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Why are these explanations so popular?

David Weakliem writes:

According to exit polls, Donald Trump got 67% of the vote among whites without a college degree in 2016, which may be the best-ever performance by a Republican (Reagan got 66% of that group in 1984).

Weakliem first rejects one possibility that’s been going around:

One popular idea is that he cared about them, or at least gave them the impression that he cared. The popularity of this account has puzzled me, because it’s not even superficially plausible. Every other presidential candidate I can remember tried to show empathy by talking about people they had met on the campaign trail, or tough times they had encountered in their past, or how their parents taught them to treat everyone equally. Trump didn’t do any of that—he boasted about how smart and how rich he was.

And, indeed, Weakliem shows data to shoot down the “he cares” explanation.

Here’s another possibility:

A variant is that Democrats drove “working class” voters away by showing contempt for them. This is more plausible, but raises the question of whether Democrats showed that much more contempt in 2016 than in 2012, 2008, 2004, etc. That seems like a hard case to make—at any rate, I haven’t heard anyone try to make it.

Weakliem then turns to the meta-question: not why did Trump do so well among less-educated white voters, but why are so many pundits pushing the “treating everyone with dignity” story? Here’s Weakliem:

So why are these explanations so popular? My hypothesis is that it’s because American society has become a lot more socially egalitarian over the last 60 years or so. Educated people don’t want to be thought of as snobs or elitists, and less educated people are less likely to think they should “improve themselves” by emulating the middle class. At one time, you could say that Democrats thought of themselves as the party of the common people, and Republicans thought of themselves as the party of successful people. Now both parties think of themselves as the party of the common people, plus the fraction of the elites who care about or understand the common people. The result is that people are attracted to an explanation that is more flattering to the “working class.”

This reminds me of something we wrote in Red State Blue State:

The Republican Party’s long-standing pro-business philosophy has a natural enduring appeal to higher-income voters. In contrast, it is a surprise when rich people vote for Democrats, suggesting that the party may have departed from its traditional populism. Conservative pundits hit the Democratic Party for losing relevance and authenticity, while liberals slam the Democrats for selling out. For example, Thomas Edsall quoted labor leader Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, saying that the perception of Democrats as “Volvo-driving, latte-drinking, Chardonnay-sipping, Northeast, Harvard- and Yale-educated liberals is the reality. That is who people see as leading the Democratic Party. There’s no authenticity; they don’t look like them. People are not voting against their interests; they’re looking for someone to represent their interests.” If Republicans are led by Benz-driving, golf-playing, Texas, Harvard- and Yale-educated conservatives, this is not such a problem because, in some sense, the Republicans never really claim to be in favor of complete equality.

Just as politicians would like the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey or Bruce Springsteen, it also seems desirable in our democracy to have the support of the so-called waitress moms and NASCAR dads—not just for the direct benefits of their votes but also because they signal a party’s broad appeal. In recent years, prestige votes for Democrats have included teachers and nurses; Republicans have won the prestige votes of farmers and many in the armed services.

Rich people are an anti-prestige vote: just as politicians generally don’t seek out the endorsement of, for example, Barbra Streisand or Ted Nugent (except in venues where these names are respected), they also don’t want to be associated with obnoxious yuppies or smug suburbanites in gated communities. The parties want the money of these people—in fact, in their leadership, both parties to some extent are these people—and they’ll take their votes, but they don’t necessarily want to make a big deal about it.

P.S. Weakliem also writes of “the recollections of people like Charles Murray (Coming Apart) and Robert Putnam (Our Kids) about how there used to be less social distance between classes. I think that may be because they both grew up in small towns in the Midwest. If you read something like E. Digby Baltzell’s The Protestant Establishment, you get a very different picture of status differences in America.”

I agree. Murray and Putnam have some useful things to say, and they’ve said some more debatable things too, but in any case they have a particular perspective which does not tell the whole story of America, or even of white male America.


  1. John Cavnar-Johnson says:

    Trump (and Reagan) did well among whites without a college degree by appealing to racist whites without a college degree. This is not a mystery.

  2. Tom says:

    The data supporting the “he cares” explanation is not dispositive. It is all voters, not the subgroup whites without a college degree. The other national numbers may reflect widespread agreement across subgroups with the statement, but Trump’s lower overall support may be correlated with a higher concentration of that support.

    I couldn’t find any other polls that broke out the demographics, and I actually had trouble finding a granular breakdown in the voting population to back into some bounds.

    • Terry says:

      “The data supporting the “he cares” explanation is not dispositive. It is all voters, not the subgroup whites without a college degree.”

