In this reading of the culture wars, middle-income voters privilege culture over economics because they perceive the breakdown of "traditional values" — manifested in everything from divorce, marriage and out-of-wedlock birth rates to what's shown on television and taught in schools — as a greater danger to their well-being than, say, the specter of outsourcing or the spike in CEO salaries.This is an argument that Ross and Reihan Salam make in their upcoming book, Grand New Party, and it consists of two separate points that get a bit conflated here. The first is that the working class today isn't all that badly off. This isn't an argument against promoting policies to help them (Grand New Party, in fact, is basically an extended argument in favor of giving more attention to economic policies that help the working class), merely an observation that in a country where the median family income is $56,000 a lot of people are comfortable enough that they aren't highly motivated to vote on purely pocketbook issues. In other words, they aren't voting on cultural issues because they're poor, they're voting on cultural issues because they're well enough off that they can afford to.
In a robust economy, most Americans — yes, even most blue-collar Americans — feel like they can control their own economic destiny; even now, on the cusp of a recession, huge majorities of American will say their own financial outlook is relatively rosy. Which means that their worries, not implausibly, turn to sociological and cultural questions. Are my streets safe at night, and will my neighborhood still be a good place to raise a family in ten years? What are my kids watching on TV, or being taught in school? Will my daughter's marriage break up, and will my son do the right thing by his girlfriend if he gets her pregnant? And, more broadly — does my government reflect and promote my values, whether in marriage law or welfare policy or what-have-you?
The second point is a more interesting one: namely that working class communities are more concerned about the breakdown of traditional mores because it's working class communities that are most seriously affected by the breakdown of traditional mores. As Garance Franke-Ruta put it a couple of years ago in the American Prospect:
Lower-income individuals simply live in a much more disrupted society, with higher divorce rates, more single moms, more abortions, and more interpersonal and interfamily strife, than do the middle- and upper-middle class people they want to be like. It should come as no surprise that the politics of reaction is strongest where there is most to react to. People in states like Massachusetts, for example, which has very high per capita incomes and the lowest divorce rate in the country, are relatively unconcerned about gay marriage, while those in Southern states with much higher poverty, divorce, and single-parenthood rates feel the family to be threatened because family life is, in fact, much less stable in their communities. In such environments, where there are few paths to social solidarity and a reat deal of social disruption, the church frequently steps into the breach, further exacerbating the fight.Middle class whites don't care much about rising divorce rates, for example, because (a) divorce rates aren't that high among middle class whites and (b) divorce isn't all that catastrophic when it does happen. Working class communities, however, have much higher divorce rates and are therefore naturally more sensitive to its effects. That's especially true since the economic effects of divorce are far more dire for low-income families than they are for higher-income families.
This obviously isn't the whole story, and there's not much question that the Republican Party has cynically fanned the cultural flames for decades partly as a way of distracting voters from noticing that their economic policies are aimed almost entirely at promoting the fortunes of the rich and the mega-rich. Still, it's a worthwhile observation that working class voters care more about the post-60s breakdown of the family because they're much more intimately affected by it in the first place. In a way, this is an argument that economic factors do drive cultural anxieties, but in a subtly different way than we usually think of it.