“The Party of the American Working Man and Woman”

by Larry Bartels on June 18, 2012 · 7 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Political Parties

Jonathan Haidt writes that “the Republicans are increasingly becoming the party of people who currently hold jobs.” He really means white people without college degrees who currently hold jobs. Or maybe southern white people without college degrees who currently hold jobs.

How did a nice psychologist like Haidt wander into this minefield? A couple weeks ago, Haidt suggested that “When working-class people vote conservative, as most do in the US, they are not voting against their self-interest; they are voting for their moral interest. They are voting for the party that serves to them a more satisfying moral cuisine.” Andrew, among others, vigorously challenged the premise that “working-class people vote conservative,” which seems to have inspired Haidt to brush up on some political science literature on trends in partisanship and voting behavior.

Haidt settles on the definition of the white working class offered by Ruy Teixeira and Alan Abramowitz, which includes white people without college degrees who are currently employed. (Excluding retirees and homemakers makes some difference, but not a lot. Focusing on education to the exclusion of income matters more; the resulting “white working class” is more affluent than the rest of the public. And of course, the big switch here is from “working-class people” to the white working class.) Using this definition—and focusing on party identification rather than voting behavior—Haidt concludes that, yes, “the white working class is leaving the Democratic Party.”

Ah, the white working class, yet again. I wish some psychologist would study why this particular topic generates so much interest and emotion. Perhaps it has something to do with the resonance of the term “working class”—and with the flexibility of that term in successive iterations of the debate.

For what it’s worth, the trends among Haidt’s new-and-improved white working class seem to me to be entirely consistent with what I reported in  “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?” and in Chapter 3 of Unequal Democracy—namely, that there has been a decline in Democratic attachment among whites without college degrees, heavily concentrated among southerners and middle- and upper-income people, and more for party identification (a lagging indicator of responses to earlier political changes) than for presidential voting behavior. More specifically, using Haidt’s definition of the white working class since 1975 (avoiding McGovern and Watergate) and the ANES data:

(1) The “working white working class” has become more Republican by about 3 points per decade on a 100-point party identification scale.

(2) This shift is more than twice as large for southerners as for non-southerners, and about 40% larger for middle- and upper-income people than for low-income people.

(3) Overall, there has been no discernible trend in presidential voting behavior among the “working white working class.”

(4) While southern working whites without college degrees have become more Republican in their presidential voting behavior (by 4.5% per decade), non-southern working whites without college degrees have become more Democratic (by 1.6% per decade).

Haidt concludes that the political behavior of the white working class “depends [on] how you define class, and it depends on several moderator variables, including employment status.” Well, yes; but it depends much more on region—and much, much more on ignoring people who don’t happen to be white.

“If Democrats want to be the party of the American working man and woman,” Haidt writes, “they should first figure out whether they are in fact losing the working white working class, and if so, why.”

I would have said: If Democrats want to be the party of the American working man and woman they’re currently doing pretty well, averaging 54% of the major-party vote among all employed people in the past five presidential elections. (The Democratic vote share among people not currently working is 57%; hardly a momentous social divide.) But that way of putting it requires an acknowledgement that, nowadays, “the American working man and woman” is more often than not a college graduate, an African-American, or a Latino.

P.S. While Haidt’s new post defends the premise of his claim about working-class voters, he tones down the substance of his earlier argument about the crucial political role of moral values, writing that his critics “are probably all correct when they say that economic concerns played a stronger role in recent electoral shifts than the sorts of moral/cultural issues that I and Thomas Frank were talking about.” I would just add that that seems to be the case regardless of whether the (white) working class is defined by income (as in the unpublished paper of mine cited by Haidt) or education (as in the published version of the same piece).

UPDATED: Revised calculations using corrected ANES sample weights.


Andrew Gelman June 18, 2012 at 6:15 pm


I would also add that 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.

Chad June 18, 2012 at 8:42 pm

So when will non-white working people be deigned important enough by Mr. Haidt to ask Republicans to figure out whether they are in fact losing the working class, and if so, why.?

RobC June 18, 2012 at 9:41 pm

I don’t know that anybody is “ignoring people who don’t happen to be white.” (Let it be noted that this seems like a particularly tendentious way of characterizing the analysis of any given group; would Professor Bartels say that the thousands of studies of black Americans “ignore people who don’t happen to be black”?) In assessing voting behavior, however, when a subgroup such as African-Americans votes pretty much as a bloc, there’s understandably less interest in gauging what factors other than race motivate them to vote for one party or the other, because on all appearances no factors other than race make much difference. In very large measure they’re not persuadable, at least at the present time. This is also true, though to a considerably lesser degree, of non-Cuban Hispanic Americans. Political realists can be excused, I think, for considering the groups that are more in play, which mostly boils down to white Americans.

As for why there’s so much attention to class-based distinctions in analyses such as these, it’s an interesting question, a full discussion of which would probably require a history of Marxist thought in the European and American academy over much of the last century and of populist political appeals from at least the early nineteenth century right up to the present day. I prefer the philosophy of the late Rodney King, which would have us all get along.

Steve Roth June 20, 2012 at 10:28 am

Yes, it does seem that Haidt uses an awful lot of words to point out that white southern Democrats have gone Republican since the 60s. The “Southern Strategy” has worked.

As my teenage daughter would say, “no duh.”

Johnson predicted this when he passed civil rights legislation — the South has been lost to the Democrats “for a generation.” But Johnson seems to have underestimated the duration. These are the people, after all, who still haven’t accepted the fact that they lost the Civil War. Haidt’s apparently chosen role as an apologist for this group is…less than admirable.

Larry Bartels June 20, 2012 at 2:47 pm

I would not characterize Haidt as “an apologist” for any group, but as a scholar who is genuinely interested in understanding the values and worldviews of disparate groups. This comes across much more clearly in his recent book, _The Righteous Mind_, and other work than in the blog post I criticized.

There is a lot of scholarly debate about the bases of the partisan realignment of the South over the past half-century. Some accounts focus on the Democratic Party’s evolution on the issue of civil rights (e.g., Carmines and Stimson’s _Issue Evolution_). Others emphasize economic developments (e.g., Shafer and Johnston’s _The End of Southern Exceptionalism_). In some sense, white southerners did not “belong” in the Democratic Party through most of the 20th century in the first place, and the partisan realignment of the past half-century reflects a gradual ebbing of the politically anomalous “Solid South” of the Jim Crow era.

Meanwhile, Christopher Johnston has posted some additional thoughts and findings on the role of moral issues in contemporary American politics: http://sites.duke.edu/chrisjohnston/2012/06/19/bartels-gelman-haidt-and-the-importance-of-moralcultural-conflict/.

Ann Orloff July 8, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Would crunching the numbers with gender and marital-status differences factored in change the story?

john j haynes September 8, 2012 at 10:33 am

Would someone please tell me what the republican party has done for the american workingman in the last 100 years.

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