The delta quadrant of American politics & culture

By Razib Khan | September 24, 2012 10:43 pm

Apparently when he was a consultant Mitt Romney would praise the merits of ‘wallowing in data.’ I agree with this, you can’t get more data than you need. Therefore I highly commend Public Religion Research Institute‘s survey of the “white working class.” More specifically, do read the full PDF. It’ll take you some time, but just trade that in for commenting on a weblog! Of course the results are strongly contingent upon the definition of what the white working class is. In this survey they fix upon the white population which does not have a college education (though may have some college) and is not employed in salaried labor. This seems like serviceable definition. The incomes range from low to lower upper middle class, with a mode in the lower middle class, so you get a broader cross-section of non-elite white America than Honey Boo Boo, which is to working class white America what the “ghetto life” is to working class black America.

But an interesting aspect of the survey is who it is addressed to: not to the white working class, they don’t read white papers by and large. One of the most simple non-linear political conceptualizations has a Left-Right dimension on social and economic values. You have Left-liberals, libertarians, conservatives, and a last group, often termed populists, and sometimes termed more pejoratively ‘authoritarians.’ Roughly, in elite public discourse most of the mind-share is dominated by the Left-liberals and the conservatives, with a loud but marginalized libertarian minority. The fourth quadrant is often simply unrepresented, and left without a voice.

To some extent Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat’s Grand New Party was a faint expression of the priorities of this group, albeit with an explicitly conservative tinge. But neither Salam nor Douthat are representatives of this subculture. One could argue that Pat Buchanan more authentically represents this strain in American politics, but in his personal biography Buchanan is a product of the Washington D.C. gentry. Rather, the vast majority of people who come out of the white working class milieu slowly converge upon a more conventional conservative or Left-liberal political profile. Mike Huckabee would be an example of the former, and Robert Byrd the latter. This is not a dynamic limited to the white working class. Both Hispanics and black Americans strike a far more socially moderate (on some issues conservative) profile than their political elites, which are overwhelmingly Left-liberal. Most people are not aware that Jesse Jackson was originally pro-life, for example. But as he mainstreamed himself in the Left-liberal firmament he had to align himself on social issues, even if those were not his priorities (though he did play an interesting role in the Terry Schiavo case).

The point of surveys and analyses like this to tear down the veils prejudice and incomprehension which plague the mainstream. So, for example, many educated white liberals presume that the white working class perversely votes ‘against their interests,’ and on cultural issues. The apotheosis of this argument is What’s the Matter With Kansas. The only problem with this narrative is that in fact it is not the white working class, but white economic elites, liberal and conservative, who vote on cultural rather than economic issues!

More broadly, I think surveys such as this get to the heart of the ‘dark matter’ of contemporary cultural diversity. What has Wisconsin to do with West Virginia? Because of the importance of race and non-white ethnicity in the United States since the 1960s we have had to live with the tension in our popular and elite culture between the reality of deep fissures within ‘white America,’ and the construct of an operationally monolithic institutional superstructure of ‘white skin privilege.’ In a inverted caricature of white nationalism the child of upcountry ‘hillbillies’ is presumed to be part of the same aristocracy of skin as as privileged children of the coastal establishments.

As I have stated before, that era of simplicity, of black and white, is ending. The new America is multicultural. But among those diverse cultures are those of white Americas, in the plural. A generation of diversity consultants and consciousness raising has sublimated this reality to the salience of race, but the pluralism of white America which has come to the fore tragically in the past, and it will have more valence in a multicultural, rather than biracial, America.

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  • Karl Zimmerman

    I think the most important conclusion I draw from the study is the white working class (outside of the South perhaps) basically understands its own interests. On economic interests, they tend to side with the Democrats more strongly than college-educated whites do. They are more pessimistic that America is a true meritocracy. They are more likely to see a conflict between Christianity and capitalism. However, they have more concern about racial issues and illegal immigration than college-educated whites. Again this is unsurprising. I think you can make valid arguments that both affirmative action and continued immigration are indeed economically and socially positive for the U.S. as a whole, but there are undoubtedly losers as a result of these policies, and they are working-class whites by and large.

    I do have to say, 70% of the white working class thinking “God has granted America a special place in human history” is quite disturbing however. Even when I was a young teen, before I ceased to be religious, I found the idea that God would somehow care more about America than other countries ridiculous. This is the one “does not compute” moment for me – particularly because on the whole working-class whites aren’t all that much more religious than middle-class whites.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    Other surveys have described economically liberal, social conservatives as “big government conservatives.” I am not convinced that they lack a voice (although I do agree that the white working class made up of several distinct sub-populations is grossly underrepresented).

