Zombie Politics: The Voting Behavior of White Working Class

Zombie politics—a play on Zombie Economics—refers to ideas about politics that have become so cemented in conventional wisdom that it is virtually impossible to dislodge them.  It doesn’t matter what the data says, or what published research says, or what this blog or any blog says.  Zombie politics means that even though the ideas are dead, they just can’t be killed.  I regret using the by-now-hackneyed zombie metaphor, but it remains apt.

And so, George Packer:

Perhaps the biggest political puzzle of our time is why, as the lives of working-class whites have descended from the stability and comfort of “All in the Family” to the chaos and despair of “Gran Torino” and “Winter’s Bone,” these same Americans have voted more and more reliably Republican.

This would be a puzzle, if it were really true.  From Larry Bartels:
The graph only the merest hint of a secular trend in the voting behavior of whites without college degrees.  It also shows that there is not much of a difference between the behavior of whites with and without college degrees since about 1980.  Now, one could still argue that the white working class should vote more Democratic given their ostensible class interests.  But they have not become “more and more reliably Republican.”
If one takes account not only of educational attainment but also income, the picture is even less kind to the zombie:
Among whites without a college degree, income has become a stronger predictor of the vote over time.  But actually it’s those with less income, not more income, who are more likely to support Democratic presidential candidates.  And again, there certainly no trend by which whites with below-average incomes and no college degree become more Republican.
The real decline in white working class support for Democrats occurs in the South.  Bartels:

Democratic presidential vote share has declined by almost 20 percentage points among southern whites without college degrees. Among non-southern whites without college degrees it has declined by one percentage point. That’s it. Fourteen elections, 52 years, one percentage point.

Packer’s post only glimpses this reality, describing this hypothetical white working-class man:

…he lost his idealism and grew surly, if not violent, consumed with a hatred of hippies, immigrants, blacks, government, and, finally, himself.

And in noting that the story has at least something to with region and with the South in particular:

Sunday’s Times had a fascinating and disturbing lead story about the pattern of government dependency around the country. A map showing areas of greatest reliance on public benefits corresponds with weird exactness to the map of red America: the South, Appalachia, and rural areas in general.

But in light of Bartels’s findings, the “exactness” is hardly “weird.”  It suggests that we are talking about a phenomenon confined to a region rather than one that describes the white working class at large.

For emphasis, one more stab at the zombie: The white working class has not, as a whole, become more Republican.  Full stop.

27 Responses to Zombie Politics: The Voting Behavior of White Working Class

  1. Andrew Gelman February 14, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    Hey, I wrote a book about that!

    • aj February 15, 2012 at 1:56 pm #

      a good one, too!

  2. Andy Rudalevige February 14, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    “All the Family” is an odd baseline, in any event — Archie Bunker probably didn’t vote for George McGovern. Nixon’s the one!

  3. Jack February 14, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    So what you’re saying is… there’s absolutely nothing “the matter with Kansas”??????

  4. RobC February 14, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

    George Packer perfectly encapsulates the parochial outlook of the editorial board of The New Yorker. They have as much personal connection to the white working class as they do to animals in the zoo, and they regard them with pretty much the same combination of curiosity, condescension and disgust. A brilliant commentator–surprisingly, not a New Yorker editor–once observed of the white working class, “So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Packer couldn’t have said it better.

    • John Sides February 14, 2012 at 9:30 pm #

      RobC: I’ve always wondered if this journalistic focus on the working class was a form of compensation. Since many journalists don’t come from working class backgrounds, they compensate by seeking out people who somehow seem more authentically “American.” As a voting bloc, the white working class always seems to get a disproportionate share of attention.

    • Lovelalola February 15, 2012 at 12:28 pm #

      But Sides’ argument isn’t much better. It seems to be: “Don’t give up on the white working class, Dems, just those ignorant southerners!” The argument suffers from the same problem: very little personal connection with white working class southerners, thus the willingness to identify them as “others” and single them out for exclusion in the club. The subtext of the argument is that the left can let those racist southerners embrace their racist Republican fate.

      I’ve lived in or near the south for decades now, and it’s more practically diverse and tolerant than anywhere else in America I’ve been (and I’ve been to every state except Alaska and Maine). In fact, some of the most segregated places in America are in the northeast, including something like 7 of the top 10 cities, if I recall correctly. And it’s the left’s social programs that have been most damaging to minority communities. If Mr. Sides spent more time down here, he might overcome his own cultural biases, which are writ large in this piece. And then maybe he’d understand that every vote is worth fighting for, and that questioning authority starts in your own house. It’s not something reserved for the opposition.

