My favorite finding from the recent meeting of the American Political Science Association is from a paper by Stephen Nicholson and Gary Segura on “Economic Populism and the American Public.” Nicholson and Segura set out, yet again, to test Thomas Frank’s best-selling account, in What’s the Matter with Kansas?, of seismic changes in American class politics. Sensitive to Frank’s complaints (directed, as it happens, at me) about the failure of survey questions to adequately capture the brand of populism he had in mind, Nicholson and Segura used language taken directly "from Frank's (2004, 117-118) discussion of why the GOP is the party of the working class" to develop new survey questions tapping ordinary Americans’ views about the Democratic and Republican parties.
Among other things, Nicholson and Segura asked people:
"Thinking about politicians in the two major political parties, which do you think would feel more comfortable having a beer with a truck driver, construction worker, or waitress?"
Overall, respondents picked Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 49-21. The margin was even greater among low-income people (51-16), ideological moderates (58-11), and political Independents (53-16). People without college degrees—the people Frank eventually settled on as the group he was writing about—picked Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 47-21, while middle-income people picked Democrats by a margin of 47-22.
Inspired by Frank’s emphasis on moral issues as the driving force in contemporary class politics, Nicholson and Segura also asked their survey respondents whether “Politics is about economic issues such as jobs, taxes, gas prices, and the minimum wage” or about “moral issues such as abortion, pornography, and same-sex marriage.” The split on that question was even more lopsided, with 75% of the respondents saying that politics is mostly about economic issues and only 15% saying that politics is mostly about moral issues. (Only 17% of people without college degrees, 16% of low- and middle-income people, 13% of political Independents, and 6% of ideological moderates chose moral issues over economic issues.) It is worth noting here that Nicholson and Segura’s survey was conducted in 2006; it would not be surprising if “jobs, taxes, gas prices, and the minimum wage” are even more paramount in 2008.
The authors’ conclusion: “Using a survey designed expressly for the purposes of testing the great backlash hypothesis, we find no evidence to support it.”
Will Nicholson and Segura’s findings put an end to Democrats’ handwringing about the defection of the white working class? Not a chance. Frank, for one, managed to dredge up an unemployed blue-collar Republican from Kansas to serve as the poster boy for a recent column
arguing that “Obama Should Find His Inner Kansan.” But whatever difficulty Obama personally may have making that connection, the Democratic Party’s status as the party of the working class seems surprisingly secure, both in the American public as a whole and among working-class voters themselves.