Friday, November 30, 2018

Why Cultural Explanations for Trumpian Populism Are So Inadequate

My old pal and co-author, John Judis, has a terrific article out in the Washington Post magazine about understanding the 2018 election results and the continuing red-blue divide.
In Judis' view, you can't understand this divide without understanding the different economies that underpin red and blue America. By this, he doesn't just mean the income levels or unemployment rates of red vs. blue communities but their vastly different economic trajectories, job structures and workforces. For those in red America, they see their economy, rooted in fading rural and industrial areas, changing in ways that undermine their communities an their entire way of life. People in blue America experience a different economy and have a different point of view.
The richness of Judis' analysis of these different economies and how they shape politics is a refreshing change from the torrent of studies that purport to "explain" Trumpian populism by simply linking it to resentful or hostile views of blacks, immigrants, women, etc. These studies dismiss any kind of economic dimension to Trump support because standard survey variables like views of family financial situation don't have linkages that are as strong. But of course that is is not what Judis means by the differences between red and blue economies. It is not all, or even mostly, about income levels and certainly not their most recent changes.
"Many Americans (primarily but not all white) who once lived comfortably in older Midwestern and Southern towns have had important parts of their identity stripped away by the transformation of the U.S. economy. Many of them once enjoyed lifetime employment from the same company and could identify with that company — whether it was General Motors or Sears. They also may have enjoyed the protection and solidarity of belonging to a union. They lived in neighborhoods and frequented the same bars, restaurants, churches and bowling alleys. They and their friends had gone to the same high schools and followed the same local teams. They owned their homes and protected them by owning guns. Many of the men had served in the armed forces and belonged to veterans’ groups.
Move ahead to now: The company has left. The union is gone. The neighborhood is gone. Many of the working-class whites, like the Trump supporters in Ohio I interviewed for my last book, have moved to nearby suburbs, where the main public square is the shopping mall. As identities made possible by the old jobs and the old economy have faded, other identities — ones often associated with hard-line conservative politics — have both endured and filled the void: strong identification with the traditional family, with the home (for which these voters see gun ownership as an essential means of protection), with church and religion, with the flag and the nation. Interwoven among these identities are ones that are fundamentally rooted in resentment: toward undocumented immigrants whom they believe their taxes subsidize; toward both legal and undocumented immigrants who they see as upending the mores and language of their hometowns; toward those minorities who, in their minds, benefit unfairly from affirmative action; and toward distant elites in the cities who project disdain for them and their way of life....
It’s hard to imagine America finally confronting the differences in prosperity and prospects between red and blue areas as long as Trump and his tweets occupy center stage, transfixing Democrats and Republicans alike. Yet for the sake of America’s future, we are going to have to find a way to talk honestly about the massive divide caused by the two economies — and somehow, start working to bridge it."
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What the 2018 midterm results — and all those blue dots — tell us about the future of U.S. politics.

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