      • John Sides February 15, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

        Lovelalola: I make no argument of that kind, whatsoever. I say nothing about what the Democratic Party should or should not do viz. the white working class, Southerners, etc. I say nothing about ignorance, racism, segregation, and the like. You are reading things that simply are not there. I am simply interrogating the claim that the white working class has become more reliably Republican.

        And moreover, you may be surprised to know, I was born and raised and spent the first 22 years of my life in North Carolina and have also lived 2 years in Austin, TX and 6+ years in Washington DC (if that counts as “close” to the South). I still spend a several weeks in NC each year, where my parents, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and most every cousin also live. So perhaps you should be a little more cautious before throwing around claims of “cultural bias.”

        • Lovelalola February 15, 2012 at 1:05 pm #


          As I said in my comment, the racial component is subtext. One does not write or argue subtext, one implies it. And that is the subtext of this piece, that the argument is erroneous, it’s just southern white working class voters who are trending Republican. Nothing to worry about here, folks, move along.

          And it’s the transplanted southerner who often exhibits the most hostility toward the south once they’ve assumed positions among the coastal progressive elites, so your history may or not bear on your bias here. I may have misinterpreted your political bias for cultural bias, however.

          And no, I wouldn’t consider DC southern, nor would I include Austin in what is traditionally considered to be “the south.” (And neither did Packer or Murray, to be clear.)

          • John Sides February 15, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

            Lovelalola: I have no hostility toward the South — politically, culturally, or otherwise. But I sense there is no further use arguing with your active imagination.

          • Jack February 16, 2012 at 10:42 am #

            Just because a researcher finds that some trend is particularly exaggerated in the South doesn’t mean that researcher has anything against the South. The decline in support for Democrats among working-class whites was greatest in the South. It’s an empirical reality, not an attempt to belittle the South. I’ve lived here for 25+ years (first in LA, now in GA) and am not at all surprised by this… nor do I see any racial “subtext.”

    • Mike Alexander September 26, 2012 at 8:56 am #

      All Obama was doing was re-iterate the “What’s the Matter with Kansas” thesis to an audience which already buys into this notion. It’s the same sort of thing as what Romney said except Obama’s version plays better outside the room (i.e. Obama is a better politican than Romney). The big difference, in my mind, between the two situations is that I strongly suspect Obama does not believe what he said, whereas I am not sure about Romney.

      Non-urban white working class people in the Great Lakes region where I live do own guns and like to hunt. My granddaughter’s family is an example, they like to hunt, her cousin, who lived to hunt, died recently and as part of the funeral cermony they took the coffin to the church in the back of his hunting truck. The family votes Republican. On the other hand, the hunter who works in the lab next to mine is a classic “gun-totin liberal” and dyed in the wool Democrat.

      My former technician (now retired 8 years) votes reliably Republican . He is completely aware that the GOP is the party of corporate management, whom he distrusts implicitly, he had favorable views of unions and knew that the GOP opposes them as the party of management. When I suggested that his economic interests are more in line with Democrats than Republicans he replied: well who gave us NAFTA? he further explained, I don’t see any big difference between the parties on economic issues and since Democrats have at times expressed hostility to the “gun culture” and hunting that I love, I give my support to the other side. This was not an unreasonable position about a decade ago when I discussed this with him.

      As for religion, remember that the great economic liberal Williman Jennings Bryan, who gave the famous cross of gold speech in the critical election of 1896, represented the creationist side in the 1925 Scopes monkey trial. Folks in Kansas have always “clung to religion”. That didn’t stop them from supporting economic progressives.

      As far an antipathy to people not like them, that is a universal shortcoming, present on both sides. The statement Obama made plays into this sort of antipathy present in his rich liberal audience.

      It would not be hard to win solid majority of White working class and minorities. Democrats do not want to go there, for the same reason that Republicans won’t, it would affend their plutocrats.

      Consider a movement embracing a flat 20% across the board tariff. Such a policy would be easy for most Americans to grasp. It’s a consumption tax, which is something conservatives seem to like, but its levied only on goods produced by overseas labor, goods produced here are exempt.

      Critics will complain that it is bad for trade and thus bad for the economy. Supporters can counter, a tariff will reduce trade, but since a larger fraction of trade is imports than is exports, the result will be a net reduction in the trade deficit which will increase GDP.

