Sunday, July 31, 2016

Why Is Trump Attracting Voters?

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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Our Polarized Worldview Politics

As I write this, consider some of the developments we have seen in Western politics in the past few months:
  • The Brexit vote, where support for Leave correlates highly with views on immigration, yes, but also on completely unrelated issues such as the death penalty
  • The Republican Convention opened yesterday in Cleveland. Two speakers referred to Hillary Clinton as "the enemy." Not ISIS, not even "radical Islam," but the rival party's nominee.
  • The near-election of Norbert Hofer as President of Austria, along with possible projections of radical right victories in France and the Netherlands in 2017. All of this is against the backdrop of the Republican Party's nomination of Donald Trump--who has pushed many boundaries both in terms of his rhetoric and his evident lack of qualification to be President.
What is the common thread? I argue in my ongoing research that mass politics in many Western nations is shaped increasingly by one's worldview. That is, one's basic outlook towards basic social and political questions like order versus openness, expression versus conformity, tolerance versus punitiveness. This is an ongoing realignment of mass politics, driven by a confluence of factors, that is more or less complete in different societies. This contrasts with previous generations of mass politics, which were driven more by class or religious identity (i.e., if you were working class, you voted Labour; if you were Catholic, you voted Democrat, etc).

Why is this happening?

I think there are two important developments that made this shift possible. The first is the rise of mass education, media, and other contributors to what earlier scholars termed "cognitive mobilization." Like other strands of modernization theory, earlier proponents of cognitive mobilization thought it would be associated with certain (what they viewed as positive) outcomes: increased cosmopolitanism, reduced party identification, etc. That has not quite worked out as planned. However, what I think has happened is that increased cognitive mobilization allows individuals to connect their own worldviews to their political behavior more easily than in past generation.

The second key development is the economic and social transformations of the past thirty (or so) years, which have eroded those traditional class and religious alignments. Globalization and technological change have resulted in the destruction of many traditional working-class industries, as Western economies have shifted to technology and service economies. The logic of traditional links between social democratic parties, unions, and working-class voters has been undermined as this transformation unfolded. Now, increasingly, social democratic parties find their voters among middle-class public sector workers. Add to these the social changes (driven in part by that cognitive mobilization) on issues such as multiculturalism, minority rights, feminism, and so on.

Put these two factors together--an electorate that is increasingly capable of connecting values to political behavior, while becoming less attached to traditional political alignments--and the conditions are ripe for this sort of worldview realignment.

The third necessary condition to achieve that realignment is an entrepreneurial politician or party, who can successfully mobilize voters on political issues connected to these worldview differences. It's important to emphasize that it 'takes two to tango' in this respect. As center-left parties (or the mainstream in some European countries) embraced minority rights and multiculturalism, rival politicians found that the space was open to draw away previous supporters of those parties by emphasizing the opposite.

In the United States, the Republican Party has done that in waves--Nixon on civil rights and law and order, Reagan on social values, Bush on the 'War on Terror'--each of which drew authoritarian voters towards the Republican Party. (These successive waves are part of the reason that the parties are so deeply aligned by worldview now--at least among white voters). The Trump candidacy is sort of the culmination of that process--a candidate who is supported by a base of social conservative and white nationalistic voters who are most animated by calls to stop immigration and limit the expression of minority rights.

In Europe, the process has unfolded (or not) to varying extent, as the emergence of such a politician capable of mobilizing such concerns is somewhat exogenous. The underlying worldviews are the same, though some of the political issues are specific to the European context: immigration, Islam, and the European Union are the motivating issues (American issues like civil rights, abortion, and gay marriage have had little to no relevance). The best examples to see of this process unfold rapidly would be the Netherlands, Sweden, or Finland, where a radical right politician/party emerges somewhere in the past fifteen years and sees a big surge in support--to the extent that their parties are now the third largest (or better) in those countries.

When one looks at the Brexit vote, one can imagine the possibility of this process unfolding. In many cases, the Leave vote was highest in areas that provided relatively more support to UKIP in the 2015 General Election and that were traditional Labour strongholds, suggesting the potential for a realignment to occur in Britain (or England and Wales, anyway). With both Labour and the Conservatives going through leadership challenges and recriminations, the door would be open for UKIP to seize a lot of Leave voters--but its own institutional dysfunction may prevent that from happening.

