Understanding the “zombie” confusion about class and voting

by Andrew Gelman on February 17, 2012 · 11 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Media

John Sides and Larry Bartels have recently spent some space explaining the “political science” view of social class and voting in American politics, in contrast to the claims of journalists Thomas Frank, George Packer, and Jonathan Chait, that working-class whites vote Republican. Frank, Packer, and Chait are outspoken liberals, but their views of class and politics align well, at least in this point, with arguments by conservatives such as David Brooks, Michael Barone, and Charles Murray about the prominence of upper-class liberals.

John and Larry presented the data clearly. What I’d like to add here is a brief discussion from Red State Blue State about how all this confusion can have arisen. First take a look at this graph of trends in voting by occupation class. We created the graph using data from the National Election Study. (Sociologists Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza published a similar graph before we did; our improvements were to include more years of data and to simply plot raw differences. Brooks and Manza fit some sort of statistical model, a step I would often favor, but in this case the secret weapon seemed like a better choice.)

The key message from this graph is that there have indeed been changes over time in the social composition of the Democratic and Republican vote. So, even while I agree with Larry and John about the voting patterns of working-class whites, there is something real that Frank, Packer, Chait, Brooks, Murray, Barone, etc. are trying to get at. It’s important to point out that they got the details wrong (for example, when Barone, in his eagerness to slam the hated liberal “trustfunders,” mangled vote reports from Colorado) but it could also help in this discussion to find points of contact in data trends that are consistent with the journalists’ impressions.

My second point is the now-familiar idea that rich and poor vote quite differently in faraway (to me) “red states” in the middle of the country but not so differently in the richer, more urbanized “blue states” where many of the people in this discussion (actually, all of them, I think, before Larry moved to Tennessee a couple years ago) live.

I’ve shown some variant of this graph many times:

This time let me also share my graphs of Maryland and Texas. In Maryland, some of the richer areas, including David Brooks’s own Montgomery County, counties are among the most Democratic:

In Texas, not so much. The richest county is a highly-Republican suburb of Dallas:

In addition to their direct relevance to voting, I believe these red-state blue-state differences are important to the discussion in that it relates to the evidence journalists get from their own perceptions. If, like Packer, Chait, etc etc., you live in a blue state, you’ll see lots of rich liberals, and you can naturally mistake the patterns you see as reflecting something in the country as a whole.

All this isn’t helped by the fact that rich journalists, according to an Indiana University study of a few years ago, are more likely than lower-income journalists to vote for Democrats. For most groups of Americans, the richer you are, the more likely you are to vote Republican—-but not for journalists.

In short, in answer to Marx’s classic question, “Who you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”, I say: Believe the statistics. But then again I would say that, I’m a statistician.


Evan Roberts February 17, 2012 at 11:01 am

Is some of the change for professionals related to more professionals being employees rather than independent businesses?

Andrew Gelman February 17, 2012 at 11:20 am

Could be, I haven’t looked into that. Perhaps Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza have.

RobC February 17, 2012 at 12:45 pm

You’ve probably addressed this in your earlier discussions of the graph showing vote share in three states, and I apologize for not being familiar with it, but to what extent are the results a function of racial composition in each state? I can’t help thinking that among whites in Mississippi, for example, the graph would look very different.

Andrew Gelman February 17, 2012 at 2:36 pm


When you look at just whites, the difference in slopes comparing rich and poor states decreases by about half. We discuss in chapter 9 or 10 of the book, I can’t now remember which.

LFC February 17, 2012 at 1:05 pm

A side note: Montgomery County MD is a large-ish county and the demographics of some parts of the county have changed quite considerably in recent decades, reflecting a larger non-white (esp., but not exclusively, Hispanic) population. There are still parts of the county with lots of upper-middle-class and/or rich white liberals (and David Brooks presumably lives in one of those sections), but there are other parts of the county, probably equally if not more Democratic in their voting, that are neither very white nor particularly affluent. (I grew up in an affluent part of the county and now live in a less-affluent part, so I speak from first-hand experience.)

