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Dear Thomas Frank

It’s a funny thing: academics are all easily reachable by email, but non-academics can be harder to track down.

Someone pointed me today to a newspaper article by political analyst Thomas Frank that briefly mentioned my work. I had a question for Frank, but the only correspondence I had with him was from ten years ago, and my email bounced.

So I’ll send it here:

Dear Thomas:

Someone pointed out a newspaper article in which you linked to something I’d written.

Here’s what you wrote:

Krugman said that the shift of working-class people to the Republican party was a myth and that it was not happening outside the south. . . . Here are some examples: a blog post from 2007; a column in the Times in 2008 (“Nor have working-class voters trended Republican over time,” he wrote. “On the contrary, Democrats do better with these voters now than they did in the 1960s”); his book, Conscience of a Liberal, published in 2007 and reprinted in 2009 and 2015; and a Times column in 2015, in which Krugman was still insisting that: “The working-class turn against Democrats wasn’t a national phenomenon — it was entirely restricted to the south.” . . . I know: Krugman wasn’t the only one saying things like this. Here’s a political scientist making the same point in tones of utmost contempt, implying that no serious professional in academia or prestige journalism could possibly disagree with him.

In that last place you link to this post of mine from 2012.

Your remark about me expressing “utmost contempt” is fair enough; I guess that is one thing you and I have in common, that we are not always patient with people who we feel have made a mistake.

Beyond issues of tone, though, is there anything I wrote in that post that you think is actually incorrect? From your newspaper article you seem to be expressing a negative take on that post of mine, but as far as I am aware, there are no errors in that post; everything I wrote there is accurate. So I’d like to know what specifically I got wrong there. Thanks in advance for explaining.

Yours
Andrew

I should perhaps clarify that I’m serious about asking what I got wrong. I can well believe that I made a mistake; I’d just like to know what it is. I’m guessing it’s just a matter of emphasis, that Frank doesn’t actually think I got anything wrong in that post; he just would’ve written it differently. But maybe not; maybe there’s something I’m completely missing here. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Anyway, if any of you is in contact with Thomas Frank, please forward this along to him. He can respond in the comments or by email.

P.S. I have more to say on the topic of who is voting for Democrats and who is voting for Republicans—as has come up before, terms such as “blue collar” and “working class” are somewhat loaded in that they often seem to summon up images of white men—but here I just want to figure out exactly what it is of my writing that Frank is disagreeing with.

P.P.S. Someone sent me Thomas Frank’s email address so I sent him my question (that is, the part of the above post beginning with “Dear Thomas” and ending with “Yours Andrew”). And he responded!

Here is his response, in its entirety:

Dear sir:

Thanks for writing.

I think my article speaks for itself.

Best,

Thomas Frank

Wow! “Dear sir”—I don’t hear that one very often. I wonder how he responds to female correspondents. “Dear Madam”? “Dear Miss or Madam”? I can’t imagine.

Anyway, I can understand the response: after all, Frank, unlike me, makes his living from writing so he can’t very well just give out political commentary for free. Remember that Samuel Johnson quote.

18 Comments

  1. Kyle says:

    Frank’s website has a contact page with a form to e-mail him.

    I suspect his issue with your post is just that you emphasized the incorrectness of Haidt’s statement about the “working class” rather than delve into his preferred topic which is the shift, perceived or real, of the “white working class” to the Republicans.

    Random thought, apparently Elizabeth Warren is 3-4 inches taller than Hillary Clinton. That’s got to be enough to win the electoral college, right?

  2. Terry says:

    Perhaps we need some clarification here.

    Haidt says “Why on Earth would a working-class person ever vote for a conservative candidate? This question has obsessed the American left since Ronald Reagan first captured the votes of so many union members, farmers, urban Catholics and other relatively powerless people – the so-called “Reagan Democrats”. . . .”

