Friday, January 27, 2017

Trump's Snowflake Voters

 by Neil H. Buchanan

There is now a received wisdom about the 2016 election that goes something like this: Trump was inevitably going to win, and the reason no one saw it coming was that journalists live in liberal bubbles in coastal cities and do not know any Trump voters.

If only these journalists had "gotten out there" and interviewed Real Americans, rather than holding them in contempt, they would have felt -- really felt -- the pain of these voters.  This story then holds that those angry voters naturally voted for Trump because he is the ultimate outsider, and they felt in their guts that his solutions were just what is needed to reverse the pain in their lives.  Sticking it to those annoying elitists was an added bonus.

But what if that received wisdom is wrong?  More importantly, what if this new conventional wisdom is actually more condescending to voters -- more the result of the liberal bubble inhabitants' biases and groupthink than of actually applying logic to evidence -- than the supposedly arrogant narrative that it replaced?

I offered an initial assessment of this already-established narrative back on December 1, quoting one analyst who wrote: "Trump is president because of a regional revolt ... .  White people generally didn’t deliver the White House to Trump, however much they enabled him; the Rust Belt did."

As that quote implies, everyone is trying very hard only to talk about the Trump voters who are not racists or otherwise bigoted.  For obvious reasons, the question of race in the election is a sensitive one, as I have explored recently.  (See here and here.)

More to the point, those of us who oppose Trump are optimistic enough to believe that a large number of his current supporters are not permanently in his camp.  Yes, Trump has undeniably brought some ugliness into the mainstream, not all of which will go away any time soon.  But we need to believe that most people are inherently good.

The instant consensus noted above -- that liberal journalists missed the real story -- relies in large part on the idea that Trump won his sliver-thin margins in several now-post-industrial states by flipping formerly Democratic voters to his side.  If that really is the story, then the last two and a half months of hand wringing about those white working class voters is obviously a necessary step in Democrats' efforts to return to political prominence.

The problem is that the data never quite told the story that everyone now thinks is true.  The same day that I wrote about "reaching the reachable Trump voters," in fact, two scholars published a piece in Slate in which they looked at voting data from what they called the Rust Belt 5 -- Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  The story they tell is quite interesting and surprising.

As everyone should know by now, three of those states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) provided the Electoral College edge for Trump.  As I calculated recently, if fewer than 54,000 Trump voters in those three states had flipped to Clinton, we would not currently be scratching our heads about "alternative facts" or worrying about trade wars (and shooting wars).

The authors of the Slate piece, Konstantin Kilibarda and Daria Roithmayr, point out that the data support a distinctly different story from the "angry white working class voters flocked to Trump" narrative.  It is not that the raw vote totals are wrong, so it does remain true that the equivalent of the population of Elyria, Ohio swung the election for Trump.  That by itself remains an astonishing fact.

Kilibarda and Roithmayr, however, describe the so-called Rust Belt revolt as a myth because "[t]he real story—the one the pundits missed—is that voters who fled the Democrats in the Rust Belt 5 were twice as likely either to vote for a third party or to stay at home than to embrace Trump."

Overall, more than a half million under-$50,000 voters who had voted for Obama in 2012 did not vote at all in 2016.  Furthermore, fewer than two-thirds of the white voters who had voted for Obama in 2012 voted for Trump last year, and those who stayed home or who voted for a third party totaled 220,000 -- more than enough to swing the election for Clinton.

So even if we are looking only for data to support the angry-working-class-whites narrative, we end up with a chunk of those voters who never embraced Clinton but who certainly could not join their angry friends at Trump rallies.

In addition, the Republicans picked up as many voters in those states whose incomes are above $100,000 annually as they did among voters who earn less than $50,000.  It was not really a working class revolt after all.

More shockingly, Democrats also lost 400,000 votes among the "black, indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) vote," compared to 2012.  One third of those voters, for reasons known only to them, voted for Trump in 2016.  Put another way, more than 260,000 Democratic voters of color fell away in 2016 by not voting or by voting for a third-party candidate.

