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Posts Tagged ‘america’

Seeking the Roots of Trump’s Support

Donald Trump’s supporters are the people who have been left behind by successive waves of economic change. They are the people who in the space of a generation have seen solid, stable manufacturing jobs turn into short-term, unstable, low-paid service industry jobs – or worse, into unemployment. They are the people who lost out to free trade – whose jobs went to China and India, and who gained nothing from what came back in return. They are the people who fell through the cracks of the economic recovery Barack Obama has overseen since 2008, just as they fell through the cracks of every recovery since the 1980s, and that has taught them to distrust statistics in general and politicians in particular. They’re voting for Trump because the current political status quo has given them nothing and perhaps burning it down will make things better in the end.

Or perhaps;

Donald Trump’s supporters are the people who have been unable to accept or adapt to the cultural change around them. Around a hard-core of white nationalist racists is a mass of support drawn from people who have seen the nature of their communities change due to immigration, equal marriage and secularisation. They are people who don’t understand why TV needs to have so many gay characters, especially in shows children might be watching, or why young people listen to hip-hop, and who feel like the values they grew up with – respect for authority and a sense of white, Christian identity – are under constant attack from an urban, liberal elite. They’re voting for Trump because he stands up and says the things they believe in blunt ways that make the dog-whistling of other Republicans seem cowardly.

Which of those statements is true? That’s become one of the biggest questions in political science – not just with regard to Donald Trump, but with regard to the rise of radical populism, both on left and right, across Europe and much of the developed world. The economic explanation has more devotees. The cultural explanation has a growing body of evidence behind it. Parties supporting both camps tug back and forth.

Support for Trump in economically depressed, traditionally Democrat-leaning towns of the Rust Belt and the North East is presented as a knock-out blow for the Economics camp. The Culture camp counters by noting that the average income of a Trump supporter is actually above the national average for people of their demographic group; those backing Trump are not, by any means, the economically hardest-hit of the nation.

Neither camp is entirely convincing. The reason for that is simple; neither factor, taken in isolation, can adequately explain support for Donald Trump (or for Europe’s radical populist parties, or for Brexit). By arguing for the supremacy of one argument over another, political scientists ignore two important things.

Firstly, political support is always a coalition, not a hive mind. There is space within Trump’s support base – currently standing, according to the polls, at between 38 and 40 per cent of the US electorate, or around 90 million voters – for people motivated by economic factors, people motivated by cultural factors, people motivated by a mixture of both and even, undoubtedly, people motivated by other things entirely (like the suggested group of evangelical Christian voters who have reportedly convinced themselves that God’s plan is to put Trump in office and then have him die or resign so that the right-wing Christian VP candidate, Mike Pence, can take his place). There is no theoretical requirement for a single factor to be able to explain a majority, or even a significant plurality, of a candidate’s support.

Secondly, economic hardship and cultural intolerance are not independent of one another. One of the things you always have to look out for in any kind of political research is correlation between the factors you’re investigating. Treating two factors as being independent, when they actually interact with one another or with other variables in some important way, can seriously break the model you’re trying to build.

That’s almost certainly what’s happening here. It’s not as simple as “poor people are more intolerant than rich people” – that’s both a gross oversimplification, and provably untrue in much of the data available. However, there are lots of ways in which those factors may interact that are a little more complex and worthy of consideration.

Take for example the urban-rural divide. Urban communities in the USA are overwhelmingly voting Democrat; rural communities generally go Republican. That pattern is true in polling for this election too; one of the most effective predictors for whether a county will vote Trump or Clinton is its population density. In part, that’s because cities have larger minority populations than the countryside; but urban white people lean more towards Clinton, too.

There are cultural differences between urban whites and rural whites, not least of which is that urban whites live alongside minorities (ethnic, sexual, religious and otherwise) and that experience has been shown to push people towards being more tolerant and liberal. In the UK, the biggest electoral successes for xenophobic far-right parties like the BNP and UKIP came in towns with the smallest numbers of immigrants; familiarity with the Other, well, stops them being the Other. That’s definitely a factor in the Trump support equation.

