The Undeserving Rich: “Moral Values” and the White Working Class1


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     This research was funded in part through a FAD grant from the American Sociological Association. The authors thank the following research assistants: Lacey Connelly, Rebecca Donaldson, Carlos Gasperi, and Andre Nickow. They are also grateful for comments from audiences at the American Sociological Association and at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern, as well as from various individuals, including the two anonymous reviewers.


White working-class citizens who vote for the Republican Party have been fodder for much political discussion and speculation recently, and a debate has arisen about the role that “moral values” played in the political decision making of this segment of voters. In this article, we defend a version of the moral values claim. We show that although the Republicans’ policies are unpopular, they are bundled with an overarching moral framework that is extremely resonant to this set of voters, and we use in-depth interviews to uncover this framework. A key feature of this framework, on which in the 2004 presidential election George W. Bush scored high and John Kerry scored low, is the appropriate attitude to wealth, which serves as an indicator for a candidate’s general moral philosophy and as a heuristic about whether the candidate will govern with working-class voters’ interests in mind. National Election Studies data support the argument that this was a key influence on the voting decision in 2004, even controlling for voters’ partisan identification.