Scene: The lab-coated man comes in from the room. “It was a troubling case,” he admits. “This question of why you voted for Trump.” He snaps on his surgical glove and probes his patient’s mouth in the usual way “A real brain crusher! The boys and I really went a few rounds on the diagnosis. Were you the sympathetic sort? You know, just down on your luck, jobless maybe. Suffering from inequality. Or were you the ‘take my country back’ type. You know? Worked up about Central Americans or whatever. In other words, were you more a case of inequality?”
“You mean you wanted to know whether I had problems or whether I was the problem?” the patient offers.
The doctor: “More or less. So, we came up with a new battery of tests. A whole new data set!” The man in the lab coat was clearly excited about the new spreadsheets — he loved them. But then he turned to the man in the chair and started to wince. “We’ve run the numbers, and it turns out . . . ”
“No, doc, give me a chance!” the patient protests.
“You’ve come back deplorable,” the doctor sighs. “It’s really unfortunate.
“If the test had shown that you were financially put-out enough, we might have tried a trade policy, some shovel-ready infrastructure projects, or maybe a handout. But, owing to your manifest condition, I can recommend only a limited number of options.”
The patient: “Diversity training?”
The doctor laughs, “Oh no! Liable to make things worse, really. You’d resist. It’s complicated. No, perhaps we could try the implementation of a fairness doctrine, to turn off your Fox News. After observing your gut health, that’s an option we should explore. But the other way is just to let nature take its course, you know. Deplorables are generally older and so, closer to the end.”
“I’m a goner, then? No future.”
“It’s painful to contemplate. But pain, we can treat. Would you like a prescription opioid?” the doctor says with a faint leer.
And . . . scene!
And so it goes. The political and chattering classes, mostly exiled from official positions of power are still trying to figure out why they lost. And so they’ve returned to a debate that never needed to take place: Were Trump’s base of voters motivated primarily by “economic anxiety” or by racism and a host of other backward cultural attitudes?
Emma Green, a staff writer at The Atlantic, summed up the new surveys conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and her magazine.
Evidence suggests financially troubled voters in the white working class were more likely to prefer Clinton over Trump. Besides partisan affiliation, it was cultural anxiety — feeling like a stranger in America, supporting the deportation of immigrants, and hesitating about educational investment — that best predicted support for Trump.
Polling is a notoriously clumsy instrument for understanding people’s lives, and provides only a sketch of who they are. But it’s useful for debunking myths and narratives — particularly the ubiquitous idea that economic anxiety drove white working-class voters to support Trump.
She goes on to argue that working-class white voters are “attuned to cultural change and anxiety about America’s multicultural future.” It’s a very strong conclusion and the Twitterati immediately jumped all over it, essentially saying, “They’re just racists after all.”
People give social scientists all sorts of crazy conspiratorial answers for a very simple, human reason: They don’t want anyone using their anonymous answers to bolster their partisan enemies.
When it comes to social science, I tend to be what you’d call a denialist. People answer surveys in stupidly partisan fashion. And counting their answers seems like a good way to waste time. Republicans and Democrats will give you partisan-sounding answers on whether the U.S. should bomb the fictive city of Agrabah from Disney’s Aladdin or welcome Agrabah’s refugees. No, really. People give social scientists all sorts of crazy conspiratorial answers for a very simple, human reason: They don’t want anyone using their anonymous answers to bolster their partisan enemies. If a pollster calls my house and asks me whether Governor Andrew Cuomo is poisoning the water with a chemical agent, like the villain from a Batman movie, I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of a pro-Cuomo answer.
Less dramatically, Republicans who turn up in surveys over the past year revealed that their partisanship is highly responsive to what their party’s candidate says. See the recent surge of support for government-provided health care among Republicans after Trump seemed to endorse it. If Trump is talking about how cultural change threatens Americans, Republican respondents are going to make efforts to mirror his rhetoric when polled.