      More agititated critics will attempt to dismiss tha ergument with “Smoot-Hawley, ’nuff said”. Supporters can counter Smoot-Hawley was bad policy because the US ran a trade surplus in 1930, which a tariff would reduce, shrinking GDP. Today we have a trade defict, which a tariff will shrink, boosting GDP. The proof in the pudding is that in 1930 when tariffs were bad policy, the GOP was for them, whereas today, when tariffs are good policy, the GOP is opposed–nuff said.

      My point is not that a tariff is neccesarily good policy. I am saying a *discussion* about a tariff is good policy, and will bring issues completely off the table back into the political arena. Our economic “debate” in this country is way too technical for regular Americans (who have lives after all) to follow. It doesn’t need to be, because all that complexity doesn’t add anything. Look, one of Romney’s chief economic advisors is the guy who wrote Dow 36,000. Anyone who could have written such a wrong-headed book necessarily cannot know anything about economics. Hell I could do a better job than this clown, at least I got the market direction right:

      But my point is putting some economic ideas that Americans historically wrestled with would be good for our nation. It would get rank and file Americans to think about their economic interest, government policy and the national interest. It would let them sort out what memes like gold standard, free-trade, tax incentives, job-creators etc. actually mean.

      There are other memes that could be injected, like why it is OK for the Fed to create tons of money right now, as it is doing and will need to do more of (or as it did in the 1940’s) but not at other times. Answer: its OK to turn up the furnace in January, but not in July.

      or the Rectification of Names: why is the Defense Deparment, who failed to defend America on 911 *because it was not their job*, called the Defense Department and not the War Department, its Rightful name? How would the debate over the vast expenditures on the capacity to wage foreign wars change if things had their proper names?

      If we had half a dozen such memes floating around out there, this would change the character of our debate from the meanignless fluff and endless “gotcha” politics we have today, to something more substantial, something worthy of *citizens* of a nation as opposed to *consumers* of political entertainment.

      And it would tilt the board in favor of progressives. 🙂

  5. Lorenzo from Oz February 14, 2012 at 7:39 pm #

    One stabs vampires. You burn zombies. 🙂

  6. History Grad February 14, 2012 at 7:57 pm #

    I’m tired of Packer’s argument, too, but I’ve always thought Bartels over-argues his case a little, or at least stacks the deck in his favor too much — even if it’s still a great article.

    If I remember correctly, those graphs are the Northern working class. (They show the 1-point drop in the North, it seems.) But the 20 point drop in the South isn’t non-trivial or easily dismissed as regional racism. Southerners in the 1950s and 1960s are not the same as Southerners today. After all, the Sunbelt boom changed the South forever and brought a lot of Northerners down there to find jobs.

    I like Lane Kenworth’s working paper on the same issue. (http://www.u.arizona.edu/~lkenwor/thedemocratsandworkingclasswhites.pdf)

    He does find a drop in working class identification with the Democratic party, but — contrary to common media commentary — argues it was driven in the 1970s by economic issues, not social ones.

    I’d love to hear the Monkey Cage’s contributors thoughts on Kenworthy’s argument vs. Bartels’s and others’ arguments.

  7. Henry February 14, 2012 at 9:13 pm #

    I’d like to see those graphs as relative-to-the-national-vote, similar to the Cook PVI. Since there have been a lot of national swings, they introduce a lot of noise which can mask important trends. For example, whites without a college degree are only moderately less Democratic in 2004 than in 1952, but Kerry did 4 points better than Stevenson, making the relative gap much bigger.

    Also, I dislike the “non-Southern” goalpost shift. For one, the gap between Kerry and Stevenson is even bigger among non-Southern states, so the relative gap is quite large. Secondly, it’s somewhat of a “definition gerrymander”: with enough non-uniformity you spin the data any way you like with enough exceptions.

  8. Nadia February 14, 2012 at 11:57 pm #

    Alan Abramowitz, who forecasts elections, and Ruy Texeira found evidence of white working class decline.

  9. Larry Bartels February 15, 2012 at 1:16 am #

    Kenworthy is one of my favorite analysts, even when he is disagreeing with me, so I will take the liberty of offering some reactions to the piece linked to by History Grad.

    First, this particular piece is not directly relevant to Packer’s claim about “more and more reliably Republican” voting behavior, since it focuses on party identification rather than voting. That is not a technicality; the trends turn out to look rather different.

    Second, it isn’t clear (or wasn’t to me) for the first several pages that the measure of “working class” status employed by Kenworthy (and his colleagues) is subjective identification. I know sociologists are required to take this seriously, but I’m unsure what to make of it. Certainly not that there is a stable group of people out there who identify as “working-class” over a period of 30 years while changing their partisanship. If anything, I’d guess that class identification is less stable than party identification.

