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

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This Map Tells Too Simple a Story

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.

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