      This is a devastating observation.

      You can’t explain why subgroup A voted more heavily for Trump than Subgroup B by looking at a variable that is aggregated over A and B. You need to find a difference between A and B.

      You are too kind. This analysis isn’t “not dispositive,” it is irrelevant.

    • The individual level data for one of the surveys that asked about Trump later came out, and I looked at the opinions of just non-Hispanic whites and non-Hispanic whites without college degrees (see the link to my website above). Trump still didn’t do well–he ranked behind the other candidates for the Republican nomination that they asked about.

      • Tom says:

        I looked at your website and went through several posts. None of them are white, without a college degree. All I see are several reporting everyone without a college degree vs those with a college degree. If you have something specific in mind, a direct link would be helpful.

        • Click on my name above, or the date of the post is June 9, 2017.

          • Terry says:

            From your excellent blog:

            W NCW
            Trump 2.38 2.51
            Carson 3.17 3.20
            Fiorina 2.70 2.69
            Clinton 2.21 2.12
            Sanders 2.81 2.67
            Biden 2.72 2.61

            So, it looks like non-college whites thought Hillary hated them while they thought that Trump neither loved them nor hated them.

            Sounds to me like a straight-forward explanation of why they voted the way they did.

            (Yes, this is oversimplified, but adding qualifiers such as “tended to” etc. doesn’t change the point. And yes, there were other important factors involved.)

          • Tom says:

            Thanks! I didn’t go back far enough. I forgot Andrew posts with quite a lag and didn’t click around. My apologies.

      • Terry says:

        How did Trump compare to Hillary on this metric among non-Hispanic whites without college degrees?

      • Terry says:

        Excellent blog David.

        Is it troubling that your blog’s analysis uses the “cares about me” question to understand why whites without a college degree voted as they did? More specifically, is it troubling that the “cares about me” question has a general tilt towards liberals? This is hard for me to say succinctly, so let me give an example.

        Imagine that Churchill is running against Mr. Rogers and the vote is split evenly between the two. Voters are asked “which candidate is more likely to give you a nice big hug?” Among Mr. Rogers’ voters, 100% say Mr. Rogers, and 0% said Churchill. Among Churchill voters, 40% say Churchill and 60% said Mr. Rogers. In aggregate, therefore, 80% of all voters said Mr. Rogers, and only 20% said Churchill.

        In this situation, is it accurate to say that Churchill voters voted for him (at least in part) because he cared about them more? The answer is clearly “yes”, but the analysis in your blog says “no”. What is going on here?

        I think it has to do with the big difference in the baseline numbers. Mr. Rogers is just a more caring guy, so he will always poll higher on that question. It is therefore too simple to answer the question by looking at which candidate polls higher on “caring”. This is true even if you restrict the sample to Churchill voters. You need to look at the deviation from the baseline to see the effect.

  3. Terry says:

    Thanks for the link to Weakliem. The website sounds quite reality-based and blessedly free of cant.

    Weakliem’s rejection of the hypothesis that less-educated whites voted for Trump because they thought he cared about them is pretty weak, and Weakliem kind of acknowledges this. “Caring about me” is a democrat thing, and Trump didn’t run as a caring person.

    It is probably better to state the hypothesis as “Trump didn’t hate me the way Hillary did.” (The “basket of deplorables” gaffe was emblematic.) A lot of Trump voters weren’t voting for a president that would slobber all over them, they just didn’t want to be treated like dirt.

    I wonder if Weakliem talked to any Trump voters. This point doesn’t seem that difficult to grasp.

  4. Mark Palko says:

    “My hypothesis is that it’s because American society has become a lot more socially egalitarian over the last 60 years or so. Educated people don’t want to be thought of as snobs or elitists,”…

    I can think of numerous counterexamples involving public policy (the Great Compression, the Great Society), popular culture, acceptance of success based on inherited wealth and connections (our previous discussion of nepotism), the rise of explicit Randianism in the GOP, the collected writings of Charles Murray, and the uncritical worship of billionaires as omnicompetent and possibly messianic, all of which argue that the FDR/postwar era represented a high point in social egalitarianism and that the past 50 years have moved sharply in the other direction.

  5. TBW says:

    HRC was the second least popular candidate ever, and whites without college degrees felt insulted by her deplorables comment. Why are we surprised that an historically uncharismatic figure would have trouble convincing people who felt insulted by her, to vote for her.

