Last week I had a post on the idea that Donald Trump's gains among "working-class" (less educated) white voters were because of their anxiety about maintaining social dominance. I mentioned that I wasn't convinced by the paper by Diana Mutz that has been cited in support of this claim, but I didn't go into detail. Yesterday I saw a piece by Andrew Cherlin in the New York Times, which said that "these conclusions, faithful as they may be to the survey data that underlie them, exemplify a misguided debate about whether culture or economics was the driving force in Mr. Trump’s win." I agree that the debate is misguided--I've had a number of posts arguing that public opinion about economics includes a large dose of moral considerations. However, I don't agree that the conclusions about social dominance are faithful to the survey data.
Mutz had a panel survey--the same people were asked the same questions in 2012 and 2016. She found that "switches" (Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016 or Romney in 2012 and Clinton in 2016) could be explained by position on three issues: free trade, deportation vs. path to citizenship, and view of China as a threat or economic opportunity. For each one, people were asked what they thought the position of the Democratic and Republican candidate was, as well as about their own position.
Between 2012 and 2016, voters moved away from support for free trade and towards support for a path to citizenship. The first shift helped Trump, while the second helped Clinton. The overall effects of those two shifts almost exactly offset each other. On China, there was no change in average public opinion, but the perceived position of the Republican candidate moved in the direction of average public opinion. That is, Trump took the popular position on China, which helped him.
That's the data--now on to the interpretation. Mutz says that anxiety about social dominance should make people turn against "outsiders"--that is, against trade, against illegal immigrants, and against China. People did turn against trade agreements, but became more sympathetic to illegal immigrants and didn't change on China. So in terms of the hypothesis, one change was in the expected direction, one was in the "wrong" direction, and one didn't change. In other words, what actually happened didn't match what should have happened if people were defending social dominance.
What's my interpretation? Social scientists are always attracted to the idea of having an interpretation that ties different things together, but I don't think that's possible here. For immigration, the move continues a long-term shift towards more "liberal" views (the opposite of what the social dominance hypothesis predicts). For trade, I think it was a short-term change resulting from the combination of criticism from Trump and Bernie Sanders, and the lack of a strong defense from Clinton. And on China, there's an enduring gap between public opinion, which is tends to be sympathetic towards "America First" positions, and elite opinion, which tends to be more internationalist. Trump seized an opportunity that previous candidates (except Ross Perot) had ignored.