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.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
- Advanced Democracies, Electoral System Reform in
- Advanced Democracies, Public Opinion and Public Policy in
- Advertising and Election Campaigns in the United States
- Africa, Comparative Politics of
- African Development, Politics of
- American Indian Politics
- Arab-Israel Conflict, The
- Arendt, Hannah
- Aristotle's Political Thought
- Arms Race Modeling
- Australia and New Zealand, Comparative Politics of
- Authoritarianism in Russia
- Authoritarianism in the Public
- Authoritarianism in Turkey
- Bicameralism in Stable Democracies
- Big Data in Political Science Research
- Biopolitics and State Regulation of Human Life
- Brazilian Political Development
- Business-State Relations in Europe
- Campaign Finance in the Era of Super-PACS
- Canadian Foreign Policy
- Candidate Emergence and Recruitment
- Channels of Electoral Representation in Advanced Industria...
- China's One-Child Policy
- China-Taiwan Relations
- Chinese Communist Party
- Chinese Economic Policy
- Chinese Nationalism
- Civil Society in South Asia
- Civil War in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Civil-Military Relations in Asia
- Civil-Military Relations in Latin America
- Class in American Politics
- Climate Change and Politics
- Comparative Capitalism Theory
- Comparative Industrial Relations in Europe
- Comparative Politics of Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bis...
- Comparative Politics of Chile and Uruguay
- Comparative Politics of Federalism
- Comparative Politics of the Middle East and North Africa
- Congress, Defense, and Foreign Policy
- Congressional Reassertion of Authority
- Conservative Litigation Strategies and Groups in US Judici...
- Corruption in China
- Cosmopolitan Political Thought
- Crisis of European Integration in Historical Perspective, ...
- Critical Theory and the Frankfurt School
- Cuban Political Development
- Cycles of Protest
- Democracy and Authoritarianism in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Democracy and Dictatorship in Central Asia
- Democracy in Latin America
- Democratic Citizenship
- Democratic Consolidation
- Democratic Peace Theory
- Democratic Theory
- Democratization in Africa
- Democratization in Central America
- Democratization in Mexico
- Development of Survey Research
- Direct Democracy in the United States
- East Africa, Politics of
- Economic Voting
- Election Forecasting
- Election Laws in Democracies
- Electoral and Party System Development in Sub-Saharan Afri...
- Electoral Change in Latin America
- Electoral Reform and Voting in the United States
- Emotion and Racial Attitudes in Contemporary American Poli...
- Environmental Governance
- Environmental Politics among Advanced Industrial Democraci...
- Ethnic Diasporas and US Foreign Policy
- Ethnic Politics
- Eurasia, Comparative Politics of
- European Social Democracy
- European Union, Politics of the
- Failed and Weak States in Theory and Practice
- Far-Right Parties in Europe
- Federalism in the United States
- Feminist Political Thought
- Field Experiments
- Filibuster, The
- Gender and Electoral Politics in the United States
- Gender and International Relations
- Gender, Behavior, and Representation
- Global Inequality
- Globalization and the Welfare State
- Globalization, Health Crises, and Health Care
- Governance in Africa
- Governmental Responses to Political Corruption
- Gridlock and Divided Government in the U.S.
- Historiography of Twentieth-Century American Conservatism,...
- Hobbes’s Political Thought
- Hume's Political Thought
- Hybrid Regimes
- Identity and Political Behavior
- Ideological Reasoning in Politics
- Immigrant Incorporation in Canada
- Immigrant Incorporation in Western Europe
- Immigration and International Relations
- Immigration Politics and Policy in the United States
- Impact of Campaign Contributions on Congressional Behavior...
- Implicit Attitudes in Public Opinion
- Income Dynamics and Politics in North America and Europe
- Income Inequality and Advanced Democracies
- Income Inequality in the United States, The Politics of
- Indian Democracy
- Indigenous Rights and Governance in Canada, Australia, and...
