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Class and American elections

Class and American elections

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It is accepted that class-oriented behaviour can be a significant factor in American elections and in Americanpolitics in general. However the problem is to determine how significant class is in elections. The 1920's and 1930's - with the New Deal aiding the underprivileged - did, in fact, establish a direct relationship between class and party allegiance; though this allegiance was subject to considerable variation from election to the election.

Research by Alford indicates that from 1936 to1960 there was a clear preference towards the Democrat Party among manual workers when compared to non-manual workers. The peak for this was in 1948 when 79 per cent of manual workers supported the Democrat Party, while only 38 per cent of non-manual workers voted for them. The majority of non-manual workers voted for the Republicans.

Research by Lipset broke down the category of the “manual workers” and analysed who exactly voted for the Democrat Party. He found that the lower down the social scale you went, the far greater numbers in that social level voted for the Democrat Party. In 1982 the Democrat Party leader, Jimmy Carter, received 50 percent of the vote of the electors who had an income of less than $10,00 per year but only 28 percent of the votes of those with an income of over $30,000 per annum. This trend has continued with the time in office of Clinton; as the man who lead the party that looked after those with the least in society.

However, it is by no means clear that those in the lower social levels consistently vote for the Democrat Party, as there have been considerable variations from one election to the next. When an election has been fought on economic issues then those in the lower social levels have supported the Democrat Party. However when issues other than economic have been of more importance then the Republican Party has received more votes from manual workers.

In the 1992 election the Democrat Party got 58% of voters from those earning less than $15,000 per year. The Republican Party received 23 per cent of votes from this group. At the 1996 election, the Democrat Party received 59 per cent of votes from this group while the Republicans increased their vote to 28 per cent. To complicate matters more, historically this is the social group least likely to vote in an election. In the 2000 election, Gore gained far more support from voters in large cities where social deprivation and earning capacity was likely to be more of a major problem.

There are therefore wide variations from election to election in the extent to which voters are influenced by their perceptions of their class interests in their voting behaviour. Because there are such variations, it is extremely difficult to produce data that is correct from one election to the other. Also the class issue is made more complicated by other issues such as religion, minority groups and regional grouping.

Research by Angus Campbell in his book “The American Voter” also shows that one-third of the American population is unaware of its class position and therefore it can be assumed that those people would not necessarily vote for a 'class' as they lack knowledge on which class they belong to and this would indicate that class is not an issue for them.

Campbell also claims that his research shows that the whole class issue only plays a significant role at a conscious level in the political voting behaviour of the population in only a relatively small and sophisticated portion of the population - this would be the group of people who keep themselves informed on politics on a day-to-day basis and get themselves actively involved in politics.

An issue that further complicates the prediction of voting behaviour is the relative volatility of the American electorate especially those that change parties. American elections can produce a “landslide” election result that would be unlikely in a system where stable class voting was the norm. An examination of the total votes in presidential elections for the Democrat Party indicates that there are marked swings in support of the party. In 1936 the party got 61% of the total vote. By 1956 as a dropped to 42%. By 1964 this had increased to 61% and in 1984 dropped to 41 per cent. By the 1992 election this has risen to 52% and was at 49% for the 1996 and 2000 elections. Therefore there has been as much as a 20% shift in the support for the Democrats which makes predicting party support and election results (with the exception of the 1996 election) difficult

Why people switch their allegiance from one party to the other in elections is an issue that is constantly being analysed by both parties. Another key issues is the decline of the classic “working-class person” which, as a group, appears to be in continuous decline. More Americans are employed in the information sector such as communications, administration or finance. The manual working-class (with the accompanying trade unions), is shrinking in number and its impact on American politics is likely to change accordingly.

