From the Washington Post’s
A massive new study debunks a widespread theory for Donald Trump’s successBy Max Ehrenfreund and Jeff Guo August 12 at 11:00 AMEconomic distress and anxiety across working-class white America have become a widely discussed explanation for the success of Donald Trump. It seems to make sense. Trump’s most fervent supporters tend to be white men without college degrees. This same group has suffered economically in our increasingly globalized world, as machines have replaced workers in factories and labor has shifted overseas. Trump has promised to curtail trade and other perceived threats to American workers, including immigrants.Yet a major new analysis from Gallup, based on 87,000 interviews the polling company conducted over the past year, suggests this narrative is not complete. While there does seem to be a relationship between economic anxiety and Trump’s appeal, the straightforward connection that many observers have assumed does not appear in the data.According to this new analysis, those who view Trump favorably have not been disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration, compared with people with unfavorable views of the Republican presidential nominee. The results suggest that his supporters, on average, do not have lower incomes than other Americans, nor are they more likely to be unemployed.Yet while Trump’s supporters might be comparatively well off themselves, they come from places where their neighbors endure other forms of hardship. In their communities, white residents are dying younger, and it is harder for young people who grow up poor to get ahead.The Gallup analysis is the most comprehensive statistical profile of Trump’s supporters so far. Jonathan Rothwell, the economist at Gallup who conducted the analysis, sorted the respondents by their Zip code and then compared those findings with a host of other data from a variety of sources. After statistically controlling factors such as education, age and gender, Rothwell was able to determine which traits distinguished those who favored Trump from those who did not, even among people who appeared to be similar in other respects.Rothwell conducted this kind of analysis not only among the broad group of Americans polled by Gallup. He was also able to focus specifically on white respondents, and even just on white Republicans. In general, his results were the same regardless of the group analyzed.Rothwell’s research includes far more data than past statistical studies of Trump. It also provides a detailed view not only of the people who support him but also of the places where they live. Academics and other analysts will continue to study the Trump phenomenon in months and years to come, and may, of course, reach different explanations.This research leaves some mysteries unsolved. Something is afflicting the places where Trump’s supporters live, but Trump’s supporters do not exhibit more severe economic distress than do those who view him unfavorably. Perhaps, Rothwell suggests, Trump’s supporters are concerned less about themselves than about how the community’s children are faring.
Whatever it is, competition from migrant labor or the decline of factory work appear to be inadequate explanations.Trump is giving his supporters a misleading account of their ills, Rothwell said. “He says they are suffering because of globalization,” Rothwell said. “He says they’re suffering because of immigration and a diversifying country, but I can’t find any evidence of that.”Trump’s support does come from a place of adversity, though, and Rothwell said Trump’s prescriptions — tariffs on imported goods, restrictions on immigration and mass deportation — seem disconnected from his voters’ real problems.“I don’t see how any of those things would help with their health problems, with the lack of intergenerational mobility,” Rothwell said.
I presume the way Rothwell’s analysis works is something like this: Consider two towns, Palo Alto, CA and Port Clinton, OH, which is the hometown of Harvard academic Robert D. Putnam. There are a lot of immigrants in Palo Alto and not many in Port Clinton. The white people in Palo Alto are doing great and the white people in Port Clinton are not. Ergo, tightening immigration policy couldn’t possibly help whites in Port Clinton.
In my review
in Taki’s Magazine
of Putnam’s book about how much more miserable his Rust Belt home has gotten over the last half century, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis
, however, I pointed out:
One advantage that Midwestern kids of the Putnam / [Charles] Murray generation had over today’s Midwesterners is that they could easily afford to move to California. Back in 1960, when only 16 million people lived in the Golden State, compared to 39 million today, new freeways were bringing cheap suburban land within reasonable commuting range of decent paying factory and office jobs. The California magnet also benefited stay-at-homes by driving up the wages Midwestern employers had to pay to keep their workers from decamping for the West Coast.
