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¬âWeber ( 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¬âStatus heterogeneity should promote culturally based insurance groups at the expense of class-based groups.
PROPOSITION 2.¢â¬âStatus heterogeneity should decrease rates of unionization.
PROPOSITION 3.¢â¬âStatus 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 ) 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.