That is the $64,000 question in American politics. Thomas Edsall has an excellent and important take on the question in his latest New York Times column titled “Robots Can’t Vote But They Helped Elect Donald Trump“. Here are some choice excerpts but please read the whole article:
When you look across America to see where jobs and wages have been lost to robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence and automation, it is the middle of the country that stands apart from the rest….
“My take is that grievances, both racial and against cosmopolitan, liberal elites, have played an important role,” [economist Daron] Acemoglu wrote me in an email:
“But economic hardships, as they often do, made these fault lines more salient. Dormant grievances have become more alive.”
Acemoglu argues that recent technological developments have helped drive voters to the right:
“The swing to Republicans between 2008 and 2016 is quite a bit stronger in commuting zones most affected by industrial robots. You don’t see much of the impact of robots in prior presidential elections. So it’s really a post 2008 phenomenon.”….
In a September 2017 paper, “Importing Political Polarization? The Electoral Consequences of Rising Trade Exposure,” David Autor, who is also an economist at M.I.T., and three of his colleagues, dug further into the demographics of those suffering the economic costs of trade with China.
Autor and his co-authors found that:
“Trade exposure catalyzed strong movements towards conservative Republicans between 2002 and 2010 in counties with majority non-Hispanic white populations.”….
Their analysis resonates, they suggest:
“with the themes of recent literature on the political economy of right-wing populism, in which economic shocks to dominant population groups engender a political response that sharpens group identities and enhances support for conservative politicians. This pattern is evident in our finding that the impact of trade shocks on political polarization appears largely attributable to increases in foreign competition facing manufacturing industries that are intensive in the employment of non-Hispanic white males.”
Acemoglu, Autor and their colleagues provide a synthesis between the economic and the sociocultural explanations of the rise of the populist right. In doing so, they provide a corrective to the recent tendency in segments of the liberal media to downplay economic factors and to focus instead on racial resentment and cultural dislocation as the primary forces motivating Trump voters.
The point here is that the two generalized explanatory realms — the one focused on race and the other on economic shock — overlap. It is not either/or but both that gave us President Trump.
Still, explanations tend to become monocausal.
Take, for example, the Dec. 15, 2017 headline at the Vox website: “The past year of research has made it very clear: Trump won because of racial resentment.” According to German Lopez, the article’s author, “employment and income were not significantly related to that sense of white vulnerability.” What was? “Racial resentment.”
A May 9, 2017 story in The Atlantic asserted that
“fear of societal change, not economic pressure, motivated votes for the president among non-salaried workers without college degrees.”
Those stories were by no means alone. Salon: “Liberals were right: Racism played a larger role in Trump’s win than income and authoritarianism”; The Nation: “Economic Anxiety Didn’t Make People Vote Trump, Racism Did.”…
Trump’s strongest support in the primaries and in the general election came disproportionately from the least well educated whites — those who, as Acemoglu and Autor argue, are most vulnerable to the economic dislocation resulting from automation, the rise of a robot work force, global trade and outsourcing.
In an email, Autor describes how the two explanatory models dovetail. He starts with a question:
“Do you think non-college, non-urban whites would feel so dislocated if their job prospects were strong and their wages rising?”
He then goes on to point out that
“all of these observations — authoritarianism, racism, cultural dislocation — have relevance. The only claim that’s irrelevant because it’s already been disproved is that economic factors were unimportant to Trump’s victory.”
I agree strongly with Edsall, Acemoglu and Autor. It has always been my view that it should not be surprising that voting for an anti-immigrant, racially resentful candidate is predicted by, well, being anti-immigrant and racially resentful. But why now and why so much support for a candidate with those views? That is a much more difficult and arguably more important question.
Consider the following. Over time, the most striking thing about anti-immigrant sentiment and racial resentment is that they have been trending steadily downward. Take the basic question of whether immigration should be increased, decreased or stay the same. We are now at levels of “decrease” that have not been this low since the 1960’s. In particular, there has been a huge drop in “decreased” since around the time of Pat Buchanan’s nativist candidacy for the Republican nomination in 1992, reflecting dramatic changes in the views of white Americans. Yet Buchanan was not successful but Trump was.
