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Where’s the American Working Class?

- December 5, 2008

One of the few recent examples of political scientists engaging with broader public debates was the disagreement of “Larry Bartels”:http://www.princeton.edu/~bartels/kansas.pdf with “Thomas Frank”: over whether the non-Southern white working class had started voting for Republicans. The debate ended up being in part an argument over how best to define the working class: through looking at people’s education, income, or some combination of the two. David Brady, Benjamin Sosnaud and Steven Frenk have recently published a piece arguing that neither segmenting by education or income really captures the working class properly, and that political scientists should learn from sociologists, by adopting a measure that defines the working class as people belonging to a specific set of occupational groups. On the basis of this measure, they come up with some interesting findings. Their arguments don’t support Frank’s underlying thesis about _why_ the male white working class has gone Republican (they don’t find evidence that religion and wedge issues played a role), but they do find _contra_ Bartels that the effect isn’t a simple product of regionalism. In their words:

The White male working class has moved suddenly and massively towards the Republican Party since 1992. Our dating of this transition roughly coincides with Frank’s identification of the early 1990s as the point when the White working class began to dealign from the Democratic Party (Frank, 2004, 91, 98). In sharp contrast to Bartels, we contradict claims that the White working class shift towards Republicans is isolated to the South. Moreover, we demonstrate that his proxies for class are not adequate and that theoretically justifiable measures of class are essential. Ultimately, at least for men, our study supports Frank’s claim that the White working class has dealigned from the Democratic Party.

Their results also suggest that there is a significant divergence between white working class men and women – while the former are clearly more likely to support Republicans, the latter, if anything, are more likely to support Democrats. I’d be interested to see a public response from Bartels, if he’s so inclined.

(Via an email from David Glenn)