  6. StephenLaudig says:

    Enough voted their hope for change under the theory that they KNEW Clinton wouldn’t change their 30 year downward spiral while they THOUGHT Trump might perhaps because his campaign was a change under some theory that if your campaign was a change then your governance would be a change. They were gulled of course and, like all grifts, it was based on hope for gain. In a perverse way Trump, being filthy rich, had more cred in talking about change than Clinton who had little cred [as an adulthood long Democrat I felt her insincerity which was as loud as fingernails on a chalkboard]. With Trump it was a leap of faith but not a bad bet, he was the, however slight, possibility of change, while she was no possibility of change, after all Clinton I was part of the sellout that took two decades to have a large effect. that’s my take on it. Cheers.

  7. Curious says:

    While this is an interesting analysis of the Trump voter and one I may have shared prior to November 8, 2016. I am someone who wanted to give the President Elect of the United States the opportunity to grasp the seriousness of the office they just won and change their rhetoric. One would expect they may recognize why some of the promises they’d made on the campaign trail were unrealistic given the realities and complexities of being in charge of national security and foreign policy.

    However, what I have come to conclude over the past year is that this President is trying to implement even the most naive and foolish promises made during the campaign. Not simply for political gain, but because he believes the very same overly simplistic ideas about the world as those who voted for him. They like him, not because he will do what is in their best interest, but because he has the same simplistic beliefs about complex problems facing the country and is willing to use his power to implement the simplistic remedies they put forth when they are arguing politics with their friends, family, and neighbors.

    • Georgette Asherman says:

      Masha Gessen wrote a wonderful piece about the ‘denial of complexity’. I find that college graduates, even if they don’t remember anything from college, at least gain a sense of complexity of processes. It would be interesting if someone in the social sciences did some work on the latent inputs related to a factor of complexity.

  8. Terry says:

    While this is an interesting analysis of the Trump voter and one I may have shared prior to November 8, 2016. I am someone who wanted to give the President Elect of the United States the opportunity to grasp the seriousness of the office they just won and change their rhetoric.

    A link to something would be good here. Kind of hard to know what you are talking about. (If there were a good way to find your past comments, I would do that, but it doesn’t seem possible.)

  9. David18 says:

    Thomas Frank (“Listen, Liberal” early 2016, “What’s The Matter with Kansas”, 2004) a Midwesterner and Guardian columnist has been writing about why the Trump and BrExit phenomena. Frank’s “Listen, Liberal” title was one of 6 recommended by the NYT to read in order to understand Trump’s victory. Yet, Weikliem, a Professor of Sociology makes no mention of Frank and his writings.

    Readers should ask why Frank was ignored by Weakliem.

    Frank basically said that Trump was succeeding because the Democratic Party lost their way, ignoring the wisdom of FDR, Truman, JFK, and LBJ.

    Trump won because of fundamental policy decisions in The Democratic Party. It is dangerous to over intellectualize and overstudy the issue. The cause was not Russians, Wikileaks, Comey, Fake News, Facebook, Robots (Thomas Edsall’s latest column).

    It was a fundamental failure of policy that ignored a lot of people suffering from globalization that allowed Trump to win over The Democrats.

    Trump was against new trade agreements and stated that NAFTA needed to be renegotiated. HRC was originally pro-trade agreements. When Carrier said it was closing a factory in Indiana and moving the jobs to Mexico it was Trump (and Sanders) but not Clinton that complained vociferously.

    When Disney of Florida abused the H1-B Visa program (STEM workers) and fired 250 American tech workers and replace them with Indians, it was Trump who complained vociferously but not Clinton.

    Clinton accepted $675,000 for 3 talks from Goldman and a total of $22 million in talks from different groups after she left government leaving many with the impression that Clinton was bought off.

    People who criticize Trump never ask why Clinton did not protest Carrier and Disney and Trump made a big point about it.

    • Curious says:

      The notion that immigration is in any way a cause of the economic plight of the middle and lower income segments of the U.S. economy is simply absurd.

        • Curious says:

          It is absurd to think that .03% change in population has any appreciable affect on the economy as a whole. I repeat, it is logically absurd.

          • Curious says:

            It is like arguing that immigration caused the reduction in labor in post 2008 Detroit. There are a lot of things that contributed to this economic crisis, but immigration ain’t one of ’em.

            • Curious says:

              The issue is the rate of working age population change relative to all of the other changes within a complex economy such as the U.S. Approximately 1 million immigrants per year, while 3+ million people retire every year (baby boomer gen), and 2.6+ million people die every year. The rate of growth of the economy is what matters. Blaming immigration for this is simply wrong.

              • Terry says:

                You might want to consider how much of an expert you are on this issue. You claim to calculate the effects of immigration on the economy with great certainty with only a few numbers and a few simple calculations.

