Saturday, January 30, 2016

Psychology, Class, and Trump Support

The continuing success of Donald Trump's campaign for the Republican nomination has led to a host of articles about schisms with the Republican Party, a possible implosion, are the Republicans reaping what they sowed, why aren't the party leaders blocking his rise, etc. One of the core questions being raised is who are these Trump voters? Some studies have noted that they are generally lower-income than median Republican voters, and they support greater economic redistribution than most Republicans. This is leading to questions about whether Trump and his supporters are 'true conservatives'.

This is indirectly reviving one of those long-time debates: have many Republican voters been acting against their interests all these years? It's a popular thesis, perhaps best expressed in the book What's the Matter With Kansas? The argument goes something like this: since the rise of civil rights and the countercultural movement in the 1960s, Republicans have successfully convinced working-class white Americans to vote against their (economic) interests by appealing to cultural wedge issues. At first, it was growing white resentment against school busing and affirmative action, along with disdain for the anti-Vietnam peace movement. Then came the turn to the religious right, with abortion and later same-sex marriage serving as key wedge issues. In the 21st century, perhaps, immigration and the "war on terror" might also belong in this discussion.

The core thesis is this: lots of white, socially conservative, Americans are voting for Republicans, who are in turn enacting economic policies (tax cuts for the wealthy, reduced social spending, reduced support for public schools, etc) that actually hurt these very same voters. It's an appealing thesis (in a sort of self-pitying way) for American liberals: it's not that working-class whites have abandoned the Democratic Party; they've just been 'tricked' by Republicans. (It's also intensely patronizing to suggest that a whole class of voters are so easily duped, but that's another matter).

Political scientists who have analyzed this thesis have largely found evidence rejecting it (at least as of the 2004 presidential election). Instead, separate studies by Bartels and Gelman found that class correlates positively with Republican party support: the wealthier one is, the more likely one is to vote Republican. Gelman goes a bit further and points out that wealthier, Democratic-leaning states like Connecticut are the strange ones, but that is because these states contain a high number of wealthy Democratic voters. However, the evidence (at least, as of the 2004 election) was that class/income correlated positively with voting Republican, particularly in "red" states such as Kansas.

And I think this evidence makes sense with what we're seeing in the US and Western Europe. Saying that "lower-income Republicans support Trump" is not the same as "low-income Americans support Trump." In fact, most of those Trump supporters are--like their counterparts in Europe--members of the lower middle-class (or upper working-class, if there is such a thing). These are people in lower supervisor jobs, small-business owners, skilled tradespersons, and the like. I think that this is true in the US as well as in European states like the United Kingdom.

So why are these individuals particularly drawn to Trump? The most important answer is their orientation towards society. In 2009, political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler published a book arguing that authoritarianism--an individual orientation (or disposition) towards social order and cohesion at the expense of individual autonomy--has increasingly shaped US party politics. Republicans have turned increasingly authoritarian, while Democrats have become increasingly non-authoritarian. What sorts of concerns are likely to motivate high authoritarians? Crime, immigration (leading to the fragmentation of the social order), and the breakdown of traditional morality (e.g., same-sex marriage). In recent weeks, several articles have advanced this argument. (Jonathan Haidt here; Matthew MacWilliams here).

An important feature of authoritarianism is that it tends to an "us versus them" view of the world. In immigration policy, it leads to a preference to stop all immigration (or, perhaps, all *Muslim* immigration) rather than viewing would-be immigrants as individual cases to be considered. In domestic policy, it leads to a phenomenon commonly called "welfare chauvinism" in European politics. And I think this is why the ties between lower-middle class authoritarians and the Republican Party have become strong since the 1980s.

The idea behind welfare chauvinism is that individuals prefer to restrict social welfare benefits to members of the "in-group," thus excluding them from immigrants or other undeserving minorities. When Ronald Reagan complained "welfare queens" in 1980, he was triggering these associations: most welfare recipients were African-Americans who *could* work but preferred to collect welfare instead. These creates and reinforces a notion that hard-working members of the in-group (i.e., Trump supporters) are paying taxes to support welfare for the out-group. In Europe and the US, immigration has become a crucial part of this dynamic. European radical right parties appeal to this notion that immigrants are taking benefits, crowding out schools and hospitals, and so on. This is essentially the argument that Gilens makes in Why Americans Hate Welfare, in which he argues that racial stereotypes are central to opposition to welfare programs.

An underappreciated part of this argument, though, is that one must be in a position to pay taxes (and thus be taken advantage of) for this argument to resonate. White Americans (or Europeans) who are truly at the bottom of the economic ladder are net recipients of welfare policy. Those in the lower-middle classes, who are a step up the economic ladder, are ones who (in their perceptions, at least) pay heavy taxes to support a welfare state that they do not benefit from. Crucially, perhaps, is also the fact that they lack the resources to 'escape' from these challenges: the truly wealthy can send their children to private schools, move to 'gated communities', and so on. So the lower-middle classes are also more likely to perceive growing threats in their communities, their children's schools, hospitals, and so on. Those people who are truly at the bottom of the economic ladder? First, many of them simply do not participate in politics. Many are themselves minorities, given American socio-economic realities. And most who do, support Democratic politicians. That is the point highlighted by Bartels and Gelman.

When put together, the Republican appeal to such voters is to prevent their taxes from being 'wasted' on such 'undeserving' members of the 'out-group.' In other words, many of these voters support welfare programs--like Social Security or Medicare--when they believe that they (or those like them) benefit from these programs. The problem is that many forms of poor relief (what Americans often call 'welfare') seemingly flow from 'us' to 'them.' The Republican argument has been to link the welfare question to the 'us versus them' question--arguing that, by reducing taxes and shrinking the welfare state--'deserving' Americans would end up paying less to support 'undeserving' others. The Republican Party electoral coalition has thus fused genuine economic and social conservatives with lower-middle income authoritarians--who are not genuinely conservative but support conservative policies when it links to their concerns.

So my take is that it is much more about socio-cultural concerns (and the individual psychology driving them) than economic concerns. The high authoritarians who form the core of Trump support would prefer to have a cohesive (and thus less multicultural or 'diverse') society based around shared customs, behaviors, and norms. Barring that, an approach that limits their obligations to 'outsider' groups is a second-best. Hence, support for restrictive immigration policies, cutting off welfare support to immigrants and 'undeserving' minorities, and the occasional (if rather pointless) spectacle of passing 'anti-Sharia' laws or the less edifying spectacle of opposing the building of mosques. A lot of this--and it comes up frequently in Trump speeches--is the idea that 'they' are taking advantage of 'us.'

And, as a final postscript, my argument is that similar dynamics are at work in Europe as well. Increasingly, attitudes towards the European Union are shaped by authoritarianism, and support for radical right parties also correlates with authoritarianism.