Why is it creating poisonous politics? 

The answer, I think, is the indivisibility of politics motivated by worldview. While not wanting to romanticize earlier eras of politics (particularly if one thinks of the brutal labor battles of 1970s-80s Britain), politics oriented around class or even religion was more amenable to compromise. Particularly in the case of class conflict, it was relatively easy to forge solutions that split the difference between workers and business. This was particularly true in the consensus political systems of Scandinavia or Northern Europe, where power-sharing arrangements were institutionally encouraged. It was more problematic in the US, UK or France, but some of that is arguably because of the "winner takes all" of those political systems. Even religion, while susceptible to violent conflict (as in Northern Ireland, for example), was more amenable to a "live and let live" arrangement between rival religious groups--as long as political domination of one group over the other could be credibly prevented. In addition to easier potential solutions (split the difference, or live and let live), both types of conflict made it potentially easier to "see it from the other side."

When mass politics is motivated by worldview, compromise and empathy are more limited. There are two problems at work. First, the issues themselves tend to be non-divisible. Consider, as an example, the refugee crisis in Europe. If you believe that the influx of Muslim refugees represents a threat to your society's security and cohesion, then there is no acceptable number of refugees to which you will agree. As another example, if you believe strongly in individual autonomy and expression, then it is hard to accept any limitation on gay or minority rights. You demand fully equal treatment. These issues are, in each case, fundamental and non-negotiable.

Second, and maybe more problematically, is that the adherents on each side of this worldview divide really cannot see it from the other side. Those concerned about the threat of terrorism and cultural decay from immigration really cannot understand why anyone would advocate admitting refugees given these threats. This lack of empathy makes it easier to assume that their rivals must be stupid, naive, or evil. (This is how Republicans can break into "lock her up" chants directed at Hillary Clinton while Democrats warn that a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for Vladimir Putin). And, from the other side, supporters of a 'welcome culture' find it hard to see their rivals as being anything other than racist or xenophobic. The same is true if one thinks about the gay marriage debate in the US. Opponents' arguments that it would threaten 'traditional' marriage made no sense to supporters, who would increduously ask how one (same-sex) couple getting married could affect another (opposite-sex) marriage. What they didn't understand is that the threat is to social cohesion--in the view of opponents, traditional marriage is a bedrock value that holds society together; if it is destroyed, what else could follow?

In short, political conflict motivated by rival worldviews, where each side struggles to understand the other, and issues that are largely indivisible (because they are rooted in those worldview conflicts) makes for a difficult combination.

What can we do to reduce the nastiness?

The honest answer is that it is tough. One set of recommendations, offered by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (for example), focuses on increasing understanding of and empathy for rival worldviews. Basically, we should try to learn to understand and accept that different people see the world in different ways that generate different hopes and concerns. Doing this will allow a better understanding that those with whom you disagree are still good people--they have different goals and worries than you do. This is good advice, but there are probably limits to how effective or widespread it could really be. In a similar vein, British political scientists Rob Ford and Matt Goodwin have been pushing the point that the rise of UKIP and the Leave vote reflect a "revolt" by those "left behind" voters who feel that the political mainstream looks down upon them.


Political reform, to the extent that it is possible in a polarized environment, is also a good idea. I noted above that institutional arrangements mattered in earlier eras--strikes were less common in states with consensus political systems, for example. The same wisdom can be offered here. Institutional changes to promote proportional representation and inclusive decision-making would have some benefit.

PR has the benefit of producing parties that reflect their true electoral standing, while doing a better job of allowing wider representation of different worldviews. In the US, Donald Trump (or, I should perhaps say "Trumpism") has taken over the Republican Party, despite the fact that many Republicans don't really agree with his views. If the US had some sort of PR, there would be a "Trump Party" that gained the 20-25% support that is probably a more accurate reflection of the American electorate. Instead, the winner-takes-all system will force many Republicans into a choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton, and many will choose to vote Trump despite some misgivings. The same is true on the other side of the ideological spectrum, where there are many Bernie Sanders supporters who fail to see that theirs is truly a minority position in the US. PR in this case at least takes away some of the illusion about where you really stand. It also forces your party into the position of either having to compromise (as hard as that may be) or be excluded from governing altogether.

