The initial reaction to the Trump victory was to look at the Rust Belt states that swung the result to Trump, and as a result to talk about the economically left behind (as a result of automation or globalisation). Since then there has been a number of pieces of analysis that have appeared to show the opposite, which is that the Trump victory was all about race. This piece in The Nation by Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel is a good example.
This debate has its exact counterpart with Brexit. While a lot of focus has been on how those voting in areas left behind by automation or globalisation tended to vote Leave, others have argued that the vote is really about cultural values. For example Eric Kaufmann notes how attitudes to the death penalty are a very good predictor for voting Leave.
The evidence from studies of Brexit for a ‘left behind’ effect is essentially geographical, as I discuss here. This corresponds with Rust Belt swing states for Trump. However McElwee and McDaniel use a different measure in their analysis, designed to pick up economic anxiety (worries about job security, mortgage payments etc). They show that while measures of racial resentment or animosity (among whites) are clearly correlated with Trump’s vote, measures of economic anxiety are not, as the RHS of the figure below shows.
They conclude on the basis of this that it was race, not economics, that won the vote for Trump.
However I think the chart above suggests a rather more nuanced conclusion. As the authors note and as shown on the LHS of this figure, high economic anxiety decreased the probability of voting for the Republican Romney in 2012. That is what you should expect. For those in economic difficulty the Democrats are more likely to bring in helpful measures (like more universal health care) than the Republicans. What Trump managed to do was negate a relationship between economic anxiety and voting Democratic that we would otherwise expect to see.
You can see exactly the same phenomenon with Brexit. Brexit is essentially about economics, because at heart it is about leaving a free trade area. To achieve that free trade requires some joint decision making, but I have yet to find a Brexiter who could tell me anything of significance that had been ‘imposed by Brussels’ that they were unhappy with. In that sense, the problems highlighted by Dani Rodrik’s famous trilemma were not critical: the UK was not giving up any sovereignty that really mattered to achieve free trade.
Except, of course, for freedom of movement. Attitudes to immigration, like the death penalty, is a pretty good way of sorting social conservatives from social liberals. But immigration as an issue can do more than that. If you can convince voters that they will also be economically better off by restricting immigration, then you satisfy their economic concerns as well. This is why immigration is such an attractive issue for the political right, particularly if you can shut out all those annoying experts who keep saying immigration has economic benefits rather than costs. That is how the Leave campaign could convince half the population that they will be better of leaving the EU, when almost every economist thinks the opposite.
What the Leave campaign managed to do was make a vote about an economic issue into one about a social issue, and as a result the vote split along the social conservative/liberal axis. McElwee and McDaniel, among others, show that Trump achieved much the same. Because he promised various measures, from immigration controls to restrictions on trade, that were designed to appeal to the economically anxious and the left behind, he negated the natural tendency of those groups to vote Democrat. And as with Brexit, no economist thinks these measures will actually help anyone.
This helps explain an apparent paradox that might already have occurred to you. How can Trump’s victory be all about race, when before Trump we had the first ever black President who was re-elected for a second term? The answer was that a traditional Republican campaign was not prepared to deflect economic anxieties with building walls and erecting barriers to trade, so many in the rust belt put aside any racial animosity and voted for Obama. In contrast Trump was prepared to do this, so the racial issue dominated.
That the economic promises made by Trump and Leavers are just a sham can lead to a regressive dynamic that I examined here. How can more progressive parties actively try and stop that happening and win back control, rather than simply hoping the right are rejected by the electorate? I suspect just explaining why immigration control or trade restrictions will not work will not be enough when we have a media that avoids providing expertise. It has not worked with Brexit.
The answer may be to fight fire with fire, if the UK 2017 general election is any guide. Labour did not win that election, but in a three week period it staged an unprecedented advance to take away May’s majority. It did that by offering clear economic benefits for various groups, paid for by reversing previous corporation tax cuts and increasing taxes on the wealthy, as well as promising a substantial increase in public investment financed by borrowing. A lesson, perhaps, in how to deal with right wing parties that use populist policies to deflect economic concerns.
Postscript (01/04/2018) Here is a link to a tweet thread from Jason McDaniel commenting on this post.