Culturally outclassed?

Or, What We Really Know about the “Culture Wars” and American Elections

Who’d have thought that Thomas Frank and class analysis would set the Australian political blogosphere on fire in our attempts to analyse the American election? Ken’s sought to douse the theoretical flames with a bit of a reality check – a touch of empirical analysis. One of the criticisms I made of Frank’s work – in response to a New York Times review of Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas? that Scott Wickstein and Ken both drew attention to – and one that applies much more generally to media analyses of social trends shaping electoral behaviour – is the lack of empirical evidence backing up the broadbrush theorising. In this post, I hope to remedy this lack.

I would also like to show that the problems of the Democrats are not limited to the deficiencies of Kerry’s candidacy, but to some broader social and political trends which they need to think most seriously about turning around.

So – what evidence exists to substantiate the arguments about the declining importance of class in voting behaviour and the religious/values cleavages which now seemingly drive politics in the United States? Or, as one of the articles I’ve discussed states: “Low-income social conservatives have left the New Deal coalition for the Republican Party, and high-income social liberals are increasingly comfortable voting in the Democratic Party.” Why?

In order to track down some answers to this question – I decided to refer to recent articles in two prestigious US academic journals – the American Political Science Review and the American Journal of Sociology. I don’t want this post to be some sort of academic literature review (rather I am interested in attacking the question of whether the whole debate over class and values and the decline of the Democrats is based in verifiable fact or not) so I’ve focussed in on two articles. Unfortunately, I can’t supply links as – like most academic journals – online access is restricted to subscribers or those who can access University library databases. I’ll spare readers the technical statistical analyses and the more abstruse academic theory – but I’m happy to elaborate in comments – both articles I’ve picked are based on a review of the best literature in the field and make an original and interesting contribution in their own right.

Gary Miller and Norman Schofield, writing in APSR [2003, 97:245-260] in their article ‘Activists and Partisan Realignment in the United States’ take a very long term perspective on US politics and the interaction of social forces and political behaviour. For those who don’t know, the history of American elections can be told in terms of periods of one party’s hegemony and the periodic transitional periods where the other party builds and gains an enduring majority. For instance, if we just look at Congressional results, from 1860 (Lincoln’s election) until 1932 (Roosevelt’s election) the Republicans controlled the Senate for 31 of 36 Congresses and the House for 23 Congresses. From 1932 to 1992 (Clinton’s election), the Republicans only controlled the Senate in 5 Congresses and the House in just 2 of 31 Congresses. It is more than possible – given the stability of American voting behaviour over time – particularly at Congressional rather than Presidential level – that since 1992 we have witnessed a new partisan realignment.

Miller and Schofield compare the Electoral College results in 1960 (Kennedy’s election) with those of 2000 (Bush’s election). Interestingly, most states that voted for Kennedy in 1960 voted for Bush in 2000 and vice versa – most states that voted for Nixon in 1960 voted for Gore in 2000. Miller and Schofield classify the period from 1960 onwards as marked by the “Decline of Class and the Rise of Race”. Although they specifically point to the influence of the civil rights movement and the shift in partisan identification of White Southerners from Democratic to Republican, their thesis goes beyond this factor to suggest that cleavages based around social identities more generally have trumped class identifications over the last forty years – more and more.

Distinguishing between ‘urban cosmopolitans’ and ‘moral traditionalists’, Miller and Schofield argue:

The extent of the realignment is shown by the shift in voting behaviour on the part of cosmopolitans and populists… Cosmopolitans voting for Democratic congressional candidates rose from 46% in the seventies to 65% in the decade of the nineties. The percentage of low-income moral traditionalists, whom we would identify as populists, voting for Democatic congressional candidates dropped from 63% in the seventies to 29% in the nineties. The fact that this statistic is for congressional voting rather than presidential voting, and over five elections in each decade, suggests that the trend is broader, deeper, and more lasting than simply a feeling based on Clinton or other particular presidential candidates. Low-income social conservatives have left the New Deal coalition for the Republican Party, and high-income social liberals are increasingly comfortable voting in the Democratic Party.