    Even more obviously, wouldn’t it be sensible to say something, somewhere, about how party identification has changed among whites who _aren’t_ “working class”? If they have abandoned the Democratic Party in even greater numbers, then it would seem odd to look for any class-specific explanation of the observed shift among working-class whites (or to interpret whatever explanations one finds _as if_ they were class-specific).

    While the article of mine that John linked to focuses entirely on presidential votes, the corresponding chapter of _Unequal Democracy_ includes some parallel analyses of party identification. (Since it is a book about income inequality, “class” is defined in terms of income, with “low-income” meaning bottom third and “high-income” meaning top third.) Among low-income whites (and using NES rather than GSS data), there is a significant decline in Democratic identification over the period covered by Kenworthy’s analysis, roughly paralleling the decline he reports among “working class” whites (Figure 3.3, page 75). However, there is an even steeper decline in Democratic identification among high-income whites–so in what sense is this a story about _class_?

    The decline in Democratic identification among low-income whites in the NES data is roughly parallel in the South and the rest of the country in the first two decades covered by Kenworthy’s analysis; but not at all parallel earlier or later (Figure 3.4, page 76). The cumulative decline in Democratic identification among low-income whites from 1952 through 2004 is 43 points in the South, 4 points in the rest of the country. (The corresponding decline among high-income whites is 83 points in the South and 15 points in the rest of the country. So are “working-class whites” really the source of the Democratic Party’s problems?)

    I’m not sure whether Henry’s complaint about “goalpost shift” is directed at me. The figures John reproduced are not limited to the non-South; they include white southerners in due proportion. However, having established the national pattern, it does seem relevant for _interpreting_ that pattern to notice that it is almost entirely concentrated (in terms of net shifts) in one region of the country. (That is true whether we focus on voting behavior or party identification, and whether we measure “class” using income or education.) Is that “trivializing” the change? As I wrote in the article John linked to: “Of course, the fact that the net erosion in Democratic presidential support among [Thomas] Frank’s white working-class voters comes almost entirely from the South does not make the trend any less real or any less politically significant. However, it does tend to cast considerable doubt on the plausibility of accounts positing broad national shifts in working class political behavior.”

    Finally, my interpretation is _not_ that the southern realignment is attributable to “regional racism.” Indeed, it is more nearly attributable to the _end_ of _institutionalized_ regional racism (quoting here from _Unequal Democracy_, page 77): “In the 1950s the historical legacy of the Civil War and the contemporary reality of Jim Crow racial politics still submerged class differences among southern whites in a system of ‘unquestioning attachment, by overwhelming majorities, to the Democratic party nationally,” as V. O. Key Jr. put it in his classic 1949 survey of southern politics. As dramatic policy shifts by national Democratic Party leaders on civil rights issues–and suburbanization, desegregation, and intensive electoral mobilization of both blacks and whites–eroded that system, the anomalous pattern of partisanship in the South gradually but relentlessly gave way to a a pattern not too dissimilar from the one prevailing in the rest of the country.”

    • History Grad February 15, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

      Thank you for your detailed reply. I read Unequal Democracy quickly in a prelims blitz and definitely missed the quote from page 77 that ends your response. That makes complete sense, and I understand more clearly your argument about the South. I apologize for misstating it.

      Plus, I think that your Unequal Democracy argument, the Red State/Blue State/Rich State/Poor State argument, and Kenworthy’s argument are all actually quite complimentary at debunking popular commentary about the rising Republicanism of the white working class. Whatever minor differences exist between them, they clearly counter much of the sloppy analysis of working class whites in the media and elsewhere.

      Taken together, they seem to say that 1.) this trend of working class whites abandoning the Democratic Party is severely overblown, if it exists at all 2.) economic matters trump cultural matters particularly among those with low incomes, and 3.) given these facts, any shifts away from the Democratic Party among working-class whites have more to do with economic issues than cultural ones, and any analyses of the white working class’s political allegiances should begin there.

      Building off the point John Sides made above about journalists and the white working class, I think it’s also true that many more left-leaning academics and journalists have viewed the working class as the vanguard of the left since the 1930s, at least. So, for these scholars and commentators any hint of deviation from Democratic loyalty assumes a greater significance than it should given the empirical evidence.