There are also, however, economic differences between urban whites and rural whites. Urban whites are not necessarily better-off than rural whites (indeed, they’re often less well off), but for the most part the economic opportunity available to them is greater. They live in diverse cities where the end of one kind of industry usually means the springing up of another. Metropolises do die on occasion, but it’s rare; mostly a period of decay following the decline of an old industry is followed by new businesses moving in to take advantage of lowered costs. Rural areas, though? Small towns and villages? When they die, they die. One factory closing can turn a small community into a ghost town; people who have the mindset and the opportunity to move to a city do so, and what remains is a zombie village, lurching forward through inertia but likely doomed to decay and decline forever.

In short, a rural white voter may have cultural differences from his urban cousin, but he also has a key economic difference; even if he’s doing fine personally (though again other factors come into play – is he doing as well as his father did, or worse? Perceptions of economic conditions are highly influenced by expectations, after all), he may be surrounded by a community in decline, driving past boarded-up windows every day, constantly reminded that his income and lifestyle is fragile, and fearful that his country has forgotten his kind of town even exists.

See how that imaginary voter ends up being a melange of both economic and cultural factors? My hypothesis is this; Trump’s voters are generally motivated by a little from column A and a little from column B. For those who harbour racist, xenophobic, homophobic or otherwise regressive social sentiments, they were willing to just roll their eyes at the multicultural liberals in the cities and calmly vote for mainstream, non-populist candidates as long as their communities remained economically stable and prosperous. These towns may not have been the most welcoming places in the world for minorities, but for the most part minorities were not blamed for major problems (a core underlying theme of radical-right populism, and of the Trump campaign specifically) because there weren’t really any major problems to blame them for.

On the flip side of the coin, you’ve got those who have been severely impacted by the economic shake-up of the developed world, and left behind by globalisation and technological progress, but who have not reacted by supporting Trump. That’s because they didn’t have latent regressive sentiments that could be activated by economic hardship (either their own, or that of their community as a whole). They live alongside minorities, or perhaps have minority groups represented in their own family and close friends; they’re college-educated, which in addition to giving them a different context in which to consider and critique Trump and Clinton’s competing claims, has exposed them to many minority groups (even the most conservative colleges have far more opportunties to meet and get to know people unlike yourself than small town communities generally offer). Though times are tough for them, they were never in the potential Trump voting camp, because they don’t have a culturally grounded anger at minority groups which they can shape into blame.


There’s another group worth mentioning; the “always-Republican” group of people for whom voting Republican is part of their identity (though they’d blanch at the thought of actually subscribing to identity politics, oh dear me no), for whom Clinton is too left-wing – and despite her progressive detractors, she is notably more left-wing and progressive than even Barack Obama on almost everything except foreign policy. For this group, and there seem to be a hell of a lot of them, voting Trump is partially about identity, and partially about ideology. They’ll happily admit that the man is a boor, a misogynist, a racist, even a fool; but they worry about the country’s direction under Clinton, and have convinced themselves that Trump will be effectively restrained by the Republican Party and by the nation’s democratic checks and balances, making him into a far more moderate-right leader than any of his own statements and positions have implied.

These people skew the data. They’re not really “Trump supporters”; they’d vote for anyone wearing the GOP badge, or perhaps simply for anyone standing against Clinton. They share some of his views but dislike how he expresses them (the dog whistling was just fine for them). They’re the Republican hardcore, inseperable in the data from the true Trump supporters, and they mess up the statistics; they’re likely older, and richer, and perhaps less religious and more educated than the kind of people who actually wear Make America Great Again baseball caps.

One might also observe that pretty much this exact demographic has also served the function of useful idiots ushering in their reign of every right-wing authoritarian strongman in history – relatively moderate traditional conservatives who give the reins of power to a demagogue in the mistaken confidence that they’ll be able to control him once he’s in charge – but that would be unkind. True; but unkind.


The 90 million or so people who currently say they support Donald Trump (assuming 100% turnout, of course; the actual vote figure will be far lower) is an enormous, diverse demographic. It’s not necessarily diverse in a traditional sense – it’s overwhelmingly white and a bit of a sausage party, with lots of traditionally Republican-supporting women seemingly crossing the aisle this year – but the backgrounds, reasoning and motivations of those in that group are incredibly disparate, which makes a bit of a mockery of attempts to find the Holy Grail, the one, true reason why people are voting Trump.