Therefore, the notion that down-on-their-luck white voters flipped to Trump is not exactly wrong -- enough such voters did so to make up the deficit that Clinton needed, many times over -- but only motivated thinking by pundits could have turned this into the dominant theme of the post-election discussion.

In some ways, this distorted pundit-led discussion is an example of what can usefully be called an insta-consensus.  On election night, shocked analysts were casting about for a story to tell, and Trump's bigoted campaign rhetoric all but begged for that story to be about angry white voters.  Everyone was being sensitive not to call the white Trump voters themselves bigots, so this had to be spun as a story about misunderstood downscale white people.

This kind of distorted insta-consensus is actually all too common.  Perhaps the most dramatic example is the completely false narrative that emerged after the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999.  The entire story that was told about that horrific event -- a "trench-coat" mafia of goth-obsessed kids wreaking revenge on the popular jocks who had tormented them -- turned out to be utterly false.  Yes, I was surprised, too.

Although that example is extreme, the 2016 election post mortem is in its own way just as misguided.

Because so many liberals are willing to believe the negative stereotypes that they hear about themselves -- "Well, gee, I really don't like tractor pulls, and I do laugh at candidates in the Iowa caucuses when they eat fried cheese" -- I strongly suspect that this new narrative is a peculiar form of penance for people who deep down are ashamed when Sarah Palin describes other places as "the real America."

I recently read a long article by the journalist George Packer in The New Yorker, which was published a week before the election.  It is a fascinating read, in part because it shows that whatever else one might say about Hillary Clinton, she was keenly aware of the populist rumblings among working class voters and was actually quite focused on winning them over.

Packer's piece is not without its weaknesses.  Any journalistic effort that actually takes Thomas Friedman and Charles Murray seriously as thinkers is not on strong ground, after all.  In any event, Packer focuses on the idea that the white voters who were drawn to Trump were understandably angry with supposed liberal elites.

Packer quotes Murray: "The energy coming out of the new lower class really only needed a voice, because they are so pissed off at people like you and me.  We so obviously despise them, we so obviously condescend to them—'flyover country.'"

And there it is again, the supposed condescension and disdain that Trump's voters are now thought to have been rebelling against.  The problem is that all of this solicitude for the feelings of Trump's voters is itself insulting, condescending, and disdainful.  One can imagine Murray and Packer whispering: "Shhhh.  Don't say anything bad about them, because they hate that.  They're very sensitive!"

To use the insult that the pundits on Fox News are now wrongly hurling at college students, people like Packer seem to think that working class white people are "snowflakes" -- fragile, pathetic, and weak losers who will melt if someone says something unpleasant to them.

Surely, no one likes it when others are being condescending.  But I frankly think that working class voters can take it when they find out that their leaders don't like fried butter on a stick.

When I was growing up in a working-class suburb of Toledo, Ohio, we knew that Ohio was the butt of jokes (and within Ohio, Toledo was the butt of jokes).  When I went to college, for example, a kid from a suburb on Long Island (a suburb that was surely no different from my suburb) asked with a smirk, "How many cows do you have on your farm?"  It was stupid, but who cares?  We were stronger than that.

Moreover, as I have pointed out again and again, it is also condescending to Trump's voters to say that they hate elites but somehow they cannot bear to be told that Trump is conning them by installing people in power who really look down on working people.  (When the Koch brothers are not pouring money into Republican campaigns, they are endowing operas and ballets in liberal, disdainful, condescending, elitist New York City.)

People can be stubborn, so we can depend on Trump's voters to deny that they made a mistake in voting for Trump.  Indeed, we can be sure that the non-voters who actually flipped the election to Trump will be even more insistent that their acts of omission were not the reason for Trump's rise.

But it is essential to engage with these voters and non-voters and show them that Trump's promise to bring back the jobs of the fifties and sixties is a cynical lie.  That is going to upset some people, but that is politics.  The alternative is to refuse to engage on the issues at all.