      I’ve often wondered what would happen if these same commentators looked at, say, African Americans’ attitudes on issues more closely. I suspect they’d start to question their assumptions about how much religion or and other cultuarl issues motivate working class whites. Back in the 1970s, there were a series of popular articles on the “surprising” attitudes of middle-class blacks (who actually often had the same economic status of working-class whites). Even though they were sometimes quaint and offensive in their racial assumptions, those articles at least provided a balance to the obsession with working class whites that went all the way back to the “working-class authoritarianism” thesis and continued for decades with Nixon’s “Rosow Report,” etc.

  10. Sam February 15, 2012 at 10:10 am #

    It looks like Harold Meyerson over at the Washington Post made the same mistake: “Just as upper-middle-class professionals have become more Democratic, so the white working class has become more Republican.”


  11. Lou February 15, 2012 at 11:08 am #

    I guess the fact that my Louisiana state government and our congressional delegation in DC have gone from nearly all Democrats to nearly all wingnut Repugnicans over the last quarter century or so is a figment of my imagination.

  12. John Jay February 15, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    Chait weighs in: http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2012/02/why-are-poor-whites-conservative-and-poor.html

  13. Mika February 16, 2012 at 3:32 am #

    I enjoyed reading this post and comments. Thanks, y’all!

  14. Krishan February 21, 2012 at 10:53 pm #

    Where can I find this kind of data with a geographic breakdown?

  15. Carl Plumer June 4, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    Fascinating. I can never figure out the correlation between the have-nots and the Republican vote. Always has seemed to me that it should be in inverse proportion (the less you have, the less you vote GOP). Ah, well…

  16. Donna June 7, 2012 at 12:23 am #

    The biggest secret of politics, and political strategists, is the knowledge that the majority of people are now medically, clinically, scientifically-provable brain damaged, ignorant lumbering shades of what people used to be.

    The Norman Rockwell icon of the “we are just plain folks in our overalls working hard on our farms” demographic of the average citizen is gone. Replaced by a drug addled, alcohol addled, Prozac addled, junk-food-brain-damaged horde of inner city gangsters, media catatonics, trophy wives, arrogant yuppie hipsters, obese pita-pocket gobbling, Jerry Springer addicts.

    In other words, a large number of the voting public are really, really dumb; Dumber than ever and easily brainwashed. They are increasing in numbers.
    The CIA discovered that you can brainwash some people in a matter of hours and most people in 5 days or less. Madison Avenue then perfected their techniques. “Over-messaging” is the intelligence agency technique of brainwashing an entire country (millions of people) over the course of a year or two, with subtle concept reinforcement. It is done in a way so that the population does not really notice it and so they think it was their idea. A successfully accomplished intelligence effort of this kind is called a “regime change” or “national transition effort”, on Madison Avenue it is called a: “marketing campaign”.

    The increase in Reality TV shows about exceptionally stupid people has to do with the smart people turning off their TV’s and the dumb people increasing in numbers. The dumb ones are the only ones the TV networks can get to watch but they have to meet them on their level. Domestic education scores are dropping through the basement. Many high school students can’t read a book. The population is getting stupid at the speed of light.

    At college you can get smart but if you get too smart you might observe and realize all of the things in this essay are true so not everybody gets to go to college. If you aren’t addicted to something then you might see too clearly so the underwriting of the alcohol and drug industry continues (with your tax dollars)
    So you have the smart ones and the dumb ones (think Morlocks and Eloi) if you run the current cycles and patterns out into the future you might actually end up with Morlocks and Eloi. (If you still know how to read books you will know what this reference is, the rest of you: Google it) One wonders if the current fad about Zombies has to do with the public’s second sight on his potential future.

    Political strategists exploit the dumb hordes by triggering their primal instincts using very base advertising concepts: “The bad guys will get you if you don’t vote for us” (Fear); “You won’t be able to get money to pay for your addictions if you don’t let us create the jobs” (Security); etc. An entire campaign can be won without the need to appeal to any intelligent voters. The bestial ones can bring in the majority more often than not.

    If you are reading this, you may be saying: “oh, I’m not one of them” but if you don’t read the news daily from multiple sources, if you only have products from the eye-level shelf at Safeway in your cupboards and if you watch “reality TV” shows… you just might be one. But you have one last chance to escape…

    The only advantage that one side has over the other is money. If the law, the Constitution and the public demand said that every penny spent by one voice in an issue must be equal to that spent by any other voice, almost all of the injustice issues would dissolve. The sides that have all of the money will never let such a law exist. Your only hope is to change that!

    Make the law or end up as a Zombie!