Sunday, 6 November 2016

Why do people Vote For Trump?

All my articles on the U.S. election thus far have straddled the fine line between criticising the bigoted populism of Donald Trump's campaign and criticising the failed neoliberal economic apparatus that has led to Trump's rise. Indeed, Clinton so vehemently embodies the corruption within the Washington political establishment, that it is hard to show much optimism for this election at all. In spite of this, some commentators fail to acknowledge this. Even left wing journalists fail to recognise the connection between globalisation and the rise of an 'outsider as the republican candidate. They point to the fact that Trump voters are not primarily working class and that support for Trump in the polls is correlated with higher income, even among white people. They see appeals to the failure of capitalism to explain Trumps rise as attempts to appeal to an electorate that simply doesn't exist, instead attributing the rise of Trump entirely to White nationalism and racial resentment. Dylan Matthew's, of the centre left publication Vox for instance, argues that 'Hillary Clinton to her great credit has offered programmes that will leave millions of Trump supporters better off'. For Matthews however,  the point is that 'this isn't worth doing to win back their votes, it's worth doing because it's the right thing to do'. This is a strange idea. If Matthews supports Clinton’s agenda why wouldn't he want her to win back as many Trump voters as possible.  Isn't taking votes from the other side one of the main ways that parties win elections? In fact, isn't this the main reasons why Clintons campaign is wooing so many anti-Trump republicans? 

It is an understandable, albeit naive, position to see Trumps success as primarily the result of widespread racism within the USA. Many fail to see the difference between showing sympathy with an openly bigoted and racist candidate, and showing sympathy with Trump's support base. They see the earnest pleas often written by conservatives that we should listen to the concerns of white voters living on the eyes of society as nothing more than apologetic dismissals of the Xenophobia that underlines Trumps campaign. Indeed, you have got to agree with Matthews when he says that there was never any comparable litany of handwringing about the 'concerns of Mitt Romney voters' or the 'interests of Hillary Clinton supporters'. On the other hand though, when I look at my social media accounts which are full of elite media types the main outpouring I see is a flood of disgust for Trump voters, not just for their irresponsible electoral decisions, but for their defective character as a group. Thinking about it, that might help explain the flood of sympathetic articles.


So aren't Trump supporters inseparable from the Racist appeals of Trump himself?  This perspective sheds some light on the standard liberal way of thinking about politics. It puts the individual at the centre of politics and assumes that the individual is endowed with a well-defined set of attitudes on the major issues of the day. If you sum up the aggregate of those attitudes what you get is 'politics': election returns, polling results and names on the electoral register. As for how those attitudes get manufactured, that is a question for psychology or history, certainly not politics. 
You can see this methodology at work in the studies that cite racism as the primary reason for Trumps support. Almost all of them follow the same approach. First, they measure the attitudes expressed by Trump supporters in multiple choice polling questions. Then they compare them to the answers of non-Trump supporters. Whichever issues distinguish the Trumpists most sharply from the non Trumpists are assumed to reveal the innermost thoughts and feelings of Trump supporters. Individual motives, it's assumed, can be inferred from group differences. Indeed, very few studies actually analyse polling questions that actually ask Trump supporters what is motivating them. Instead, they use standard polling questions like 'what is your household income?’, ‘Do you approve of Obama?' and 'Is black poverty caused by lack of effort?'. Actual motivations are rarely recorded, they are inferred by researchers using math and then imputed to Trump supporters en masse. One study, for example, analysed questions from the 2016, ANES pilot survey, the study read that while support for trump is correlated most strongly with identification with the Republican Party, the second most important factor was race. It concluded that 'Trumps support is not about the economy'. Meanwhile, the ANES survey had actually included a number of questions that did try and ask Trump supporters about their motivations. It listed twenty one different political issues and asked 'Which of the following issues are most important to you in terms of choosing which presidential candidate you will support?'. Trump's three signature racially coded talking points of immigration, terrorism and crime were among the possible choices. A third of Trump supporters chose one of these issues as their top priority. Two thirds did not. 51 percent chose issues like the economy, health care or social security. 8 percent chose culture war issues like abortion or gay rights, and the remaining 8 percent chose military strength, foreign policy or gun control.