So, that being the case, why has this happened? In search of an answer, I now turn to Michael Hechter’s article ‘From Class to Culture’ in the AJS [2004, 110: 400-445]. Hechter is one of the leading North American sociologists working on the relationship between social identities and political behaviour.

Hechter writes about the politics of status and the decline of class:

The waning of class politics has ended neither ideology nor political conflict. Instead, there appears to have been a rise in political conflict between groups defined on the basis of status (St¤nde) rather than economic affinity. That status politics may be gaining in recent times is suggested by the increasing political salience of ethnicity, religion, nationalism, gender, and sexual orientation. True, there are notable differences between such groups¢â¬âWeber ([192122] 1978, p. 932) acknowledged that St¤nde comprise a set of groups “of an amorphous kind.” Yet despite their evident diversity, status groups are alike in at least one respect. Political action on the basis of status unites individuals who have a common interest in consuming culturally specific goods and who are attributed with a specific degree of social honor on this account. The association between status and culture is explicit: “Status honor is normally expressed by the fact that above all else a specific style of life is expected from all those who wish to belong to the circle. Linked with this expectation are restrictions in social intercourse” (Weber 1978, p. 932). Status politics rests on the same foundations that class politics does, that is, the impermeability of cultural boundaries, the organizational capacity of cultural groups, and the salience of cultural consciousness.

Referring to social identity theory, Hechter asserts – “That people objectively share a common attribute has no necessary implications for their subjective awareness of this fact, for their desire to identify with others in a similar position, or for social outcomes like collective action.”

I’ll return to this point – which I think is exceptionally important for the debate we’ve been having about the election.

Hechter reviews comprehensively studies on both class identification and its correlation with voting behaviour across OECD countries from 1945 onwards. Discussing the competitive nature of class solidarity and status hetoregeneity and their effects on voting behaviour, Hechter extracts six propositions which are sustained by empirical studies across the spatial and temporal dimensions he examines (I leave aside the three which refer directly to his theoretical typology of direct vs. indirect rule which is complex to explain, not directly relevant to my argument, and with which I don’t totally concur):

PROPOSITION 1.¢â¬âStatus heterogeneity should promote culturally based insurance groups at the expense of class-based groups.

PROPOSITION 2.¢â¬âStatus heterogeneity should decrease rates of unionization.

PROPOSITION 3.¢â¬âStatus heterogeneity should decrease class voting.

Hechter’s story is really quite similar to the argument I made in my post ‘The Land of the Free’. What Hechter argues has declined in most Western democracies is the fixity of class boundaries, the capacity of class-based organisations (political parties and unions, for instance) to mobilise a sense of collective interest opposed to the middle or upper classes, and a shared culture which pits working class people against the more privileged classes. It would be very hard to deny that he is right here – and his marshalling of evidence in support of this thesis is impressive.

Putting the two articles together, what I would suggest is that the rise in the salience of cultural or “values” factors for voting behaviour in the United States is a direct effect of trends which cut across class identification – for instance, increasing ethnic and racial heterogeneity, the partly resultant rise in the importance of conflicting religious and ethical norms, and the rise of an entrepreneurial culture. But it’s important to realise that these factors do not happen of and by themselves. The neo-liberal trends of the last two decades which have so shifted the voting patterns of “limousine liberals” and blue-collar or rural workers are conscious attempts to reshape the social and political landscape by powerful actors. Whether we’re talking about the influence of global corporations on the Republican Party, or the support for the DLC style of politics by a certain group of Deficit Hawks on Wall Street, or the political strategies of the parties themselves, social and political re-orientations which reshape political identities do not happen all of themselves or in some sort of structural vacuum.

Hechter concludes his article:

Since the institutions and policies in the advanced democracies vary significantly, the theory does not predict a convergence of political trends. If the United States enacts legislation permitting religious organizations to distribute welfare benefits (as in George W. Bush’s “faith-based initiative”), this should strengthen status politics at the expense of class politics. Liberal immigration policies are also likely to spur status politics. However, future cutbacks in welfare benefits (accentuating a trend noted by Korpi and Palme [2003]) should help class politics to revive.

