Guest post by CALA instructor Jason Schulman, who will be teaching his new course, The American White Working Class and Modern Conservatism, this Spring.
For most people, academic debates generate little interest because they appear to be so detached from the real world.
But one debate—a multi-year back-and-forth between Thomas Frank and Larry Bartels—combined questions about methodology with real world implications. At issue was how to define the white working class.
It started in 2004, when Frank, a journalist and history writer, published the best-selling book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Frank identified a surprising political trend in which white working-class voters in Kansas were increasingly favoring the Republican Party, despite the fact that its economic platform would largely benefit the wealthy. He argued that these voters went right, leaving the Democratic Party, because of culture and values, not economics.
In 2005, Bartels, then a professor at Princeton University and now a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, gave a presentation at the American Political Science Association conference, a gathering of top political scientists from around the nation. In his talk, “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?,” Bartels challenged Frank’s narrative, arguing that the white working class had actually not abandoned the Democratic Party. In fact, he argued, white voters in the bottom third of the income distribution were actually becoming more Democratic, while middle- and upper-income whites were the ones shifting their allegiance to the Republican Party.
Frank responded in a piece entitled, “Class is Dismissed,” explaining that he defined the white working class by not by income, but by education (e.g., those without a college degree). Bartels was wrong, and his analysis of what he saw in Kansas held.
In 2006, Bartels published “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?” in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science, again challenging Frank, and arguing that the only decrease in support for the Democrats by the white working class was in the South.
The two went back and forth in a few other venues.
The debate mattered for more than academic bragging rights. It also had implications for the Democrats’ strategy. If Frank was right, that culture had driven working-class whites to the Republicans, then the Democrats should move to the right on “values” issues (to the degree possible). If Bartels was right, and the white working class generally was still strongly Democratic, there was no need for more conservative or centrist social issue policies.
So it really depends how we define the white working class.
We’ll be reading Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas and Bartels’s “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?” the first week of a new course at CALA, The American White Working Class and Modern Conservatism. https://www.sps.nyu.edu/professional-pathways/courses/HIST1-CE9117-the-american-white-working-class-and-modern-conservatism.html