Perhaps confusing matters even more are the core supporters and true believers – the 13 million people who voted for Trump in the primaries (though some of those early votes were likely half in jest, and some of the late ones made through clenched teeth to keep the arguably even more odious Ted Cruz from the nomination), for example, or the thousands who turn up to his rallies around the country. Their motivations are perhaps more clear, and certainly more clearly telegraphed. Those who picked Trump from among a stable of boring but broadly moderate Republicans, and those who turn up to cheer him on at rallies, have an agenda that’s clearly cultural. A large portion of them are absolutely cheering on the turning back of the clock, the disenfranchisement of ethnic and sexual minorities who have “skipped the queue” at the expense of “real” Americans; they may have been activated by economic hardship, but the cultural base of their grievances, and the racist White Nationalism to which it has led them are extremely clear.

There aren’t very many of these people, though. Even if you accept that every single person who voted for Trump in the Republican primary was doing so on the basis of cultural regressivism and white nationalism – and I think that’s absolutely a ceiling figure, not a realistic estimate – that’s only 13.3 million people, in a country with 225.8 million eligible voters. About 6% of the population voted for Trump in the primaries. His gains from that figure may partially reflect an anger at cultural change, or an anger at economic instability, or more likely a mixture of both, but a much larger component is simple partisanship; Republicans voting Republican because they’ve always voted Republican, and/or because they don’t like the Clintons.

6%. That’s the deep, devoted core of Trump support. A higher percentage than that say they’re going to vote for the bumbling, comedic Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, on November 8, and yet we’re not falling over ourselves to understand why Johnson supporters are the way they are, what has motivated them, and what has activated them. (In fact, we’re also not falling over ourselves to ask why a majority of so many demographic groups are voting for Clinton; it’s only Trump that provokes this fascination.) It’s not that understanding this isn’t worthwhile; I’m a political scientist precisely because I want to understand everything, even while recognising the futility of the quest. Rather, it’s the assumption that the things that have driven and motivated those people should somehow be taken into account, listened to sagely, nodded at in understanding, and allowed to influence the future direction of a nation or even a planet.

6%. That’s smaller – perhaps less than half – than the percentage of the population from whom the 6% would like to remove the right to marry and the right to a family. It’s far, far smaller than the percentage of the population from whom they would deny the right to equal treatment under the law, or to schemes designed to rebalance historical inequalities. White Nationalism truly is White Supremacy; it assumes that a small group of white, conservative and under-educated men should be allowed to dictate the fates of far larger groups of people. This is a dark fantasy that is only fed and watered by earnest hand-wringing over their motivations and reasoning.

Of course, improving the economic conditions of everyone – yes, even racists, I guess – should be the role of goverment; the decline of communities and the installation of a safety net and alternative path for those impacted by globalisation and technological progress should be a priority. It shouldn’t be a priority because of Trump’s support; it should be a priority because it’s the right thing to do. Perhaps it will head off future waves of populism; the literature on cultural backlash suggests otherwise, but it certainly can’t hurt, especially if there really is some correlation between cultural intolerance and economic instability.

But when anyone talks about changing policies or slowing down the rate of social progress in order to attune to the desires of the Trump supporter, remember who we’re actually talking about; the 6%. Everyone else is a johnny-come-lately, a fairweather Trumper, a half-hearted enthusiast for anyone wearing a GOP badge on their lapel, a self-deluding cheerleader for a demagogue they assume, despite all evidence to the contrary, to be on some kind of leash (don’t you think that if the Republicans could control Trump, they’d have, well, done it by now?).

Understanding Trump’s support – in terms of cultural identity, in terms of the plight of economically depressed communities, or in whatever other terms are found to make sense – is important. Don’t let anyone tell you that the next step after understanding it should be pandering to it.

Splitting Iowa – Clinton, Sanders and the New Left

To state the obvious up front, Hillary Clinton is going to win the Democratic nomination. There is almost no permutation of the various demographic, political and procedural factors in the upcoming caucuses that permits any other outcome; barring radical shifts in the political landscape or the breaking of huge, unexpected scandals, there’s no way you can run through the maths and arrive at delegate totals for the Democratic National Convention in late July that hand the party’s candidacy to anyone other than Clinton. Anyone predicting or even simply hoping for a different outcome is, of necessity, predicating their hopes upon a black swan – an entirely unpredicted shift in support or the breaking of an as-yet-unknown scandal – and while such things can and do occur, especially in the unpredictable mire of the systematic weirdness of the US’ primary system, they’re not a wise thing to base your predictions upon. So, to hedge slightly; absent something utterly crazy happening, Hillary Clinton is going to win the Democratic nomination.

