Party, Class, Race, Region

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.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.