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Reconciling different claims about working-class voters

- June 20, 2012

After our discussions of psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s opinions about working-class voters (see here and here), a question arose on how to reconcile the analyses of Alan Abramowitz and Tom Edsall (showing an increase in Republican voting among low-education working white southerners), with Larry Bartels’s finding that “there has been no discernible trend in presidential voting behavior among the ‘working white working class.'”

Here is my resolution:

All the statistics that have been posted seem reasonable to me. Also relevant to the discussion, I believe, are Figures 3.1, 4.2b, 10.1, and 10.2 of Red State Blue State. In short: Republicans continue to do about 20 percentage points better among upper-income voters compared to lower-income, but the compositions of these coalitions have changed over time. As has been noted, low-education white workers have moved toward the Republican party over the past few decades, and at the same time there have been compositional changes so that this group represents a much smaller share of the electorate.

I think it’s reasonable to study this group and to understand their psychological motivations, just at it also makes sense to consider the psychological motivations of higher-income whites who tend to have more conservative economic attitudes and are more likely to vote Republican.

In particular, one 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.

The big picture, here, I think, is that we need to look at the entire electorate rather than picking out individual pieces. I find a lot to like in Thomas Frank’s book, but Kansas is only one state—actually, a state that’s been strongly Republican for nearly a century—and I think people were misled by taking it as a stand-in for the whole country. That’s one of the themes of Red State Blue State: political commentators focus on the parts of the country they know well, then they jump to generalizations about the rest of the country. This is what we discuss in chapters 2 and 3 of the book.

Also, the term “blue collar,” which is sometimes used, ratchets the Republican-ness up another notch, as it is typically men, not women, whose jobs are categorized as blue collar.

Finally, I think there is something to the conservative talking point about public employees, the idea that some people (in particular, ethnic minorities and public sector employees) are beneficiaries of taxes whereas other people (often in the private sector) are payers of taxes. And this sort of personal experience does inform one’s political ideology, even though the correlation is not 100%, for example military officers tend to be conservative and Republican.

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.