Now we know what’s the matter with Kansas

Thomas Frank’s What the Matter with Kansas captured the liberal imagination 12 years ago with its exploration of why downscale white voters were voting against their own economic self interest over cultural issues (i.e., guns and God, instead of taxes and health care).  Alas, as good as it sounded, political scientist extraordinaire, Larry Bartels, showed it to mostly be not true.  That was then.  As of 2016, Seth Masket argues, this is basically right:

Frank’s basic story was that the white working class was abandoning the Democratic Party. It was doing so, Frank argued, because Republicans had offered persuasive cultural arguments: They campaigned about abortion, guns, religion, same-sex marriage, and other cultural touchstones that worried conservative, poorer whites in rural states like Kansas. This convinced these white voters that culture was more important than their dire economic circumstances (on which Democrats offered more favorable policies), and so they voted Republican.

But then, Frank further argued, Republicans governed with a bait and switch. Though they’d offered culture, they delivered a conservative economic agenda, cutting taxes on the wealthy, undoing business regulations, and undermining the social safety net in ways that actually hurt these working-class white voters. The economic agenda always took precedence, and the culture war would have to wait for a more favorable time.

This was a popular and persuasive argument, backed up by a number of very entertaining anecdotes in Frank’s book, but it ran into some inconvenient facts. As Larry Bartels noted in his essay “What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas?” it was hard to justify Frank’s main premises…

Twelve years later, the facts seem to be moving more in the direction of Franks’ arguments. We don’t yet have National Election Studies data for 2016 to compare across a long timeline, but a variety of indicators suggest the white working class has sharply and truly moved out of the Democratic coalition, even in the non-South.

According to a Pew study, whites with no more than high school diplomas broke 45-44 in favor of Republicans in 2008 — basically a tie. By 2012, that division had split to 53-38, and this year it was 59-33, a 26-point Republican advantage. This, notably, did not start because of Donald Trump — there was a bigger jump between 2008 and 2012 than between 2012 and 2016 — although he may have magnified the trend.

Exit polls this year showed non-college-educated whites voting for Trump over Clinton by an astounding 66-29 margin — 37 points. And this difference was not limited to the South. This same demographic subgroup broke for Trump 63-33 in Ohio, 64-32 in Pennsylvania, and 58-34 in Colorado. The margin was bigger in the South, of course (non-college-educated whites broke 81-15 for Trump in Georgia), but the recent gains for Republicans outside the South are quite notable.

And if Republicans offered a bait and switch in 2004, it pales compared with what’s been going on just since the election this year. Trump didn’t offer “culture” in quite the same way Republicans did 12 years ago. Rolling back LGBTQ rights didn’t appear to be much of a priority for him, and his pro-life credentials have a pretty short history. But he undoubtedly offered identity, declaring common cause with working class whites and dubbing himself a “blue-collar billionaire.” His appeals were sometimes explicitly racist.

I was certainly among those who wanted “What’s the Matter with Kansas” to be true because it sounds so good.  But, hey, I’m an empiricist, so I went with Bartels.  But now it is looking pretty clear that there is something the matter with Kansas– and a lot of America.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Now we know what’s the matter with Kansas

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    When Trump is asked about his campaign rhetoric and promises vs his actions in forming his administration and his current tactics, he just says that he won, didn’t he.
    So it’s clear he campaigned on the issues he thought were winners and he was right. Now that he’s won, we will see what he really thinks by what he does.
    For instance, he won by focusing a big part of his campaign on bringing jobs back to the good working folk of America. One criticism from a Carrier worker and he says jobs left because American workers didn’t work hard enough and wanted too much money.
    Maybe the truth is he has no firm ideas except for self-interest. More ping-pong ahead.

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