In the struggle to understand Donald Trump’s resonance among white voters, a lot of journalists and analysts are turning to various forms of the “losers of modernity” argument. The gist of this argument is that support for populist, radical-right parties or candidates is fueled by working-class voters who have suffered economically over the past generation as a result of globalization and technological change. A recent entry, which nicely draws on behavioral economics, was published here at Medium.
On the surface, this is an attractive argument. It appears to make sense. It also has the virtue of making Trump voters seem sympathetic — which is more appealing than supposing they’re a bunch of racists.
There are a few problems with this argument, which I detail below.
- Trump’s voters are not particularly “working class.” Scratch under the surface, and you find that Trump supporters are relatively affluent. It is true that Trump is particularly strong among white men without university education, but that does not make them low income or “struggling” necessarily. In fact, the median household income of a Trump supporter is close to $70,000, which is above the national average.
- Trump’s voters are not the “losers of modernity.” If you want to find the truest losers of modernity, venture to minority-heavy communities in places like the South Side of Chicago, or perhaps Flint, MI. This is where workers have truly suffered job and income losses as a result of “outsourcing” and the shift from an industrial to service economy. And, yet, support for Trump in these communities is virtually non-existent.
- This fits the evidence we see in Europe. As with Trump, commentators throughout Europe are drawn to a similar “losers of modernity” argument to explain support for Trump-like radical right parties. But, again, the evidence shows that support for UKIP (Britain’s closest equivalent of Trump) comes from a wide range of social classes, not just the working classes.
What should we conclude? First, arguments rooted in cultural concerns are closer to the mark. Trump supporters may be “left behind,” but that is truer in a cultural than economic sense. I argue that much of this is dispositional — people who are drawn to traditionalism, security, and social order are more likely to support Trump. To go a bit deeper, such people were probably less likely for those same dispositional reasons to attend university, move away from (struggling) hometowns, or to pursue employment in a creative field. There is evidence from Switzerland that teenagers who are more opposed to immigration are less likely to attend university — suggesting that the “liberalizing effect” of university is mostly due to self-selection about who goes to university.
Second, be careful of rationalizations. Many stories contain survey evidence saying that Trump supporters report being worse-off economically. The problem is that these survey answers may be rationalizations — driven by dissatisfaction with Obama, a sense of cultural loss — rather than accurate self-descriptions. Humans are prone to various forms of motivated reasoning designed to maintain a coherent worldview — it is easy to imagine that people who believe they are losing out culturally would become more likely to believe (honestly) that they are falling behind economically too. That is the flattering view. The less flattering view is that Trump supporters are aware that prejudice and racism are socially unacceptable, so they are more likely to tell a journalist or survey-taker that economic grievances are central to their motivations.
Of course, there is much more we need to know about why people vote for populist radical right candidates. But be wary of simple explanations rooted in economic anxieties.