Ever since the publication of Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas, we have been grappling with the issue of why poor and working-class people seem to vote against their own economic self-interest. Frank’s view was that these voters were being manipulated by Republican elites into being distracted by social issues like guns and abortion.
Alec MacGillis, in a recent report, offers a different view:
In eastern Kentucky and other former Democratic bastions that have swung Republican in the past several decades, the people who most rely on the safety-net programs secured by Democrats are, by and large, not voting against their own interests by electing Republicans. Rather, they are not voting, period. They have, as voting data, surveys and my own reporting suggest, become profoundly disconnected from the political process.
The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder — the sheriff’s deputy, the teacher, the highway worker, the motel clerk, the gas station owner and the coal miner. And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder, as a growing dependency on the safety net, the most visible manifestation of downward mobility in their declining towns.
And recent research, as surveyed by Sean McElwee, challenges the official view that class bias in the U.S. electorate doesn’t matter.
The old political science consensus holds that voters and non-voters hold similar policy preferences. Political scientists relied on American National Election Survey (ANES) data, which suggested that “voters are virtually a carbon copy of the citizen population.” However, that consensus is now being seriously challenged, with three important studies showing that there are significant political differences between voters and non-voters.
In a 2007 paper that forms the basis for their book, Who Votes Now, Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler found that large gaps had opened up between voters and non-voters on opinions about the size of government and the proper extent of redistribution. . .voters are more likely to oppose unions, government-sponsored health insurance and federal assistance for schools.
These findings are supported by a Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) study of Californians from 2006. The study found that non-voters are more likely to support higher taxes and more services. They are also more likely to oppose Proposition 13 (a constitutional amendment which limits property taxes) and to support affordable housing. A 2014 study by PPIC finds that the gap remains, with non-voters far more likely to support higher taxes and more services. . .
A 2012 Pew study that examined likely voters and non-voters finds a strong partisan difference. While likely voters in the 2012 presidential election split 47 percent in favor of Obama and 47 percent in favor of Romney, 59 percent of nonvoters supported Obama and only 24 percent supported Romney. The study also found divergence on key policy issues, including healthcare, progressive taxation and the role of government in society. . .The splits are primarily along class lines. After reviewing evidence from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), Larry Bartels concluded that “No other rich country even came close to matching [the U.S.] level of class polarization in budget-cutting preferences.”
The United States now has an electorate that votes for what they want and what they don’t want other people to have—and that doesn’t include many of the poor and working-class people who would most gain from a different political economy, including stronger, more generous government programs.