Frankly Mistaken


Larry Bartels, a Princeton political scientist, says that the main point of Thomas Frank's bestselling What's the Matter with Kansas? is nonsense: that there is no numerical evidence that midwestern working-class types, fooled by GOP values rhetoric into ignoring their own economic interests, are abandoning the Democrats for the Republicans in droves.

Frank doesn't even define precisely who he is talking about, Bartels notes. But if you examine what Bartels considers the gold standard of political time series survey data, the American National Election Studies conducted at the University of Michigan, and break it down to either lower-income or non-college-educated whites, the only place you find a significant change toward the GOP is in the South–which ain't Kansas.

The Chicago Reader story has a long feature on the topic here. (It's a PDF file of the actual paper issue, a little tricky to read through.) A full Bartels paper on the topic here.

Some quotes gleaned from the Reader's account:

To the extent that a Great Backlash does exist, its actors are middle-income Americans, not those at the bottom. "If the idea is to appeal to a large class of white voters who have become noticeably less Democratic over the past half-century," Bartels writes, "the place to find them is in the middle and upper reaches of the income distribution."
By this definition, working-class conservatism is rarer now than back when Richard Nixon said he was not a crook. And the people Frank is disparaging are more likely to be his former University of Chicago classmates than a bunch of Kansas burger flippers.

Frank replied in an earlier iteration of their debate that he didn't merely mean those earning $35,000 a year, as Bartels studied, in his undefined middle American backlash group–he meant those without college degrees. Bartels, reports the Reader,

concedes Frank the right to say that the people he's talking about are whites without college degrees, then proceeds to reanalyze the ANES data using that definition–to devastating effect. These people don't look like Great Backlashers either. The numbers do show that their support for Democrats dropped by about six percentage points between 1952 and 2004–but once again it's the south, not Kansas, that's to blame. Among nonsouthern whites without college degrees, support for Democratic presidential candidates has fallen by all of one percentage point in the last 52 years.

Not-so-great backlash, anyone?

Bartels also points out that if people who didn't graduate from college were vulnerable to the Great Backlash appeal and their degree-holding counterparts weren't, you'd expect the two groups to vote differently. In fact, they've tracked pretty closely since 1980. You'd also expect the nongraduates to identify social issues such as abortion and affirmative action as very important to them and likely to be a make-or-break factor when they vote. Instead, the numbers indicate a "middle-class" backlash: white voters with college degrees attach twice as much importance to abortion as do those without degrees.

Frank's response to Bartels here.

Jesse Walker's Reason review of Kansas here.

My oldie-but-goodie Reason piece calling bullshit on an earlier Thomas Frank piece that he wrote for Harpers back in 1998 here.