People are not snowflakes, and they can handle adult conversations in which they are challenged to rethink their positions.  For liberal pundits to think otherwise, and to imagine that white working-class voters will suddenly change their views if liberals learn to love pork rinds, is what real condescension looks like.


el roam said...

One may read the following important recent survey of Gallup , and find great interest in it , especially concerning the subject of that post , one may read section 2 ( Social and values issues ) here :

Greg said...

These numbers, while not perfectly, confirm something I always suspected. It wasn't angry white "moderates" voting for Trump who threw the election. What threw the election was angry white liberals refusing to vote for Clinton.

I can't count how many liberal people I told "I know you don't like Hillary, but if you don't vote for her, you're effectively voting for Trump. You don't have the luxury of refusing to vote for her on principle." Ultimately, Bernie Sanders supporters staying home were enough to change the result of the election.

Interestingly, this also matches the stated Republican strategy of trying to get Clinton voters to stay home.

David Ricardo said...

Okay, we all agree that the election did not turn on a huge outpouring of angry white middle to lower income white voters, but on the fact that the traditional Democratic voters stayed home in sufficient numbers so as to push key states into the Trump column. As an analysis in the key state of North Carolina from the News and Observer said yesterday,

“Nearly half of North Carolina’s registered voters between ages 18 and 25 didn’t bother to cast a ballot in November, according to a new analysis released Thursday.
The advocacy group Democracy North Carolina, which lobbies for voting access, analyzed the state’s election data and found that some demographic groups had far better turnout than others, while overall voter turnout was at 69 percent of registered voters – just 1 percentage point behind the record from 2008. . . .

The state’s youngest voters had the worst turnout of the demographic groups in the study. Just 53 percent of registered voters in the 18-to-25 age group cast ballots, down from 55 percent in 2012 and 60 percent in 2008.

The state’s oldest voters had some of the highest turnout numbers: 78 percent of registered voters age 65 and older participated, a new record.”

So the critical question which hopefully Mr. Buchanan will answer in a later post is ‘why’. The leadings suspects for why the voters who could have and should have put Ms. Clinton in the White House but sat home and failed to do so are

1. The gender of the Democratic candidate
2. Clinton fatigue
3. A poor strategy of ads focusing on Trump’s shortcomings instead of Clinton’s strengths.
4. The e-mails, the Clinton Foundation, the Comey interference etc.
5. The shrillness of many of Clinton’s speeches.
6. Disgust at an ugly, negative campaign leading many voters to say a plague on both your houses combined with a belief that no, Trump could not be as bad as he appears (He could and he is).

7. Some other things?

This needs to be determined soon so that Dems can start the process of getting their voters out to vote. A lawsuit on emoluments ain’t gonna do it even if as Mr. Dorf pointed out in an earlier post the plaintiff's can get standing.

David Ricardo said...

Follow Up

Before anybody writes that it could not have been about gender, we are past that in 2016, if one looks at the numbers in NC here

it is clear that the election was lost by the failure of men, particularly young Democratic men to register and vote that cost Ms. Clinton the state. It is a reasonable assumption that this pattern also existed in other key states.

So yes, as much as we might like to think otherwise, gender prejudice in Democratic male voters may be what determined the election. Not pleasant to behold.

Joe said...

Looking at the successful presidents in the last fifty or so years, my general conclusion is that you need an attractive candidate who appeals to the general public, preferably with some basic easy to grasp message. There has to be some general likeability though it can be negative too (Trump has a mix of appeals there, some like him, some like what he hates). Think JFK, Reagan, Clinton, Bush43, Obama etc.

The person should also grasp the moment -- Bill Clinton mixed a Southern Democrat brand ("end of welfare as we know it") with an economic message when foreign affairs seemed not too important. Carter seemed a purer alternative to move past Nixon. But, note, he was not a great candidate in various ways. The election was real close. That's dangerous -- you always will be able to find something to explain a loss there. If an election turns on ten thousands of votes, it's a crapshoot.

