In the ongoing debate about rise of Trump and the nature of Trump voting, one common position is that Trumpism is about race and racism pure and simple; economic factors played no role. In this regard, the work of political scientists--the dominant strand at any rate--has been key in promoting this interpretation.
Probably the best summary and extension of this work is the book Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck. The book provides a very careful sifting indeed of all the available individual-level survey data. This is useful but it is not without some problems.
This is because, by and large, individual level survey data tend to turn up the strongest relationships between Trump/populist voting and various immigration/racial attitudes, not economic concerns. This of course is the data the authors use.
However, aggregate, geographical data tend to show strong relationships between various economic/demographic indicators of economic stress/negative economic change and Trump/populist voting. So two types of data, two quite different findings and implications. The book does not really resolve this analytical tension.
Ryan Cooper has a lengthy and insightful review of Identity Crisis on the Nation site, where he raises this point and others. It is well worth a read.
"[D]irect pocketbook effects are not the only route by which someone’s politics might be changed as a result of shifting economic conditions. For one thing, even if an individual is doing fine, that person’s friends or family might not be. More broadly, general economic malaise can make communities seem troubled and thus change a person’s political views, even if his or her paychecks keep coming. Likewise, an economic crisis on the scale of the 2008 financial meltdown might discredit traditional politicians and policies and raise the stature of outsiders peddling unorthodox solutions. It might also drive people toward cultural prejudice, including a politics of tribalism and racism, in its wake.....
Suppose we grant, for the sake of argument, that Trump’s support stems primarily from racial animus. Does this rule out the possibility that the racial animus itself may be fueled by economic problems? On the individual level, when times are hard, people can resort—and often have—to bigotry and racial prejudice. In such circumstances, demagogic politicians may emerge to heighten and exploit those feelings, scapegoating minorities for economic troubles and stoking the underlying racism. ....
The authors of Identity Crisis bring up this angle briefly, noting that “when economic concerns are politically potent, the prism of identity is often present.” But this potentially fruitful line of inquiry goes almost completely unexplored. In their analysis, racism seemingly exists outside the social and economic forces that might give it strength and never plays its own role in bolstering a political or economic system.
There is also the internal dialectic of Republican Party politics. The GOP has long coupled its racist politics with a laissez-faire economic program calling for low taxes, free trade, and deregulation. The 2008 financial crisis hugely dented the credibility of such a policy, even among the right’s voting base, and so as the GOP’s economic policies have lost popularity, the party has, consciously or unconsciously, ramped up its racism and culture-war bigotry in order to compensate.
A similar pattern has been seen in much of the North Atlantic. A 2015 paper coauthored by Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick, and Christoph Trebesch that examined 140 years of political history in 20 advanced countries (including more than 800 elections) found that financial crises are associated with a 30 percent rise, on average, in the vote share of extreme-right parties. It’s impossible, of course, to establish a perfect causal explanation for such a huge data set, but are we really to believe that every single one of those countries had a purely coincidental postcrisis outbreak of racism and extremism? The study’s authors certainly think otherwise, writing that these crises likely fueled racist scapegoating: “Voters seem to be particularly attracted to the political rhetoric of the extreme right, which often attributes blame to minorities or foreigners.”....
t remains a bit of a mystery why the authors of Identity Crisis are so fixated on trying to prove that there were not multiple factors that led to Trump’s election. No one is denying the roles that racism and the media played, but why can’t growing economic inequality and the difficult circumstances produced by the 2008 financial crisis have played a significant role as well? One reason may be that the broad liberal professional class—including much of academia—was heavily invested in Clinton’s candidacy and felt profoundly humiliated when she lost. Arguing that Trump won because of media malpractice and an embittered white America alleviates them of the need to do any other soul-searching. They do not have to ask whether the Democratic Party chose the wrong candidate or ran a poor campaign; they do not have to wonder if, by abandoning working-class Americans—white, black, and brown—over the last several decades, the Democrats have managed to turn voters away. Another reason may be the development of an anti-populist ideology within political science...which argues that policy of any kind is almost totally irrelevant to electoral outcomes because voters are too ignorant and tribalist to understand how programs might benefit them personally....
Whatever the sources of the recent myopia among political scientists, it is very important for the Democratic coalition not to lose sight of the political value of progressive economic policy or the political danger of failing to deliver it in times of economic crisis. If we consider the outbreak of extreme-right politics around the world over the last decade—from Brazil and the United States to the European Union, Turkey, and beyond—it simply beggars belief to conclude that the worst financial crisis in 80 years and the badly botched response to it that followed were not somehow involved. There is a good book to be written about the complicated links between financial crises, bigotry, and racism. Identity Crisis is not it."
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