What's the Matter With What's the Matter With Kansas?

A bit over a month ago, I blogged on Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?

As the folks at CT mentioned late last year, there has been some data-driven debate in political science circles over this. Using the national election survey, Larry Bartels showed that those in the bottom third of the income distribution are no more likely to vote Republican now than in the past. Generating more heat than light, Franks replied (he takes the bizarre that education alone is the best proxy for class – making the late Kerry Packer a “working class man”).

In my view, the best contribution came from Ed Glaeser and Bryce Ward, who didn’t even realise they were participating in the debate when they showed that the predictive power of income on voting has weakened over recent decades, while the predictive power of churchgoing on voting has strengthened. Glaeser and Ward convinced me, where everyone else failed, that Franks is basically right.

Is the Kansas phenomenon happening in Australia? I doubt it. Using data from the 1966-2001 elections, I found that the predictive power of income had increased in Australia. As in many things, we may at some point start to follow the US voting trend, but I’d be surprised if the worm has turned yet.

Since I wrote this, I’ve been feeling a little guilty. While I don’t agree with everything Frank wrote (eg. his ridiculous attacks on the DLC), his ability to encapsulate red-state America’s hatred of liberals is beautifully incisive. I’ve been meaning to post one of my favourite lines from the book.

“Rural America is pissed,” a small-town Pennsylvania man told a reporter from Newsweek in 2001. Explaining why he and his neighbors voted for George Bush, he said: “These people are tired of moral decay. They’re tired of everything being wonderful on Wall Street and terrible in Main Street. Let me repeat that: they’re voting Republican in order to get even with Wall Street.

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4 Responses to What's the Matter With What's the Matter With Kansas?

  1. Patrick says:

    You should indeed be feeling guilty to have even implicitly endorsed such an uncritical argument as is made in that book. Do you really think that there is any logic or reason in the fundamental premises of the argument? Let me restate them for you, and you can tell me if I am mistaken.

    A) Voting for a classically liberal government is against the economic interests of the poor.

    B) People’s economic interests are the sum, or at least the overwhelming part, of their interests.

    I have used ‘classically liberal’ instead of Republican because that is, I believe, a more accurate statement of the argument. In reality, Republicans give out welfare, legislate for trade barriers, etc, almost indistinguishably from the Democrats – but the book deals with a caricature of Republicans that more resembles the rhetoric of Thatcher or Reagan than anything discernible in practice today.

    Anyway, I’d be very interested to see how you defend those two premises. In my view both are incredible assertions that run counter to, oh, about the whole sum of human history and experience.

  2. Geoff R says:

    is ‘hatred’ the right word? Smith’s Christian America asks evangelicals about the groups they feel most distant from and which they feel are hostile to them.

  3. ChrisPer says:

    Curious. I used to read CT and follow a good few blogs, and I don’t agree that red-state America hates liberals. It can’t be true, as some red-staters repeatedly change and elect a democrat instead of a republican.

    What I do see is a LOT of confirmatory bias creating an unbridgeable gap between the truly liberal people and the left-wing ‘progressive’ types that get mislabelled liberals by American right-wingers.

    ‘What’s the matter with Kansas’ was a gob-smackingly obtuse piece IMHO. Its main purpose seemed to me to be to belittle the intellect and moral capacity of those who elected someone the author definitely did not vote for.

  4. Andrew Leigh says:

    Patrick, I’m sorry not to have replied before – I only just saw your comment.

    We have good theoretical and empirical evidence (including from Australia) that the poor are more likely to vote for left-wing parties. Of course, not everyone who’s poor votes left-wing, and there’s a branch of political science devoted to figuring out why. Possible answers are (a) two issues, (b) uncertainty, (c) misinformation. When you see a group of very poor people strongly supporting a right-wing party, that’s interesting, IMHO.

    Also, as I pointed out in an earlier post, Frank’s thesis (on the declining salience of income for US voters) finds support from economists, so I believe it.

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