    Note that Haidt does not say that a majority of working-class people vote for conservatives or that Reagan got a majority of union members, farmers, etc. The issue he raises is why *so many* vote for conservatives like Reagan. Similarly, Krugman appears to be astonished that *any* vote for conservatives.

    Perhaps Andrew is infuriated by a perceived Haidt claim that there has been a swing to conservatives among the working class. Andrew refutes this claim, but is Haidt actually making this claim? Haidt talks about how Reagan captured the Reagan democrats. This is some subset of all working class democrats, so I don’t know if Haidt is actually making the claim Andrew refutes. I suspect whiteness is a factor here in unspecified ways (Krugman supports this suspicion since he is clearly thinking in racial terms). Again, I don’t know.

    • Kyle says:

      I was going to disagree with you, as the first part that Andrew quotes from Haidt’s article is, “Across the world, blue-collar voters ally themselves with the political right…” Now If I were to turn on the radio and hear this spoken at the beginning of a BBC report, say, I would assume the implication is that *most* blue-collar voters ally themselves with the political right, or that at best, the clause is ambiguous. Perhaps this interpretation is wrong. After all, if I heard, “Across the world, young people play Pokemon Go…” I wouldn’t assume that they mean most young people play Pokemon Go. I suppose this falls under the category of “unconscious inference” or “cognitive illusion”.

      Regardless, following the link to Haidt’s article, I see the “Across the world…” bit is in the *subhead* between the title and the body, so it may have not been written by Haidt at all. At least, I always hear that journalists and op-ed contributors don’t write the titles.

      • Terry says:

        Thanks for the input.

        My takeaway from reading all this is that is extraordinarily difficult to avoid reading your own framework into other people’s writings about a complex issue. I had to read everything repeatedly to see what people were *actually* saying. I think that everyone is just being very loose with their definitions, and no one is talking about exactly the same thing.

        The thrust of Krugman and Frank is “why do these stupid poor people vote for Republicans.” The don’t care too much if it is a mathematical majority or not, they think they are all stupid, and they are using lazy stereotypes to lump together all these stupid yahoos.

        Haidt is making the counter point that simple economics does not explain all voter behavior, and his explanation is that these people are voting their self-interest in a larger cultural sense.

        Andrew is trying to actually bring some empirical rigor to the question, but he is reading mathematical notions into the debate, such as “a majority” or “a change in voting percentages.”

        Plus, I found Krugman’s framing pretty weird. He says that no, there isn’t a swing to the Republicans, there is only a swing among the group that is swinging to the Republicans … working class voters that are not swinging to the Republicans are staying with the Democrats. This sounds weird until to see his idee fixee is racial hatred against southern whites who swung to the Republicans for the vile reason that Krugman’s Democratic party now hates them.

  3. Terry says:

    Update.

    I finished reading your 2012 post, and it does appear that everyone is actually talking about the white working class.

    • Andrew says:

      Terry:

      Yes, one reason I’m not a big fan of the term “working class” (or, even more so, “blue collar”) is that it’s not so clearly defined, and in particular it’s not so clear how much it is supposed to be emphasizing white men.

  4. David says:

    Andrew,
    Everything in this debate hinges on measurement.

    It is true that working class is a broad term. But, there is certainly real scholarship on it and extensive and rigorous debates about how to measure it. As someone who has written a lot about class and income measurement, measuring it as the bottom third of income distribution (or just based on income) is not justified. Most sociologists measure class based on occupation (e.g. the EGP scheme). Alternatively, one could also measure class based on education. The argument for those two used to rely on them being more strongly correlated with permanent income, but we now know that isn’t true. Still, while one can argue for income-based class measures, one can also reasonably argue for education and occupation based on skill, authority, culture, etc.

    One doesn’t have to use such approaches. But, with all due respect, it isn’t productive to act as if those approaches do not exist. It also isn’t productive to pronounce with such certainty how the white working class is voting based solely on income.

