This study that looked at Trump supporters has got quite a bit of publicity. Some have been surprised that “his supporters are less educated and more likely to work in blue collar occupations, but they earn relative high household incomes, and living in areas more exposed to trade or immigration does not increase Trump support.” They also tend to be a little older. Having looked at who voted for Brexit, I was not surprised.
The two clear explanatory variables for those who voted that the UK should leave the EU were education and age. Much has also been made of the fact that, other things equal, those from areas of the country that suffered from deindustrialisation over the last 30 years tended to vote Leave, but there was no correlation with levels or rates of change of income. Nor is there any clear correlation between Brexit support and levels of immigration, again matching this study’s findings for Trump support.
One of the most striking findings from the post-Brexit Ashcroft poll was the answer to the following question: “Overall, life in Britain today is better/worse than it was 30 years ago’. While Remain voters overwhelming chose better, a clear majority of Leave voters chose worse. If you take that question to be only about individual living standards, then there is no way half the population have had declining living standards over the last 30 years. But why should a question about ‘life in Britain today’ be interpreted in narrow economic terms?
In the case of Brexit we had a coalition between two groups who had reason to feel aggrieved at trends over the last 30 years: social conservatives within an increasingly liberal society and those living in areas that had not shared in metropolitan economic success. You could say that both groups, in different ways, had been left behind and therefore become alienated by the dominant sectors of society. (See this study by Jennings and Stoker, for example.)
The Trump study finds “more subtle measures at the commuting zone level provide evidence that social well-being, measured by longevity and intergenerational mobility, is significantly lower among in the communities of Trump supporters. The causal mechanisms linking health and intergenerational well-being to political views are not well-understood in the social science literature. It may be the case that material circumstances caused by economic shocks manifest themselves in depression, disappointment, and ill-health, and those are the true underlying causes. Or, it may be that material well-being and health are undermined by a cultural or psychological failure to adjust and adapt to a changing world.” [typos corrected]
Times of rapid economic and social change can leave large parts of society left behind, particularly if they are not equipped with the skills required to adapt. When incomes then stop growing, these groups long for things to be how they used to be (to 'make America great again'). The most obvious manifestation of change is the prospect (not actuality) of living with different people and cultures: hence 'taking back control' over immigration in the UK and building a wall in the US. What the Brexit vote showed is that when this fear of the new is combined with a protest over relative economic deprivation it can become a dangerous political force. For the US we can just hope that to be forewarned is to be forearmed.