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God and Taxes: Culture Wars as Class Conflict

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The culture wars are resurgent, says the New York Times. The Times' analysis of the themes in the Republican National Convention showed that God was mentioned more than any other single theme, followed closely by taxes.

God and taxes. You wouldn't think they were a natural pair.

Actually, if the Democrats understood the politics of class in this country as well as the Republicans, we would see the link.

An astute analysis by three Dutch scholars shows a point that is both obvious and astonishing: the culture wars are America's form of class conflict. "Any number of studies point out that it is not so much those with low incomes who are socially conservative but rather those who are poorly educated," argue van der Waal, Achterberg and Houtman. They found that manual workers tend to hold liberal views on economic issues but conservative views on cultural ones.

Makes sense. Working class people use the language of their fathers to express their deepest aspirations and their sense of right and wrong. Not surprising: they forgot to take Buddhism in college. Wait: they didn't go from college. Or they went to community colleges, or lower-status colleges, in our highly class-stratified educational system. And studied to be a med tech, or a licensed practical nurse.

All this has confused even scholars who study class. It's particularly confusing because income is such a poor reflection of class status. A college graduate in a public interest internship is not making much money. But she has a lot of "cultural capital": the education, the contacts, the savvy to have a great career in the long run -- all class related. Tony Soprano had a lot of money but "no class," as we say. That's our way of saying he was not culturally "upper middle class."

Once you understand that class is cultural, you can see why the culture wars are a perfect medium for class conflict in a society where open acknowledgment of class is taboo. The Dutch scholars found that once they replaced a simplistic measure of class by income with an index that measures takes into account the cultural dimension of class, they found an increase in class voting since 1945, fueled by an increase in cultural voting. This increase in cultural voting accounts for most of the shift of working class to the right, in Europe as well as the US. As a result of cultural voting, "class voting has not declined during the postwar era but has even become stronger."

Joe Biden for VP was a good idea: he gets it. He even gets Rule Number One: few working class people call themselves working class. They consider themselves "middle class." How about us folks in the upper middle class? They call us the elite.

And that's fair. We are an elite. I will talk about that in my next post.