Saturday, January 14, 2006

Defending Frank and the Democrat's Real Problem

It wasn't too surprising when the right wing attacked Tom Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas. But recently some self-proclaimed liberals have been criticizing Frank, saying that the Democrats really don't have a problem with white working class voters.

Benjamin Ross has a really excellent article on Frank's critics in the latest Dissent Democrats and Middle America: What's the Real Problem?"

Here's a taste

[Frank's call for a] renewed populism has aroused a storm of objections. Some critics doubt that working-class voting habits have changed. Others accept the reality of the shift, but take issue with Frank’s diagnosis of the cause. Still others, the most numerous, do not dispute Frank’s account of the facts, choosing instead to challenge the legitimacy of any effort to change those facts.
The first critics are those who challenge Frank's facts.

The challenge to Frank’s facts comes in a widely circulated paper by Princeton political scientist Richard Bartels, who cites polls showing that Democrats have lost more votes in the last fifty years in the upper third of the income distribution than in the lower third. (Bartels’s figures are for white voters outside the South.)

Bartels’s argument is based on a flawed definition of the working class. Whether one seeks the working class of Marxist theory or the ordinary people of American populism, they are to be found in the middle of the income distribution and not just at the bottom. Indeed, polling experts David Gopoian and Ralph Whitehead found that only 19 percent of the bottom third voters in Bartels’s sample were over thirty years of age and actively working. Thirty-five percent were retired, and substantial numbers were disabled or unemployed.

Gopoian and Whitehead point out that only 40 percent of whites with less than a college education voted for Kerry in 2004.
Frank was written a long, and to my reading throroughly convincing, refutation of Bartels study.
It can be found on Frank's site.

The second school of critics say that the Democrats real problem is foreign policy not economics.
A second group of critics claims that Frank ignores the issue of national security. Ever since the Vietnam War, voter preference polls have shown a strong Republican advantage on foreign policy. This suggests that at least part of what turns working-class voters against the Democrats is a worry that the party is unwilling to use force when needed to keep America secure. If this is the case, Democrats can win back support by imitating the hawkish Republican positions that voters like—thus the recent spectacle of Hillary Clinton positioning herself as an opponent of withdrawal from Iraq.

An argument so straightforward and grounded in such clearly established facts must be taken seriously. In this case, though, it cannot be accepted. The Republican advantage on foreign affairs represents a cultural preference much more than a policy preference.

The Republican advantage on national security arose during the Vietnam War, and it persists to this day in the conceptual shadow of that war. Why did voters turn against antiwar Democrats? Surely it was not because they liked the Vietnam War. It was because they didn’t like the antiwar movement. In other words, it was culture.

The third set of critics
the largest group of Frank’s critics, those who accept Frank’s facts but deny the legitimacy of his argument. They see it as condescension to say working-class cultural conservatives are being swindled by leaders who talk about religious values but deliver tax cuts for the rich. By what right, they ask, does Frank instruct others to think in the voting booth about economics rather than, say, sex roles? Both right-wing and left-wing advocates of cultural politics pursue this line of argument, with the main difference between the two versions being that leftists dress up their argument by accusing Frank of having an elitist theory of “false consciousness.”
What unites the critics Ross says is that "Frank’s populism makes so many Democrats uncomfortable because it challenges the party’s identification with middle-class cultural themes."

BTW, visit the Dissent website and subscribe. Dissent is one the must-read journals on the democratic left.

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