Unnecessary Gloom: The Class v. Culture Clash

Unnecessary Gloom: The Class v. Culture Clash

Although Thomas Byrne Edsall’s review of my and Joel Rogers’s America’s Forgotten Majority is both thoughtful and perceptive (“Why Class Doesn’t Trump Culture,” Dissent, Spring 2001), some of his points aren’t quite fair to the book. Further, I disagree with his claim that the 2000 election constitutes a convincing test case of one of the book’s key messages. Edsall is very much on track, however, in terms of the importance of cultural factors, even if he may be unnecessarily gloomy about the limits these factors impose on progressives.

First, the book doesn’t say that the voting decisions of less well educated white Americans are “determined by gains or losses in median wages and family income.” Rather, it argues that economic trends, as seen through the prism of their deeply held values, have had a central role in shaping these voters’ attitudes toward politics and the role of government. This obviously doesn’t say that values are unimportant and it doesn’t even say that so-called “values issues,” such as abortion or homosexuality, are unimportant. Indeed, the book in no way purports to be a “theory of everything” in accounting for the political behavior of forgotten-majority—or any other—voters. It simply insists that the economics-values interaction is crucial to understanding this group’s political behavior, a claim that seems reasonable to me.

Second, the book emphasizes the changes in the white working class. Edsall is absolutely right to point out that white non-college-educated men are “exceptionally diverse” and that “[n]on-college-educated workers are far less blue-collar than in the past; far more involved in technology, services and in types of work falling outside the boundaries of traditional class analysis.” America’s Forgotten Majority goes into considerable detail about just these kinds of changes. The broad point of the book, however, was to highlight the political centrality of this group of voters—a point Edsall agrees with—and the economic challenges that members of this group still face, new economy or not.

Edsall faults our account of recent economic developments for not considering that “[t]he benefits of rising productivity and growth do, in fact, finally appear to be moving down the educational ladder.” On the contrary, both in chapter two and the concluding chapter, the improved economic performance of the late 1990s is highlighted precisely because it did represent a return to broadly shared wage and income growth, even if that improved performance did not—and could not—make up ground lost over several decades (indeed, it took quite a while simply to make up ground lost in the earlier part of the 1990s). The book emphasizes that a return to steady wage and income growth has been an important factor in softening “forgotten majority” attitudes toward government and generating some openness toward the...