What's the Matter with the White Working Class? the Effects of Union Membership in the 2004 Presidential Election

Article excerpt

Thomas Frank's book What's the Matter with Kansas? sparked a lively academic debate about the political attitudes and voting behavior of the white working class. Frank writes of a "Great Backlash" in which the white working class, once a pillar of the New Deal coalition, left the Democratic Party and joined the Republican Party as conservatism shifted away from its early emphasis on "fiscal sobriety" toward a more recent emphasis on "explosive social issues" such as abortion and gun control (2004, 8). This argument follows on the work of several other scholars and political observers who also have argued that social and cultural wedge issues alienated white working-class voters from the Democratic Party (Cook 2008; Edsall and Edsall 1991; Freedman 1996; Huckfeldt and Kohfeld 1989; Judis and Teixeira 2002; Ladd and Hadley 1975; Phillips 1969; Rieder 1989).

However, Larry Barrels, in his provocative article "What's the Matter with What's the Matter with Kansas?" (and later his 2008 book Unequal Democracy), challenges the premise that white working-class voters are preoccupied with social issues, and that they shifted their allegiance to the Republican Party (see also Brewer and Stonecash 2001, 2007; Stonecash 2005). Barrels finds that Republicans have made their most significant gains with middle-and upper-income voters since the 1950s, and that any major losses of white working-class voters from the Democratic Party have come primarily in the South (2006, 209-11). He further notes that cultural wedge issues were not a high priority to most white working-class voters in 2004, and concludes that the "statistical analysis continues to demonstrate that material economic concerns rather than cultural wedge issues were of primary importance to Frank's working-class white voters" (2006, 218).

The starkly different descriptions that Frank and Barrels offer of the white working class point to the need for some added clarity on this subject. In this study, we contend that both analyses overlook the critical influence of labor unions. This omission is understandable given that rates of union membership have fallen sharply over several decades, dropping from a high of 32.5% in 1953 to just 12.4% in 2008 (Troy and Sheflin 1985; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2009). Yet despite declines in union membership, several studies suggest that organized labor remains an influential force in American politics (Asher et al. 2001; Dark 1999; Francia 2006). Union households, for instance, have been a significant voting bloc for more than a half century, typically falling in the range of at least one-fifth of the national electorate in most presidential elections, including in 2004, when they made up 24% of all voters (Francia 2007). Organized labor's influence in the 2004 election, therefore, seems deserving of scholarly inquiry, particularly with respect to any analysis of the white working class--a favorite target of union organizing efforts.

Moreover, there are good theoretical reasons to expect union membership to have an influence on the white working class. As research on the benefits of participation in organizations suggests, labor unions can help foster in workers a sense of belonging to a larger community that stimulates interest, knowledge, and participation in politics (see, e.g., Radcliff and Davis 2000; Uhlaner 1989; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995). Unions promote active citizenship in workers by helping them learn and develop political skills (Asher et al. 2001; Dark 1999; Francia 2006). They also distribute political information to their membership with a message that typically focuses on workers' economic concerns, which can help give rise to class consciousness (Dixon, Roscigno, and Hodson 2004; Fantasia 1988). Indeed, in 2004, some 92% of union members in battleground states reported that they had received political information from their union in the form of a pamphlet, flyer, or letter, while 88% reported that they had received political information from a union newspaper, magazine, or newsletter (Hart Research Associates 2004). …