That’s not to detract from the scale of Bernie Sanders’ success in Iowa. As I type, Sanders is 0.2% behind Clinton in the caucuses, 49.8% to 49.6%, with only a handful of counties still to report. It’s a rounding error; as close to 50:50 as you’re likely to get in the peculiar and inaccurate delegate system used in Iowa’s Democratic Party caucuses. Though even such a tiny margin will allow the Clinton camp to declare a victory, Clinton and Sanders will split the state’s 42 delegates half and half.

Why, then, call this a success for Sanders? Because six months ago, the polls (I’m using FiveThirtyEight’s excellent aggregated polls) gave him around 22% of the vote in Iowa, to Clinton’s 54%. Three months ago, it was 32% to Sanders, 54% to Clinton. A month ago, on January 1st, it was 36% to Sanders, 52% to Clinton. Sanders topped 40% for the first time three weeks ago. Today, in the actual caucuses, he’s on 49.6%. In the past six months, Clinton has dropped 6% in Iowa, and Sanders has surged 29% – suggesting that undecided voters are breaking strongly for the Sanders camp, and a small number of Clinton supporters are changing sides.

It’s not enough to win the nomination. David Wasserman at The Cook Political Report rightly observes that in order to actually win in July, Sanders needed to do much, much better in Iowa, a state whose demographics are much more favourable to him than many of the upcoming states. Sanders resonates with white liberals, while Clinton enjoys a strong base of support among ethnic minorities; it’s easy to forget that the Democratic Party isn’t just the party of white liberals, but also the party of many ethnic minorities who do not share the same degree or form of liberalism as white Democrats. This isn’t to say that those support bases might not move around – Sanders’ momentum could yet give him a boost within groups that have thus far stayed strongly loyal to Clinton – but based on track records thus far, most upcoming races (with the exception of the New Hampshire primary next week) ought to be far easier victories for the Clinton camp.

Nonetheless, Bernie Sanders has accomplished something hardly anyone expected him to; he has turned the Democratic primary into a contest rather than a coronation. Only a few months ago, there was a strong movement to try to “draft” outgoing Vice President Joe Biden into the nomination race, largely because Democrats feared that turning the whole thing into a state-by-state victory lap for Clinton would look extremely bad; voters, the conventional wisdom goes, want to see candidates fight for the nomination, and hate the sense of being handed a candidate anointed by the “party elites”. At that point, Sanders was a rank outsider; a self-declared “socialist”, the reasoning went, could never present more than a distraction, acting as a magnet for a minority of malcontents and fringe voters rather than a genuine contender.

Well, Sanders just came neck-and-neck with Clinton in Iowa, and short of an act of god, he’s going to win New Hampshire next week. The Clinton camp won’t be panicking – she’s still got this in the bag – but the Democrats have a race on their hands, even if it’s a much more politically interesting and ideologically divided race than the somewhat tame pot-shots between a handful of centre-left candidates that the party establishment might have wanted.

Two things are important for the Sanders campaign from here on out. The first is to avoid isolating Sanders too far from the mainstream of the Democrats, for the simple reason that his ability to influence American politics rests not on winning the nomination (which he almost certainly won’t) but on pulling the Democratic Party’s discourse to the left by energising and revealing the breadth of support for more left-wing policies than were previously considered palatable to the party base and, more broadly, to the American electorate. Sanders doesn’t have to win for his policies to win; if his success and momentum proves major support for policies like free college education, those policies can be integrated into the Democratic Party’s mainstream agenda, assuming that Sanders’ campaign hasn’t isolated itself too far from the party mainstream. Thus far, Sanders’ civil and gracious campaign has done a good job of this; assuming things don’t turn very negative in future, there’s a reasonable chance that Sanders’ most popular policies (and perhaps even Sanders himself) could be a part of a future Clinton administration.

