Friday, June 10, 2016

Yes, anxiety about the economy explains the rise of Donald Trump

Updated below

Digby rounds up some links arguing that economic anxiety does not explain the rise of Trump.

She blockquotes Philip Klinkner:
You can ask just one simple question to find out whether someone likes Donald Trump more than Hillary Clinton: Is Barack Obama a Muslim? If they are white and the answer is yes, 89 percent of the time that person will have a higher opinion of Trump than Clinton.

That’s more accurate than asking people if it’s harder to move up the income ladder than it was for their parents (54 percent), whether they oppose trade deals (66 percent), or if they think the economy is worse now than last year (81 percent). It’s even more accurate than asking them if they are Republican (87 percent).

Those results come from the 2016 American National Election Study (ANES) pilot survey. My analysis indicates that economic status and attitudes do little to explain support for Donald Trump.
They both misunderstand the meaning of these data.

Klinkner argues that if anxiety about the economy explains the rise of Trump, then everyone worried about the economy should support Trump. For those who answered 'yes' to the economic anxiety question ("...if it’s harder to move up the income ladder than it was for their parents"), only about half (54%) support Trump. That's statistically meaningless--a coin flip. Klinkner interprets this to mean that economic anxiety cannot explain the rise of Trump; among people with high economic anxiety, about half support Trump and half don't. There's no relationship between economic anxiety and support for Trump.

But this conclusion is ridiculous. Noting that half the people who are worried about the economy support Trump does not mean that Trump supporters aren't motivated by anxiety over the economy. It might mean that one's views on the economy are unrelated to support for Trump, but it could also be that about half of the people worried about the economy have been driven to the far right--to Trump--and everyone else worried about the economy has reacted in other ways.

Indeed, in times of economic crisis, societies sometimes undergo left-right polarization. These data are consistent with a left-right polarization: the reason that only half of the people worried about the economy support Trump is not because support for Trump is unrelated to the economy, but rather because the other half has lurched leftward, towards Sanders.

An analogy might be helpful. Let's substitute "vitamin C deficiency" for the economy, "oranges" for Trump, and "green peppers" for Sanders.

Two of the best sources of vitamin C are green peppers and oranges. Instead of asking people if they are worried about the economy, we've asked who is worried about vitamin C deficiency. Let's say exactly 100 respondents say they are worried about vitamin C deficiency. Of those, 54 respondents report eating extra oranges, while most of the remaining 46 report eating extra green peppers.

By the logic of Klinkner and Digby, eating oranges in unrelated to vitamin C deficiency: since only half of respondents worried about vitamin C deficiency are eating extra oranges, vitamin C deficiency cannot be motivating people to eat extra oranges. But that's clearly ridiculous; about half of people worried about vitamin C deficiency have chosen to eat extra oranges while the other half decided to eat extra green peppers instead. Just because only half the people have chosen oranges does not mean that their decision is not motivated by anxiety over vitamin C deficiency.

Let's cut and paste that above paragraph with economy, Trump, and Sanders sprinkled in:

By the logic of Klinkner and Digby, eating oranges in unrelated to vitamin C deficiency. Since only half of respondents worried about vitamin C deficiency (the economy) are eating extra oranges (supporting Trump), vitamin C deficiency (the economy) cannot be motivating people to eat extra oranges (support Trump). But that's clearly ridiculous; about half of people worried about vitamin C deficiency (the economy) have chosen to eat extra oranges (support Trump) while the other half decided to eat extra green peppers (support Sanders) instead. Just because only half the people have chosen oranges (support Trump) does not mean that their decision is not motivated by vitamin C deficiency (the economy).

If so, this means that Klinkner's causality is all wrong. He notes high levels of racial resentment predict support for Trump. He and Digby interpret this to mean that high levels of racial resentment is causing support for Trump, while economic concerns are unrelated. But the data don't show that. These data on racial resentment would also be consistent with left-right polarization. Among those worried about the economy, about half have begun blaming their problems on minorities and immigrants, and find an outlet for their racist/xenophobic beliefs in Trump. The other half has begun to blame capitalism for their problems and has found their outlet in Sanders' socialism. If left-right polarization is occurring, this is exactly what we would expect: a large portion of respondents with anxiety over the economy, and the half that blames minorities and immigrants supports Trump whereas the half that blames something else are against Trump. All that racism and xenophobia didn't just appear out of thin air.

