Saturday, May 12, 2018

What's the alternative?

I saw one more article on culture vs. economics in the 2016 election and thought I should say more about my own position.  One popular view, which is advocated in the article by Diana Mutz that I have mentioned in previous posts, it that support for Donald Trump was not driven by economic distress.  Mutz pointed out that economic conditions were considerably better in 2016 than they had been in 2012 or 2008.   Another popular view, which is advocated in the latest article (by Dave Leonhardt) is that the lack of economic progress for less educated people over the last 40 years produced a gradual buildup of anger and frustration--Trump appealed to that feeling, and turned it against immigrants and racial minorities.  So they agree about the immediate motivations of Trump voters--racial and ethnic fears, and they agree that those fears stemmed from distress about the way things were going in the country; where they differ is on their ultimate source.

I don't agree with either of these analyses.  First, there is no evidence that people were particularly discontented with the way things were going in the country (see this post).  Second, opinions are not becoming more hostile to immigrants or racial minorities (see this post, among others).  Of course, race and ethnicity played an important role in this election, but they always do.  What was different about 2016?  I think it was the very low level of confidence in government.  That made people more interested in outsiders.  Also, there are a number of issues on which public opinion consistently diverges from policy.  An important example is immigration--people always think that more should be done to prevent illegal immigration.  Another important example is trade--people always are suspicious of trade agreements, and suspect that other countries are taking advantage of us.  However, when confidence in government is high, people are willing to give it some slack, and accept assurances that this particular trade agreement is good, or that the government is doing all that it reasonably can to stop illegal immigration.  When confidence is low, they'll credit claims that government officials are selling us out. 

I have calculated a measure of confidence in government which indicates that it fell to low levels in the early 1990s and then rebounded before falling to even lower levels in 2016.  A paper by J. Eric Oliver and Wendy Rahn calculates a measure of confidence which uses different data sources, but shows the same pattern.  While 2016 had Donald Trump, 1992 had another outsider candidate, Ross Perot.  Although he didn't have much lasting impact, Perot's electoral performance was arguably more impressive than Trump's.  He got almost 19% of the vote, which was the most by any third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.  Unlike the other third party candidates who cleared 10% (Roosevelt, Robert LaFollette, and George Wallace) Perot had no political experience and lacked a regional base.  He was not particularly charismatic, and was much less well-known than Trump when he started his race.  The most plausible explanation for his strong performance is that voters were looking for an outsider.

Although Perot appealed to the same nationalist sentiments that Trump did, he drew about evenly from all educational levels.  On that point, I think that the difference is style.  Perot was kind of eccentric, but basically conducted himself as a "respectable" candidate; Trump didn't.   

I think this account makes sense of a lot of things, but there is one aspect still puzzles me.  It's easy to understand why people lacked confidence in government in 2016, but not why they did in the early 1990s. 

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