The second thing the Sanders campaign needs to do is to keep up its momentum and energy, not because it’s going to win off the back of those things, but because it needs to be in position to catch the ball if – if – Clinton drops it. A huge scandal (something we don’t know about – email improriety and conspiracy theories about Benghazi don’t count, as any negativity resulting from them is a) largely confined to Republican voters anyway, and b) already baked into Clinton’s polling numbers by now) could upset the apple cart; the Sanders campaign needs to be firing on all cylinders for a couple more months, just in case. It’s not wise to base your political predictions on black swans; it’s equally unwise to leave yourself in a position in which you’re unable to capitalise upon a black swan if one should hove into view.

While the American commentariat is losing bowel control in shock at a socialist – a socialist! – being even an outside contender in a high-profile primary race, Sanders is arguably most interesting when you consider him in a global context. In the context of other developed nations, the emergence of a more radically left-wing candidate with strong support, especially from young voters, isn’t shocking; it’s perfectly in keeping with the patter of the past five years. Across Europe, the New Left has surged, starting in countries most traumatised by the financial crash of 2008 but growing in strength in nations simply suffering from the widespread malaise of the world’s developed economies – where decades of neoliberal policies have almost completely decoupled GDP growth from income or quality of life improvements for most of the population, and especially for younger people who face a markedly more insecure and uncertain future than their parents’ generation did. The success of Bernie Sanders in the US is, in this context, a mirror for the success of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK or even the recent resurgence of Kazuo Shii’s Communist Party in Japan; signs, perhaps, of the Millenial generation (born in the 80s and 90s) rejecting the neoliberal consensus of their immediate predecessors (Gen X, those born in the 60s and 70s) and turning to “outsider” figures, rejected by Gen X and the Boomer generation, as an immediate alternative. It’s notable that Sanders, Corbyn and the Japan Communist Party are all rather venerable; their messages aren’t new, they’ve simply finally found a generation with whom they resonate.

There are, however, essential differences between Sanders and his overseas counterparts in the New Left – not least that American politics is a rather different environment. Most notably, the New Left in most countries has had an untapped well of young people engaging with politics for the first time to draw upon; in many countries, voting turnout among under-35s (the Millenials) has been tiny, and energising this group to turn up and vote that has produced such remarkable results as Jeremy Corbyn’s election as UK Labour Leader. In America, though, this well has already been tapped, to some degree; Democrats already had a “Corbyn moment”, way back in 2008 with Barack Obama. A significant cohort of Millenials boosted Obama in 2008; some of those may wish Obama had been more radical, and side with Sanders, but the reality is that Obama’s approval rating among Democrats is pretty great, and the natural flow for Obama supporters who approve of his record is to back Clinton, the key member of his administration, not Sanders, the radical outsider. Sanders still does very well among the young, but they’re not the untapped wellspring of radical support that they have transpired to be in the UK and across Europe.

One final thought. Older voters may roll their eyes at the radicalism of the Millenials, but I think a great many older voters genuinely fail to comprehend the economic mess that faces the Millenial generation, who are bearing the brunt of some disastrous and short-sighted policy-making dating back as far as the 1980s. No post-war generation in the developed world has ever been expected to pay so much for education, or been greeted with more uncertain employment prospects after graduation; no post-war generation has faced so many formerly “middle class” occupations being reduced to low-paid, short-term, unstable work; no post-war generation has faced such a dizzying ratio of housing costs to average wages, or such a grim ossification of social mobility. The Millenial generation is, for the most part, saddled with huge debts and told to repay them with earnings from the least worker-friendly labour market in post-war history. That they would turn to alternative politics for solutions is entirely unsurprising and reasonable; it’s the notion that the existing neo-liberal business-as-usual consensus can continue under these circumstances that is ridiculous.

Given that, the eye-rolling should perhaps be replaced by sighs of relief, because populations under severe economic pressure do not necessarily flirt with the radical left; there is a far uglier alternative on the radical right. In the 1930s, economic catastrophe for ordinary people drove them towards radical-left and radical-right solutions; the radical-right won the day in many countries, and, well, the 1940s happened. Today’s radical-left solutions, shorn of the dead-end revolutionary ideology that made the far-left just as unpalatable as its far-right counterpart in the 1930s, are a much more appealing thing for the set-upon Millenials to flirt with than the far-right alternatives – which, based on the rhetoric of the Right across Europe and the USA, have evolved far less in the past 80 years and represent a far greater threat to democracy, stability and security.