    If you measure the white working class on occupation or education (e.g. those w/o college degrees), the evidence really does favor Frank. Their shift to the Republicans is significant, and is not confined to the South. Rather than saying Frank is wrong and pointing to income, how about we first be open-minded about measurement, and actually read and engage with literatures on class measurement? If you do so, I doubt you’ll convey such certainty in this debate.

    Dave

    Ps. Happy to provide citations to back up these claims if anyone is curious.

    • Glenn Wright says:

      Yes; Thomas Frank is a bit of a blowhard and this particular article certainly doesn’t “speak for itself”, but he’s written some things about Larry Bartels in the past that make it clear that his main disagreement is with the “bottom-third” definition. Ruy Teixeira has argued that “no college degree” is the better measure, and according to that definition, they have shifted toward Republicans, even outside the South.

      • Andrew says:

        Glenn:

        I think that open discussion is almost always a good thing, but that’s an academic or scientific perspective. Thomas Frank is in a different world, the world of politics, where it does not make sense to think that the people you’re debating are acting in good faith. I’m not sure if Frank thinks that I am his political opponent and thus not to be trusted, or if he’s just in the habit of not engaging people in serious discussion.

  5. David says:

    One final point Andrew. I appreciate how you implicitly criticize Haidt for not talking to political scientists. But, can’t you be criticized the same way for not talking to sociologists about class? I appreciate you collaborate with and make significant contributions to the sociological community. But, both Bartels and you do not seem remotely interested in the voluminous sociological literature on class.

    To be clear, I would respect if you (and Bartels) genuinely engaged with that literature, criticized it, and went another way. But, to be honest, it appears like your completely unaware of it. So, again, how about we take measurement seriously before making any strong conclusions?

    • Andrew says:

      David,

      Yes, fair enough. It’s hard to get outside of our usual ways of thinking and our usual ways of measurement.

      • David says:

        Andrew,
        Thanks for your reply. I’d just make a friendly note that your use of the word “usual” twice in your reply is debatable. Its not clear how/why income-based measures of class are defined as the “usual ways of thinking” or “usual ways of measurement.” I would respectfully suggest you should say “particular” instead of “usual”.

        There was a gigantic class voting literature long before the Frank/Bartels debate and the “usual” way (by far) of defining class was occupation-based. By saying occupation was the usual way of measuring class, I would simply point to the vast majority of studies that used it the vast class voting literature.

        Again, I respect reasonable people could prefer an income-based measure of class. Indeed, my own recent work suggests some of the advantages of occupation-based measures weren’t as real as we thought (e.g. with proxying permanent income). But, to advance the debate, let’s take measurement and the vast prior literature on class voting seriously.

        Dave

        • Andrew says:

          David:

          I was talking about myself and my collaborators, thus “our usual” referred to how we have operated. To put it more generally: It can be hard for groups to get outside of their usual ways of thinking and their usual ways of measurement.

          Also, in Red State Blue we did look at some occupation-based coding that we took from the sociology literature; see here and also some wackier things (for example, this). But I admit, we did focus on income, in large part because of its accessibility in so many surveys.

  6. David says:

    That’s fair, I appreciate you qualifying your statement.

    Note the trends in your Brooks-Manza inspired analyses for skilled and unskilled workers. We find if you concentrate on White “working class” men using such measures, they do trend Republican as well: https://bradydave.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/bradysosnaudfrenkssr.pdf

    I think we’re one of the few to find it was concentrated among men.

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear the ANES folks have been updating the occupation coding in the last several waves. This was pretty disappointing as it prevents this kind of work.

  7. jason farnon says:

    In the older blog post linked to, someone is saying the poorer folks identify with republicans. You have a plot showing that republicans capture a much larger share of the vote from the wealthy than the poor. I don’t see how this refutes the original claim; don’t you want absolute figures rather than a difference? Or more directly, republican – democrat votes among poorer folks? If I’m reading the plot right it seems consistent with the position that everybody identifies with republicans.

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