                By contrast, the people who have devoted their lives to studying this issue publish studies like the following:


                (I’m not saying this paper is the final word on the subject. I’m just saying that this is the kind of work that real experts do.)

              • Curious says:

                I’m not claiming to be an expert, Terry. But, illogic is illogic. Claiming such a small change in population has a major change in an economy the size of the U.S. is illogical.

              • Terry says:

                A basic problem with your approach is that it looks only at the total size of the economy and ignores how it can redistribute income upward (precisely what you are concerned about in other comments).

                In the study cited above, the author says:

                For American workers, immigration is primarily a redistributive policy. Economic theory predicts that immigration will redistribute income by lowering the wages of competing American workers and increasing the wages of complementary American workers as well as profits for business owners and other “users” of immigrant labor.

                Although the overall net impact on the native-born is small, the loss or gain for particular groups of the population can be substantial. The best empirical research that tries to examine what has actually happened in the U.S. labor market aligns well with economy theory: An increase in the number of workers leads to lower wages.

                There are other flaws in your logic too, but this should be enough to make a reasonable person reconsider.

              • Curious says:

                Does the increase of a single person into a labor market reduce wages? Theoretically, yes. But, only if the market is efficient and I have never observed an efficient labor market in all my years on this earth except in economics textbooks.

                According to the model presented in your link, the wage reduction for a 1% change in working age population is .25%. So .03% *.25% = .0075%

                You can call that whatever you want and you can call me whatever you want, but you cannot reasonably call that a sizable depression of wages within any given year.

                Perhaps it’s more complicated and I am missing something important, but I’m having trouble believing the notion that immigration at the current rate and current effect is a cause of the economic problems for Trump’s base. You would have a much stronger argument for globalization and the movement of capital to cheaper labor markets or for the creation of economic bubbles via fraud than you do for immigration.

              • Curious says:

                I don’t disagree that substantial immigration into Detroit in the years following 2008 would make it even more difficult to find a job, but this is different than what effect immigration has on an economy. And to foment racial tensions and economic problems by falsely blaming immigration for the difficulty in getting a job, when it was in fact a function of the financial markets is misguided and morally perverse.

          • ob servus says:

            I am curious about the “0.3 %”. What is that percentage?

            “13.5 percent
            The U.S. immigrant population stood at more than 43.3 million, or 13.5 percent, of the total U.S. population of 321.4 million in 2015, according to American Community Survey (ACS) data.Mar 8, 2017”

      • David18 says:

        Trump spoke out against NAFTA and other trade agreements regarding the export of American jobs. He spoke out against illegal aliens displacing American working class and he spoke out against H1-B Visa abuse at Disney of Florida as did Sanders.

        Sanders and Trump both spoke out against the import of cheap labor as well as the export of labor to cheaper countries, but Hilary was quiet. Instead of blaming Russians, Comey, Wikileaks, Fake News, Facebook, the Democrats need to examine their dysfunctional policy that enabled a Donald Trump to win over their traditional electorate.

        For example, Clinton spoke of half of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables” but she was silent against Disney of Florida misuse of H1-B Visas to import cheap Indian tech labor. Both Trump *and* Sanders spoke out and made this a large campaign issue. I wish Andrew and other academics and NYT columnist Thomas Edsall and other journalists would address these issues. During the campaign, the journalists should have pressed Clinton about her silence.

        1) Peter Beinart, NYU Prof. Journalism and Political Science: “How the Democrats Lost Their Way on Immigration”

        “Obama, The New York Times noted, “was facing growing pressure from Latino leaders and Democrats who warned that because of his harsh immigration enforcement, his support was lagging among Latinos who could be crucial voters in his race for re-election.”

        Alongside pressure from pro-immigrant activists came pressure from corporate America, especially the Democrat-aligned tech industry, which uses the H-1B visa program to import workers. In 2010, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with the CEOs of companies including Hewlett-Packard, Boeing, Disney, and News Corporation, formed New American Economy to advocate for business-friendly immigration policies. Three years later, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates helped found to promote a similar agenda.”

        2) Sen. Sanders attacks H-1B visa use at Disney
        His comments are in contrast to Hillary Clinton’s silence on the issue

        “Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, who, along with Sanders, is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, has been silent on the H-1B issue during this campaign. Her lack of comment was seen as a tacit sign of support for the visa in an op-ed that appeared this month in the Economic Times, a Mumbai, India-based newspaper.

        “Disney replaced 250 workers with low-wage foreign workers who came in what is called the H-1B program,” said Sanders, to the affirming cheers of the crowd in Anaheim. (Video segment begins at about 23:50).”

