Why are these explanations so popular?

January 11, 2018

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

David Weakliem writes:

According to exit polls, Donald Trump got 67% of the vote among whites without a college degree in 2016, which may be the best-ever performance by a Republican (Reagan got 66% of that group in 1984).

Weakliem first rejects one possibility that’s been going around:

One popular idea is that he cared about them, or at least gave them the impression that he cared. The popularity of this account has puzzled me, because it’s not even superficially plausible. Every other presidential candidate I can remember tried to show empathy by talking about people they had met on the campaign trail, or tough times they had encountered in their past, or how their parents taught them to treat everyone equally. Trump didn’t do any of that—he boasted about how smart and how rich he was.

And, indeed, Weakliem shows data to shoot down the “he cares” explanation.

Here’s another possibility:

A variant is that Democrats drove “working class” voters away by showing contempt for them. This is more plausible, but raises the question of whether Democrats showed that much more contempt in 2016 than in 2012, 2008, 2004, etc. That seems like a hard case to make—at any rate, I haven’t heard anyone try to make it.

Weakliem then turns to the meta-question: not why did Trump do so well among less-educated white voters, but why are so many pundits pushing the “treating everyone with dignity” story? Here’s Weakliem:

So why are these explanations so popular? My hypothesis is that it’s because American society has become a lot more socially egalitarian over the last 60 years or so. Educated people don’t want to be thought of as snobs or elitists, and less educated people are less likely to think they should “improve themselves” by emulating the middle class. At one time, you could say that Democrats thought of themselves as the party of the common people, and Republicans thought of themselves as the party of successful people. Now both parties think of themselves as the party of the common people, plus the fraction of the elites who care about or understand the common people. The result is that people are attracted to an explanation that is more flattering to the “working class.”

This reminds me of something we wrote in Red State Blue State:

The Republican Party’s long-standing pro-business philosophy has a natural enduring appeal to higher-income voters. In contrast, it is a surprise when rich people vote for Democrats, suggesting that the party may have departed from its traditional populism. Conservative pundits hit the Democratic Party for losing relevance and authenticity, while liberals slam the Democrats for selling out. For example, Thomas Edsall quoted labor leader Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, saying that the perception of Democrats as “Volvo-driving, latte-drinking, Chardonnay-sipping, Northeast, Harvard- and Yale-educated liberals is the reality. That is who people see as leading the Democratic Party. There’s no authenticity; they don’t look like them. People are not voting against their interests; they’re looking for someone to represent their interests.” If Republicans are led by Benz-driving, golf-playing, Texas, Harvard- and Yale-educated conservatives, this is not such a problem because, in some sense, the Republicans never really claim to be in favor of complete equality.

Just as politicians would like the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey or Bruce Springsteen, it also seems desirable in our democracy to have the support of the so-called waitress moms and NASCAR dads—not just for the direct benefits of their votes but also because they signal a party’s broad appeal. In recent years, prestige votes for Democrats have included teachers and nurses; Republicans have won the prestige votes of farmers and many in the armed services.

Rich people are an anti-prestige vote: just as politicians generally don’t seek out the endorsement of, for example, Barbra Streisand or Ted Nugent (except in venues where these names are respected), they also don’t want to be associated with obnoxious yuppies or smug suburbanites in gated communities. The parties want the money of these people—in fact, in their leadership, both parties to some extent are these people—and they’ll take their votes, but they don’t necessarily want to make a big deal about it.

P.S. Weakliem also writes of “the recollections of people like Charles Murray (Coming Apart) and Robert Putnam (Our Kids) about how there used to be less social distance between classes. I think that may be because they both grew up in small towns in the Midwest. If you read something like E. Digby Baltzell’s The Protestant Establishment, you get a very different picture of status differences in America.”

I agree. Murray and Putnam have some useful things to say, and they’ve said some more debatable things too, but in any case they have a particular perspective which does not tell the whole story of America, or even of white male America.

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