For years now, analysts have fought over whether economic or cultural issues have fueled contemporary political disruption. Have economic anxieties or identity-politics concerns caused working-class votes to be up for grabs? Two new studies show the significance of cultural issues for both the Republican and Democratic coalitions. But a look at the broader political economy of culture also suggests the continued relevance of economic policy.
In September, University of Pennsylvania political scientist William Marble released a working paper on educational polarization in the American electorate. Digging into data from the American National Election Studies and Cooperative Election Study, he reached some striking conclusions. In line with several other studies, he documented growing political divisions between white voters with and without a college degree. Social issues play a key role in this polarization. College-educated voters identifying as white have long been more sympathetic to culturally progressive politics, and often factored cultural issues into their voting decisions. Conversely, white voters lacking a college degree had typically placed less weight on cultural issues.
This dynamic has changed in recent decades. Sometime in the mid-2000s, non-college voters began to weigh cultural issues more heavily, and this has pushed many toward the Republican Party. This has affected the broader demographic structures of each party’s coalition. In the late 1980s, white voters with and without a college education voted relatively similarly in presidential races. By 2020, white non-college voters leaned much more heavily Republican. (Though not as polarized, voters who do not identify as white show a somewhat similar trend, with college graduates favoring Democrats more than those without a college degree.) Thus, cultural attitudes are now “drivers of vote choice for both the working and professional class.”
Marble also found that college-educated white voters have become more sympathetic to economic progressivism: “Instead of growing economic inequality leading the highly educated to the economic right and the working class to the left,” college-educated voters have “become more liberal on economic issues, aligning their economic preferences with their cultural preferences.” For Marble, this simultaneous realignment—with working-class voters emphasizing culture as college-educated voters moved left on economics—may suggest that educational polarization could shape politics for years to come.
Marble’s discussion of the role of cultural issues for a working-class realignment dovetails with recent polling from American Compass, a center-right policy workshop. When asked about their political priorities, Republican voters overwhelmingly emphasized cultural issues, including “transgender activism,” “woke corporations,” and “critical race theory.” All the issues, in fact, that more than half of Republicans identified as an “important challenge” had strong cultural components. The “gutting” of manufacturing by globalization barely hit the 50 percent mark, while many other economic issues generated much less interest. This includes what American Compass terms “new Right” concerns about financialization and worker power, as well as “old Right” topics of regulation, tax rates, and free trade. Republican voters also did not emphasize family policy and higher education, two topics that have generated considerable interest in the center-right commentariat.
The American Compass poll has prompted some to claim that a conservative “realignment” centered on some form of economic populism is to some extent a red herring: cultural issues—not economics—drive Republican voters.
But it might be too early to disregard the role of economics for contemporary politics. Political incentives, as well as the political economy of culture, suggest that economic policy could remain an important part of a political project, including for a “realigned” GOP.
To some extent, the heterogeneity of the Republican electorate explains the strong showing of cultural issues in the American Compass poll. As American Compass director Oren Cass observed, cultural issues will appear to have more support in polling because they are an area of consensus among a Republican electorate that is more divided on economic policy.
Some of the GOP coalition’s economic divisions might in part be attributable to its new make-up. As working-class voters become a bigger part of the Republican base, they bring with them different economic priorities. Data from the American National Election Studies show white non-college voters becoming somewhat more economically libertarian than they were in the 1980s on certain policy questions—but they remain less economically libertarian than were the college-educated whites of past decades. For instance, in 1982, 50.6 percent of white college-educated voters thought that government spending should be cut. Among non-college whites in 2020, that number was only 26.2 percent. That change is partly reflective of a broader shift in the American electorate toward favoring more social services during the pandemic, but it nevertheless indicates that the coalitional infrastructure of the GOP might be considerably different than it was 40 years ago. Non-college voters of all backgrounds are much more likely than college-educated voters to say that Social Security spending should be increased—and support for cutting Social Security is under 5 percent in both educational groups.
Even if voters often prioritize cultural issues, economic proposals still carry political weight. Especially because so many contemporary elections are decided by very narrow margins, a nudge on economic messaging could have significant political implications. Stepping away from certain austerity themes, for instance, probably helped Donald Trump make a successful outreach to many of the blue-collar counties that swung from Barack Obama to him in 2016. Had Trump run, say, on privatizing Social Security, he probably would not have breached the “blue wall.”
Elections aren’t just about a party’s political base. Proponents of a realignment argue that a more pro-worker economic message could help persuade swing voters and the disaffected to turn out for Republicans. The 15 percent of the public that Pew classifies as “stressed sideliners” is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. With lower levels of formal education and lower incomes, this group is more socially conservative but also has many economic worries. An economic message that seems blind to working-class finances could cost Republicans with this swing constituency. Conversely, a cultural message that tilts too far to the left could endanger Democratic standing with these voters.
While most voters aren’t going to spend much time poring over white papers on economic policy, the electorate will reward or punish a political coalition based on economic outcomes. Combined with the fallout from the Iraq War, the 2008 economic meltdown caused even many Republican voters to turn on George W. Bush. The relatively robust economy prior to the pandemic has probably boosted the viability of Trump’s 2024 bid. Joe Biden entered office in January 2021 with comparatively strong approval ratings, but high inflation has tarnished his public appeal. Thus, any serious attempt to build or maintain a political majority will have to look at economic questions. Growth remains an important political end.
Additionally, economics intersects with culture. Illegal immigration is both an economic and cultural issue, and one needn’t be a Marxist to argue that economic outcomes have cultural implications. In recent decades, major cultural consequences have flowed from the concentration of economic dynamism in a few urban mega-hubs (the process that urban theorist Richard Florida calls “winner-take-all urbanism”). The tightening of budgets in certain high-prestige fields like elite journalism has also made those spaces more susceptible to cultural radicalism. Marble’s analysis of voter behavior shows how graduating from college influences many people’s senses of cultural affiliation. Thus, expanding vocational education (rather than promoting a college-for-all model) will likely have knock-on economic and cultural effects.
American Compass’s polling also reveals that Republican voters remain somewhat divided on which set of economic policies are the best complement to their cultural priorities—they are split between “old Right” issues such as unwinding regulations and cutting taxes and “new Right” policies on making family formation more affordable and renewing the American industrial base. This suggests that a successful realignment synthesis might have to include elements of both the old and the new.
In part because of their great internal diversity, American political coalitions are often not especially ideologically disciplined. A successful coalition balances between different impulses and constituencies. The migration of wealthy Americans to the progressive coalition might still impose some constraints on economic policy for the Democratic Party. While cultural issues have helped bring some blue-collar voters into the Republican camp, economics might still be an important part of political outreach. And part of the bigger promise of a realignment is not simply the remaking of an electoral coalition but attempting to shift the policy paradigm to adapt to the disruption of the twenty-first century. That bigger shift will have ramifications for both culture and economics.
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