    K Street is awash with big government conservatives arguing for special interest tax breaks and more government spending. So is the “conservative” component of the federal judiciary. So are the folks in Utah that organized for and secured huge increases in elementary school funding in an overall highly conservative Republican state.

    These are the same people who gave us near monopoly non-profit health care in North Dakota long before liberals were talking about single payer. These are the managers of the defense contractors and road building empires of the world. These are our soldiers and government union member law enforcement officers. These are Reagan Republican union members. These are the modern day merchantalists urging active manipulation of currency markets and tough stances with China on its currency floats. These are Eisenhower Republicans. These are the gay hating geezers for whom Medicare and Social Security are third rails.

    Many politicians who claim to be economic conservatives are really merely anti-Soviet Style communists who want relief for business constituents who complain to them specifically, not ideological lassiez-faire economists.

    Part of the coalition building problem that this survey reveals and that has been long known by other names is that politically, white working class populations in the South are very different politically from white working class people elsewhere.

  • http://delicious.com/robertford Darkseid

    I’m 1 of the forgotton!

  • J

    “I do have to say, 70% of the white working class thinking “God has granted America a special place in human history” is quite disturbing however. Even when I was a young teen, before I ceased to be religious, I found the idea that God would somehow care more about America than other countries ridiculous. This is the one “does not compute” moment for me – particularly because on the whole working-class whites aren’t all that much more religious than middle-class whites.”

    Is it “quite disturbing” because you can not relate to the sentiment or disturbing because there is something extremely bad that will happen because of it?

    I would wager a guess that belief in the exceptionalism of one’s own country or people is not uncommon throughout the world. Nationalism and religiousity would seem to naturally distill themselves into a belief such as “God has granted *my country* a special place in human history”.
    I think it is quite likely that the U.S., as the reigning superpower during the most rapid technological/cultural advances seen thus far, will hold a prominent place in human history for the forseeable future; and if I were superstitious, it would be logical for me to believe that “God granted” it.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    2 -

    I think you’re misinterpreting what being “economically left” versus “right” means. Rhetorically speaking, it’s about free markets of course. But this is just rhetoric, as you rightly noticed. One of the reasons I am not a libertarian is that it’s obvious free markets are not a self-correcting mechanism. If a market is set as too “free” then the tendency is for the winners to collude, eliminate risk for themselves and their children, and ultimately turn it into a highly unfree market.

    The difference between being economically left or right I think is better described as this: Is it more important that the economy reward the already successful, or limit the downsides of failure? Under such a rubric, many types of “big government conservativism” are properly seen as right wing (or at least apolitical), as although there is a redistribution, if anything it is up the income ladder (from ordinary taxpayers to defense contractors, for example) rather than downward.

    An obvious loophole is left for the person holding those views still to be hypocritical. So someone on the right may think rewarding success is more important than easing failure – until they fail themselves. Hence why many on the right can oppose government handouts in principle and still get them themselves. I suppose the flipside is if someone on the left supports higher taxation on the wealthy, but gripes about taxes personally (or seeks to evade them). But in my own experience, people on the economic left are more likely to suck it up. I’m not saying that we can’t be hypocritical in other ways, but on taxes, the left mostly isn’t.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    Many politicians who claim to be economic conservatives are really merely anti-Soviet Style communists who want relief for business constituents who complain to them specifically, not ideological lassiez-faire economists

    you’re a lawyer, so i have to assume that you purposely misunderstood the categories to engage in this rant. i hope you feel better, because it was totally boring (you can find it 1 million time elsewhere). obviously the ‘big gov. social conservatism’ is different from the corporatism you are talking about here. on the contrary, the populists tend to have a reflex against corporatism and a neo-hamiltonian ‘american system.’ what i term ‘the forgotten’ can probably be analogized to some extent as similar to ‘christian democracy’ in europe, which has its elements of corporatism, but is (from what i recall) rooted in the petite bourgeois.

  • RRaccoon

    Id agree with J that’s it’s disturbing for a group of people to think God chose their country. Once you have God on your side you can do whatever you want and justify it in the end. Germans might still be nationalistic today but not with the fervor of the late 30s or America today. Thus it’s dangerous when the most powerful country feels this way. Because it might be natural to feel that way doesn’t lessen its danger.

  • http://dispatchesfromturtleisland.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    “you’re a lawyer, so i have to assume that you purposely misunderstood the categories”

    Long before I was a lawyer, I was neck deep in politics, spent a brief stint as a Congressional staffer, and have stayed attached to the ugly off stage underbelly of the political world. A number of my friends are lobbyists, and I know drill although it isn’t what I make my living doing these days.

    Honestly, I could care less about formal ideological categories let alone twisting them. “Big government conservatism” is a Pew Foundation term. Simple categories are merely an analytical tool and are only a little useful.

