Monday, December 12, 2016

History repeats itself

A number of people have remarked on parallels between Donald Trump and Senator Joe McCarthy (e. g. this post from Andrew Gelman in June).  In light of the election results, there's another one:  they both got more support among less educated people.  In November, 1954, a NORC survey asked "all things considered, would you say you think favorably of Senator McCarthy, or unfavorably."  The breakdown was:

                 Favorably   Unfavorably   DK
Not HS Grad        46%         29%         25%
HS Grad            47%         34%         19%
Some College       43%         47%         10%
College Grad       36%         58%          6%

TOTAL               45%        35%         21%

There were class differences as well; if you define class by the occupation of the main wage earner, the breakdown is:

White collar         42%       43%       15%
Blue collar          48%       30%       22% 
Farm                 43%       26%       31%

but they were mostly due to education--net of education, the only clear difference is between professionals and all other occupations.

At the time of this survey, McCarthy was near the end of his run.  A Senate resolution to censure him had been proposed in July, and a bipartisan committee "whose members were notable for their impeccable reputations and legal expertise" had been appointed to investigate.  The gave their report at the end of September, and unanimously recommended censure.  The Senate reconvened on November 8 to hear the case, and on December 2 passed a motion of censure by 67-22, with about half of the Republicans (who had a majority in the Senate) voting in favor.  Another NORC survey in January 1955 asked the same question.  The results were 39% favorably, 42% unfavorably, and 29 didn't know:  a definite shift against McCarthy, but he still had substantial popular support.  Among people who had not graduated from high school, who were the largest group at the time, favorable views outnumbered unfavorable ones.

This reminded me of a post-election commentary by Luigi Zingales.  He compared Trump to Silvio Berlusconi, and said that "Mr. Berlusconi was able to govern Italy for as long as he did mostly thanks to the incompetence of his opposition. It was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity" and said that the Clinton campaign had made the same mistake.  A general statement that personal attacks increase a candidate's popularity is clearly false, but I think there's a core of truth here:  attacks for violating norms of civility, good taste, or the dignity of the office are not very effective among less educated people, who are are less likely to know or care what the norms are, or to recognize unsavory historical echoes (e. g., "America First").  Trump provided many opportunities for attacks on these grounds (as had Berlusconi and McCarthy);  as a result, the Democrats neglected angles that might have been more effective.

Zingales also said that "Hillary Clinton was so focused on explaining how bad Mr. Trump was that she too often didn’t promote her own ideas, to make the positive case for voting for her."  I don't think that she needed to do that much to promote her ideas--the principles of increasing regulation of business and government programs intended to help the middle class and the poor are already familiar.  What she didn't do was respond to his attacks on trade agreements and his claims that there was no border security.  Those were issues that previous Republican presidential candidates had not pushed, and they appealed to many voters.  Trump gave voters some novel and plausible reasons to vote for him; Clinton countered with arguments that were effective with only some of the voters--more educated and sophisticated ones.  I think that combination explains why Trump did better than previous Republican nominees among less educated voters.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]


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