Sunday, January 10, 2016

Class, status, and Trump

In 1955, a book called The New American Right appeared, with contributions from the historian Richard Hofstadter and sociologists Daniel Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, Talcott Parsons, and David Riesman (there was also one from the historian Peter Viereck--I don't know much about him and in some ways he didn't seem to fit with the others).  The basic idea was that there was a distinction between "interest politics" and "status politics."  Interest politics was about trying to get material benefits.  It was basically rational--for example, it's easy to understand why low-paid workers would support an increase in the minimum wage and owners of businesses that employ them would oppose it.  This doesn't necessarily mean they are correct--there might be ways in which an increase in the minimum wage would hurt workers or help businesses--but there's an obvious connection between the end and the means.   "Status politics" was about reacting to changes, usually declines, in status.  It was basically irrational, focusing on finding scapegoats and defending or attacking symbolic targets.  The authors saw McCarthyism as an example of status politics.

In 1963 an expanded version appeared called the Radical Right.  Despite (or more likely because of) the all-star lineup supporting the interest politics/status politics analysis, it soon fell out of favor among sociologists.  It's not exactly forgotten, but it doesn't get much attention in contemporary research.  However, it has survived among journalists and the "educated public" (Obama's notorious "clinging to God and guns" remark in 2008 is an example).  I don't know whether that's because people get it from the originals (Hofstadter's books still seem to be widely read) or because they independently reinvent it.  This relates to Trump because many or most accounts of his support (e.g. from Eduardo Porter and Thomas Edsall) see it in pretty much the same way that Hofstadter et al. saw support for Joe McCarthy or later the John Birch society.    Hofstadter et al. thought that the core of McCarthy's support came from parts of the middle class, while Edsall and Porter say that Trump's comes from working class men, but the underlying idea is the same.  In the 1950s, independent businessmen and farmers were being marginalized by the rise of large organizations; now, working-class men are being marginalized by the decline of industry.  In both cases, the declining groups lash out in ways that make psychological but not logical sense.

Although I think that the interest vs. status politics distinction has some value, I don't think it applies very well to Trump's support.  Although Trump has been vague on the details, he's been very clear about the general direction of his proposed economic policy.  He'd deport as many illegal immigrants as possible and protect American industry by high tariffs.  These aren't attacks on symbolic targets, but straightforward responses to the economic problems of workers without educational credentials.  If you think of the number of jobs as fixed, then if undocumented immigrants have jobs, there are fewer left for American citizens.  Similarly for international trade--people see it as taking jobs (and pay) from Americans.  Of course, virtually all economists would say this way of looking at things is wrong, but you don't have to get into things like "purity and disgust"  or anxieties over masculinity to understand its appeal.

As I've mentioned before, political elites tend to steer clear of economic nationalist policies--presumably because they've been influenced by expert opinion and don't think that they would work.  What's unusual now is that they have a prominent advocate, and that public confidence in political elites is very low.  We had a similar situation in 1992, which gave rise to Ross Perot, who had a similar economic appeal.

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