Katrina Van Den Huevel, the editor of The Nation, informs
us about an important study
(pdf download) by Princeton Political Scientist Larry M. Bartels
who has taken time to analyze National Election Study data that Bartels says proves that working class white voters have not left the Democratic Party. He says instead that to win these close national elections, Democrats must expand their appeal to economically better off white voters. Specifically, Bartels states that:
"...if the idea is to appeal to a large class of white voters who have become noticeably less Democratic over the past half-century, the place to find them is in the middle and upper reaches of the income distribution. These affluent white are more liberal on social issues than working-class whites, and if anything they have become increasingly liberal on social issues over the past 30 years. Moreover, their views about soical issues are more closely connected to partisanship and voting behavior than those of working-class whites--and they have become much more closely connected since the 1980s." (page 31 of Bartels' analysis)
Despite Professor Bartel's effective challenge to Thomas Frank's analysis in "What's the Matter with Kansas?"
, Bartels' almost total reliance on the National Election Study
data causes him to overstate the problem with Frank's analysis--and simulataneously causes Bartels to overstate his own conclusion restated above.
First, Bartels' analysis, for all its bluster against Thomas Frank, significantly admits Frank is correct that there has been an erosion of white working class voters from the Democrats to Republicans in the American South. Says Bartels: "Indeed, in the case of low-income whites the erosion is entirely confined to the South." Yes, Professor. That is precisely
how the Democrats are losing close national races and it is why there are so many damned Republican Congressman--the South now consists of more right wing cultural kooks who are economic elitists than during the period of the 1930s through the 1960s, when the white Southern Democratic Party leadership had to at least mouth the rhetoric of the New Deal in between their denunciation of blacks, "commies" (mostly not communist when names were sought), Jews, and other good folks.
Professor Bartels' "thesis" is less a conclusion than a mere restatement of what the Dem strategy has been since the tenure of former Democratic Party Congressional whip Tony Cohelo, the criminal bastard, who gave political-AIDS to the Democrats through corporate money-fusion, and has left the Republicans controlling the White House and Congress--and framing the political commentary through corporate-owned media.
Bartels' article is unfortunately narrow. This is unlike Frank, who wrote his book not merely to find a way to help Dems win at least close elections, but also to propose and create a better set of public policies designed to restore a more equal distribution of power and wealth in our nation to where it was before, say, 1973 (see: Kevin Phillips' "The Politics of Rich and Poor" (1989) for starters on the varied statistical and historical analysis that leads to Frank's book).
In any event, Bartels' conclusion doesn't look as strong as when one first reads his article because the South is where Dems lose national elections. However, let's look at the NES data upon which Bartels relies. Here, I don't posit an answer, but my analysis below should cause Bartels not to draw the sweeping conclusions he has drawn.
Professor Bartels (see pages 11 and 12, footnote 12), uses the NES "working class" "annual family income" cut off of "less than $35,000." Even if Frank agrees with this, I don't. I see a more practical and therefore accurate cut-off number for working class "annual family income" as "less than $50,000." Why? Because income at that level for such families can fluctuate such that they'll be up to $50,000 in some years, particularly election years like 2004 when even Republicans prime the economic pump. Then, in years such as 2005, they may go below $35,000 if one of the adult family members loses his or her job, is injured or gets sick for awhile--or gas prices get out of hand.
Here is Bartels' discussion of the economic triad structure of income in America per the NES:
"Obviously, the exact proportions of the sample in each group vary somehwhat from year to year...In the 2004 (NES) survey...31.0% of the rsepondents reported family incomes of less than $35,000, 25.7% reported family incomes between $35,000 and $70,000, and 31.1% reported family incomes in excess of $70,000. the remaining 12% declined to report their income, and I have not included them in any of the three income groups."
While this last sentence shows Professor Bartels being careful, we both are poorer for our analysis as that 12% becomes a "wild card." In any event, looking at the triad structure, we see an eroding middle and the bottom 1/3rd still not doing as well as they would if there was, in the private sector, more than the current 8% union-representation. Anyway, if we go with my $50,000 working class annual family income cut-off and, then, look at the depth of analysis and charts Professor Bartels has designed, one can see that, even outside the South, a change of the "working class" cut off to even $40,000 would likely begin to undermine Bartels' conclusion stated at the beginning of this post and begin to support Frank's thesis.
Am I saying I KNOW the answer if the $50,000 cut off is used? No, I don't. What I am saying is that a reasonable upward change to the "annual family income" cut-off will likely lead to a conclusion that supports most of the other data Thomas Frank gathered and analyzed in his book. Bartels' analysis, therefore, is helpful, but it does not get us to the promised land because it relies too much on NES analyses.
In addition, Bartels has assumed that simply because the NES data show that non-well-off voters think they are voting for economic issues, they must in fact be voting consistent with their pocketbooks. Even Bartels has not believed that in the past, as in his infamous and admittedly elitist "Homer Gets a Tax Cut"
(again, pdf) essay from 2004. I find that in national elections, with wooden, elitist candidates such as Gore (that's Gore before he lost and found himself a born-again populist) and Kerry, working class voters are more likely to vote on "character" issues as framed by the national media. While the national media may have been disappointed with Bush's performance as president even in 2004 (hence negative stories on Iraq and the economy), it was fairly clear the national press corps had little use for Kerry and hated him almost as much as they still hate Gore. Also, once the Republicans took over Congress in 1994, it's been tough to convince voters to jettison their local represenatives until a crisis happens. Thus, I am less confident in the NES data than Bartels in assuming that what people tell a pollster (and the NES is a poll) and how people actually vote is somehow the same.
Is therefore Bartels wrong in the sense that an Ann Coulter or even an Al From of the DLC is wrong? No. Bartels is wrong because he writes as if the NES data conclusively proves Frank is wrong. Again, the South is precisely where the Dems lose elections, which is why a coherent economic populist position will help Democrats solidfy themselves in other States and finally get some traction again in the South.
Ironically, 2006 and 2008 look better these days, but not because the national Democrats have found any solution, either Bartels' or Frank's. The national Democrats such as "Hillary Biden" will, however, seize upon Bartels' report to continue doing what they are doing. But what they are doing is continuing to blur the two parties on economics--with, again, the only salvation being that the Republican leadership are proving both their corruption and their incompetence in running government--whether it's responding to Hurricane Katrina, pursuing a government by and for Haliburton, or the tax cuts that correspond with cuts for soldiers' equipment and programs for the poor and working classes, etc.
Bartels' article is still a must read. Why? Because, as I said, he moves the debate forward in showing us why Thomas Frank should have at least discussed in some detail the NES data. That data is not discussed in Frank's book's index and frankly (pardon the pun) I don't recall discussion of it in his book. Therefore, hats off to Professor Bartels, even as I say, "Sorry, professor. I still think the Dems' problem largely resides on K Street, in the offices of the DLC, and the national political consluts (consultants) who tell Dems to attack their base while diluting the Democratic Party's best message."
(Editing, but not in overall content or substance)