Sunday, October 13, 2019

Why Trump?: It's Important to Get the Answer Right

Reading Tom Edsall's latest column--which I shall comment on later--I was intrigued by his reference to some work by Anusar Farooqui, who blogs at his own Policy Tensor site, on the origins of Trumpism. So I visited the site and started reading through Farooqui's posts. I was quite impressed.
I want to recommend here his piece on '"Why Did Trump Win". For my money, it's the clearest statement of the current state of the debate on this question, what's wrong with the current state of the debate and how much the debate is driven by looking at individual level survey data rather than more informative geographic data. The latter is a point I've tried to make a number of times but I don't think I've been as clear as Farooqui has managed to be.
He starts out:
"Donald Trump’s wholly unexpected triumph in 2016 is the main explanandum of a vast political science literature that has emerged in the three years since. Economic explanations predominated at the beginning. Since then, a different diagnosis has come to the fore that traces support for Trump to White racial prejudice. This diagnosis has achieved a nearly hegemonic position among political scientists and Democratic elites more generally. Diana C. Mutz’s paper “Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote” spelled out the diagnosis.
Mutz: 'How is it that the same American public that elected an African American to two terms as US President subsequently elected a president known to have publicly made what many consider to be racist and sexist statements?
A possible explanation is dominant group status threat. … For the first time since Europeans arrived in this country, white Americans are being told that they will soon be a minority race. The declining white share of the national population is unlikely to change white Americans’ status as the most economically well-off racial group, but symbolically, it threatens some whites’ sense of dominance over social and political priorities. Furthermore, when confronted with evidence of racial progress, whites feel threatened and experience lower levels of self-worth relative to a control group. They also perceive greater antiwhite bias as a means of regaining those lost feelings of self-worth.'"
Farooqui queries this finding as follows:
"The salience of racial prejudice can hardly be doubted with this President in office. But are we not mistaking symptoms for causes? Is heightened anxiety over racial status the ultimate driver of the Trump phenomena? More pointedly: Is Trump’s base simply Hillary’s infamous “deplorables”? Or do we perceive it to be so because of the hold of Boasian antiracism on our minds? It is at least worth exploring the idea that support for Trump may be driven by real grievances.
What is common to this political science literature is that their empirical strategy relies on survey data. These are pretty large samples so the problem is not sample size. Rather the problem is that such surveys de-situate people. Each individual appears as an independent subject, grappling with socioeconomic and political trends. That’s fine as far as it goes. But what it leaves out is the spatial correlations due to the fact that people are members of situated communities.
We cannot afford to ignore geography because of two facts. First, the electoral college vote is of great consequence to party competition at the national level. Recall that the Trump coalition only prevailed because sparsely-populated regions in the interior are over-represented in the electoral college. Indeed, since the densely-populated regions on the coasts are Democratic strongholds, the electoral college system systematically discriminates against them. The result is that Democrats have a near lock on the popular vote, while the Republicans have a systematic advantage in electoral college votes. We should not be looking at nationally-representative, that is, population-weighted samples. Rather, we should be weighting by electoral college votes; at least in as much as we care about electoral outcomes and their drivers.
Second, the United States has increasingly become regionally polarized since the 1960s. It is possible, nay, likely, that people are angry, fearful, and resentful, not because their personal circumstances have changed for the worse, but because they see their communities falling apart and see no one in Washington paying any attention to it. As my democratic socialist friend, Ted Fertik mentioned:"Is your community suffering?—was really the question Trump was speaking to."
So we must build geography right into the analysis. Once we start looking at electoral college-weighted, county-level correlates of the Trump swing—Trump’s vote share less Romney’s vote share—a very different pattern emerges. The three strongest predictors of the Trump swing are college graduation rate, population growth rate, and growth in deaths due to drug overdoses in 2003-2017."
He goes on to explain and document his empirical analysis. It's a bit technical but clearly presented, so I urge you to slog through it.
He concludes--and I generally concur with his assessment:
"These results should disabuse us of the notion that Trump’s election had little to do with people getting left behind—I drop the quotation marks on purpose. Trump is in the White House because large parts of the country are in serious trouble. People can see the decline of their communities with their own eyes. What is pissing them off is that coastal elites keep ignoring their trauma and focus their attention on creating a more inclusive country.
But what does this have to do with racism? More pointedly: Why does the breakdown of elite-mass relations, now manifest in the Trump insurgency, exhibit the symptoms that it does? Why do people in Trump country, whose trauma is real enough, blame immigrants and minorities? Part of the answer is that people in Trump country regard [political correctness] as the hegemonic ideology of coastal elites—as indeed it is.... Resentment of coastal elites, although driven by all-too-real decline of situated communities, is thus expressed as a wholesale rejection of the hated elites’ self-congratulatory worldview.
What I have argued here is that Democrats, including elite political scientists, have misdiagnosed the catastrophe of 2016...
In effect, Trump is a message from Flyover Country for elites. Are American elites listening? Democrats in particular need to pay attention. It is Democrats who repaired elite-mass relations through the 20th century and thereby re-stabilized the system. They must do it again. In order to do so, they must abandon the idea that racism is the key to 2016. It is not. Widespread despair is the key to 2016."
I continue to believe that a lot rides politically on getting a correct diagnosis of the rise of Trumpism. I recommend Farooqui's work as a very useful contribution to getting such a diagnosis.
Democrats have the wrong diagnosis of 2016.

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