But even if you don’t assume that most social science is bunk, there are some problems with a survey like the PRRI-Atlantic one. Once you remind people of their partisan affiliation, all the moral and cultural scripts they associate with their party will come to mind. Many conservatives, holding tightly to the Protestant moral imagination, will think that admitting to personal financial trouble is akin to admitting moral failure. Many liberals, having internalized their own party’s worldview, might be more willing to admit personal financial trouble, because it signals their worthiness for receiving support. Technically, you are asking them the same question, but they are answering different ones.
And even social-science believers aren’t so sure. Commenting on the PRRI-Atlantic data, Harvard’s Ryan Enos worried on Twitter that the survey would overstate “cultural anxiety” (racism) in comparison with economic stress, because social science has better tools for measuring racism. “This is especially a problem when trying to capture complex and poorly understood concepts like ‘anxiety’ and ’racism’,” he tweeted. “We also have a poor theoretical understanding of ideas like ‘economic anxiety’ — everybody seems to agree it exists, but not how to measure it — which means we should be cautious using it in surveys and pitting it against other variables contrast this with intergroup attitudes, like racism, which we have a very good idea how to measure.” Even with these problems, the survey showed that “attitudes about race” were not significant predictors of Trump support.
The truth is that economic and cultural anxiety are not so easily separated. If you think illegal workers from Agrabah are putting you out of a job, you have a strong motivation to tell pollsters that people from Agrabah are criminals, and maybe we should bomb them, too. And it works the other way, if you don’t like the magic-carpet shops and men swinging scimitars as they sing in your neighborhood, you might tell people that the Agrabahbers are putting you out of a job.
Plus, we need to interrogate the hidden assumption in this debate, which is that anxiety about cultural change brought on by mass immigration is morally repugnant and impossible to address. Immigration is a policy decision that boils down to “Who?” and “How many?” Why should working-class whites be obliged to be indifferent or enthusiastic about the changes wrought by mass immigration? Especially when so many advocates of mass immigration are enthusiastic about it precisely because it reduces the cultural power and prestige of working-class whites.
We need to interrogate the hidden assumption in this debate, which is that anxiety about cultural change brought on by mass immigration is morally repugnant and impossible to address.
The PPRI-Atlantic survey is just one of the latest attempts to assure liberals and leftists that Trump supporters are unsympathetic. Others have recently started waving around the old datum from the Republican primaries that Trump supporters had a median household income that was $72,000. This is roughly 130 percent of the national median. But if these are Trump voters, we also know that they are more likely to be older and in peak earning years, not starting their internships and just out of college. We also know that they are more likely to have kids. We know they are more likely to work in the kind of high-paying and dangerous work that yields lots of income seasonally, or until you get hurt. A roughneck might make $130K , but he’s still working-class compared with the assistant editor who makes $30K and depends on his parents to pay his rent.
We have just mountains of evidence that Trump attracted considerable support from downwardly mobile and working-class whites, based on simple factual questions from surveys. Trump support correlated with not having gone to college. It correlated very strongly with owning a mobile home, or reporting your ethnicity as “American.” Trump support was strongest in places that had experienced deindustrialization.
We have also seen mountains of new evidence come out about the economic and social health of the country, and very little of it is good. There’s the ever-plunging work-force participation rate of prime-age American men. And the opioid crisis that is tearing up the Midwest and the interior of the country and rural towns everywhere. There’s the sudden spike in mortality among white men due to suicide, drugs, or alcohol. And if you still aren’t satisfied that there might be some link between economic stress and support for Trump, can I direct you to the 2016 electoral map and say that there might possibly be something suggestive about the fact that Trump won Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin?
Trump won votes from all types of people, most of them doing just fine, but it is clear that he had a special connection with working-class whites who were open to voting for a Republican, and part of that connection was built on his promises that America would bring back manufacturing jobs and the type of work that created America’s post-WWII middle class, the one that used to exist in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
But nothing I say is going to stop this unnecessary debate about the supposedly true motives of Trump supporters. Not when there are so many upwardly mobile Democrats to exonerate for the failure of the Clinton campaign. I hear the sound of latex gloves snapping.