Clinging to a Stereotype

The New York Times; by Paul Krugman; April 18, 2008

Will Barack Obama’s now famous “bitter” quote turn out to have been a big deal politically? Frankly, I have no idea.

But here’s a different question: was Mr. Obama right?

Mr. Obama’s comments combined assertions about economics, sociology and voting behavior. In each case, his assertion was mostly if not entirely wrong.

Start with the economics. Mr. Obama: “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration.”

There are, indeed, towns where the mill closed during the 1980s and nothing has replaced it. But the suggestion that the American heartland suffered equally during the Clinton and Bush years is deeply misleading.

In fact, the Clinton years were very good for working Americans in the Midwest, where real median household income soared before crashing after 2000. (You can see the numbers at my blog,

We can argue about how much credit Bill Clinton deserves for that boom. But if I were a Democratic Party elder, I’d urge Mr. Obama to stop blurring the distinction between Clinton-era prosperity and Bush-era economic distress.

Next, the sociology: “And it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”

The crucial word here isn’t “bitter,” it’s “cling.” Does economic hardship drive people to seek solace in firearms, God and xenophobia?

It’s true that people in poor states are more likely to attend church regularly than residents of rich states. This might seem to indicate that faith is indeed a response to economic adversity.

But this result largely reflects the fact that southern states are both church-going and poor; some poor states outside the South, like Maine and Montana, are actually less religious than Connecticut. Furthermore, within poor states, people with low incomes are actually less likely to attend church than those with high incomes. (The correlation runs the opposite way in rich states.)

Over all, none of this suggests that people turn to God out of economic frustration.

Finally, Mr. Obama, in later clarifying remarks, declared that the people he’s talking about “don’t vote on economic issues,” and are motivated instead by things like guns and gay marriage.

That’s a political theory made famous by Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” According to this theory, “values” issues lead working-class Americans to act against their own interests by voting Republican. Mr. Obama seemed to suggest that’s also why they support Hillary Clinton.

I was impressed by Mr. Frank’s book when it came out. But my Princeton colleague Larry Bartels, who had an Op-Ed in The Times on Thursday, convinced me that Mr. Frank was mostly wrong.

In his Op-Ed, Mr. Bartels cited data showing that small-town, working-class Americans are actually less likely than affluent metropolitan residents to vote on the basis of religion and social values. Nor have working-class voters trended Republican over time; on the contrary, Democrats do better with these voters now than they did in the 1960s.

It’s true that Americans who attend church regularly are more likely to vote Republican. But contrary to the stereotype, this relationship is weak at low incomes but strong among high-income voters. That is, to the extent that religion helps the G.O.P., it’s not by convincing the working class to vote against its own interests, but by producing supermajorities among the evangelical affluent.

So why have Republicans won so many elections? In his book, “Unequal Democracy,” Mr. Bartels shows that “the shift of the Solid South from Democratic to Republican control in the wake of the civil rights movement” explains all — literally all — of the Republican success story.

Does it matter that Mr. Obama has embraced an incorrect theory about what motivates working-class voters? His campaign certainly hasn’t been based on Mr. Frank’s book, which calls for a renewed focus on economic issues as a way to win back the working class.

Indeed, the book concludes with a blistering attack on Democrats who cater to “affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues” while “dropping the class language that once distinguished them sharply from Republicans.” Doesn’t this sound a bit like the Obama campaign?

Anyway, the important point is that working-class Americans do vote on economic issues — and can be swayed by a politician who offers real answers to their problems.

And one more thing: let’s hope that once Mr. Obama is no longer running against someone named Clinton, he’ll stop denigrating the very good economic record of the only Democratic administration most Americans remember.


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