Rashomon: The Working Class, Economics And Culture

On this point, everyone ought to agree with Barack Obama: Republican electoral dominance is predicated on strong support among voters in the working class socioeconomic stratum. In 2004, George W. Bush won among members of the white working class as denoted by income by 23 points. In 2006, Democrats managed to reduce their deficit to ten points, which was one of the reasons why they picked up so many Congressional seats.

What’s behind this trend? Why does it exist?

Obama’s remarks have unshackled a number of theories. Timothy Noah of Slate does an excellent job of summing up the political science literature and arguments here. Thomas Frank popularized the “problem” for Democrats in What’s the Matter with Kansas. Political scientist Larry Bartels wondered whether the problem even existed. Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz, both Democrats, make the case that the definitional debates are methodological, and by the broadest available measure of the working class – the four variables that make up socioeconomic status (SES), clearly, the Democrats have a problem.

Traditional measures of “working class” are fluid. Only one sixth of an educationally-defined white working class (that is, whites with less than a four year college degree) work as laborers; a large majority work in the public sector or the service sector. Most don’t consider themselves to be working class; most overestimate their own potential for SES mobility and downgrade everyone else’s. It’s surprising that Democratic politicians talk about “working class” voters and still think mainly of men who perform physical labor with their hands and campaign with those tropes in mind. Teixeira and Abramowitz posit that economic transformation, and then geographical and ideological realignment and the resulting polarization account for some of the flight of the white working class from the Democratic Party; there is no corresponding causitive relationship, they believe, between the political exploitation of any constellation of cultural issues and a shift to the right. They note, about abortion: “Republicans have been much more successful in attracting support from culturally conservative upper SES whites than from culturally conservative lower SES whites.” That is, data suggests that lower class whites are more resistant to cultural appeals than upper class whites! So bamboozlement, alienation, false consciousness -- these can’t be the primary culprit. Teixeira and Abramowitz believe that the paradigmatic “populist” approach of Democratic presidential candidates like John Edwards fails to account for the enormous and discrepant aspirational optimism that Americans possess about their individual economic situation. The same voters will tell pollsters that the economy is poor will tell a pollster than they’re optimistic about their own fortunes and that they’re generally satisfied with their own economic situation.

In their new book, Grand New Party, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam believe that as the working class becomes more prosperous, the distance between themselves and the reach of government widens, and the degree to which they rely on, or need to rely on, the government for economic security is reduced. They have more time to cultivate their own gardens, to attend to their cultural and spiritual lives, thus have more of a vested interest in the outcomes of those debates. Correspondingly, Salam and Douthat are not terribly impressed with definitions of the working class that don’t account for changes in material conditions and those that overstate the effect of wage fluctuations. Writing last year in the American Prospect, Garance Franke-Ruta holds that the byproduct of economic distress is real and produce intense cultural and social dislocation. Individuals and families living on the verge – that is, from paycheck to paycheck find that their economic decisions are likely to be riskier, on average, than the decisions made by wealthier folks; they tend to live in communities where crime is more of a problem or crumbling infrastructure contributes to a sense of dislocation from their government; ; the signs of decay instability are all around them: divorce rates are higher; families pulled apart. It’s not surprising those people living in these circumstances search for wellsprings of authority and stability in churches and affinity groups and aren’t terribly interested in what government has to say. As Franke-Ruta put it,

Social solidarity and even simple familial stability have become part of the package of private privileges available to the well-to-do. Behavioral surveys consistently show that, regardless of their political leanings, the better-off and better-educated live more traditional personal lives: They are more likely to marry, far less likely to divorce, less likely to have children outside of marriage, and more likely to remarry when they do divorce than their less accomplished peers. In addition, their kids are more likely to be academically successful and go to college, repeating the cycle.

For different reasons, Franke-Ruta (a liberal) and Douthat and Salam (conservatives) both agree that social and cultural issues are much more relevant to the lives of working class voters than Thomas Frank believes they do; voters, then, are not voting against their self-interest when they focus less on economic debates. As Kevin Drum puts it,

Middle class whites don't care much about rising divorce rates, for example, because (a) divorce rates aren't that high among middle class whites and (b) divorce isn't all that catastrophic when it does happen. Working class communities, however, have higher divorce rates and are therefore naturally more sensitive to its effects. That's especially true since the economic effects of divorce are far more dire for low-income families than they are for higher-income families.

The Obama theorem as inelegantly expressed in San Francisco is a variant: he holds that successive generations of failed promises by Democrats and Republicans have significantly reduced the efficacy that working class Americans have in their government. Since government is disreputable, other institutions, like the church, are correspondingly privileged and play an outsize role in determining political behavior.