Two general election myths
Once an idea gets purchase in the popular imagination, it becomes very difficult to dislodge it. If the idea is backed by emotion and narrative resonance, all the statistics and probabilistic argumentation you can muster will have little effect. This is particularly the case when the stakes are high, as they were in the 2016 election. We should therefore expect theories about Trump’s success in the election to suffer from a kind of narrative capture — an inability to look beyond the stories to see clearly what the numbers are telling us.
Sometimes, time gives us the emotional distance we need to reassess our prejudices. But right now emotional distance is hard to come by; the daily outrages emanating from the White House continue to salt old wounds. Getting the proper distance from our favored narratives is therefore a difficult task.
Two narratives of interest continue to circulate in our intellectual economy. The first is that Trump won the general election because of rich voters. The second is that Trump won the general election because of white, working class voters. Both narratives confirm a lot of priors. Both are probably false.
Consider first the idea that Trump won because of the influence of plutocrats and billionaires. Here’s Noah Berlatsky of the New Republic:
Many on the left use “liberal elites” as a substitute for “wealthy,” of course, but it’s a confusing substitute, not least because rich people tend to be more conservative and to vote Republican, as they did in the last election. Meanwhile, bloated plutocrats like Trump, the Koch brothers, the Bushes, Carl Icahn, and Paul Ryan embrace openly regressive policies. And yet, pundits across the political spectrum hardly ever inveigh against the “conservative elite.”
As proof, Berlatsky links to this article in the Guardian, whose author reminds us that voters who made less than $50,000 per year backed Clinton, while voters who made more than $50,000 per year backed Trump.
But drawing the line at $50,000 is highly misleading. A quick look at some exit polls does indicate that Clinton outperformed Trump among voters who made less than $50,000 per year. Voters who made $50,000 to $100,000 per year went for Trump. However, among voters who made more than $100,000 per year, Trump’s advantage was marginal, if not non-existent. The New York Times exit poll had Trump slightly ahead of Clinton with voters who made over $100,000, while the CNN exit poll had them dead even.
Trump’s advantage came primarily with voters who made $50,000 to $100,000 per year. His advantage was not enormous (%50 to %46 according to the NYT, %49 to %46 according to CNN), but he was helped by two factors: first, the electoral college system increases the importance of the rural vote and second, most people who voted made $50,000 to $100,000 per year. Trump took a majority of voters from the economic bloc responsible for producing the most voters, and this was sufficient to propel him to victory.
Another popular narrative is that Trump won the general election because of his heavy support among members of the “white working class.” This idea has entered into our public consciousness via books like Hillbilly Elegy and the photo journalism of Chris Arnade. Many on the left now suggest that Democrats ought to focus on getting their message out to white working class voters. No one has been more vocal on this front than Bernie Sanders.
I already wrote a long, rambling piece about why I think this narrative is misleading. Here is a basic summary of my argument. Recall that Trump lost among people making less than $50,000 per year. That means that working people in low paying service and labor jobs did not, as a group, vote for Trump. To figure out the demographics of Trump’s voters, we need to examine the voters making $50,000 to $100,000 per year, as that is the group that won him the election.
A quick glance at the bureau of labor statistics indicates that work in traditionally blue collar fields is dwarfed by employment in professional services, health care and state government services. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that a rising number of blue collar jobs are held by Latinos, who did not vote for Trump in large numbers. The majority of voters without a college degree work in service or white collar jobs. About half of all Rust Belt voters who voted for Obama stayed home or voted third party.
Were you to pick out a random person making $50,000 to $100,000 per year, that person would likely not be a white person working a blue collar job. You would be much more likely to pick out a police officer, manager, state government worker, small business owner, teacher, nurse, etc. Therefore, until provided with more fine grained polling data about employment and Trump’s general election voters, I see no reason to assume that Trump’s voters were disproportionately drawn from the white working class.
I’m willing to believe that the white working class played a role in swinging the Republican primary to Trump. But Trump received 50 million more votes in the general election than in the primary. That number cannot be explained by appeal to white working class voters alone. As best I can see, Trump had a great deal of success with older and less educated voters. But I’m not sure how we get from older and less educated to blue collar or working class— not that long ago one could find good employment in a variety of stable, well paying fields without a college degree.
Trump won largely because of his support among older, white members of the middle class who lack a college degree. Some are certainly members of the “working class,” but many, if not most, are not.
I too feel sympathy when I read human interest stories about anomie and suffering in blue collar Appalachia. I also get upset when the upper-middle and wealthy classes use politics to ruthlessly promote their own interests. But Trump’s success is largely underdetermined by the influence of these groups. Any coherent story of Trump’s victory requires us to understand how and why his message resonated with middle class voters, whether it was due to racism, as the left-wing wonk theory suggests, or (as I have argued elsewhere) because Trump was able to appeal to a plurality of parochial, middle-class interests.