The way Klinkner parsed the data, we wouldn't see the left half of the left-right polarization:
Here’s how I examined the 2016 ANES pilot survey, which includes a number of questions on economic attitudes as well as attitudes toward race, religion, and immigration.
I compared feeling thermometer evaluations for Donald Trump and those for Hillary Clinton. These evaluations run from 100 (most positive) to 0 (most negative). By looking at the difference in these evaluations, voters were ranked from 100 (most positive toward Clinton, most negative toward Trump) and -100 (most negative toward Clinton, most positive toward Trump). Those in the middle (a score of zero) were equally positive (or negative) toward the two candidates.
The other half of people who are anxious about the economy have warmer feelings for Clinton than Trump, but they might have warmer still feelings for Sanders--the other half of left-right polarization. But that won't come out the way he's parsed the data.

In sum, Digby and Klinkner reason that since only half of the people worried about the economy support Trump, Trump's rise cannot possibly be explained by economic anxiety. But that's ridiculous; half of the people worried about the economy could be driven to Trump and the other half to Sanders. The data is wholly consistent with left-right polarization: half the people worried about the economy have embraced racist/xenophobic ideas as solutions to their problems, while the other half have gone left instead of right. Economic anxiety could be causing many people--but not all--to lurch rightward into the arms of Trump.

Digby also blockquotes Nate Silver:
But according to Nate Silver at 538 [working class whites] aren’t Trump voters.  His voters are white but they are not members of the working class, at least not if you define class as relating to how much money someone has.  Silver wrote a piece called “The Mythology Of Trump’s ‘Working Class’ Support” about a month ago in which he examined all the exit poll data and discovered that Trump voters are actually better off than most Americans. He wrote:
The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.
So Trump gets his support from middle class whites, rather than working class whites. She writes this as a useful corrective to the tendency to incorrectly attribute Trump's surge to working class whites. And though she doesn't say so, implicitly this means that economic insecurity cannot explain the rise of Trump: the middle class is financially secure and therefore insecurity cannot be motivating them to support Trump.

However, you don't have to look far to see how that is an unrealistic assumption. Neal Gabler recently wrote a widely-circulated article on the high levels of economic anxiety of the middle class. It started, "Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them."

I don't think it's surprising that Trump's supporters tend to be financially better off. Poor people tend to be more liberal; that's about all there is to that story.

As I said previously, the racism and xenophobia of Trump supporters didn't just appear out of nowhere. Ian Haney-Lopez explains how this came about (here's an article-length summary of his book Dog Whistle Politics):
Beginning in the 1970s, conservatives deployed a highly racialized strategy that relentlessly linked public institutions to undeserving minorities in order to undo the country’s social contract—one grounded in good government, strong unions, and regulated capitalism. In the New Deal and Great Society years, white majorities broadly supported activist government because they perceived it as helping people like themselves—hardworking, deserving, decent. But as government programs became available to people of color, conservatives saw that they could gain ground by dog whistling about welfare and criminals, using racially coded terms to invoke the specter of liberal government coddling people of color—the very groups whose fortunes seemed to be rising just as life was getting harder for the white working class in the 1970s. As GOP campaign strategist Lee Atwater put it: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things.… [but] anyway you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.”
Today’s right-wing, anti-tax, anti-spending agenda succeeds by stoking a deep distrust of th e purported beneficiaries of government in thinly veiled dog-whistle language that is almost always about race, whether the conversation is about people who just want “free stuff,” the need to drug-test welfare recipients, “illegal aliens” as rapists and criminals, “runaway spending” under our “Food Stamp president,” or simply that our country is divided between makers and takers. On the basis of such narratives, Republicans routinely win 3 of 5 white votes nationally (and far more in the South), and draw roughly 90 percent of their support from white voters.
In sum, creating the right half of this left-right polarization has been a decades-long strategy of the Republican Party. If you believe that all of America's problems are due to minorities and immigrants, and you perceive an increase in problems in recent years, then your racism and xenophobia will become more extreme.