But, given the low likelihood of institutional change (especially in political environments that make compromise difficult), the long answer may be that the same sort of realignments that produced/are producing these changes will come along. Consider the US example: Trumpism, taken to its logical end, does not seem like a winning electoral formula. Instead, it seems a pretty good way to ensure the strong and consistent support of an electoral minority. If that is right, then someone within the Republican Party will figure out how to shift the party's position to appeal to a different set of voters not (as) defined by worldview. In turn, that will reshape the Democratic Party's electoral coalition as well, and a new alignment will emerge. In Europe, the answer may be more contingent on specific countries. Including radical right parties in coalitions can help to legitimize them (and their policies), but it can also undermine their credibility if and when they fail or make ugly compromises in power. Of course, the bigger challenge for the social democratic left is how to offer credible policies (presumably oriented around economic interests) that would retain or win back the support of their authoritarian but economically center-left voters.

Until then, the new politics of worldview may well continue into the future, and it will promise more of the same in terms of polarization.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Turkey's Failed Coup Attempt Will Be a Pretext for Erdogan to Seize Further Power

Originally published at Vocal Europe

What should have been an ordinary summer Friday evening in Turkey soon turned surreal. For some Istanbul residents, this meant a disruption to their plans of enjoying a quiet evening with a magazine and a cup of cocoa, but matters were far more serious for many other Turks.

Events soon revealed that an attempted military coup against the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was evidently underway. This attempted coup was so poorly organized and limited in scope that many Turks did not initially recognize it as such; early social media reports suspected a mobilization against a potential imminent terror attack. A televised announcement by Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım soon declared that it was an attempted military uprising, but his presence on television highlighted the limited scope and organization of this coup. Things turned even stranger when Erdoğan appeared on a television program via the smart phone application FaceTime to urge national resistance to the coup. In a somewhat ironic twist, he urged his supporters to take to the streets to block the coup (his government is quite heavy-handed in its efforts to stop opposition protests), and social media (which he has frequently criticized) was unblocked and used to this end.

The piecemeal nature of the coup, and the ease with which it was stopped, has led many observers to speculate that it was ‘theater.’ Their speculation is that Erdoğan staged the coup as a pretext to seize further power—comparing it to the Reichstag fire of 1933. That Erdoğan’s government seemed better prepared to respond to the coup than the coup-plotters did to carry it out added to the conspiracy theories. A more plausible answer is that coup was planned by a relatively small group of officers facing a purge during Turkey’s annual military reorganization in August, and perhaps other factors undermined their effectiveness or forced them to initiate the coup before they were ready.
In any case, one positive of the evening—Turkey’s three main opposition parties all condemned the coup, as did most of Turkish society and the media—are overwhelmed by the many negatives. Many were killed or injured in the fighting, and various state and media buildings were damaged.

Regardless of the true nature of the coup, the aftermath is predictable. In calling the coup ‘a gift from Allah,’ Erdoğan meant that it gave him the opportunity to purge the military and other state institutions of ‘coup plotters,’ which will be broadly interpreted to many any and all suspected domestic opponents. Erdoğan blamed the coup on his former political allies in the Gülen movement, but his retribution will surely go much further. Those purges of the military and the judiciary began quickly on Saturday, and they will undoubtedly continue.

Beyond those purges, observers should expect to see further legislative activity to centralize power, including a renewed push to create Erdoğan’s desired ‘presidential’ system. Turkey has descended deep into authoritarianism, but it remains competitive as society is divided nearly 50-50 between supporters of Erdoğan (and his Justice and Development Party) and supporters of the rival opposition parties. Erdoğan called the leaders of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to thank them for their rejection of the coup, but he did not call the leaders of the Kurdish-linked Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). A crackdown on HDP may well follow. This crackdown is also likely to extend to the media, though much of it is already dominated by the government. The end result will be a political system in which there are fewer institutions with the capacity to block Erdoğan’s initiatives and fewer people left who would do so.

