What’s the Matter With ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas?’

Here’s George Packer in the New Yorker (10/13/08) seeming to debunk Tom Frank:

Until the mid-’70s, the white working class–the heart of the New Deal coalition–voted largely Democratic. Since the Carter years, the percentages have declined from 60 to 40, and this shift has roughly coincided with the long hold of the Republican Party on the White House.

The white working class–a group that often speaks of itself, and is spoken of, as forgotten, marginalized, even despised–is the golden key to political power in America, and it voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush twice, by 17 percent in 2000 and 23 percent in 2004. Thomas Frank’s 2004 book Whatâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s the Matter with Kansas? directed its indignation at the baffling phenomenon of millions of Americans voting year after year against their economic self-interest. He concluded that the Republican Party had tricked working people with a relentless propaganda campaign based on religion and morality, while Democrats had abandoned these voters to their economic masters by moving to the soft center of the political spectrum. Frankâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s book remains the leading polemic about the white reaction–the title alone has, for many liberals, become shorthand for the conventional wisdom–but it is hobbled by the condescending argument that tens of millions of Americans have become victims of a “carefully cultivated derangement,” or are simply stupid.

Last year, four sociologists at the University of Arizona, led by Lane Kenworthy, released a paper that complicates Frankâ┚¬Ã¢”ž¢s thesis. Their study followed the voting behavior of the 45 per cent of white Americans who identify themselves as working class. Mining electoral data from the General Social Survey, they found that the decline in white working-class support for Democrats occurred in one period–from the mid-’70s until the early ’90s, with a brief lull in the early ’80s–and has remained well below 50 percent ever since. But they concluded that social issues like abortion, guns, religion and even (outside the South) race had little to do with the shift. Instead, according to their data, it was based on a judgment that–during years in which industrial jobs went overseas, unions practically vanished, and working-class incomes stagnated–the Democratic Party was no longer much help to them. “Beginning in the mid-to-late 1970s, there was increasing reason for working-class whites to question whether the Democrats were still better than the Republicans at promoting their material well-being,” the study’s authors write. Working-class whites, their fortunes falling, began to embrace the anti-government, low-tax rhetoric of the conservative movement. During Clinton’s presidency, the downward economic spiral of these Americans was arrested, but by then their identification with the Democrats had eroded. Having earlier moved to the right for economic reasons, the Arizona study concluded, the working class stayed there because of the rising prominence of social issues–Thomas Frank’s argument. But the Democrats fundamentally lost the white working class because these voters no longer believed the Party’s central tenet–that government could restore a sense of economic security.

To summarize: Frank says that Republicans captured white working class voters with social appeals when Democrats abandoned them on economics. But what REALLY happened is that Democrats abandoned the white working class on economics, and then Republicans captured them with social appeals. Take notes, there’s going to be a test later.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.