A Cute Joke Gone Too Far

By James Kwak

For weeks now, Vox columnist Matt Yglesias has been mocking the idea that “economic anxiety” is a substantial factor in the Rise of Trump. Here’s one of dozens of examples:

It’s understandable where this particularly highbrow putdown (also used by other twitterers) came from. Belittling the economic anxiety explanation has two understandable if not entirely pure motivations. One is the idea that chalking up Trump’s success to economic factors minimizes the central role of racism in his campaign; pointing out other reasons people might have for voting Trump distracts from the main issue or can even be seen (in an illogical sort of way) as an apology for Trump’s racism. The second motivation is that, since Hillary Clinton decided to run on the poorly worded “America is already great” theme, talking about economic insecurity only plays into the hands of the enemy; instead, we should just pretend everything is hunky-dory. (Yglesias does not share this second motivation.) But to many people, including me, it seems bizarre to insist that economic anxiety has nothing to do with Trump’s success, and much simpler to simply acknowledge that some of his voters are racists, some are worried about their economic prospects, and some are both.

Today, instead of letting the by-now-stale joke simply fade away, Yglesias decided to double down with a column arguing that Trump is all about “white grievance politics,” not economic anxiety.

Yglesias’s first point is this:

not only is white racial resentment clearly a statistical correlate of support for Donald Trump, it’s a perfectly good reason to support Donald Trump.

(He uses “good” to mean reasonable given your perceptions of the world, not morally good.) That’s completely true.

Then he goes on to claim that “adding an economic anxiety factor to your account doesn’t actually help to explain anything.” But here his arguments don’t make any sense. Here’s the first one:

Trump’s supporters, for example, are considerably whiter and considerably older than the American population at large. If the economic problems of the past decade had been unusually hard on the white and the old, then an economics-focused explanation could be valuable. In reality, things have been rougher on nonwhites and rougher on younger cohorts.

To see how silly this argument is, consider the racial dimension. The fact that Trump has less support among nonwhites is explained by the fact that he is a Republican and a racist. Let’s say there is such a thing as economic anxiety, and it makes you more likely to be a Trump supporter. African-Americans are somewhat more likely to have economic anxiety, so more of them should vote Trump, all other things being equal. That’s Yglesias’s point. But other things aren’t equal; being African-American makes you much, much less likely to be a Trump supporter for other reasons (party, racism). Add those factors together, and voilà! Trump has better numbers among whites than among African-Americans. This is entirely consistent with the economic anxiety interpretation. (Conceptually, Yglesias is using race as an instrument for economic anxiety when the dependent variable is Trump support. This only works if race has no effect on Trump support other than via economic anxiety.)

The age dimension behaves the same way, just less obviously. Young people skew liberal and non-racist compared to old people. (For the record, I’m middle-aged.) So they will support Trump at lower rates than old people, even though they are poorer.

Besides, while it is true that Trump runs better among whites than blacks, the question should be: relative to what? I don’t place a lot of faith in poll breakouts (low sample sizes), but it’s not clear he’s doing better among whites (or old people) than Mitt Romney did in 2012, and he may be doing considerably worse. That comparison is complicated by the fact that Barack Obama is himself African-American. But if anything, the poll data (which, again, I am not convinced by) tend to undermine the idea that this is an election about white privilege.

Wait—I just reread the column, and that was the only actual argument against the economic anxiety explanation. Most of the rest is Yglesias acknowledging that people do have real economic grievances.

Here’s a half-argument, near the end:

But when Trump voters say they’re upset about needing to press one for English, mad that Black Lives Matter protesters are slandering police officers, and worried that Muslim and/or Mexican immigrants are going to murder their children, it’s perverse to interpret them as secretly hankering for a refundable child care tax credit.

First of all, do we know what proportion of Trump voters are worried that brown people are going to murder their children? This doesn’t rebut the idea that different people vote Trump for different reasons. It’s possible that there are people supporting Trump because they are worried about the cost of child care.

Second, there are many reasons to think that insecurity, economic or otherwise, makes people more receptive to racial appeals. See, for example, the relative support for Hitler among small businesspeople and industrial workers. (I believe that Godwin’s Law has been suspended until November 8, and perhaps—though hopefully not—beyond.)

There is a hint of another argument here:

If Clinton becomes president and has the opportunity to enact her agenda of higher minimum wages, expanded Social Security benefits, expanded Medicaid eligibility, subsidized child care and college tuition, and$275 billion in new infrastructure spending, a huge share of the benefits will flow to economically struggling white people — and rightly so.

The argument would be that since Hillary Clinton’s policies are more likely to actually help poor people than Trump’s, it doesn’t make sense that economically anxious people would support Trump. But this argument is so silly that I don’t think the very smart Matt Yglesias is making it, because it assumes that people know and vote their economic interests. Ronald Reagan disproved that, and I’m sure he wasn’t the first one.

The simple economic anxiety argument goes like this: Many Americans face real economic insecurity—stagnant real wages, higher health care costs, lower homeownership rate, “gig economy,” low workforce participation rate, etc. They think “the system”—whatever they mean by that—isn’t working for them. Hillary Clinton represents “the system” much more than Donald Trump, particularly since she’s claiming most of the legacy of Barack Obama. So they vote Trump. And to repeat: The reason white people support Trump at much higher rates than black people, even though white people are richer than black people, is that Trump is a racist. Is that so hard to understand?

It was a clever joke. But it’s time to move on.

