Friday, April 18, 2008

More On "Clinging to"

Paul Krugman demurs from Obama's comments.
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,
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.)
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.
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.

So, to summarize, he has three points
1. The Clinton years were better than the Bush years for the Midwest, not like Obama says, and Obama playing politics to disparage the Clinton record.

2. Religiosity is not linked to economic distress.

3. Thomas Franks thesis that simple people have been "duped" by Republicans doesn't square with the facts.

In response to point one, Krugman makes his point, but I think it is irrelevant. What he said was "in a lot of small towns" the Clinton and Bush years don't look any different. Nothing that Krugman wrote disproves this. What is maddening is Krugman faults Obama for pointing this out as if Obama is being disloyal to the Democratic party. Yet Krugman hasn't said anything on Hillary's constant kneecapping of Obama, who will almost certainly be the nominee.
Lot's of liberals have disagreed with Obama linking religion and economic woes (Kevin Drum and Jon Chait are also examples). However, the idea the religiosity is linked to economic insecurity is supported by a lot of good social science research, as I have mentioned previously. I recommend Sacred and Secular by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris. I'd also note he hardly mentioned the xenophobia/ anti-trade aspect of the comments.
Krugmans third point is very interesting, and clears up a wide myth. On the other hand, I still see nothing wrong with Obama's original statement.
(Posted by Ewan)

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