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What's the Matter with Liberals?

Columnists Emmett Rensin of Vox and Kevin Drum of Mother Jones have a disagreement. Rensin thinks liberals are too smug, while Drum thinks they are too condescending.

They're both trying to explain the paradox of why white working-class voters favor Republicans. Rensin notes:

Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, the working class, once the core of the coalition, began abandoning the Democratic Party. In 1948, in the immediate wake of Franklin Roosevelt, 66 percent of manual laborers voted for Democrats, along with 60 percent of farmers. In 1964, it was 55 percent of working-class voters. By 1980, it was 35 percent.

The white working class in particular saw even sharper declines. Despite historic advantages with both poor and middle-class white voters, by 2012 Democrats possessed only a 2-point advantage among poor white voters. Among white voters making between $30,000 and $75,000 per year, the GOP has taken a 17-point lead.

Rensin concludes:

A movement once fleshed out in union halls and little magazines shifted into universities and major press, from the center of the country to its cities and elite enclaves. Minority voters remained, but bereft of the material and social capital required to dominate elite decision-making, they were largely excluded from an agenda driven by the new Democratic core: the educated, the coastal, and the professional.

It is not that these forces captured the party so much as it fell to them. When the laborer left, they remained.

Rensin argues that the response by the new Democratic leaders was the smug assumption that they alone understood politics, while those uninformed working-class stiffs didn't know what was good for them. And then:

The internet only made it worse. Today, a liberal who finds himself troubled by the currents of contemporary political life need look no further than his Facebook newsfeed to find the explanation:

Study finds Daily Show viewers more informed than viewers of Fox News.

They're beating CNN watchers too.

NPR listeners are best informed of all. He likes that.

You're better off watching nothing than watching Fox. He likes that even more.

The good news doesn't stop.

Liberals aren't just better informed. They're smarter.

They've got better grammar. They know more words.

Smart kids grow up to be liberals, while conservatives reason like drunks.

Drum acknowledges Rensin's point, but notes that liberals don't have a monopoly on smugness.

I'd call it plain old condescension. We're convinced that conservatives, especially working class conservatives, are just dumb. Smug suggests only a supreme confidence that we're right—but conservative elites also believe they're right, and they believe it as much as we do. The difference is that, generally speaking, they're less condescending about it.

The problem is, Rensin and Drum are both seeking to answer the wrong question.

This notion that lower class voters have jumped en masse to the Republican Party has been thoroughly debunked by Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman. In a 2007 paper titled Rich State, Poor State, Red State, Blue State: What's the Matter with Connecticut? Gelman and his research team explain:

We find that income matters more in red America than in blue America. In poor states, rich people are much more likely than poor people to vote for the Republican presidential candidate, but in rich states (such as Connecticut), income has almost no correlation with vote preference.

That is, the higher the household income, the more likely the family is to vote Republican. The difference is more noticeable in what are labeled "red states", but it's also true to a lesser degree in "blue states". Looking at in-state data for each of the 50 states, household income is one of the top predictors of how people will vote. People with lower incomes compared with their neighbors are more likely to vote for Democrats, and people with higher incomes compared with their neighbors are more likely to vote for Republicans.

What has happened to white working class voters? They've achieved a higher standard of living. They're raising smaller families in bigger houses. They take for granted air conditioning, color TVs, and multiple cars for the same family. They have access to a rapidly increasing array of electronic devices at steadily declining prices. What they can't afford today, they can put off payments into the future. That's why all the dire warnings about the decline of real wages miss the mark.

The Democrats lost white working class voters in the 1980s and beyond when those voters became prosperous enough to vote Republican. Isn't that a form of progress?

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