Sectionalism and American elections

Attachment to a community or a region is important in explaining political loyalty - though care has to be taken not to overstate this issue. If a community is associated with one particular party, it is likely that the majority of that population there will support that party. In the southern states of America, the culture in many regions has been anti-civil rights. The Democrat Party has become associated with civil rights acts (see the work done by Lyndon Johnson, ironically a Texan) and therefore support for the Republican Party is stronger in this region now than for a long time. The region was historically associated with the Democrat Party as it was the Republican Party that was linked with the victorious north after the civil war. The shift away from the Democrats occurred in the late 1950's and early 1960's and has remained since though Clinton did go some way to changing this in the 1996 election. By the 2000 election, the south had once again stated its Republican credentials.

Sectionalism is more likely to link a community to a particular party rather than class - especially if the findings of Campbell are true. However, the impact of sectionalism can be overstated. A community that has always voted for one particular party might have a substantial minority within it that votes for the opposite party. Their input is usually lost as elections based on the 'first-past-the-post' system are only concerned with the winner as the party that loses does not win anything.

Regional differences in political behaviour are most seen in Congress where sectionalism has its greatest impact on government decisions as Representatives and Senators have to be seen by their voters to be supporting the area that they represent - possibly even at the expense of party loyalty/unity. If they are not seen to be doing so, it is likely that they will not be voted for again at any future election.

It is possible that sectionalism as expressed in a general election is in decline in 1990's America.

Why? As a result of communication developments, America is a 'smaller' country and society is bombarded with information from outside of the area of one community or region. This form of education may well be diluting the impact of sectionalism. Another reason is that America has become a transient society and this movement has by itself weakened what might be deemed local views and attitudes.

Sectionalism has been of great importance in the general elections of the past. In the 1964 election, there was a national wave of sympathy after Kennedy's assassination that swept Johnson back into power as a Democrat. He won 42 out of 50 states. However, the association of the Democrats with civil rights still meant that despite this sympathy, five southern states did not vote for him and supported the Republican Party.

Kennedy was also subject to sectionalism. He was a Catholic and he found support in the regions that had a large number of Catholics living there. As these were invariably built-up industrial areas this too seemed to link the Democrats with the workers. Kennedy did not do well in areas where there were few Catholics and where some form of Protestantism thrived. That this lack of support was down to Kennedy seems to be supported by the figures that show that in the mid-term elections, the Democrats who were standing in the west got 4% more votes than the Democrat Kennedy, while in the south there was a massive 16% more votes for the Democrats standing for election. Therefore it was not as if these regions were completely anti-Democrat - more anti an individual for whatever reason.

The support for the Republicans in the south in the 1980 election was overwhelming. The party only lost Georgia and this was the home state of the Democrat choice to run in the election - Jimmy Carter. This would also be an example of sectionalism - a state supporting its 'own' man. In the mid-west Reagan only lost Minnesota. But this was the home state of Walter Mondale who was Carter's vice presidential running mate and once again the state voted for 'its' man. In the 1984 election Reagan lost only Minnesota. His opponent was Mondale…

The victory of Clinton in 1996 did indicate that sectionalism is dying. But that election was considered a forgone conclusion. When America seems to be unsure as to who should be her leader in the White House, the country does have a tendency to retreat back into its sectionalist ways.

Urban and rural areas in American politics

The historic background:

In the C19, those who flooded into the cities in an effort to improve their life style were the poorest of society. The industrial cities of the north and the east offered some degree of hope to this group. This was also true for the immigrants who came into America by the millions each year. Cities became flooded with the poor. Poor farmers from rural areas also went to the cities to improve their lot.

This historic background was to have a marked impact on American politics which has run through the C20. During the era of the New Deal under F D Roosevelt, the Democrats became associated with those who had the least in society. The last Republican president of the 1920's (the era of the Great Depression) Herbert Hoover said that “prosperity was just around the corner” (when tens of millions were unemployed) and did not endear himself to the poor when he stated that “nobody is actually starving” which may have been factually accurate but hardly showed a caring and sympathetic nature to those most in need.

Politically “the revolt of the underdog” (S Labell) occurred. In 1924, the 12 largest cities in America voted for the Republicans. Winning these cities was vital to electoral success. By 1944 the 12 largest cities in America voted for the Democrats. The impact of the poor expressing their support for the party that 'was theirs' was marked.

