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Why Are There Rich Democrats and Poor Republicans?

Political coalitions are about more than just income redistribution

In his 2004 book, journalist Thomas Frank asked: What’s the matter with Kansas? Ever since, many liberals have taken it as an article of faith that if working-class whites only knew what was good for them then they’d vote for Democrats.

The usual rebuttal from political science is to point out that many poorer whites in fact do vote for Democrats. Or, at least, poorer whites are much more likely to vote Democratic than are richer whites. It’s just not the case -- even in Kansas -- that working-class whites are ignoring their redistributive interests in their voting choices. Still, it makes sense to wonder why Democrats win the poorest whites by a nose rather than a mile.

Many conservatives similarly ask: What’s the matter with Harvard? I’ve studied the Harvard/Radcliffe Class of 1977 (which included Bill Gates, Mad Money’s Jim Cramer, and the expected array of lawyers, doctors, educators, and so on). On the whole, it’s a fantastically wealth group, with family incomes typically in the top 1% or 2% of the country. Yet for every Republican there are around six Democrats.

With Harvard as well, though, it’s still not the case that people are ignoring their redistributive interests. In the Class of ’77, the richest members are less likely to favor Democrats than are the merely well-off or poorer. Still, it makes sense to wonder why Republicans are in such short supply among Ivy League alumni.

While voting choices involve issues relating to taxes and social spending, there’s more to it than just these issues. Despite the general trend where wealthier folks lean Republican and poorer folks lean Democratic, there are additional aspects to our current political coalitions that result in lots of highly educated folks favoring Democrats and lots of working-class whites favoring Republicans.

Income and Education

A key to unravelling the mystery of Kansas and Harvard is to understand the contrasting roles of income and education in modern politics. If you just think about “elites” with lots of education and income versus the “working class” with less education and income, you’ll miss some central points.

People with lots of income tend to be more conservative on certain kinds of issues -- particularly those relating to income redistribution. People with less income tend to be more liberal on these issues.

But at the same time, people with lots of education tend to be more liberal on other issues -- particularly those relating to discrimination, including views on racial prejudice, immigration, same-sex marriage, school prayer, and others. People with less education tend to be more conservative on these issues, so long as they’re in the group doing the discriminating rather than the group being discriminated against.

When we look at combinations of redistributive and discrimination issues, then, we don’t see patterns involving “socioeconomic status” or “class” broadly, but complex splits involving income and education. For example, who are the people most likely to be conservative on both redistribution issues and immigration? They are native-born whites who combine more income with less education. Who are the people most likely to be liberal on both redistribution issues and immigration? There are two groups here: immigrants with less income, plus others who combine less income with more education.

Look at working-class whites who have both less income and less education, and you’ll find lots of folks who combine liberal views on redistribution and conservative views on immigration. Look at the elites with lots of both income and education, and you’ll find plenty of folks who combine conservative views on redistribution and liberal views on immigration.

Parties are Coalitions

Governments impact many different aspects of everyday life. These days, we see this in the wide range of hot-button issues making regular appearances -- from redistributive issues involving taxes and government support, to group-based issues relating to race, immigration, sexual orientation, religion, and gender, to sexual and reproductive lifestyle issues affecting sex education, family planning, and so on.

Different demographic features mark the splits in public opinion on different kinds of issues. For redistributive issues, the big splits are between wealthier people with solid private support networks and poorer people with limited private support. For group-based issues, the big splits involve group memberships (people’s race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) along with education levels. For lifestyle issues, the big splits are between churchgoers with traditional family lives and secular folks with freewheeling lives.

Support for the modern political parties combines these demographic patterns. Republicans are mainly drawn from white, native-born, heterosexual Christians with higher incomes, moderate educations, and more church attendance. The Democratic coalition is more varied. Some key groups include racial minorities, as well as highly educated non-Christians, gays and lesbians, and women.

The narrower demographic slices within the parties typically have different policy preferences and priorities. For example, white, Christian churchgoers with less education and income are often Republican voters with very conservative views on lifestyle and discrimination issues, but more liberal views on redistribution. In contrast, highly educated, wealthier, white men who are nominally Christian but don’t go to church much are also often Republican voters, but with very conservative views on redistribution coupled with more liberal views on lifestyles and some discrimination issues.

So, are richer people more likely to be Republicans and poorer people more likely to be Democrats? Yes. Is income the only thing that matters? No.

Kansas and Harvard

Why do many working-class whites lean Republican? They’re particularly likely to do so when they’re heterosexual, Christian churchgoers with more income than education -- a demographic profile linked to conservative views across a wide range of topics. Move away from this combination of features, and it becomes less and less likely working-class whites are Republicans. And even when they favor Republicans, it’s still the case that poorer people are usually more liberal on redistribution issues. And even when they favor Democrats, it’s still the case that less-educated people are usually more conservative on discrimination issues (as long as they’re not the ones being discriminated against).

And why do many Ivy League graduates lean Democratic? They’re particularly likely to do so when they’re African Americans or other non-white ethnicities, when they’re atheists, Jews, or other non-Christians, when they’re lesbians or gays, when they’re women, when they’re men married to working women, and when they’re not among the super-rich. And even when they do favor Republicans, it’s still the case that the highly educated are usually more liberal on discrimination issues. And even when they favor Democrats, it’s still the case that the richest among them are usually more conservative on redistribution.

Understandably, people who want Democrats to win are disappointed when many working-class whites vote Republican. And, understandably, people who want Republicans to win are disappointed when many of the best-educated people vote Democratic. Often, in fact, these kinds of political motives lead people to conclude that the objects of their disappointment are deficient in some way, that they’re saps who have been brainwashed by conservative media (on the one hand) or radical professors (on the other).

But there’s nothing much the matter with Kansas, just as there’s nothing much the matter with Harvard. Both involve individuals looking for a coalition that best captures their complex array of political issue preferences. When people with modest incomes are also white, heterosexual, Christian churchgoers with less education, the balance typically leans towards Republicans. When people with stellar incomes are also highly educated people in some category that has often been subject to discrimination, the balance typically leans towards Democrats.

Jason Weeden is author of The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind (Princeton University Press, 2014).

Related articles:

Time.com: What makes a Democrat a Democrat and a Republican a Republican? It’s more complicated than you think

Vox.com: Don’t fool yourself about “the other side” — everyone is selfish when it comes to politics

New York Times: Your very predictable vote

Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: Why are some political views so blatantly self-interested?

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