Thus, this article cannot be read either as an epitaph for class politics or as a prediction of coming culture wars.

Precisely. The future is open. But what will not work is a pure appeal to voters who are economically disadvantaged to “vote for their real interests” or an attempted summoning up out of the ether of the forces of class politics where their conditions of possibility have evaporated almost beyond repair. The challenge for anyone seeking to build a new electoral strategy is to engage with what is real, right now, and to accept that what is real is not always what is rational. What is needed is a reframing of the lived experience of those low-income voters and therefore, a rebuilding of solidaristic links to a broader social whole were all can achieve their vision of the good life – together.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
This entry was posted in Politics - international, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
17 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Your arguments are much clearer to me now. I mostly agree with you. I certainly agree that analysis in terms of status is significantly more promising and useful than attempting to create a Marxist class-based explanation. But there are also other strands of the US election tapestry that don’t neatly fit a Weberian analysis.

One that I’m wrestling with (and trying to write a post about) is the impact of the emblematic muscular neocon foreign policy stance of the Bush administration: – imposing American values aggressively onto the rest of the world, by force if necessary, especially in the Middle East. It’s a stance that seems to appeal to a wide range of interest/status groups. I think the attraction of this proud imperialism springs in part from a deep national need to assuage previous feelings of national emasculation and humiliation starting with the Vietnam War; via Nixon and Watergate; on to Carter and the Teheran Embassy debacle; interrupted by the Reagan era; but then renewed humiliation with Bush senior’s (perceived) irresolution over Iraq; the Mogadishu humiliation; Clinton’s moral humiliation of and by the American body politic (at least in the eyes of many christian Americans) over the Lewinsky affair; and finally September 11. A President who offers the hope and reality of reclaiming the nation’s masculinity and pride through unapologetically aggressive foreign policy is an attractive package for a whole range of status groups. Of course, that whole phenomenon does have to do with status, but not quite in the way you’re discussing.

A parallel I want to explore in my post lies in the appeal of Nazism to Germans for similar reasons of national emasculation/humiliation in the wake of WWI and Versailles, and the linkages between the roles of the respective underpinning philosophies of Nietzsche with Nazism and Leo Strauss with modern American neoconservatism. But I’ve got a way to go yet in developing my thoughts.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

PS I’m aware the above isn’t in any sense an original thought, but it still strikes me as worth discussing in the present context.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, thanks for your comment. One of the unintended outcomes of blogging for me is helping sharpen my thoughts through interchange – not necessarily a benefit for readers – but something that’s incredibly helpful to me. One of the most disappointing things about academic writing is the lack of feedback – possibly why I have tended to prefer conference presentations (though I would rate the level of civility on the blogosphere as sometimes higher – too many career/ego interests at stake at academic conferences sometimes).

With regard to your post, you’re definitely on to something. We can go back to the phenomenon of the Wallace vote in 68 and also incidents such as the Teamsters’ disruption of anti-war marches. Nixon certainly played to the blue-collar vote through appearing “tough” – it was factored into his military strategy (one reason why people like Colin Powell – in a previous incarnation – were so concerned to separate military strategy from political concerns). There’s no doubt that part of the appeal of Bushism to the low-income cultural conservatives is the projection of American force. There is a real sense in which this does relate to the status argument. An analogy might be the research which suggests that male factory workers who are relatively powerless at work are more inclined to behave in a bullying fashion in domestic and social situations (I’m not stereotyping here – but there is a correlation). If you feel disempowered in your daily life, but can identify with a powerful group (which can be the nation), then you compensate for the everyday injuries of your life through a fantastic projection of force, as it were.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Also – Ken – Norbert Elias’ The Germans is very germane to the parallel you’re drawing with post ww1 Germany.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