Hillary Clinton was not a great candidate for 2016 in various ways, an election that without Trump was one for the Democrats to lose in a vacuum. After eight years, people tend to move on -- history shows things a lot. The other side is important too. Why did so few people not turn against Trump as compared to a generic Republican? That too is a concern.

So, while we worry about state races, my guess is to try to find a more attractive candidate for 2020 who is able to grab the ethos the time & grasp a few more votes to get places like Florida or North Carolina. Need to balance off a state or two that might get lost in the Rust Belt. And, try to get one of them back.

I don't know if she's the one, but people are starting to talk about Kirsten Gillibrand.

Unknown said...

There's a risk that if we get caught up in debating points about what constituency "swung" this election to Trump, we'll miss a more significant point. The Democrats dominated American politics from 1933 until 1968 because of an incredibly potent coalition of working class whites, African Americans, and urban, elite, liberals (for lack of a better term). During the 1970s, the party lost the white working class. In 1964, 85% of white union members voted for Lyndon Johnson. In 1972, only 36% voted for McGovern. In '76 Carter was able to hold this coalition together (barely), receiving 44% of this vote. He was the only Democrat able to get more than 40% of the white vote between 1968 and 1996. Gore, Kerry, and Obama were not able to do much better, and H. Clinton did horribly. Neil is, of course, correct to say that these voters didn't abandon the Democrats because the party leadership condescended to them about NASCAR or deep-fried Twinkies. They left because, starting with Jimmy Carter, the party abandoned them politically with respect to many of the issues they cared about: no Humphrey-Hawkins full employment legislation, no labor law reform, trade policy that didn't consider its dislocating effects. That said, to the extent that this post implies that cultural divisions between working class whites and the rest of the Democratic Party have not had a significant effect on the political allegiances of the former, I think that is simply incorrect. We're not talking about tractor pulls and country music. We're talking about very different attitudes about patriotism, religion, gender roles, the dignity of work, the status-creating role of higher education, and law enforcement/military service. Of course white working class voters are not snowflakes who can't take teasing about their food-ways or taste in movies. But why should they vote for candidates who evidence a dismissive attitude towards the socio-cultural beliefs central to their lives?

For the always intellectually ambitious readers of Dorf on Law who want to learn more about this, I'd recommend two fantastic books of post-war American history: Jefferson Cowie's Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, and Robert O. Self's All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s. I've also written about this phenomenon in my recent book Forging Rivals: Race, Class, Law, and the Collapse of Postwar Liberalism. (Sorry for the shameless plug. Feel free to remove it if it violates the rules or customs of the blog.)

Shag from Brookline said...

Reuel's recitals of what might have caused the shift of the white working class to Republicans after the 1964 election seem to neglect the civil rights movement and Nixon's Southern Strategy in 1968 that has continued to attract white working class to Republicans. Perhaps Reuel's new book addresses this?

Unknown said...

Conflicts over race were, of course, central to the white working class' departure from the Democratic Party, though the premise of my book is that this issue created deep fissures in liberalism's facade way before Nixon's opportunistic use of it, and even before the civil rights legislation of the early and mid-60s.

Shag from Brookline said...

I'm curious as to the claimed "deep fissures" unless it is a reference to when the Republican Party was still the party of Lincoln. There's a waft of a tad of revisionism.

David Ricardo said...

The 'deep fissures' that I have witnessed and studied seems to have occurred in the fight over racial equality which became a national obsession in the early 1950's with the Brown decision and split the Democratic party into two groups, the segregationists and those who believed in equality. The segregationists had no where to go because Republicans at that time were committed to civil rights and so remained nominal Democrats at the state and local levels until the late 1960's when they were welcomed into the Republican party. The small group of Republicans who did favor equal rights then migrated to the Demcratic party.

Maybe this is the 'deep fissures' Mr. Schiller is talking about.