How the Democrats Lost Their Class

The notion that the Democrats’ electoral troubles since the 1960s are mainly a function of southern whites turning Republican is quickly becoming conventional wisdom. Thomas Schaller offers a version of this story in his book Whistling Past Dixie. In an article titled “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?“, Larry Bartels concludes that the entire Democrat-to-Republican shift in presidential voting among working-class whites occurred in the south. Paul Krugman embraces Bartels’ findings in The Conscience of a Liberal. Here’s how Krugman puts it:

“The overwhelming importance of the Southern switch suggests an almost embarrassingly simple story about the political success of movement conservatism. It goes like this: Thanks to their organization … movement conservatives were able to take over the Republican party, and move its policies sharply to the right. In most of the country this rightward shift alienated voters, who gradually moved toward the Democrats. But Republicans were nevertheless able to win presidential elections, and eventually gain control of Congress, because they were able to exploit the race issue to win political dominance of the South.” (p. 182)

This view of developments contains an important truth: Southern whites were heavily Democratic until the mid-sixties. Now they are less so, and today the south is the easily the most Republican region of the country.

Yet the notion that the defection of whites, especially working-class whites, from the Democrats has been largely confined to the south paints too simple a portrait. Since 1972 the General Social Survey has asked American adults about their “party identification,” along with a battery of other questions. People’s political preferences ultimately matter to the extent they influence actual voting choices. But analyzing presidential voting alone, as Bartels does, can miss part of the story. Presidential voting is heavily influenced by the particular candidates the two parties nominate. Arguably, people’s underlying preferences and beliefs are better understood by looking at their party identification. The following chart shows the share of working-class whites identifying as strong-Democrat, moderately-strong-Democrat, or independent-leaning-Democrat since the early 1970s.

The country is split here into three regions: the south, the midwest and plains states, and the east and west coasts. In the south, identification with the Democrats fell roughly 20 percentage points — from 60% to 40% — between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s and has held steady since then. This is consistent with the picture offered by Bartels and Krugman.

Yet the same thing happened in the other two regions — even on the coasts, where the most solidly “blue” states are located.

With several graduate students at the University of Arizona, I have been examining this development (“The Democrats and Working-Class Whites”). It turns out not to be a function of our measure of party identification or of the working class. Nor is it specific to men or to the most religious. And most of those who left the Democrats didn’t become “independents.” In fact, since the early 1990s approximately 40% of working-class whites have identified as Republican — the same as the share that identifies as Democrat.

What caused this development? We conclude that it was due in large part to the crisis of the late 1970s. The economy fell apart under a Democratic president and Democrat-controlled Congress, leading many in the working class to question whether the party was still the better of the two at securing their material well-being. Ronald Reagan offered a simple and seemingly plausible solution — less government — which also tapped into desire for tax relief. The Democrats’ economic woes were compounded by the twin foreign policy disasters of 1979 (the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis), rising crime, forced busing, and affirmative action.

The deep recession of the early 1980s brought a temporary halt to the white working-class defection. But as the economy recovered in the mid-to-late eighties, as Reagan’s actual policy shifts proved less radical than his rhetoric, and as the Soviet bloc crumbled beginning in 1989, the defection resumed.

As the chart above reveals, little has changed since the early 1990s. This is puzzling. After all, Republican presidents presided over the two most recent economic recessions (early 1990s and early 2000s), and far and away the healthiest economic period for workers in the past generation was the Clinton years of the late nineties. We find, consistent with Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? argument, that this is due partly to heightened importance of social issues such as homosexuality and abortion to working-class whites. Another key factor is that the cohort of working-class whites who turned 20 since the mid-1970s, when the defection from the Democrats began, has always been less pro-Democrat. They have been gradually replacing the much more pro-Democrat cohort that came of age during the Roosevelt and Truman years.

This does not mean Democrats don’t, or won’t, win elections. They still get the votes of many working-class whites. And as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira ably document in The Emerging Democratic Majority, they now tend to win a sizable majority of the votes of urban professionals, as well as African Americans, Latinos, and women.

But regaining the consistent support of a majority of working-class whites would certainly help. Depending on the definition, this group constitutes roughly a third to half of the voting-age population.

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