Similarly, there has been considerable change in basic views about immigration and whether it’s a good or bad thing for America—and it’s positive not negative change, even if one confines the data to white Americans. According to Gallup data, that very much includes in the recent period, when Trump has risen to prominence. Indeed, after the “good thing” response was as low as 51 percent in the early 2000’s, it has been around 70 percent in the last two years.
Nor on racial resentment do we see any kind of spike in negative racial attitudes in the recent period. Negative racial attitudes, according to General Social Survey (GSS) data analyzed by 538, were far higher in the early 1990’s than they have been in recent years among both white Democrats and Republicans.
Of course, it is possible that there has been a spike in negative attitudes on race and immigration but it has been confined to, say, the group most likely to support Trump—white working class or noncollege men. But that does not appear to be the case either. According to GSS data, there has been essentially no change in the incidence of these attitudes among white working class men in recent years.
So the question then becomes, in a sense; what set them off? Why did a substantial group of white working class voters, whose views on race and immigration were likely of long standing, rather than recently acquired, make a strong move toward right populism today rather than years ago? It’s a puzzle.
One prime suspect for solving this puzzle is the material circumstances and economic trajectory of white working class Americans– especially white working class men–and their communities in the last 25 years or so since Pat Buchanan first raised his pitchfork high at the Republican national convention. It’s not controversial to say that that trajectory has been quite poor. Earnings declines have been the rule for white noncollege male workers, with those in the bottom quarter of the earnings distribution down by almost half, but even those in the middle of the distribution have seen their earnings decline by over a fifth. And most of this decline has taken place since the turn of the century, with a particularly sharp decline in the Great Recession years.
This is the story told by cross-sectional data. But surely white noncollege men made at least some gains as they aged and their careers progressed? A Sentier Research study indicates that these gains have been very modest indeed, as measured over ages 25-26 to ages 43-44, especially as compared to white college men ($6,000 vs. $54,000). For white noncollege men, that’s an 18 year period with glacial progress.
Of course, there’s more to the material situation of white noncollege workers than annual earnings, though this is surely important. Other important dimensions might include job availability, opportunities for upward occupational mobility, the state of their local communities and health and mortality concerns. But, by all accounts, serious problems have emerged in these areas as well.
So perhaps these changes, especially as exacerbated by the sharp economic decline of the Great Recession, were enough to set off that still-considerable sector of the white working class that harbors negative attitudes around race and immigration. That would be consistent with the “deep story” uncovered by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her study of white working class communities in Louisiana. This is the story these individuals tell themselves to make sense of their world:
You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.
A toxic interaction between economic change and cultural reaction would also be consistent with the historical record on the rise of right populisms. As political scientists Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick and Christopher Trebesch have shown in an influential paper, “Going to Extremes: Politics after Financial Crisis, 1870-2014”, covering 140 years, 800 general elections and 20 countries, far right populist parties driven heavily by xenophobia towards immigrants and minorities typically experience a surge in support in the aftermaths of large and lingering crises. And, as economist Claudia Goldin noted in her study of immigration policy debates in the US in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, “Almost all serious calls for the literacy test [to stem the flow immigrants] were preceded by economic downturns. … and few economic downturns of the era were not accompanied by a call for [immigration] restriction in the halls of Congress.”
To conclude, it seems foolish to try to understand Trumpism without taking into account the material conditions, trajectories and aspirations of Trump supporters and their considerable shortcomings in recent decades—their economic pessimism and fear of the future have real roots, as economists have copiously documented.
Of course, it would also not be credible to analyze Trumpism without a very prominent role for the racial and cultural lens through which Trump’s supporters interpret the world and the problems they face. There are likely some very complicated interactions between the material frustrations of white noncollege voters, particularly men, and a sense of racial “status anxiety” that may have always been there to some degree, but has come out in full force in the aftermath of a great economic crisis. This is what we should seek to understand instead of condemning vast swathes of our fellow Americans as simple racists.