“The urban masses of the north became one prop of the Democrat Party.” (Vile)

Ironically the Democrat Party was also supported by the white land owners of the south as a backlash against the Republican Party that had lead the north against the south in the Civil War. The were to lose this support in the 1960's as a result of the link between civil rights developments and the support of the Democrats. It has only been in recent years that the Democrats have started to win back some support in this area.

Any presidential candidate has had to woo support from the northern and eastern industrial cities. A failure to be successful here can have dire consequences for a candidate.

The suburbs of the cities have proved to be a difficulty when assessing their political allegiance. The first issue is that suburbs are greatly growing in America and the impact of population mobility onto these areas has not been fully assessed. Secondly, the people in suburbs tend to be the better off in society - they are areas that are more free of crime and contain the symbols of those who have 'made' it in America - modern cars, modern electrical goods etc. There has been a great growth in what Americans call “individualism”; that you stand on your own two feet and that any progress that you make is dependent on you and not the country/government. Logically, this group would support the Republicans who have always been associated with such beliefs. However, this group also has a lot of economic power which is linked to the wealth they have acquired under the economic development that America has made under the Democrats lead by Clinton.

So does this group support the party that their stance would logically link them to or do they support the party that is deemed responsible for the current state of America's wealth? Research on the 1996 election would indicate that the middle earners in the suburbs did in fact support the Democrats while the big earners supported the Republicans. If this trend is taken forward it is possible that if America suffers a major economic relapse, the middle earners of the suburbs will switch their allegiance to the Republican Party.


Pluralism is the belief that modern society is made up of heterogeneous institutions and organisations that have diversified religious, economic, ethnic and cultural interests and share in the exercise of power. The whole concept believes that society can be democratic even if a variety of elite compete for the decision making process. New groups of elite can gain access to power through the use of elections. Therefore, society has the right to reject one group of elite and elect another if the former has not lived up to expectations. Thus the power rests with the people with the result that no group within a democracy has the ability to govern without the consent of the people. Thus the two elite political groups in America, the Democratic and Republican parties, only have political power on a temporary basis and that power is given to them on a conditional basis.

As America is so multi-layered as a society, both parties would be on dangerous ground if any one section of society was ignored by them or if one section of society was penalised by either party in power. Therefore, those who support the theory of pluralism believe that the greater variety within American society means that all groups have to be represented within politics for either party to survive i.e. the poor may be poor but they have a constitutional right to vote and express their political views. Therefore, either party in power has to at the very least make gestures towards this group but at the same time not offend those who believe in individualism.

The multi-layered nature of American society has lead to many groups flourishing which represent minorities and they have had a role to play in developing public policy on all manner of interests. This, believe the supporters of pluralism, can only expand democracy.

However, for all the different groups that exist within America, the basic facts are the same. The real power base of America is Washington and the connection and clout of big business. The bulk of the multi-nationals are run by white, educated men while both sections of the legislature are dominated by white, educated men - as is the president's current presidential cabinet. There has been an increase in the representation of all different types of social groups within American politics (be it women, Native people, Hispanics etc.) but the majority of important political positions are held by white middle aged males. The full impact of a pluralistic society and its potential impact on politics has yet to fully vent itself.

A counter-argument to pluralism and its aid to democracy has been the growth of single-interest groups that have just one raison d'être - the advance of its own wants. The most obvious is the power of the National Rifle Association. This represents the people who are pro-guns and therefore fits in with the concept of pluralism - society being multi-layered. The power of this organisation is not in dispute and yet no pro-gun lobby has been created to balance it which wants guns but some form of control on their availability. Therefore, one group has gained a major advantage over any other on the gun issue which, to some analysts, is anything but democratic.

The theory is that political parties will have to orientate their policies to involve and satisfy as many groups in America as is possible if they are to achieve and maintain political power. Opponents of this concept believe that the reins of power are clearly in the hands of a few and that even when a group representing one particular aspect of society has a voice, it does not necessarily move forward democracy. In certain instances, it can push back the idea.

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