Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Class and Party: Secular Realignment and the Survival of Democrats outside the South

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Class and Party: Secular Realignment and the Survival of Democrats outside the South

Article excerpt

A common conclusion is that beginning in the late 1960s the policy stands of Democrats on civil rights and civil liberties issues alienated the white working class. Race is presumed to have driven a wedge between the white and non-white working class, and diminished class voting in American politics. The New Deal coalition has eroded, the South has moved into the Republican column, and class conflict is presumed to have steadily declined since the 1950s. These arguments, however, leave us unable to explain how the Democratic party managed to survive for over forty years as the majority party in Congress, even while it was losing the South. The party survived by steadily increasing its support outside the South. The focus of this analysis is whom the Democrats attracted over time, and what the evidence indicates about the presumed alienation of the white, working class. The conventional wisdom is largely based on analyses that assess class voting using self- identified class. We argue that measure does not capture the economic situation of the respondent. This analysis relies on the relative income situation of voters, which reflects the relative level of resources people have to live their lives. The focus is the relationship between relative income position and support for the Democratic party among non-Southern whites from 1952-1996. The results indicate a steady increase in support for the Democratic party among the less affluent since the 1950s. Differences in voting by income position are not decreasing, but, in fact, have been increasing since the 1970s.


By many accounts, the last several decades have been difficult for Democrats. The party is often portrayed as dominated in the early 1970s by zealous liberals, who were more concerned with civil rights, gay rights, free speech, and criminal rights than with bread and butter economic issues. These preoccupations alienated their core constituency, working- and middle-class whites. The party's liberal stances on civil rights issues are seen as particularly damaging. In a refrain of Key's Southern Politics thesis (1949), it has been argued that the Democrats' focus on black issues made it possible for Republicans to appeal to resentful working -class whites. This drove a wedge between less affluent whites and minorities and shattered any possibilities for class politics (Huckfeldt and Kohfeld 1989: 1-2).

There has been an inversion of the old New Deal relationship of social class to the vote. In wide sectors of public policy, groups of high socioeconomic status are now more supportive of equalitarian (liberal) change than are the middle to lower socioeconomic cohorts (within white America); and as a result liberal (often, although not always, Democratic) candidates are finding higher measures of electoral sustenance at the top of the socioeconomic ladder than among the middle and lower rungs (Ladd and Hadley 1975: 27).

The Democratic nominating process often produced candidates who were seen as too liberal by much of the general electorate.... the association of the national Democratic party with civil rights and the aspirations of blacks had the effect of alienating millions of white Democrats, including southerners and blue-collar northerners, who felt that black gains came at their expense (Ginsberg 1996: 9).

Political consultants, trying to understand what has been shaping the electoral reactions to the Democratic party, provided further support for the findings of academics.

Whom did the party represent? With whom did it identify itself? There was a widespread sentiment, expressed consistently in the [focus] groups that the Democratic party supported giveaway programs-that is programs aimed primarily at minorities. This was no longer a party of great relevance to the lives of middle-class Americans (Greenberg 1995: 44).

Journalists, following this debate, have absorbed and accepted these findings. …

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