Friday, October 21, 2005

Observing the Center for Moral Clarity

This is a somewhat rambling post, but there have been a few things lately that I wanted to discuss, and I have crammed them into a single post even if they are only vaguely related.

The link in the title of this post will take you to a nice article by Bill Berkowitz at Working For Change about the conservative Christians seeking to dominate the Ohio Republican party. And today Ohio, tomorrow who knows where the Patriot Pastors will next focus? At the center of the movement (with its own Center for Moral Clarity) is a 10-12 thousand-member non-denominational church. I have to admit that I've never really understood the appeal of these mega-churches. Though I don't count myself as a terribly religious person, I have been in the past, and I can certainly understand the appeal of religion, and of a traditional church. But being part of a congregation numbering in the thousands seems more like being a groupie or a fan at a rock concert than being at church. Anyway--I wonder if the Ohio church's push for theocracy (a term they themselves use to characterize what they advocate) is typical of the mega-church movement. If so, that's scary. Though on the one hand I think that mass movements like this tend to burn themselves out--see the long list of fallen charismatic leaders from Billy Sunday to Jim Baker--I'd bet that these more infamous cases are just the most visible (and most volatile) points of a larger, more sustained movement in the suburbs and ex-urbs of America.

Somewhat related is a paper by Larry M. Bartels, "What's the Matter with What's the Matter with Kansas?" (You can download a 600K PDF of the paper here.) Bartels takes a look at statistics on White voters' behavior over the last 30 years or so to test Thomas Frank's thesis that the Democratic party has lost the allegiance of the White working class. That thesis is not supported by the statistics, he says, showing that "[W]hile it is generally true that Democratic presidential candidates have lost support among white voters over the past half-century, those losses have been entirely (and roughly equally) concentrated in the middle- and upper-income groups, and have been partially offset by *increasing* support for Democratic candidates among low-income white voters" (14).

I'm not sure if the White middle- and upper-classes that Bartels shows becoming more conservative are the same people flocking to ex-urban mega-churches (indeed, the Ohio church featured in the Berkowitz article seems to focus on African-Americans), but certainly in Ohio in 2004 it was the suburban and ex-urban Republican vote that provided critical support for Bush.

Although I find Bartels's paper pretty convincing, I don't necessarily agree with his advice to the Democratic party. He pretends, as any scholar giving a conference paper will, to not be giving advice at all. But he concludes by saying that the statistics "suggest that 'recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues' may not be such a 'criminally stupid strategy' on the part of the Democratic leaders (Frank 2004, 243). Indeed, it may be a testament to the success of that strategy that affluent white voters have not become even more markedly Republican..." (33). As Bartels admitted in a Summer 2004 article, the strategy he envisions is essentially a short-term one, summed up in the pragmatic, if amoral, advice "here is my game plan. First, win. Second, govern. Third, win again. Fourth, keep at it." A significant problem with this advice, however, is that with the exception of the two (Perot-influenced) Clinton wins, is that it hasn't worked, and Dems have lost ground in congressional and state elections as well as presidential.

A different version much the same flawed advice is given in a new paper by William A. Galston and Elaine C. Kamarck of the Third Way Project. (You can dowload a PDF of that paper from the Third Way web site.) Their 1989 paper, "The Politics of Evasion," was widely seen as a manifesto for Clinton's triangulation strategy, and the "Politics of Polarization" is meant to inspire more Clintonesque candidates in the next election cycle, and to warn the Democratic party against tilting too far to the left. The Galston and Kamarck paper, however, offers at best contradictory advice to Dems: they want candidates who "stand for something," aren't afraid to talk about cultural issues, and who can sound tough and credible on national security. But the paper is devoid of specific policy recommendations or governing principles other than to say that Dems should move to closer to those views already held by most Americans. In short, they want a candidate who stands for whatever polling data tells him or her to stand for. Reaction to the paper from leading political web logs has been fairly mixed, but most readers seem unimpressed (see, for example, this from Paul Waldman, and this from Mark Schmitt).

Getting back to mega-churches, I would like to know how the growth of the mega-church movement fits with Bartels's finding that the middle- and upper-class White voters who have been moving to the Republican party still remain fairly liberal on social issues. Perhaps I am wrong in thinking that many mega-church goers are middle- and upper-class Whites, or perhaps the mega-churches are more diverse on social issues than those in Ohio profiled by the Berkowitz article, or perhaps White middle- and upper-class mega-church goers can feel personally more liberal on social issues yet still attend very conservative churches.


christian_left said...

I'm not at all convinced by the Bartels paper purporting to refute Thomas Frank's analysis. The biggest problem is that he defines "working class" solely by income level, which is clearly inconsistent with what Frank was saying. I think the college education divide, not income level, is the best marker of class status in America today. Of course, Bartels doesn't want to admit that measuring "class" is so complicated, because he wants to conduct an analysis that will yield to his Political Science hypothesis testing desires. Sorry, no deal.

I also couldn't figure out how he chose the beginning year of his analysis. He started well before the Frank's 30-year time period, but not as far back as the New Deal. (Hmmm...) It is also worth considering that working-class white people did relatively well in the 50s and 60s and only started to slide seriously in economic terms (wage rates, tax burden, safety net, etc.) by the 80s and 90s. So, to futher bolster Frank's account, one might expect their allegiance to the Democrats to increase during the worsening times, if they were voting their economic interests. So even holding steady in their voting patterns would seem to beg for an explanation, in my opinion.