Btw, for decades the affluent white Democratic liberals in Montgomery County routinely elected a Republican — a so-called ‘liberal Republican’ (when there still were such creatures) — to represent them in Congress. There was Gilbert Gude, there was Newton Steers, and the last one in this line was Connie Morella. She was defeated a while back by a Democrat, Chris Van Hollen (who has had a fairly meteoric rise into the Democratic House leadership circles). Why did a heavily Democratic county elect Republicans to Congress for so many years? No doubt there is a dissertation waiting to be written on this particular case, or perhaps one already has been. (As a fairly strong partisan from an early age, I personally found the sight of Democrats voting for a Republican congressperson to be rather mystifying.)

Will February 17, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Separating out whites from the working class makes the working class look much more conservative than it is.

C Hatten February 17, 2012 at 11:41 pm

What I find a bit frustrating about this debate, which in various forms has been going on for years, as to whether working Americans support the right or not, is that two useful concepts are very rarely explicitly employed to clarify this discussion, namely ideological hegemony and false consciousness. But the historical record of voting in the US is very hard to understand without a concept such as capitalist ideological hegemony. How else do you explain why has there never been a majority of voters for social democratic policies in the US? There closest thing would be the large popular majorities for the Democrats in 1936 and 1964, in both cases re-electing very liberal presidents–in both cases, however, there was an backlash favoring the right soon after. (Also in both cases large popular movements were acting to push mainstream Democrats to the left.) Outside those fleeting moments, what we overwhelmingly see is the mass of the population dividing their votes between two parties both of whom accept the framework of high class inequality and very limited government intervention in the economy to equalize society’s outcomes. Given that neither party seriously questions economic structures that harm much of the population, it is hardly surprising that working people’s votes can often be mobilized along racial, ethnic, religious, and regional identities. Again, it’s hard to deny an element of false consciousness, too, when for instance southern whites vote and actively support slavery and then white supremacy (promoted by conservative Democrats) that in reality mostly enriches wealthy whites while leaving the majority of whites impoverished; now more recently they support conservative Republicans, continuing the tradition of ignoring their own economic interests. It’s as if scholars are afraid of being thought to be Marxists if they raise these issues. Admittedly, the best recent account of the politics of inequality in contemporary America, Hacker and Pierson’s Winner Take All Democracy, does follow something like a class struggle analysis, arguing that rising inequality since the nineteen-seventies is largely caused by the mobilized class interests of the wealthy. However, even Hacker and Pierson don’t fully explain why the vast majority of the population, who were not benefitted by rising inequality, so passively accepted this political and economic direction. According to your chart above almost half of middle-income voters in Ohio went Republican, that is voted for the party of plutocrats. In Mississippi the per cent was much higher. So the issues that get debated, as to whether the wealthy in some states have relatively high levels of support for the Democrats, or whether working Americans (whites at least) are trending more Republican (obviously some, especially in the south, are) for my money miss the forest for the trees. We have a society dominated by two parties, one that gives us a “Wall Street government” as the Obama administration is aptly called in the film “Inside Job,” the other of which makes no bones about its disdain for the much of the working class and its adulation of the super-wealthy. And we are surprised that the populace is confused as to who to vote for?

Bryan Jones February 18, 2012 at 9:43 am

Next issue: get the journalists to understand the concept of ‘interaction effect’.

Milesthedog February 19, 2012 at 3:01 pm

I wonder if the evidence misses the full picture given that it appears to rely on Presidential voting data. It is my impression that these higher profile elections allow for a smaller reliance on the party cue. Are the same trends reflected in the voting patterns of ‘working class’ voters in other elections?

John Sides February 19, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Mile: Party identification actually provides a stronger, more powerful cue in presidential elections than in most other elections. Elections with a more vigorous campaign will tend to provide partisans with enough information to “rally the base” and also convince most potential defectors to stick with the party.

Hill Clement February 20, 2012 at 1:17 am

I’m a Democrat who voted for Connie Morella several times, and I could imagine voting for a Republican like Connie Morella now, if there are any. Her views weren’t at all out of line with Montgomery County. And the presence of Connie Morella and people like her in the GOP tethered the party to mainstream views.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: