Guest Post by Michael Hout*
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently declared that the GOP is the party of the white working class. This boldly erroneous assertion motivates sociologist Michael Hout to clarify the connection between class and political affiliation:
The United States has more economic inequality than any other rich country and yet surprisingly lacks a coherent language for talking about class. Conversations quickly bog down in definitions. What distinguishes one class from another? Differences of wealth? Income? Possessions? In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks suggested that class is a combination of education and race – as others have (e.g., here) — but Brooks moved the conversation to new ground with these three sentences:
The Republican Party is the party of the white working class. This group – whites with high school degrees and maybe some college – is still the largest block in the electorate. They overwhelmingly favor Republicans.
From a policy point of view Brooks’s claim is hard to figure. White high school graduates have little stake in the Republicans’ threats to shut down Washington over tax cuts for millionaires and a very big stake in the payroll tax cut that President Obama proposed but which House majority leader Eric Cantor and other Republicans opposed.
Parsing such interests and political battles is better left to the pundits. What sociologists can contribute to the conversation is evidence. Maybe Brooks’s claim that white high school graduates “overwhelmingly favor Republicans” is true in Iowa where whites of all kinds overwhelmingly support Republicans. Nationwide, however, according to the 2010 General Social Survey, only 29 percent of whites who graduated high school (and went no further in school) identify with the Republicans. The Republicans among them outnumber the Democrats by the slight margin of only 3 percentage points.
The figures below show the long-term trends. The red lines display Republican identification for white high school and college graduates from 1973 to 2010; the blue lines show corresponding trends in Democratic identification during that time. Whites who had only high school diplomas are in the first panel; those with B.A.s (but no more) are in the second panel. (The percentages do not add to 100 because the figure excludes independents — who have rapidly grown in number — and “others.”)
WHITES’ POLITICAL IDENTIFICATION, BY EDUCATION, 1973-2010
If Republicans hold an overwhelming advantage in any group, it is among white college graduates. The Republican edge among them has slipped from 20 percentage points in 1992 to 11 percentage points in the most recent data, but that is as big a margin as the Republicans hold in any group defined by the combination of race and education.
Whites of all educational levels shifted dramatically toward the Republicans during the late 1970s and most of the 1980s. Ronald Reagan, who was president from 1981 to 1989, rode this partisan change but did not cause it. The trend started before Reagan was elected and leveled off, for the most part, before he left office. Key to the growing Republican identification over thirty years ago was the conversion of conservative, mostly southern, Democrats to a Republican identification. Democrats’ support for civil rights from 1960 onward pushed these whites away from their traditional party identification. At the same time, the Sunbelt boom made the Republicans’ opposition to regulation and taxes additionally attractive.
White high school graduates favored Democrats by as much as 15 points in the 1960s (see here for full analysis). The Democrats started to lose favor with white high school graduates around 1968. The Watergate scandal (1975-76) halted the slide briefly, but it resumed and continued even through the Clinton years. Democrats were never all that popular among white college graduates; these upper-status voters were as weakly committed to the Democratic party in 2010 as in the 1960s.
Meanwhile, nonwhite Americans favor the Democrats, giving them a substantial advantage of 40 points among high school graduates and 42 points among college graduates. Democratic identification decreased among nonwhite high school graduates in parallel with the trend for white high school graduates, dropping from 67 percent in 1973 to its current 50 percent. Among nonwhite college graduates, in sharp contrast, Democratic identification increased from 35 to 60 in the 1970s. Since then there have only been subtle changes for nonwhite college graduates.
These data measure survey respondents’ answers to questions about party identification. Actual voting trends largely echo these partisan trends. But whatever their avowed party loyalties, the fact that working-class voters turn out to vote at low rates blunts their political potential. The Census Bureau reports (pdf) that in the 2008 presidential election 55 percent of high school graduates voted; 77 percent of college graduates did.
Most nonvoters are people who do not identify with either party. Their low turnout makes high school graduates less attractive to politicians. Then, when candidates do not address the political interests of high school graduates, more of them get turned off and turnout drops yet lower, giving candidates even less incentive to appeal to them. Their turnout in presidential elections fell from 66 percent to 50 percent between 1964 and 1988. It has since rebounded to 57 percent.
In sum, the white working class is more a rhetorical or photo-opp base for today’s Republican party than a real voting base. The GOP still remains the party of the well-educated and well-to-do. You can see it in the polls; you can see it in the policies.
* Michael Hout is Natalie Cohen Professor of Sociology & Demography at U.C., Berkeley.
Mike adds a more detailed figure on whites’ political affiliation trends by level of education: