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16 February 2006

Sensibility Wars?: What is the white working class?

In a lively exchange, Larry Bartels and Thomas Frank have argued over the role of the “white working class� and that group's allegedly waning support for the Democratic Party. A few weeks back, we were lucky enough to hear Bartels present his paper “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas� to which Thomas Frank has written a rejoinder (Bartels has incorporated Frank's criticisms into his latest version of his paper).

One of disputes between the two gentlemen is the definition of the “white working class.� Bartels outlines some possible criteria: educational attainment, occupation, subjective identification, and income. As Bartels describes, each of these have their drawbacks. In an earlier draft of the paper he used income, but in response to Frank’s critique, uses educational attainment in the draft presented at CAPS. In an empirical analysis of Frank’s thesis, Bartels finds little support for the idea that working class whites have abandoned the Democrats.

This debate raises the question: What does it mean to be working class in America? Is working class a meaningful classification?

This question might go back to the oft cited David Brooks article “One Nation, Slightly Divisible� from the Atlantice Monthly published in December 2001. In it, Brooks argues that we are a nation divided by our different sensibilities and tastes; and like a high school cafeteria, we tend to form cliques or communities. Might “working class� be a construct based on perceptions of the sensibilities or tastes of one group (not necessarily class) by another? These sensibilities are reflected in the electoral map, but they are not predicted by variables we associate with working class. We need to explain where these sensibilities arise and how they translate into political behavior.

Maybe we should have new taste and sensibility measures in the National Election Survey. Heineken or Bud Light? James Taylor or Lynrd Skynrd? Culture war indeed.

Posted by Andrew Reeves at February 16, 2006 10:17 AM


Heineken or Bud Light?

I am not sure which choice is more depressing: that one, or Republican or Democrat.

Posted by: Matt at April 5, 2006 5:47 PM