BTW I still think it was worthwhile posting my prgmatic reality check rant. I do think you don’t need an especially sophisticated theoretical analysis to explain Kerry’s defeat. Where such an analysis is necessary, however, is in trying to chart a future course for the Democrats as an even mildly social democratic party with a realistic chance of election (a point Don Arthur made in a comment to my post). It’s almost certainly possible, without bothering to attempt such a theoretical analysis and policy development, to find a conservative populist Democrat in the Clinton mode who could conceivably win in 2008. But one can’t help asking what the point of that would be, even if such a neo-Clinton presidency was marginally less socially conservative than the Bush era.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, no argument there – rants are always fun and reality checks are good. The problem, though, that the Demos might have for 08 is finding a conservative populist Democrat from the South. For two reasons – almost all the Senators in that vein are gone – with the exception of Mary Landrieu from Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas – and I’m still not sure a woman is a viable candidate in the US (unfortunately). The Democrats’ long-term decline in the South and the pressures that have led Democrats who can win in the South to be less centrist/populist than in the DLC’s glory days mean that there are fewer young Southern governors and Senators to pick from.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

Senators never win, anyway. Its the Governors, stupid.

Y’all overanalyising it, ya hear! Tis a simple game, win 270 college votes. Thats all that matters. Rove understands this, that is why his side won.

Given how weak his candidate was, it is remarkable that Bush won. I was going to write why, but basically, the reason he won is that instead of going for a centrist strategy that could attract votes from ‘rational’ republicans, the Dems ran a left candidate attractive to the base.

That was crazy; for once in their lives, the Dems should not have had to worry about the base voting with the ABB factor so strong.

Let me put it this way- imagine you are someone with my sort of outlook, fiscally conservative, socially fairly liberal, used to voting for conservative parties…there must have been a lot of voters out there like me. Ask yourself what sort of candidate would attract voters like me.

If you come up with John Kerry, hand in your membership of the ‘reality based community’.

Norman
Norman
2022 years ago

My one suggestion here is [and I was feeling this before I reached scott’s reaction] that ou’re covering some important issues extremely well, but there are readers out there who might find it heavier going than they want. At some time it would be well worth the effort of presenting a summary of your conclusions with no reference to other writers, articles etc., merely a link back to here for those interested.
Some of the suggestions here need to be read by more people,

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Scott, yes, but. The big problem the Demos have – and this is the “partisan realignment” thing – is that they haven’t controlled the House of Reps since 94, and their chances in the Senate are fading (though their position there is more favourable than some claim). Unless they can find a way of building a national coalition for change, strong enough to dent the formidable power of incumbency in the House (as Gingrich did in 94), they face the prospect of gridlock in Congress and even the ever present risk of impeachment – so the odds are that a Demo Prez in 08 would be a one-termer. Kerry would have had a very difficult time in office – imagine if he had just squeaked in by narrowly winning Ohio, still lost the popular vote, and faced entrenched Republican majorities in both houses.

Thanks, Norman – point taken – I might have a stab at pulling some of these ideas together at some point.

Geoff Robinson
2022 years ago

In the Oz context it is noteworthy that 1998 One Nation voters (the type of people Labor should be trying to woo) were distinctively non-religious. The happy-clapper suburban fundos and the regional battlers are two different groups (unlike the US?). Urban left liberals and regional battlers won’t agree on land rights/boat people etc. but they may be closer on personal libertarianism, suspicion of foreign wars and unrestrained market forces than they realise.

On the US Senate if Senate voting came to match presidential voting (and it looks to be heading this way) the Democrats are in serious trouble.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

“There is a real sense in which this does relate to the status argument. An analogy might be the research which suggests that male factory workers who are relatively powerless at work are more inclined to behave in a bullying fashion in domestic and social situations (I’m not stereotyping here – but there is a correlation). If you feel disempowered in your daily life, but can identify with a powerful group (which can be the nation), then you compensate for the everyday injuries of your life through a fantastic projection of force, as it were.”

