Conservatives often say that Americans who work for a living have gone Republican, and some people on the left agree, though they give the phenomenon a different spin. Tom Frank, cofounder of the Baffler, labeled it the Great Backlash in his scathing, impressionistic What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Few books on American politics can approach Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 for readability. Frank’s does; published in June 2004, it was widely read by despairing Democrats before and after the election and drew plaudits from such luminaries as Molly Ivins, Barbara Ehrenreich, and the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof. But a good read isn’t always entirely true, and Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Princeton University, recently called Frank’s facts into question.
Frank describes the Great Backlash as “a style of conservatism that first came snarling onto the national stage in response to the partying and protest of the late sixties.” Folks who were outraged over issues such as busing, abortion, gay marriage, evolution, and trashy TV have cast more and more of their ballots for Republicans. The conservatives they’ve elected use their power to enact probusiness economic policies, but, like Ronald Reagan, they never quite get around to delivering on the social issues that provided their margin of victory. Frank sees a classic bait and switch: “The trick never ages; the illusion never wears off. Vote to stop abortion; receive a rollback in capital gains taxes. Vote to make our country strong again; receive deindustrialization. Vote to screw those politically correct college professors; receive electricity deregulation. . . . Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes.”
According to Frank, the Great Backlash has worked wonders for the conservative economic agenda. “Having rolled back the landmark economic reforms of the sixties (the war on poverty) and those of the thirties (labor law, agricultural price supports, banking regulation), its leaders now turn their guns on the accomplishments of the earliest years of progressivism (Woodrow Wilson’s estate tax; Theodore Roosevelt’s antitrust measures). With a little more effort, the backlash may well repeal the entire twentieth century.”
Frank doesn’t give clever conservatives all the credit. He also fingers what he calls the “criminally stupid” counterstrategy of Clinton Democrats, who neglected their traditional base in order to court corporations and affluent white-collar professionals. As a consequence the Democratic Party remains staunchly pro-choice “while making endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation, and the rest of it.” Each concession cuts one more tie that binds potential backlash voters to their parents’ party, leaving them open to the machinations of Karl Rove and the various Republican denominations.
Who are these voters? Frank calls them “working class guys,” “the poor,” “sons and daughters of toil,” “union members,” “appliance salesmen, auto mechanics, and junior engineers,” “hardworking citizen[s] of an impoverished town,” and “blue-collar patriots”–a list that confuses as much as it clarifies. We’re supposed to just know who he’s talking about, though if we think about it a little we really don’t. And his labels, with their whiff of radical rhetoric, are slippery enough to make his case seem stronger than it is.
Right-wing fabulists too resort to convenient vagueness, as when they blame a shadowy crew of “liberals” for saturating our culture with smirking sex and gory violence. If they got specific they’d have to abuse, say, well-known liberals like Rupert Murdoch, who actually has power over how Fox chooses to make money, and lay off Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean, who have none. Left or right, clarity and good lighting take away the fun. Define who you mean, check the facts, and you may find that your adversaries aren’t who you expected at all.
Republicans use the basic Great Backlash story to bash Democrats and to generate a bandwagon effect. Frank and his fans use it to bash Republicans and chivy the Democrats back to their good old ways. But neither group is asking whether the premise is true.
Last time I checked, Kansas was still governed by a moderate Democratic woman and George W. Bush’s polls were in the toilet. Obviously some people fit the backlash story, but how typical are they? How successful has the Great Backlash really been and with whom?
Those who study politics for a living, like Larry Bartels, have a tool for answering these kinds of questions: the American National Election Studies (umich.edu/nes), a series of polls conducted every two years since 1948 under the auspices of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. During the 2004 election cycle, trained interviewers questioned 1,212 randomly selected individuals face-to-face, a standard sample size that’s usually accurate to within two or three percentage points.
Last fall Bartels gave the ANES a workout when he presented a 42-page paper titled “What’s the Matter With What’s the Matter With Kansas?” (princeton.edu/bartels/kansas.pdf), at the American Political Science Association conference in Washington, D.C. Having just published an article in the liberal magazine American Prospect describing gross inconsistencies in Americans’ thinking about the estate tax, he seemed well-placed to tackle what Frank calls “a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymus Bosch.”
The statistician taking on the storyteller is a venerable academic sport: a professor finds a popular book that speaks to his or her specialty, extracts some testable assertions, and tests them. A sport shouldn’t be too easy, and extracting testable assertions from What’s the Matter With Kansas? isn’t. First of all Bartels had to figure out who the Great Backlash people were. Following Frank’s lead, he gravitated toward the term “working class,” though nowhere in 294 pages does Frank say exactly what he means by it. Bartels’s quandary was all the worse because there’s no standard definition and the alternatives are flawed. Asking Americans how they define themselves, for instance, is pointless, since most call themselves “middle-class” even when they’re clearly not. And defining “working class” as “people with relatively low incomes” leaves out many unionized workers and includes retirees and young people just getting started.
After some thought Bartels went with income, defining “working class” as people in the bottom third of the country’s income distribution. In 2004 that meant everyone earning less than $35,000 a year. Despite its shortcomings, this definition seems as fair as any for the folks in Frank’s book–his very first paragraph contains the disconcerting factoid that the poorest county in the U.S. gave Bush more than 80 percent of its votes in 2000. Bartels also focused on white voters because Frank did–after all, he was writing largely about Kansas and the apparent defection of whites from the old New Deal coalition.
