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From class to culture

The organizing principles of American politics are in flux. We are moving from an alignment based more on class to one based importantly on culture. Over time, those with a more traditional cultural stance have moved toward the Republicans, while cultural progressives joined the Democrats.

The organizing principles of American politics are in flux.

We are moving from an alignment based more on class to one based importantly on culture. Over time, those with a more traditional cultural stance have moved toward the Republicans, while cultural progressives joined the Democrats.

Under the New Deal class alignment, one could tell a great deal about a voter’s propensity for supporting Democrats by knowing her or his income. Today, church attendance and cultural attitudes provide much more predictive leverage than does class.

Kerry won 60 percent of whites who never attend religious services but just 29 percent of those who profess to go weekly — a gap of 31 points.

Economic class provided less leverage. Thirty-seven percent of whites who make more than $100,000 per year voted for Kerry, compared to 51 percent those who earn $30,000 a year — a 14-point gap. Even voters who lost a job as a result of Bush economic policies gave Kerry just a 28-point margin, while white weekly church attendees gave Bush a 42-point advantage.

In short, churchgoing was more highly correlated with vote than was having been a victim of Bush’s war on the middle class.

This changed alignment is reflected in the parties’ bases. Four demographic groups gave margins of about 50 points or more to one candidate or the other. Three of those were on the Democratic side — African-Americans, Jews and gays. On the Republican side, it was white evangelical Christians. One has only to name these four groups to see their fundamentally cultural character.

Correlations between vote and issue positions also powerfully reflect the cultural alignment.

The quarter of the electorate that favored gay marriage supported John Kerry by a 55-point margin, even though Kerry himself did not back legalization of gay marriage. Those who opposed any legal recognition for gay couples voted for the president by a 41-point margin, even though Bush disagreed with them.

Among those who thought abortion “should always be legal,” Kerry won a resounding 48-point victory. In the smaller segment that believed abortion should never be legal, Bush enjoyed a 55-point win.

It is important to note that these correlations are not causation. To say that the votes of Americans were correlated with their views on gay marriage or with church attendance does not mean one or the other of these factors determined the electoral outcome. Rather, church attendance, attitudes toward gay marriage and views on abortion, among other stances, are highly correlated with each other and help to define the underlying cultural dimension that is increasingly the basis of our political alignment.

But these findings are not mere artifacts. Statistical analysis demonstrates that once you control for other factors, self-identified members of the “lower class” are less likely to have voted for Kerry than “upper class” voters — the opposite of what would be expected based on the New Deal alignment. Moreover, holding every other factor constant, a person who went to church more than once a week was half as likely to vote for Kerry as someone who never attended services.

This shift from class to culture began in the ’60s with civil rights and Vietnam, gaining ground in the ’80s with the rise of Reagan and the religious right. But this transformation did not reach full flower until 1992, when the correlation between church attendance and vote emerged strongly.

Changing positions on one issue or another won’t put the culture genie back in the bottle. It is no doubt easier for Democrats to play on a field shaped by class politics, but success requires navigating the more complex and less comfortable politics of culture as well.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) last year.