While I know you were discussing the US, I was constantly looking for parallels to Australia and indeed myself as a currently “hawkish” individual. I think your above statement is plausable in theory but filtering it through an Australian perspective and my own individual experience, I would mellow it a bit. I think it would be nearer the mark to say that low income working people (“real working stiffs” to use Chris’s term) have seen an erosion in their sense of personal security and in terms of main stream media images probably an erosion of their sense of self worth. The hairy chested reaction to 9/11 may well come from this – a feeling of “okay this is a problem that can be fixed, we can bomb the fuckers”. The anti-war movement may well be made up of those who through personal experience and situation (even if it is based on denial) did not actually feel the threat with the same intensity as others.

I was watching 730 Report the other night and Kerry was interviewing John CLarke, not the famous one, but the long standing and now retiring head of NIDA. They were discussing the relative success of Australian actors in Hollywood. Clarke put it down to their “bravery” willingness to try something risky. Without disputing it I was bemused because I think it is very easy to be “brave” in this country. We all have such a big safety net or at least the middle classes do, all the famous NIDA graduates referred to were and are exceedingly middle class.

I hope my off topic(ish) example helps illustrate my point. I think you are onto something but it would not cost you to water down the language and accept the more woolly sense of security and esteem as drivers to the identification with the Capital and butch foreign policy.

Link
2022 years ago

Great piece, on:-
“voters who are economically disadvantaged to “vote for their real interests”
Maybe we should offer them a new pair of the latest joggers?

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Ken, I agree entirely with your comment above, but it’s hard to reconcile with this rhetorical question from your own post:

Mightn’t a member of the conservative poor legitimately conclude that the moral and social policies of the Republicans, not to mention Bush’s stance on national security and the War Against Terror, coincided more closely with their wider self-interest than the Democrats’ prescriptions?.

By ‘might’ do you mean ‘in principle’, or do you mean you personally attach a not insignificant probability to it?

The issue is not one of narrow economic interest versus wider interest, but of whether those wider interests are real or manufactured. If it’s really about ‘proud imperialism’, i.e. rooting for Captain America, you have to ask what real interest is at stake. One can’t easily express this sort of thing without sounding like a typical condescending academic, but it’s legitimate to ask on what basis the average turkey farmer forms a view of his geopolitical interests. If that view is based on facts and analysis supplied by Fox News and the local evangelical preacher, it will be hideously distorted one. Obviously not every advocate of American foreign policy is ignorant – many of them are a lot more informed and intelligent than I am – but if you think of the comments recorded by CNNNN on the streets of US cities, you can only conclude that lots of Ameicans voted in their own interests by accident at best.(Not that the Democrats would have done things much differently from this point onwards.)

Mark, I think you have applied the status group argument very convincingly.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

James

I don’t think my two points are in any sense irreconcilable. Voters certainly believed Bush was more trustworthy on the War Against Terror (at least the exit polling seemed to say so). I suggest the factors involved in their forming that view would have included some sort of evaluative exercise however half-baked (although it may, as you say, have been handicapped by the quality of information from sources like FoxNews), but also included a substantial “psychic need to strike back to assuage national honour and redeem masculine pride” factor. The psychic factor would certainly precondition such voters to happily accept the FoxNews version of events and not look at them too critically, but that doesn’t negate the proposition that they formed their views by a process every bit as rational as yours and mine. After all, we’re no doubt prey to our own psychic needs and delusions. It’s just that no-one is bothering to psychoanalyse us at the moment, because we didn’t just vote in a dangerous, irresponsible fool as the most powerful man in the world.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

I think they were more likely to have been effected by CNN and east liberal media than by FoxNews – just not in the way you’d prefer.

There is the theory that organisations like FoxNews follow trends not create them. Probably true of local evangelical preachers as well.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

James H, I think we’re on the same wavelength here and your analogy is a good one.

trackback
2022 years ago

Zizek on Frank & populism

I have just come across this forum run by the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. It rightly says that: “Australian culture is notable for the lack of intellectual engagement in issues of social and political importance in any prominent way. Th…