Using this definition and the American National Election Studies, Bartels found the Great Backlash to be more story than substance. “Working-class whites,” he writes, “have not become more Republican in their presidential voting behavior.” Between 1976 and 2004 “whites in the bottom third of the income distribution cast 51% of their votes for Democrats, as compared with 44% of middle-income whites and 37% of upper-income whites.” As for trends, “Al Gore and John Kerry did better among low-income whites in the close elections of 2000 and 2004 than John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey did in the close elections of 1960 and 1968.”
Bartels found that fewer people in the bottom third identify themselves as Democrats now than 50 years ago, but middle- and upper-income whites have been leaving the party faster. In any case, since the low-income people leaving have been almost all southern whites defecting from the party of civil rights, the phenomenon signals just that the south is now more like the rest of the country rather than solidly Democratic.
Bartels also discovered that low-income whites haven’t grown more conservative over the years, “except on abortion since 1996–and even with that shift they remain noticeably more pro-choice than they were in the 1970s.” Cultural issues like abortion don’t drive their votes that much in any case, either by comparison with traditional economic issues or by comparison with more affluent white voters. “What is most striking in these figures,” Bartels writes, “is the consistent moderation of low-income whites by comparison with more affluent whites . . . making them unlikely candidates to appear in the vanguard of an ideological ‘backlash’ of any sort.”
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.”
So the oldest cliche in the American political book is still true: the better off you are, the more likely you are to vote Republican. 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.
In an acerbic reply to Bartels entitled “Class Is Dismissed” (tcfrank.com/dismissd.pdf), Frank wrote, “Bartels’ response . . . is simply to close his eyes and define the issue away.” Then he rejected Bartels’s definition of “working class” and plumped for defining it in terms of education, which largely determines life chances, rather than in terms of something as changeable as income. The working class, he wrote, consists of all those Americans who don’t hold college degrees–a definition that encompasses a whopping 73 percent of Americans, including Bill Gates. It also implies that the working class has shrunk drastically, down from 92 percent of Americans in 1960. The row drew some attention at the blogs Crooked Timber and TPMCafe, where people exchanged strong opinions about the proper definition of “working class.”
Frank and Bartels agree on very little, but they do agree that “working class” is just a label, sometimes useful, sometimes not. “It probably doesn’t matter much what labels we use,” Bartels wrote in an e-mail he forwarded to me, “as long as we are clear about the operational definitions.” In his reply Frank wrote, “Forget ‘white working class’; call them ‘middle Americans’; call them ‘the Pepsi People’; call them whatever you want.”
Frank also cited an August release from the Pew Research Center (people-press.org/commentary) to support his contention that Bartels was wrong even about the low-income group he’d chosen to crunch the numbers on. Pew combined the results of 129 public-opinion surveys since 1992 and found that the Republicans had made big gains in party identification among whites in the next-to-bottom fifth of American incomes: 29 percent used to identify with the GOP and 33 with the Democrats, and now 35 percent claimed to be Republicans, 28 Democrats. But Bartels had already pointed out this shift and the fact that it was almost completely a southern phenomenon, not a nationwide trend. Moreover, the polls Pew used are from different sources, and there’s no guarantee the pollsters asked the question the same way from one poll to the next or kept careful track of the nonresponders–things the American National Election Studies do, which is why they’re the gold standard.
If you’re a journalist ambushed by an academic, it’s always good to play the “ivory tower” card. Frank accused Bartels of hiding behind his computer printouts, arguing that ANES statistics are deceiving. All those percentages reduce the landscape of American politics to a “featureless tundra swept of history, ideology, and any hint of the raw emotional resonance that everyone knows politics possesses.” The fact is, he went on, “the problem is still there, the Republicans still entrenched in power.”
Entrenched? Ronald Reagan may have crushed Walter Mondale back in 1984, but Clinton was in office for eight years, and Bush lost the popular vote to Gore and barely squeaked by Kerry. If the Republicans really were entrenched, the elections of 2000 and 2004 wouldn’t have been close. It’s precisely because the actual votes were so close that Republicans are now scrambling to entrench themselves through nonelectoral means–by appointing activist conservative judges, imposing off-year redistricting schemes, and sucking up lobbyists’ cash like leeches in a blood bank.
Frank ended his reply by simply moving the goalposts. Even if Bartels were right about everything, he said, What’s the Matter With Kansas? is a cultural study of right-wing populism, and as such it doesn’t “depend upon a majoritarian argument of any kind; it only requires that the cultural formation in question is significant. . . . I make no systematic claim . . . that the mindset or beliefs I describe are the only or even the predominant way of thinking among working-class Americans.”
That’s a bit much. In the book Frank claims the Great Backlashers have repealed the whole New Deal and are dragging the country back to 1900, and now, well, they might not be predominant? And what about Frank’s case against Clintonism? It would be greatly strengthened if he could back it up with Bartels’s kind of carefully gathered evidence.
Bartels has been revising his initial paper for publication, and in a draft version he 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. Contrary to what you’d expect, nongraduate whites see themselves as closer to the Democrats on social issues than on economic issues. Apparently they missed the Clinton message Frank denounces–they still peg the Democrats as quite liberal on economic issues, more liberal than they see themselves. This pattern probably should worry Democratic strategists, but it’s the photographic negative of the one Frank described.
The Democrats need a strategy that’s based in reality–not anecdote. But anecdotes can help, so don’t throw away your copy of What’s the Matter With Kansas? just yet. It remains important precisely because the country is so closely divided. The Great Backlash it describes may be overhyped and underdefined, but a relatively small number of backlashers in the right place could be enough to turn an election.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Joe Bluhm; photo/Jon Roemer–Woodrow Wilson School.