Klinkner said something else worth unpacking:
At best, one can argue that Trump supporters are much more negative about the direction of the economy over the past year, but even this opinion may not represent actual economic dissatisfaction. In the year before the survey was administered (January 2015 to January 2016), unemployment fell from 5.7 to 4.9 percent, real GDP grew by 2.4 percent, inflation was almost nonexistent (0.1 percent), and personal income increased by 4.4 percent. Perhaps the economy hasn’t been booming, but there seems to be little evidence to support the contention shared by more than half of all Republicans that the economy got worse during 2015.
Aggregate economic statistics play little more role than propaganda. The Great Recession might be over and unemployment might be falling, but this conceals grim realities about the "recovery": wages are lower and massive numbers of people have left the labor force entirely.
More than six years after the economic expansion began, 93% of counties in the U.S. have failed to fully recover from the blow they suffered during the recession.
Nationwide, 214 counties, or 7% of 3,069, had recovered last year to prerecession levels on four indicators: total employment, the unemployment rate, size of the economy and home values, a study from the National Association of Counties released Tuesday found.
The reality is slowing population growth and industry shifts mean some parts of the country will likely never fully recover. But by the end of last year, more counties had not recovered on any one of the four indicators, 16%, than had recovered on all of them.
“Americans don’t live in a single economic place,” said Emilia Istrate, the association’s director of research and outreach and one of the study’s authors. “It tells you why many Americans don’t feel the good economic numbers they see on TV.”
...Meanwhile, in 27 states, not a single county had fully recovered.
The Great Recession and subsequent recovery was a massive upward redistribution of wealth. The economy really is worse for the majority of people; voters are right to be anxious and upset. The fact that the recovery has not been kind to most people (because it was just an upward redistribution of wealth) can be masked with aggregate unemployment or GDP statistics, but people know when the economy isn't working for them.

Simply put, these data--polling data connecting racial resentment to support for Trump, polling data on Trump's demographic support, and aggregate economic numbers--cannot be used to argue that economic anxiety has not led to the rise of Trump.

Update (11/1/16)
A few interesting links I've found on this idea since this post was published:

Why they support Trump, by Carl Beijer:
And that point is fairly clear: when asked “why they support their candidate,” 76 percent of Trump voters credit his “views on the economy,” while only 28 percent credit his “views on race relations.” 
...Thus for example, in the same Gallup study that Matthews thinks “confirms” his analysis, the author explicitly affirms the role of economic factors in Trumpism: the evidence, he writes, indicates “support for the idea that Trump supporters are less prosperous than others” and he goes on to speculate that “material circumstances caused by economic shocks . . . are the true underlying causes.” 
Acknowledging a role for economics in the Trump candidacy does not, of course, preclude a role for racism as well — and as Jeff Spross points out, that was never the left argument to begin with.

In other words, economic challenges can motivate racial resentment.

Sympathy for the Devil?, by Seth Ackerman:
For example, one of the studies Matthews cites analyzed questions from the 2016 ANES pilot survey. According to Matthews, the study concluded that while “support for Trump is correlated most strongly with party ID, the second biggest factor . . . was racial resentment.” The study’s author concluded that “Trump support isn’t about the economy.” 
Meanwhile, the same ANES survey had actually included a battery of questions that did try to ask respondents about their motivations. It listed twenty-one different political issues and asked: “Which of the following issues are the most important to you in terms of choosing which political candidate you will support?” 
Trump’s three signature racially coded themes — immigration, terrorism, and crime – were among the possible choices; a third of Trump supporters picked one of those as their top issue. Two-thirds did not. 51 percent chose traditional kitchen-table issues like the economy, health care, Social Security, taxes, or the national debt. 
...If that difference doesn’t seem all that big, it’s because while Trump has been very effective at mobilizing the most obsessively racist fraction of Americans to his cause — and great at winning Republican votes overall — he hasn’t been manufacturing more racists...Meanwhile, in a co-authored academic article published this year, Donald Kinder, the University of Michigan social scientist who first developed the concept of racial resentment, reported: “Racial resentment is essentially stationary over the last quarter century, as measured by the ANES or by the GSS. We detect no sign here that White Americans’ racial resentments hardened during the Obama Presidency.” 
Likewise, Gallup regularly asks the question, “Should immigration be kept at its present level, increased, or decreased?” Anti-immigration sentiment has been in long-term decline among non-Hispanic whites. In 2002, those wanting less immigration exceeded those wanting more by 43 percentage points. This year that number was 22 percentage points.

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