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.

NEXT: The Problem With Stanley Fish's Principles

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I haven’t read the dueling papers yet, but part of the problem here might be that Kansas has never been a strong state for Democrats in the first place. The Kansas conservative revolt that Frank writes about has taken place within the Republican Party.

  2. Bartels’ analysis admits that the American South is where Dems have lost votes. In close elections, such as 2000 and 2004, that has been a substantial factor as to whether the Dems win or lose. Regardless of a book about Kansas, Frank’s larger point stands tall in terms of the Dems’ problem and what to do:

    Frank’s point is that an economically populist Democrat–who, unlike Kerry and Gore in 2000 (unlike Gore today perhaps)–is more likely to grab enough votes in a southern State and Kansas itself that could in turn bring the Dems a victory in a presidential election.

    Also, it is unclear to me whether Bartels’ analysis holds up if one places the cut-off at $50,000 not $35,000 for white folks especially. My sense is that there is probably a lessening of support for Dems, even outside the South, which again is quite significant in a close presidential election.

    I further more than quibble with a baseline comparison with the Ike-Stevenson 1952. Let’s see a comparison with the JFK-Nixon election of 1960 or the Johnson-Goldwater election of 1964 and I think we’ll find more support for Frank’s thesis, even with Kansas as well as the American South.

    Race was a major factor in losing white votes in the South–and a border state such as Kansas. That is why, again, a Democratic Party that nominates genuinely populist candidate strikes terror in the hearts of Republican political consultants. Frank remains therefore more likely correct than Bartels in terms of what ails the Dems and what Bartels proposes as a “solution”, which solution is essentially Joe Lieberman’s political stances.

  3. So poor people voting for Republicans are voting against their self-interest?

    Is there a problem with that?

    The nation would be a heck of a lot better off if people quit voting for their own self-interest and instead voted for what they actually believed was right.

    I have noticed that in the last few election cycles, the Democrat’s arguments often focus on “My polices are better for you“, rather than on what is better for the nation or what is “fair” in an abstract sense. Perhaps all these poor Republicans are just smart enough to realize that what is “best” for them is not necessarily right.

  4. Ahh, like duh. The broad swing in political fortunes has been in the South since WWII. I don’t need a bunch of fancy regression analysis, etc. to tell me this.

  5. Frank’s point is that an economically populist Democrat–who, unlike Kerry and Gore in 2000 (unlike Gore today perhaps)–is more likely to grab enough votes in a southern State and Kansas itself that could in turn bring the Dems a victory in a presidential election.

    Which is one big reason why the Dems made a mistake in nominating Kerry over Edwards – though I’m personally glad that they did.

    Race was a major factor in losing white votes in the South–and a border state such as Kansas.

    It was in the ’60s and ’70s, but I don’t think it’s a major factor right now. At most, it plays second fiddle to religion among sociocultural issues.

  6. Beltway politicians rarely understand the midwest mindset.

  7. From Brian’s ancient article on Frank:

    “Harper’s is where excellent young New Republic writer Stephen Glass goes to skewer telephone psychics. ”

    Ah, the good old days.

  8. I talked to Thomas Frank on talk radio here in Denver back when he was promoting his ridiculous yet best selling volume. I exposed him on a two points. One was that while he was lamenting what he adds up as the sad state of the American worker relative to a number of years ago, he neglects the increasing share of employer contribution to health care, retirement and other benies.

    The other was that while citing after tax earnings figures in his litany, he never accounts for the deleterious effects that those very higher taxes on income, and also profits and goods have on standards of living.

  9. Why is anyone still talking about that god-awful book?
    To me, it read like the book equivalent of a bad TV newsmagazine hit piece. Stating the obvious, but with bad lighting, in slo-mo, with grave music.

    “There were some guys in power who used wedge issues to gain votes (chung-chung). Then, there were more moderate guys in power who gained power with the help of more radical elements in their party (chung-chung). And, some politicians played to issues they didn’t really personally consider important (chung-chung).

    Meanwhile, towns in dry, barely fertile areas with economies based solely on agriculture were dying, and this was because Wal-Mart had come to town. Since all major economies owe their success to half their citizens engaging in the inefficient sale of overpriced sundries to one another, Wal-Mart turns out to have been the real threat to these towns. This would never have happened if the democrats were in control. (chung-chung).

    What a waste of paper. Honestly, did anyone read that book & find a single sentence that said anything new or worthwhile? Nothing but liberal masturbation.

  10. Harper’s is where excellent young New Republic writer Stephen Glass goes to skewer telephone psychics.

    Also on talk radio; once I heard a concerned caller ask a “psychic” if her child might be retarded. The psychic answered that he did intact “see” some mild retardation. This outrage motivated me to, on occasions when a talk moderator had a psychic on as a guest, call and ask something like: “My brother wants me to go into the bookbinding business with him. Do you think I should?” Then, after the faker answered with what ever BS, I would inform him/her that I made the whole thing up and that I don’t even have a brother, and I would ask: “So just what in the Hell did you “see”? That was fun to do.

  11. …Shoulda been: “..did *infact* “see” some mild retardation.”

    Damn the Preview button! Full speed ahead!

  12. I talked to Thomas Frank on talk radio here in Denver…

    Mike Rosen’s show? If so, small world. If not, still a small world.
    My impression was that the book’s selling point was its title, not its content.

  13. This might be off topic. Or not.

    I’m four months behind reading The Atlantic. November’s issue had a map I saw a few days ago showing the numeric changes in electoral college votes. Nothing all that interesting.

    The next day I picked up Crain’s Chicago Business which had a map showing, by state, whether the residents were net savers or net debtors. It was an almost mirror image of the electoral college map, with the net debtors gaining electoral college votes.

    My point being that whether the government passes out cash and prizes or passes out EZ credit… what’s the diff? The po’ folk are still votin’ for who’s givin’ the bigger handouts. Maybe Frank’s real topic should have been about how the Republicans aren’t conservative anymore.

  14. The nation would be a heck of a lot better off if people quit voting for their own self-interest and instead voted for what they actually believed was right.

    So the “right” interest is the one that screws me over? What if I think voting in my self-interest is the right thing.

    The author of this article reminds me of the Democrats who keep saying, “The people who vote against us because they don’t want gun control just don’t understand our position. Our gun control policies are right. We need to ‘reframe our message’ so they will come over to our side.”

    There’s no comprehension inside the Beltway of the idea that perhaps what the Democrats really need to do is listen to their disaffected constituents and find out why their same old policies aren’t gathering in votes any more.

  15. Mr. F. Le Mur,

    I don’t think that it was Mike’s show cuz it seems like it was in the PM and Mike’s show is in the morning. But I could be misremembering. So you’re in Colorado too? Seems like there are quite a few H&R folks who are.

  16. I’m one of those UC guys whose demographics have shifted.

    I was a Dem til about ’80 or so. A Libertarian ’til 9/11 and now a reluctant Republican.

  17. Kansas isn’t a ‘border’ state. It votes Plains Republican. What southerners lived there were driven out during the Civil War. In 1864 – Kansas’s first presidential election – the Democrat won 18% of the vote, against over 79% for Lincoln. It was McClellan’s worst result in any state. In 1876 Kansas went Republican by a 63%-30% vote. (In the general election, the Dem won popular 51-47, while the Republican won a 2000-style.) Since 1896 the Republicans have beaten the Democrats there 22 times, against 6 losses. That is pretty close to the worst result for the Dems in any state. (Alaska has gone Republican 11 of 12 times. I can’t find another – even Nebraska has gone to the Dems more than 6 times in that period.)

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.