The Changing Dynamics of Class and Culture in American Politics: A Test of the Polarization Hypothesis

Duane F. Alwin, Paula A. Tufiş

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


This article investigates the implications of Thomas Frank’s “conservative backlash” thesis that cultural cleavages have become much more important in contemporary American political life relative to traditional socioeconomic bases for political differentiation. We frame our research within the recent literature on the “polarization” of the electorate with respect to social and cultural issues. Using Hunter’s “culture war” imagery, we examine the extent to which opposing cultural forces on issues of abortion, gay rights, women’s extra-familial labor force participation, and child-rearing have become more important in shaping political identities and party preferences. We use data from twenty-six nationally representative surveys of the General Social Survey (GSS) from 1974 through 2010, and we find evidence of polarization in the liberal-conservative identities of respondents. We find that occupational class had a clear and consistent relationship to political views, which is relatively stable over time. We also find that cultural views are related to political identities, and that most features of the cultural component in our analysis are increasingly associated with liberal political views. Our results favor an interpretation of a changing role of cultural orientations in shaping political identities and provide tentative support for Frank’s “Kansas hypothesis” as revealed in the GSS data.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)229-269
Number of pages41
JournalAnnals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • General Social Sciences


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