        3) This combination of Latino and corporate activism made it perilous for Democrats to discuss immigration’s costs, as Bernie Sanders learned the hard way.””

        “But in 2007, Sanders was part of the charge from the left to kill an immigration overhaul bill.

        Back then, the Vermont independent warned that the immigration bill — a product from then-Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — would drive down wages for lower-income workers, an argument that’s been used by hard-liner reform opponents. He paired with conservative Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on a restrictive immigration amendment. And Sanders backed provisions characterized as poison pills to unravel the bill, while voting to block the final measure in June 2007.”

      • Andrew K says:

        It doesn’t matter that is wrong, the issue is whether such people (uneducated whites) believe it.

    • Curious says:

      “Trump won because of fundamental policy decisions in The Democratic Party. It is dangerous to over intellectualize and overstudy the issue. The cause was not Russians, Wikileaks, Comey, Fake News, Facebook, Robots (Thomas Edsall’s latest column).”

      I agree that this Trump won because he was willing to exploit fear and to inaccurately attribute causality of economic problems to immigration rather than the movement of wealth from the middle class to the upper class.

      I disagree that analyzing the problem in all its complexity is dangerous.

      • David18 says:

        Please see my comment to your comment above.

        • Curious says:

          The ideal of capitalism is that it will spend money where the greatest return will be generated around the globe. The challenge is that the perceived ideal is not always the actual ideal place for where the money should go. You can argue that importation of less expensive labor is a problem for American workers, but the alternative would likely be for companies to open a location close to that labor. You can do the math on which would be worse for American workers.

          Artificial barriers to entry make markets less efficient at reaching equilibrium because they keep money in the hands of the same people for a longer period of time rather than moving it to people with more innovative ideas. Patent protections keep prices higher relative to a pure market without such protections. The argument for these protections is that it creates an incentive for innovation from which the average citizen will benefit more in the form of a higher average income than from a lower average cost of living in a protection free economy.

          The problem with the innovation protection economy is that when substantial jumps in innovation do not occur over a substantial period of time, wages stagnate and money continues to move to the people at the top of the pile. This is where we find ourselves right now. We have a strong economy and stagnate wages. Protectionism can have a temporary effect for keeping money where it is and pushing a bit more to the top, but it is not a long term solution.

          Another problem is how much time and resources companies spend trying to keep things as they are rather than preparing for the future. This includes preparing their employees for the future whether at their company or not. An unwillingness to build and organization and its employees for the future in the name of efficiency seems a recipe for extending economic stagnation of the middle class.

  10. I’m not familiar enough with survey data to provide evidence here, but I agree with Curious that the White working class went for Trump because he expressed their perceptions even when liberals would label those perceptions, feelings, and proposed policies as racist or sexist. The news of the past couple of days is a good example. Trump supporters probably agree that Haiti and other countries whose populations are mostly Black are shithole countries and that it would be nice to get more immigrants from Norway. That doesn’t mean Trump is a racist. He’s just telling it like it is. He refuses to be cowed into mouthing the false niceties that liberals and internationalists demand.

    • David18 says:

      Trump and Sanders were much more aligned than either with Clinton, yet this issue is never discussed by academics nor journalists.

      Both Trump and Sanders were strongly against H1-B abuse as done by Disney in Florida when it replaced 250 American tech workers with Indian.
      Clinton was silent. In fact, Clinton had a history of supporting low-wage displacement of American STEM workers using people from India.

      Moreover, you will find that many of the Democrats are trying to increase the number of H1-B Visas, so that there can be even more H1-B Visa abuse. Trump had the correct approach of limiting H1-B Visa abuse.

      FDR, Truman, JFK, and LBJ, like Trump (and Sanders) would have supported laws against H1-B Visa abuse. Clinton, was involved with companies that were part of the abuse. Obama noted this issue in the 2008 election calling Clinton, “The Senator from Punjab”

      Team Trump accuses Hillary Clinton of ties with TCS, HCL who ‘stole’ US jobs

      “”Most notably , Clinton has extensive ties to corporations responsible for some of the most egregious anti-American worker labour practices: namely , the India-based Tata Consultancy ServicesBSE -0.56 % and HCL…Interestingly , both companies have given money to the Clintons either via donations to the Clinton Foundation or paying Bill Clinton to deliver speeches,” the Breitbart story noted, saying the firms have “stolen” tens of thousands of US jobs.

      “HCL and Tata are responsible for the layoffs of workers from Disney , Southern California Edison, Northeast Utilities, Xerox, University of California, Siemens, and countless others,” it added.

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