    The not entirely honorable, sausage making, art of the possible, tactical side of politics is mostly about emphasizing fine nuances of what someone believes about one little thing until you can find a way to make a deal about that one little thing. You dig deep enough to make an idea post-ideological. Splitters gets things done. Lumpers generate logjams.

    My point is simply (1) to emphasize how much diversity there is within the conservative coalition on economic issues once you really scratch the surface (liberals, FWIW, are no different) and (2) to suggest that there are no empty quarters in American national politics (there are gaps, however, in state and local politics although they vary from place to place).

    There is not just one way of being socially conservative and economically liberal, there are a dozen. Economic liberalism and conservativism tend in general to be less coherent categories than social liberalism and conservatism. Enough of the economic world is sufficiently outside the realm of experience of people with political views that their opinions about that aren’t terribly well defined. Many of the ways of being socially conservative and economically liberal are non-obvious until you encounter them.

    In my world, political ideology is less about Platonic categories that you try to fit round pegs into and more like Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds hidentifying a species matters more than identifying a family or order. If I rant, it is to proclaim how much diversity is out there as a taxonomist, not to complaint that politicians aren’t purists (something that doesn’t personally bug me very much).

    Are those boring observations? Perhaps. But, it beats reading half the dreck that political scientists put in their academic journals.

    Populism and corporatism are both out there and sometimes in the same person on different issues. Personally, I don’t trust either to be anything except predictable. I’ve personally spent more hours than I’d care to recall trying to explain to liberals why corporate personhood helps the little guy most of the time and why most of the Teddy Roosevelt era progressive planks did more harm than good.

    I agree with you that we don’t in the United States have an organized political party, or even really a self-identified political movement that is centered in the sweet spot where “Christian Democrats” are in Europe, even though the GOP is becoming very overtly Christian in a lot of places. The GOP political elite doesn’t have the instinct for moderation that Christian Democratic politicians do.

    Some of this may be a product of a first past the post electoral system that favors having only two political parties in any one geographic location at a time — U.S. conservatives can’t tactically afford to exclude the American equivalent of people who would belong to European neofascist/nationalist parties the way that European Christian Democrats can. Some of this may be a product of the lack of an established church – a far smaller share of U.S. Christians are moderate, ritual rather than ideology oriented members of churches that are established churches somewhere in Europe and lack the folkways that go with that world. Many God and Country conservatives also espouse a strong formal commitment to the separation of church and state as they understand the concept.

    The closest cousins ideologically to Christian Democrats on the American scene, in my view, are probably the political wings of the Chamber of Commerce, and members of service clubs like Rotary and Lions in small cities. But, that kind of classification is infinitely subtle and highly subjective. Your mileage may vary.

  • Ed

    Being socially right is “politically incorrect” and “racist” in many circles. I’m willing to bet there are more forgotten than you’d think but they feel uncomfortable expressing these views among their friends in fear of being branded.. Like ohwilleke said, “there is not just one way of being socially conservative and economically liberal, there are a dozen.” While there may be certain policies that may not be in the nations best economic interest (anti-immigration as Karl pointed out), generally I’d say this quadrant best represents the interest of the majority of Americans. Too bad the majority isn’t calling the shots… Why does it matter who you vote for if politicians do whatever the fuck they want anyways?

  • SeekTruthFromFacts

    “what i term ‘the forgotten’ can probably be analogized to some extent as similar to ‘christian democracy’ in europe, which has its elements of corporatism, but is (from what i recall) rooted in the petite bourgeois.”

    Alas, European Christian Democrats also seem to be diverging into the Left/Liberal vs Right/Conservative mould. Interestingly, the end result differs by country: Germany’s CDU and above all CSU went right, whereas the Dutch CDA went (in US terms) liberal.

    The movements that do support the Left/Conservative mix tend to be strongly rooted in Evangelical, and specifically Reformed, traditions: the Dutch ChristianUnion, and Britain’s tiny Christian People’s Alliance.

    I’m one of ‘The Forgotten’ too.

  • John Emerson

    “Social liberalism” as we think of it was only a moderate factor before 1960 or even 1970. The social issues before then were mostly alcohol and free love (maybe abortion). The sexual-liberation cultural movement was mostly left of center but (subject to correction) I don’t believe that sexual liberation was ever an important electoral issue, in the sense that political liberals ever actively advocated socially liberal positions . In 1960 or 1965 almost everyone was homophobic, including flaming liberals. Many Communists were socially conservative / family values, and hippies tended toward homophobia and male dominance.

    The empty quarter up there thus represents a lot of old big-government New Dealers (Catholic and Southern), but they’re dying out. The historical dimension might explain a lot.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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