- Informal Practices of Accountability in Urban Africa
- Institutional Change in Advanced Democracies
- Intellectual Property in International Relations
- Interest Groups and Inequality in the United States
- Interest Groups in American Politics
- Interethnic Contact and Impact on Attitudes
- International Conflict Management
- International Criminal Justice
- International Law
- International NGOs
- International Political Economy of Illegal Drugs
- Internet and Politics, The
- Iran, Political Development of
- Israeli Politics
- Judicial Supremacy and National Judicial Review
- Judiciaries and Politics in East Asia
- Kant's Political Thought
- Labor Politics in East Asia
- Land Reform in Latin America
- Latin America, Democratic Transitions in
- Latin America, Environmental Policy and Politics in
- Latin America, Guerrilla Insurgencies in
- Latin America, Social Movements in
- Legal Mobilization
- LGBT Politics in the United States
- Liberal Pluralism
- Local Governments in the United States
- Machiavelli’s Political Thought
- Marx's Political Thought
- Mass Incarceration and US Politics
- Mechanisms of Representation
- Media Effects in Politics
- Media Politics in South Asia
- Minority Political Engagement and Representation in the Un...
- Modern Dynastic Rule
- Modern Elections and Voting Behavior in Europe
- Motivated Reasoning
- National Interbranch Politics in the United States
- NATO, Politics of
- Negative Campaigning
- Neoclassical Realism
- New Institutionalism Revisited, The
- North America, Comparative Politics of
- Oil, Politics of
- Origins and Impact of Proportional Representation, The
- Outcomes of Social Movements and Protest Activities
- Partisan and Nonpartisan Theories of Organization in the U...
- Partisan Polarization in the US Congress
- Partisan Polarization in the US Electorate
- Party Networks
- Peace Operations
- Personality and Politics
- Plato's Political Thought
- Policy Feedback
- Policy Responsiveness to Public Opinion
- Political Ambition
- Political Economy of Financial Regulation in Advanced Ind...
- Political Economy of India
- Political Economy of Taxation, The
- Political Geography in American Politics
- Political Obligation
- Political Parties and Electoral Politics of Japan
- Political Thought, Hegel's
- Political Thought of the American Founders, The
- Politics and Policy in Contemporary Argentina
- Politics of Anti-Americanism
- Politics of Class Formation
- Politics of Disaster Prevention and Management
- Politics of Financial Crises
- Politics of Foreign Direct Investment in South Asia
- Politics of Higher Education in the U.S.
- Politics of Internal Conquest in the United States and Can...
- Politics of Japan
- Politics of Natural Disasters, The
- Politics of North Korea
- Politics of Science and Technology
- Politics of South Africa
- Politics of Southern Africa
- Politics of the American South
- Postcolonialism and International Relations
- Post-Communist Democratization
- Preferential Trade Agreements, Politics of
- Presidential Persuasion and Public Opinion
- Presidential Primaries and Caucuses
- Private Governance
- Public Opinion in Advanced Industrial Democracies
- Public Opinion in New Democracies and Developing Nations
- Public Presidency, US Elections, and the Permanent Campaig...
- Qualitative Methods, The Renewal of
- Race in American Political Thought
- Racial and Ethnic Descriptive Representation in the United...
- Regime Transitions and Variation in Post-Communist Europe
- Regional Integration in Latin America
- Regional Security
- Regulating Food Production
- Religion in American Political Thought
- Religion in Contemporary Political Thought
- Religion, Politics, and Civic Engagement in the United Sta...
- Rousseau's Political Thought
- Rule of Law
- Russia and the West
- Science and Democracy
- Social Policy and Immigrant Integration
- South Korea, Politics of
- Spectacle, The
- State Building in Sub-Saharan Africa
- State Formation
- State, The Nature of the
- Supreme Court of the United States, The
- Systemic Theories of International Politics
- Taiwan, Politics of
- Tea Party, The
- Thailand, Politics of
- The New Right in American Political Thought
- Transitional Justice
- Transnational Private Regulation
- Turkey, Political Development of
- US Military Bases Abroad
- US Presidency, The
- Voter Turnout
- Voter Turnout Field Experiments
- Welfare State Development
- Welfare State Development in Latin America
- Welfare State Development in Western Europe
- West Africa, Politics of
- Worker Politics in China
- Youth and Generational Differences in US Politics