In one sense, the international media’s depiction of Friday as a victory for democracy in Turkey is not wrong. Turkey can never fully democratize as long as the military holds the ability to interfere in domestic politics, as it has on numerous past occasions. So the widespread political and popular rejection of military intervention is a positive development. But the more immediate result of this failed coup will be to empower Erdoğan further, and push Turkey further into authoritarianism. If military intervention has been one impediment of Turkey’s democratization, then the tendency of elected leaders to centralize power and eliminate opposition has been the other. The prospects of reversing that trend in the new future are dim.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Readings on Brexit

Below are some useful readings on the Brexit vote by different scholars & journalists. In short, the big debate over right-wing populism is between an economic perspective arguing that the 'losers of globalization' (roughly, those with lower education and 'human capital' have suffered economic losses as a result of globalization, and right-wing populists are capturing their support by promising to undo these changes) and a psychological perspective arguing that people with a worldview oriented towards order, security, and social cohesion are at the heart of right-wing populist support. The last two articles offer broader perspectives from a leading economist and social psychologist, respectively. As with most academic debates, these alternative perspectives are presented rather starkly, when the truth is more nuanced.

White face, blue collar, grey hair: the 'left behind' voters only UKIP understands, by Rob Ford & Matt Goodwin: Written in 2014, a good primer on their 'left behind' thesis (one could also term this the 'losers of globalization' argument) driving rising right-wing populism in Britain.

Inequality, not personalities, drove Britain to Brexit, by Matt Goodwin: In a similar vein, arguing that the Leave vote was won in the 'left behind' communities of Britain: old, struggling working class areas and failing seaside communities.

Right-Wing Populism is Prevailing in Left-Wing Strongholds Around the World, by Nate Cohn: The strongest results for Leave came in traditional Labour strongholds, while Trump has also done well in old working-class areas in places like PA. This would seem to be consistent with the 'losers of globalization' argument.

Ethnic Dimension to Birmingham's Vote, by Martin Rosenbaum: Shows that the demonstrated findings between educational qualifications and Leave vote hold only for white voters. This raises an important challenge to the 'losers of globalization' argument: it only holds among white voters.

It's NOT the Economy, Stupid: Brexit as a Story of Personal Values, by Eric Kaufman: Demonstrates that authoritarian values explain the Leave vote better than economic concerns.

Euroscepticism is rooted in a broader worldview that includes higher levels of nationalism and hostility to 'outsiders', by Academic With Head Up His Arse*: Argues that authoritarianism predicts a broad syndrome of attitudes, including exclusive nationalism, hostility to immigrants, and anti-EU attitudes.

The Personality of Brexit Voters, by Joachim Kruger: Similar findings to the previous two articles, using the 'Big Five' personality measure of Openness (which correlates negatively with authoritarianism) to explain Leave votes.

Fear of Immigration Drove the Brexit Vote, Not Immigration Itself, by Alan Travis: Good point that the highest-immigration areas typically supported Remain. This would tend to be consistent with an argument rooted in values/worldview, rather than economic anxieties.

Britain's EU Referendum: A Sign of Changing Electoral Divides, by Intolerant Leftist*: Drawing on these previous arguments, I argue that we are seeing a realignment of party loyalties from an older class alignment to one based increasingly on values/worldview.

When and Why Nationalism Beats Globalism, by Jonathan Haidt: This is a very good article weaving together political science research on post-material value change, globalization, and authoritarianism are interacting to generate a nationalist backlash. Ties together the previous two articles with a broader account of post-WWII value change.

The Abdication of the Left, by Dani Rodrik: Good perspective on how the center-left has failed to offer a viable alternative to 'hyperglobalization,' leading to nationalist (in countries that have experienced high immigration) and/or radical left (in countries that have experienced IMF/EU austerity) backlashes.

Educated Preferences or Selection Effects?, by Bram Lancee & Oriane Sarrasin: This interesting academic study offers another possible resolution to the economic/psychological debate. Past research has argued that higher education has a 'liberalizing' effect on individuals' attitudes towards issues like immigration. The researchers here (using data from Switzerland) find that teenagers with more liberal attitudes are more likely to go to university. This suggests that education itself has little 'liberalizing' effect; rather, there is some sort of selection effect between one's worldview/values and educational choices--which affect later life income expectancy. This could explain why those who are most intolerant (per the psychological arguments) towards immigrants are also more likely to be 'left behind' (per the economic argument). More research is needed, of course!


* These are things I've been called on Twitter, one by a former student.