Politics professor Larry Bartels recently argued that Tom Frank's New York Times bestseller "What's the Matter with Kansas" tells a misleading story about why the Republican Party is becoming more popular across the mid-western heartland.
Bartels presented this argument in a paper — titled "What's the Matter with 'What's the Matter with Kansas'" — at an annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.
Frank's book asserts that "conservatives won the heart of America" by swaying large numbers of working-class voters to vote against their economic interests on the basis of conservative cultural and social issues.
Bartels tested this hypothesis by analyzing patterns of issue preferences, partisanship and voting in National Election Study (NES) survey data.
According to Bartels' results, the white working class has not become more conservative. Neither has it abandoned the Democratic Party. Over the past 30 years, the average views of working class whites have — according to Bartels — "remained virtually unchanged." While the overall trend among white voters has been toward Republicanism, closer examination reveals that this has occurred amongst middleand upper-class voters, whereas the working class has actually become more reliably Democratic.
Addressing Frank's claim that social issues, rather than economic issues, have swayed the working class to the right, Bartels said that NES surveys indicate a lower correlation between party identification and preferences in social issues than with economic issues. This applies for religious and nonreligious voters alike.
Bartels concludes that any increase in the significance of social issue preferences has been among middleand high-income whites.
"[Frank's book] fits in with a broader tendency among liberal intellectuals to try to pinpoint what's wrong with the Democratic Party," Bartels said. "Republicans have won the last couple presidential elections and a pretty durable majority in Congress. This [explanation] is particularly satisfying for liberal intellectuals because it puts the blame on poor people rather than those like them."
Bartels explained that the difference between his conclusions and those of Frank are indicative of a wide division between "pundit literature" and political science literature. Nolan McCarty, a fellow professor at the Wilson School, agrees.
"[Political scientists] care more about generalizations than journalists who want to tell a good story," McCarty said. "Tom Frank's analysis is based on a county ... we argue that it doesn't generalize very far. You lose some richness when you go to data sets collected over 50 years, but you also lose something when you look at a county or a single state and try to make arguments about the nature of American politics."