Andrew Gelman on How Americans Vote


A Five Books interview:

I notice from your blog as well that one of the stereotypes that you are keen on debunking is this idea that working-class people in America vote conservative. A number of people have gone to some lengths to try to explain this phenomenon, but you seem to think it’s a bit of a red herring.

Somehow people on the left and on the right find it difficult to understand. On the left, people think that 100% of working-class people should vote for the left, so anything less than 100% makes them feel that there is something that went wrong. They just cannot understand how this could be. On the right, you get the opposite. It’s considered a validation – they want to believe that these more virtuous people are voting for them. But even in the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, a lot of low-income people voted Republican. There was no magic golden age in which lower-income working-class people were uniformly Democrat. It was always various subgroups of the population.

How many of the poor did vote for the Democrats, say, in the last election?

Of the lowest third of the population about 60% voted for the Democrats.

What if you narrow it down to blue-collar workers though? Don’t the majority of them vote conservative?

Then you have to ask, what does that exactly mean? Someone could make $100,000 a year and be blue collar. Conversely, if you’re a woman cleaning bedpans and making very little money, you’re not blue collar. Cleaning bedpans is not considered blue-collar work. There is the way that, firstly, blue collar conveys some sort of moral superiority, and secondly that it just happens to exclude a lot of the female workforce, who are more likely to be Democrats. If you take only blue collar – which is mostly male – and don’t even restrict for income and then you go beyond that to only include whites, you’re chipping away at various groups that support the Democrats, without noticing what’s happening. It sounds very innocuous to talk about blue-collar whites, but you’re selecting a subgroup among this social class which is particularly conservative, and then making some claims about them.