I looked for a response on-line from Thomas Frank himself but couldn't fine one. I did find a statement on his main website stating that he doesn't do blogs. So I have had to pinch hit on his behalf, at least in this obscure forum.

Ambivalent_Maybe said...

Bartels's starting points for various questions were determined by when the National Election Surveys began including questions about ideological leanings. His analysis of whether voters in the lower third of the income distribution have become more conservative looks at the period 1972-2004.

His look at voting behavior of income groups begins in 1952, but he also notes (p. 13) that a consistent trend in the voting behavior of begins only in 1974--well in-line with Frank's period. From 1974 to 2004 an average of 51% of lower-third-income-bracket Whites voted with the Democratic candidate; in 2004, 50% of working-class whites voted for John Kerry. Hardly a trend of decreasing support.

The complaint about how Bartels has chosen to define 'working class' is more serious, and one Bartels should defend himself on rather than I. (Please note, however, how I have favored accuracy over easy reading in *not* replacing Bartels's group 'whites in the lower third of the income distribution' with the shorthand 'working class.')

But, as a good materialist, I think that if one is going to look at a notion as hazy as class through statistics, then why not give income at least as serious consideration as education level? Also, Bartels's point that the great variation in the number of people with college degrees from the 1960s to now seems a reasonable caution against over-reliance on that statistic. It's not entirely fair that Bartels doesn't include some description of what the pattern in those numbers looks like, but he's at least supported his choice.

As I made clear in my original post, I don't agree with everything Bartels says. He seems too dismissive of Frank's description of a conservative backlash movement. To me, the backlash is unquestionably real--the question is which groups is it aimed at, and which groups is it motivating to vote Republican?

Backlash conservatism has always portrayed itself as home-spun common sense of the everyman, not the sophisticated, limp-wristed ponderings of intellectuals. If Bartels is right, though, it's not lower-income whites who are buying into the backlash, but the middle and upper income whites. To those groups the backlash gives a sense of working-class credibility, even as the candidates they support screw the working class over. Patricians like G.W. can work to destroy the working class, while at the same time aping for the public a kitschy version of working-class lifestyle.

I'll look around some for numbers on the voting behavior of whites by education level and report back if I find any useful source.

christian_left said...

Thanks for the clarifications; you've clearly read the Bartles paper more carefully than me. After seeing it mentioned in The Nation several days ago, I just gave it a quick glance...Since so many problems with the analysis seemed evident at first glance, I moved on to other things.

I just looked again Frank's book, and I find that Bartels seems to be missing the point. I cannot find where Frank makes any testable assertions about changes in party voting behavior according to income level. It is largely a rhetorical and symbolic analysis of how class language has transmuted into a culture war against liberal elites. And that backlash, I agree with you, is "unquestionably real".

Interestingly, Frank himself briefly quotes recent voting trends early in the book to debunk the conservative "Red/Blue" idea that the reds are ordinary working Americans and the blues are rich coastal elites. He points out that the riches suburban counties of major cities vote heavily Republican and poorer counties, such as Wyandotte in Kansas, are more Democratic than surrounding areas. So I find Bartels construction of Frank's argument to be highly suspect and naive to the subtleties of what Frank is saying. Frank is NOT, I repeat NOT, making an easily testable claim about party voting behavior by income level.

The only other place where I find Frank making assertions based on voting data (and based in part on income level!) is in a discussion of (wealthier) Mod vs. (poorer) Con factionalism WITHIN the Republican Party, hardly a signpost for the kind of crude, simplistic Rep vs. Dem voting behavior analysis that Bartels is conducting.

And I would like to reiterate my point that finding a long-term flat trend in working-class party voting during the past 30 years could be interpreted as quite remarkable given the major class-based economic losses suffered during that time period (as compared with the slight relative gains during the 50s and 60s). Frank's analysis of the conservative "backlash" could still be invoked to explain this surprising lack of vote shifting based on economics. It is that lethal combination of Democrats backing off on economic issues and Republicans revving up the culture wars that foreclosed the possibility of a great political shift of working-class people. (And of course, if we followed Bartels's toxic prescriptions, we would just be exacerbating these problems...)

I do, however, like ambivalent_maybe's insightful speculation that the culture war may be aimed not just as working-class whites but at better-off people as well. By participating, they can gain the mantle of "ordinary hard-working Americanism"...and thereby deny their own privileged class position.

I seem to remember from recent voting demographics that advanced education is correlated with voting Democrat while higher income is correlated with voting Republican, despite the fact that those two demographic variables are themselves quite positively correlated with one another. Which suggests that people with relatively high incomes but not advanced degrees tend quite Repubilcan, while people with relatively low incomes and advanced degrees (Lumpenlogocrats!!) tend especially Democrat. If the internal educational demographics of the income groups are changing at all over time, then the great "advantage" that Bartles touts to using income rather than education level data, due to their supposed "stability", is quite elusive. All of which is to say that Bartels is the proverbial drunken scientistic academic looking for his data under the lamp post because that is where the light seems to be.