Social class is a concept that has proven notoriously difficult to define despite the fact that seemingly everyone thinks they know what it means. Despite the ambiguity surrounding the concept, most would agree that social class involves differentials in resources, economic positions, and status among various individuals and groups in a particular society. Whether and/or how such differentials affect the political organization and governance of the society in question is the primary focus of analyses of class and politics. Many would claim that the place of social class in politics has been a central question of those who study politics since the time of Aristotle, who famously argued in his Politics that the type of government a city had was determined by which social class held political power. Still others would argue that the examination of class and politics goes back even further to Aristotle’s teacher Plato, who in his Republic had Socrates explain that a truly just city requires its inhabitants be divided into three groupings based on natural abilities (and also age)—rulers, guardians, and farmers and craftsmen—and charged the guardians with preventing both wealth and poverty from entering the city because of the fact that the presence of either inevitably corrupts justice. Either way, it is clear that the concern with how the two interact goes back a long time. This entry looks specifically the role of social class in American politics. While it was once asserted by some that the United States was a classless society, or at least a society where class was irrelevant in the nation’s politics, it is now virtually unanimously accepted that social class has mattered politically. The leading pieces of research on this matter are briefly addressed here.
Class and Political Conflict in the United States
James Madison, whose strong influence on America’s system of governance earned him the title “Father of the Constitution,” famously argued in Federalist #10 that the primary aim of an effective form of government in a free society had to be controlling the mischiefs of faction. Less attention is paid to what Madison had to say about the primary source of faction, “The most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” There is no reason to believe that Madison saw the fledgling United States as different from any other society in the centrality of differences in class to the creation of factions, and we know that Madison and many of the other delegates to the Constitutional Convention were deeply concerned over what they considered to be the radical policies being instituted by the lower classes in some of the states in the pre-Constitutional period (Madison, et al. 1987, p. 124). Beard 1986 uses Madison’s thoughts in #10 as the springboard for his seminal study arguing that the Constitution of the United States was a document constructed by Founding Era economic elites to protect themselves from and benefit at the expense of the economic have-nots of the time (see McDonald’s introduction to the 1986 edition). Such a view obviously puts class conflict at the heart of American politics. Even though McDonald 1958 thoroughly disproved Beard’s central thesis that differentials in property holding was the primary driver of support for or opposition to the Constitution during the ratification era, Beard’s focus on the interaction between economics and politics during the founding period remains relevant today. The place of class in American political conflict after the Founding Era has also been hotly contested. America’s most famous outside political observers—Alexis de Tocqueville and James Bryce—both reflected at length on class and politics in their evaluations of the American experiment. Tocqueville 1990 argues that while Americans loved the pursuit of wealth and a vast array of economic situations existed within the population, class conflict had virtually no impact on American politics because all citizens (recognizing of course the limited definition of citizenship in play at this time) considered themselves to be equals on the political playing field. Bryce 1995 went even further, claiming that in addition to lack of class conflict in its politics, the United States lacked social classes in the traditional European sense. Prominent 20th-century analysts of American politics agreed, with Hartz 1955 attributing the lack of class conflict in American politics to the nation’s lack of a feudal past and Alford 1963 and Hamilton 1972 assigning the lack of class-based politics to the fact that American political parties have generally not appealed to the electorate based on class themes, preferring to organize voters on the basis of religious, ethnic, racial, and/or regional lines. Others, however, have vehemently disputed class as an irrelevant thesis. In his explanation of how the focus on race had prevented the class politics of the rest of the nation from penetrating the South, Key 1984, 307 echoed the view attributed to Madison above that “politics generally comes down, over the long run, to a conflict between those who have and those who have less.” In his critique of pluralism as an accurate view of American politics, Schattschneider 1960 argued that the American political system was one in which the deck was heavily stacked against the interests of the lower class, a sentiment echoed in Piven and Cloward 1988 (cited under Social Class and Political Participation). Students of class and American politics need to carefully consider and evaluate arguments on both sides of this issue.
Alford, Robert R. Party and Society: The Anglo-American Democracies. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1963.
Most significant here because of his contributions to the measurement of class (more to come below), Alford also offered one of the first in-depth quantitative analyses of class and electoral behavior in the United States (and also Australia, Canada, and Great Britain).
Beard, Charles A. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. New York: Free Press, 1986.
Beard’s work made the then almost blasphemous argument the Founding Fathers created the Constitution primarily to protect their own economic interests. Beard used then unexamined Treasury Department records to support his argument. This edition contains an extremely helpful introduction by Forrest McDonald. First published in 1913.
Bryce, James. The American Commonwealth. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1995.
The second most famous (behind Tocqueville’s) examination of the American experiment by an outsider. Many today see Bryce as far too flattering of the United States in his account, but many of his observations are highly insightful and have stood the test of time. First published in 1888.
Hamilton, Richard F. Class and Politics in the United States. New York: John Wiley, 1972.
Often overlooked, this text is one of the first overarching looks at how class intersects with American politics in a variety of ways. Still deserving of attention.
Hartz, Louis J. The Liberal Tradition in America. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1955.
At heart a treatise on American political culture, Hartz grounds his case for American exceptionalism in the nation’s lack of a feudal past and its thorough embrace of liberalism in the original meaning of the term.
Key, V. O., Jr. Southern Politics in State and Nation. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984.
Although Key’s primary purpose here was a thorough examination of the politics of the South as a whole and on a state-by-state basis, Southern Politics also provides a clear example of how the elites can disadvantage the masses by keeping class out of the public dialogue via the substitution of another issue. Previously published in 1949.
Madison, James, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. The Federalist Papers. Edited by Isaac Kramnick. New York: Penguin, 1987.
One of many collections of the Federalist, this includes an excellent introductory essay by Isaac Kramnick. First published in 1788.
McDonald, Forrest. We the People: The Economic Origins of the Constitution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.
In a book that grew out of his dissertation, McDonald created economic biographies of almost all of the delegates at the federal convention and the state ratifying conventions to effectively dismiss Beard’s thesis regarding property ownership and views on the Constitution.
Schattschneider, E. E. The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960.
A classic text about the nature of political conflict and how the rules a society creates for itself affects political conflict. According to Schattschneider, most of the rules in the American case are set up to benefit the affluent at the expense of those who are less well off.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. New York: Vintage, 1990.
There are of course numerous reasons to read this classic text, but any serious student of class and American politics needs to engage Tocqueville. Previously published in 1835 and 1840.
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