Measuring Hatred

Let me be clear. From the start Trump has put racism at the centre of his campaign. In the process he has drawn a number of racist groups to his cause, including the KKK and the American Nazi Party. Following this, he went on to win 52 percent of the Republican vote in the primaries; he will probably win at least 40 percent of the vote in the general election. These facts are not in dispute. The question is what to make of them. There is not doubt that the USA's white nationalists provide disproportionate support to Trump's campaign - and given the candidates tone it would be very strange if they didn't, presumably the nations socialists also provided disproportionate support to the Bernie Sanders campaign.
To illustrate this, a study by UCLA's Michael Tesler found that 'support for Trump in the primaries strongly correlated with respondent’s racial resentment and did more strongly than McCain’s support in 2008 or Romney's in 2012'. What this means, looking at Teslers charts, is that on the one hand Trump did a lot better than Romney or McCain among the more racially resentful half of the Republicans; but on the other hand he did equally as well as them amongst the less racially resentful half. It appears from Teslers study that the more racially resentful half of the Republicans contributed a bit under 50 percent of Romney and McCain’s overall primary support. For Trump, the number was about 60 percent. If this difference doesn't seem all that big it is because while Trump has been very good at attracting racists to cause he has not been manufacturing new racists and there is no sign that racial resentment has hardened over the Obama years. Likewise, a recent poll by Gallup found that anti-immigrant sentiment in the US has long been in decline amongst non-Hispanic whites. In 2002, those wanting less immigration exceeded those wanting more by 43 percentage points. This year that number was 22. Thus, over the long run, each generation has tended to express more tolerant attitudes than the last. While sensational events like riots, scandals or terrorist attacks do cause short run declines in tolerant attitudes, eventually they are forgotten and tolerant attitudes resume their rise. In the meantime however, sensational events can have long term effects on politics by altering political discourse. One just has to look to how, following the ISIS terrorist attack on the Bataclan in France last November, Donald Trump quickly seized hold of the opportunity to call for softer gun regulation and a banning of Muslims entering the U.S. Overall, while intolerant attitudes following sensational events might be mostly short lived, such alterations in political debate can have the potential to change the way political candidates are thought about all together.

The Workers Effect

One pro Trump county in the republican primaries was McDowell county in West Virginia: A former coal mining area that lost its mines. McDowell is about as decrepit and destitute as you might expect. In one of the Trump voter sympathy pieces that many of those elite media types find so annoying, the area was recently investigated by the Guardian. One man they spoke to was a poor and elderly former coal miner, who had voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012. When asked how he would vote in November he said he would vote for Trump. His reason is 'Donald is going to put a all the coal mines back'. 
Historically, being a member of a union has had a large bearing on how people vote. West Virginia's history is a fine example of this. In the 1920s, when the UMW was weak and declining, the state’s politics were defined by reactionary forces such as ruthless coal operators and the KKK. However, the resurgence of the UMW in the 1930s on the back of a wave of mass strikes, transformed the county's politics into a liberal, New Deal supporting coalition that depended on black  workers and black votes for its survival. That's why in 1964, four months after Lyndon Johnson signed the civil rights act, West Virginia voted for him against the anti-labour Goldwater. Similarly, in 1968 when the democrat on the ballot was Hubert Humphrey, someone who for twenty years had been more committed to civil rights than any other politician, West Virginia's vote for him was the seventh largest in the country. What is remarkable, is that this effect still exists today despite union membership being a remarkably low commitment affair. It is almost surprising to find it having any effect at all. And yet, in 2012 Obama's deficit among non-college whites in the top half of the racial resentment scale was 26 percentage points smaller among those who belonged to unions than those in non-Union households, according to data from the Cooperative Election Study. Therefore, by reshaping the individuals understanding of the stakes of politics, being a member of a union still has a powerful effect on how dispositions towards tolerance and prejudice translate into political behaviour. 


Trump's voters will come in different varieties. There will be Mansion dwelling evangelicals in the   Atlanta suburbs. There will be owners of prosperous construction businesses in rural California. There will be members of racist organisations. There will also be voters like the ex-coal miner in West Virginia. A charitable view of those who want us to utterly discredit Trump voters, Is that they merely want us to keep those first three type of Trump voters in mind, lest we succumb to the illusion that the Trump phenomenon is all about downtrodden ex coal miners. A less charitable view is that it was about that too. Given the Democrats long, slow slide in performance the House of Representatives, the Governors mansions and the state legislatures, many will ask what the party could do to strengthen its position. As analysis ta sift through election returns, Trumps surprising margins among non-college whites will generate a great deal of commentary. The numbers will be clear: downscale whites are a big pool of untapped votes. Yet if a cordon is placed around that demographic with the label 'Trump voters' the democrats will be even more likely to let the party drift down its current path: a Into the reactionary culture war politics of 'reasonable democrats vs racist trump voters' rather than acknowledging the class based politics that have helped facilitate Trumps rise.

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