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A Reply to Gopoian and Whitehead

Several months ago, Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Princeton, wrote a very interesting paper, "What's the Matter with What's the Matter with Kansas" critiquing Thomas Frank's book and its view of white working class politics. On this website, David Gopoian and Ralph Whitehead, in turn, published a short critique of Bartels' analysis, questioning his definition of the white working class and the political conclusions he drew from his analysis.

In the interests of furthering discussion of this very important issue, I provide below a recent comment (originally on the Crooked Timber website) by Bartels on Gopoian's and Whitehead's analysis.

I was surprised by Gopoian and Whitehead’s demographic profile of whites in the bottom third of the income distribution, so I checked the NES data. All I can say is that their tabulations don’t look like mine. They claim that only 35% of low-income whites (in 2004, I assume) were actually working, while 43% were retired or disabled. I have 49% working (with another 6% temporarily laid off or unemployed) and 35% retired or disabled. (Weighting the data as I did in my paper reduces both those percentages slightly, while increasing the percentage of homemakers and students.) Whatever group they are looking at, it is not the group of low-income whites characterized as “working class” in my paper.

More generally, if social scientists have a “prevailing definition” of the term “working class” I missed the memo. Apparently the people we’re talking about did, too. Among whites in the bottom third of the income distribution in 2004, 55% called themselves “working class”; among Gopoian and Whitehead’s whites without college degrees, only 48% did. Further restricting the definition to people with “incomes that surround the median household income for the nation” makes me even more curious why we don’t just use a well-established term that would seem to fit these people comfortably: “middle class.”

Of course, analysts can use whatever labels they want as long as they are clear about their definitions. My focus on low-income whites was inspired primarily by Frank’s reference on the first page of his book to Democrats as “the party of workers, of the poor, of the weak and the victimized,” and by his subsequent insistence on considering class “in the material, economic sense, not in the tastes-and-values way our punditry defines class.” It also fits nicely with my own broader interest in the politics of economic inequality. It is very easy to think of significant government policies that distribute costs and benefits on the basis of income, but much harder to think of instances in which “who gets what” depends on whether they happen to have a college degree.

Finally, a brief comment on the broader debate in which Gopoian and Whitehead’s analysis is situated. It is certainly true that the Democratic Party has lost support among whites without college degrees. (As with Democratic fortunes more generally, most of that decline is directly attributable to the demise of the artificially Democratic Solid South of the Jim Crow era. But let’s ignore that elephant in the room – along with the growing proportion of the electorate that happens not to be white.) What should we conclude from that trend? Many observers seem to leap to the conclusion that the party needs to reconnect with “traditional values.” Whites without college degrees are, indeed, more conservative than better-educated whites are on social issues like abortion and gender roles. But they also attach much less weight to those issues in their voting behavior. In 2004, the statistical connection between social issue preferences and presidential votes was more than twice as strong among college-educated whites as among those without college degrees. (In contrast, the connection between economic issue preferences and presidential votes was equally strong among both groups.) If anyone has a magic formula for appealing to less-educated socially conservative whites while retaining the loyalty of better-educated – and apparently more attentive – socially liberal whites, I’m all for it. But in the real world of hard political trade-offs, it is by no means obvious that moving to the right on social issues would be a net vote winner for Democrats.

For those interested in this debate, you may also want to read Frank's lengthy reply to Bartels, just posted on Frank's website.