A House Divided: Party Politics and the Making of America’s Working Classes

Colin P. Arnold, University of Virginia

Discussions of American class politics have found new life and an increasingly receptive audience in recent years. Though many had come to question the political relevance of class in the US, such claims are increasingly difficult to defend given that a majority of Americans explain their political behavior and preferences in ostensibly economic terms. This has been even more apparent following the rise of figures like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders noted for their markedly distinct brands of economic populism and working class-oriented rhetoric. This paper aims to provide an alternative account informed by subjectivist theories of class formation and a growing body of work emphasizing the central role of political parties in organizing the political terrain. Drawing on a multistep content analysis of party documents, exit polls, and electoral returns, I argue that the Republican and Democratic Parties have developed distinct, though mutually class-oriented projects that have, in their own way, reshaped the boundaries of collective class identities and economic interests allowing voters to explain competing political behaviors in similar economistic terms. Issues and interests conventionally framed as economic or cultural cannot be neatly disentangled. However, the substance of these associations and their political consequences are by no means predetermined, but rather a contingent result of parties in conflict.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 126. Parties & American Class Politics