The Votes of the White Working Class

February 7, 2012

dorothy-sue-cobble-essayHow has the voting behavior of the white working class changed over the past 40 years? The question has generally divided pundits in two camps: the first, following Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?, argues that workers prefer to vote on a values agenda (abortion, for example, or gay marriage) rather than on income-related issues (tax cuts for the wealthy, or higher spending). The other view holds that the data show the white working-class has largely stayed with the Democratic Party outside the South. 

Former Visiting Scholar Dorothy Sue Cobble enters into the fray in the latest issue of Dissent. In a powerful essay, she argues that too many in academia espouse an "anti-worker trope [that] runs deep and wide." She writes:

The popularity on the left of Thomas Frank...is but one example of how the stereotype of the reactionary, irrational worker still resonates. In 2004, surveying the scene in Kansas, Frank sadly concluded that the working classes just don't know their own best interests...This narrative, like all false consiousness narratives, reeks of condescension and arrogance. It presumes, for example, the existence of an obvious correct political alternative--the New Democrats?--and it judges as blind and delusional those who don't see the same mirage as the enlightened storyteller.

When she looks at the data compiled by Larry Bartels (as part of an RSF project), she finds a different picture:

[Bartels] finds that yes, whites in the South -- of all classes -- moved out of the Democratic Party after 1968 as the Democratic Party lost its monopoly hold on that region and a two-party system emerged. But outside the South, the loss of the white working-class voterse was insignificant, a decilne of 1 percent since the 1950s. He concludes, "Republican gains since the 1950s have come almost entirely among the middle- and upper-income voters...

Read the full essay at Dissent magazine (subscription required). 

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