degrees, while increasingly people with degrees have low incomes. Race is obviously a huge qualifier. And so is region, since the trend to Republicans that is so often attributed to the entire “white working class” is primarily a southern phenomenon.

Later at Ten Miles Square, Columbia University’s Andrew Gelman looks at all the recent arguments on the subject and concludes that some generalizations about class and party are in order that go beyond the preoccupation with the “white working class:”

[O]ne thing we’ve found is that higher-income and higher-education voters tend to be more constrained in their political attitudes. For example, compare pro- and anti-abortion voters. Pro-abortion whites were over twenty percentage points more likely than anti-abortion whites to vote for Obama, and this difference was largest among high-income, high-education whites. In contrast, pro-abortion Hispanics and anti-abortion Hispanics voted nearly identically for president. Rich conservative whites are often showing a lot of consistency, or constraint, with highly conservative attitudes on economic and social issues….
In most groups of the population—-especially the more conservative and Republican groups—-richer people are more conservative. For example, military officers are much more conservative than military enlisted personnel. This is one reason why I think that people such as Haidt who study psychology of voting should look at upper-class as well as lower-class voters. As I noted earlier, lower-class whites (especially in the south) may well be trending Republican, but upper-class whites are even more strongly in the Republican camp, and it’s worth understanding their motivations as well.

This is one debate that won’t end anytime soon.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • bluestatedon on June 21, 2012 7:37 AM:

    "upper-class whites are even more strongly in the Republican camp, and it’s worth understanding their motivations as well."

    Oh c'mon, this isn't hard to figure out. The motivation of upper-class whites is the same as it's always been, forever: to segregate themselves in affluent communities as far away from dirty brown people—and lower-class whites—as possible. If gates can be erected, so much the better. Once in the voting booth, they'll vote for politicians who will enable them to keep as much of their money as possible, regardless of whether the people who deliver their pizzas, cut their lawns, shingle their roof, or pick up their garbage, are struggling to get by.

  • Kathy on June 21, 2012 8:09 AM:

    *sigh* Can't we please, even among ourselves, kill that tired "pro-abortion/anti-abortion" thing? It's not true. It's pro-CHOICE and anti-CHOICE, period. If I were pro-abortion, I'd think everyone should have one. I don't. I think everyone should have the CHOICE.

    Ok, rant over, sorry for the derail. I'm just so sick of it.

  • tcinaz on June 21, 2012 12:32 PM:

    Republicans have to continually redefined who they are, otherwise they'd have to tell the truth. So they have been the silent majority, the moral majority, Reganites, neo-conservatives, the tea party. But none of those are actual majorities nor are they honest representations of who Republicans really are: narrow-minded, deliberately mis- and under-informed, hyper-patriotic bigots. You wouldn't want to admit to that list, would you?