The WaPo goes on:
Five findings in particular from Rothwell’s work are noteworthy: those related to economic factors such as income, manufacturing and opportunity, as well as his conclusions about health and racial diversity.From polls, it is clear that Trump’s supporters tend to be blue-collar men with lower levels of education. Yet important questions remain. For instance, do these people support Trump because they are on the margins of the economy or for other reasons?To answer these questions, Rothwell gathered data, mostly from Gallup’s regular telephone interviews. In those interviews, pollsters asked how favorably respondents viewed the presidential candidates and collected a variety of other information, including where respondents lived, their race and ethnicity, their religion, their education, their employment and their income. Rothwell also compiled information about the communities where people lived — how healthy the residents were, the local effects of trade, and the level of economic opportunity. He compared all these factors to determine which were closely associated with Trump’s supporters.Among people who had similar educations, lived in similar places, belonged to the same religion and so on, those with greater incomes were modestly more likely to favor Trump. They were just as likely to be either working or looking for work as others.In one respect, that conclusion was expected. White households tend be more affluent than other households, and Trump’s supporters are overwhelmingly white. The same is true of Republicans in general. Yet when Rothwell focused only on white Republicans, he also found that demographically similar respondents who were more affluent viewed Trump more favorably.These results suggest that personal finances cannot alone account for Trump’s appeal. His popularity with less-educated men is probably due to some other trait that these supporters share.Several recent analyses have attributed Trump’s success to the disappearance of the factory worker, and to competition with imported goods — especially from China. An essay in the Atlantic in May attributed Trump’s success to the gradual decline of employment in the manufacturing sector because of technology and globalization.“Manufacturing provided steady work for unionized workers without a four-year diploma,” Derek Thompson wrote. “When it collapsed, so did unions and the fortunes of non-college men.”On Thursday, a Wall Street Journal report was published online with the headline “How the China Shock, Deep and Swift, Spurred the Rise of Trump.” The authors concluded that Trump had won the Republican primary in 89 of the 100 counties most negatively affected by competition from China, measured according to an index developed by a group of academic economists. …Trump’s supporters are blue-collar, and many people working in those occupations have jobs in construction, repair or transportation — all of which are protected from Chinese competition. Chinese workers might be assembling semiconductors, but they are not adjusting the thermostat or changing the oil. …OpportunityTrump supporters might not be experiencing acute economic distress, but they are living in places that lack economic opportunity for the next generation.Rothwell used data from Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, who studied how children born in the 1980s moved up or down the economic ladder depending on where they grew up. Children raised in places with high economic mobility, such as Boston or Pittsburgh, often surpassed their parents in socioeconomic status. Children raised in places with low economic mobility, such as Raleigh, N.C., and Indianapolis, struggled just to do as well as their parents in adulthood.Trump was especially popular in these parts of the country.
of Chetty’s data revealed that some parts of the country, such as the Great Plains, were doing better in 2011-12 than in 1996-2000, while others parts, such as the Carolinas, were doing worse. Chetty was looking for long term differences between localities in policies or culture, but mostly he just found regional economic cycles: the Carolinas were doing great during the golf resort boom of the late 1990s and were hurting when the market for second homes on golf courses collapsed in this century. The Great Plains did well in 2011-2012 due to Chinese demand for food and energy.
Trump tended to do better in the hurting states and Cruz in prospering states.
I pointed out back in 2015 in a blog post entitled “Ted Cruz, Raj Chetty, and Sioux County, Iowa’s Magic Dirt,”
that Ted Cruz was doing well in parts of the country that did well in Chetty’s comparison of parents’ income in 1996-2000 to kids’ income in 2011-12. Chetty’s best county in America for working class income growth was Sioux County, Iowa. In the Iowa Caucus, Ted Cruz
carried Sioux County with 33%, while Trump was fourth with 11%.
Why does Trump’s message resonate the most in these low-mobility areas? The data do not provide a clear answer. It is possible that Trump’s supporters, while still better off than many of their neighbors, are worse off than they might have been in the past. Rothwell examined their incomes, but he did not have data on how those incomes had changed over time.Polling conducted by The Washington Post and ABC News earlier this year, for example, also found no connection between current income and support for Trump. Respondents were also asked, however, whether they felt they were struggling to maintain their standard of living or whether they felt comfortable in their situation and that they were moving up. Those who said they felt they were struggling were more likely to support Trump.Rothwell also suggested the reason might have something to do with parents and children. Trump voters tend to be older, blue-collar workers, and recent generations have had more difficulty getting well-paying jobs that didn’t require much education. Those opportunities have largely dried up. And now, Trump supporters tend to live in places where the world has gotten visibly tougher for the kids on the block. It’s easier to agree with Trump’s narrative about American decline when you have seen your own child fall down the economic ladder.This may help explain one puzzle that has stumped election observers so far. Trump has found success playing up economic grievances, stoking anxieties about immigrants, and complaining about Chinese competition. How is it then, that so many of his supporters seem to be economically secure? It could be that Trump supporters aren’t worried for themselves, but for their children.
There’s nothing more un-American than voting to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” That not
who we are.
By the way, if wonder why there has been such a Revolt of the Inarticulate ever since Trump rode down the escalator in Trump Tower leading to the media declaring all out war on about 45% of American voters, take a look at the ending of Robert D. “Bowling Alone” Putnam’s book Our Kids:
… speaking of the recent arrival of unaccompanied immigrant kids, Jay Ash, city manager and native of the gritty, working-class Boston suburb of Chelsea, drew on a more generous, communitarian tradition: “If our kids are in trouble – my kids, our kids, anyone’s kids – we all have a responsibility to look after them.”In today’s America, not only is Ash right, but even those among us who think like Emerson should acknowledge our responsibility to these children. For America’s poor kids do belong to us and we to them. They are our kids.
No, they are not “our kids.” You just said they are “unaccompanied immigrant kids.” They’re not “America’s poor kids,” they are foreign lawbreakers whose parents are trying to exploit obtuse Americans. We have enough poor kids of our own. We can’t take responsibility for the other couple billion on Earth.
And yet … Professor Putnam is not a stupid man nor is he an extremist. He is the voice of respectable centrism.
Still, the end of his book is absurd.
And, as far as I can tell, no other reviewer noticed. Every other critic just nodded along with this reductio ad absurdum
of the conventional mindset of our time. It’s a revealing moment about Our Elites and whose side they see themselves as being on.