10 thoughts on “A Cute Joke Gone Too Far

  1. The Gallup polls suggesting they are more worried about opportunities for their children and dissatisfaction with the status quo may have something to do with it. In that, maybe they believe Hillary isn’t proposing or able to deliver enough, yet the more backing and money Donald needs the more conventional he becomes, huge tax cuts, deregulation, second amendment, judicial appointments.

  2. It’s all so stupid. If I argue Trump supporters have economic uncertainty doesn’t mean I think they aren’t racist. I think they are irrationally reacting to a rational stressor. Wasn’t Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” about this writ large? Does Yglesias dispute the existence of people who think that tolerance of gays is causing god to punish the US with terrorist attacks? I think the belief is ridiculous, but the Westboro Baptist church does actually exist.

  3. Wow – psychobabble dominates as the ultimate red herring – seems “racism” still works to take the focus off BANKSTERS who systematically commit crimes against humanity every day.

    They call it math – “More misery for others = More $$$$ for ME ME ME

    How can LAWYERS ignore the TRUTH that “economic anxiety” is the most normal reaction in the human species to crimes committed against the species – red, white, blues green orange yellow and purple with pink polka dots…

    Innocent until proven guilty….?

    from wiki, “….Crimes against humanity are certain acts that are deliberately committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population or an identifiable part of a population. The first prosecution for crimes against humanity took place at the Nuremberg Trials. Crimes against humanity have since been prosecuted by other international courts – such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court, as well as in domestic prosecutions. The law of crimes against humanity has primarily developed through the evolution of customary international law. Crimes against humanity are not codified in an international convention, although there is currently an international effort to establish such a treaty, led by the Crimes Against Humanity Initiative.

    Unlike war crimes, crimes against humanity can be committed during peace or war.[1] They are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy (although the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy) or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority. Murder, massacres, dehumanization, extermination, human experimentation, extrajudicial punishments, death squads, forced disappearances, military use of children, kidnappings, unjust imprisonment, slavery, cannibalism, torture, rape, and political or racial repression may reach the threshold of crimes against humanity if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice.”

    Nice try – “F” for FAIL

    “Racist” my arse….

  4. I enjoy seeing how politics cause smart people to say stupid things. In this article for example, a two-fer of such stupidity is provided when 2 liberals are each exposed by the same bias but each with a different opinion of their common opposition’s appeal.

    In the first example of stupidity there is the “economic anxiety factor”. This coming from ‘who knows where’. Perhaps this gem of foolishness simply comes from taking too many statistics…too generally. I would be willing to bet however, that a sizeable percentage of Trump’s supporters have a higher net worth than Mr. Iglesias does. But of course it is always comforting to believe that those who you don’t agree with are of a lower quality.

    And as for the other theory, well, claims of racism are the Democrats most inspiring way to get their constituency to vote. So this theory does at least have a desired influence.

    What in fact set Trump apart though, was his breaking away from the entire political establishment on the issue of illegal immigration. It was not however simply his position on illegal immigration that did it, but instead that he expressed a willingness to do what a great many citizens believe to be right, and apolitical.

    There is no other issue which has exposed just how disengenuos our political discourse has become…than that which relates to illegal immigration. Statements such as “it would be impossible to deport 11 million people”, and so on. When it is so obvious that our laws which punish employers, if enforced, would clearly lead to most of the illegals leaving voluntarily, once the jobs were no longer available.

    The thing that most politicians and media types don’t understand is that working whites know full well that the Hispanic vote became more important than the truth. So, Trump initially came off as a much needed change. Unfortunately though, even though the country drastically needs such a change, Trump is clearly ‘not fit’, as is so often said of late.

    So… the status quo is safe for now.

  5. A more important concern, related hereto, is the question of just how far is it reasonable to go with the Democrats strategy of making racism the main driving force of their efforts. Take for example President Obama’s recent comments at a press conference where he used disingenuous stats to support a claim that blacks are treated unfairly by the legal system. His contention including the fact that blacks serve longer sentences for the same crimes, which is true; But… the stats lack any consideration of the very pertinent fact that blacks typically have longer criminal histories than whites, which along with the nature of their crimes (another ignored variable), carry very considerable weight when determining sentences. So, whether the president intended to or not, he gave support to those who were already angry during a time that was already unusually violent. And he clearly did so using what seems to come directly out of a democrat play book. It was no surprise to me then for the recent violence in Milwaukee to follow what seems to be a warranted shooting, or at least a shooting that was less unnecessary than some of the others. In any case, the politics on both sides has gotten dangerous.

    So maybe Americans should forget about Trump for awhile, especially now that it seems obvious that he needs no help in defeating himself, and have instead a lengthy conversation about how our political divisions serve the same old masters who have long benefitted from the divide in the working-class along racial lines. In other words, how sensible is it to divide our population into ‘blocs’ which are racially categorized, and then used for strategic purposes?

  6. James,
    Thanks for this–stimulating and smart! While I agree Yglesias is being too glib (while also, in his own post, acknowledging the other side’s case for economic grievance), isn’t another way to look at this, one that splits the difference between yours and Matt’s points of view, the following: the key variable here is not “racism” or “anti-racism,” but actually an individual’s passive tolerance of racism amid other values and interests. Because there are poor white people who are in a rough place relative to their expectations but aren’t really countenancing the ugly aspects of Trump that are inextricable from his persona and enunciated program. Those are the telling individuals that give lie to the notion that “economic insecurity” is somehow more sociologically fundamental than racist cultural identity.

  7. Just for disclosure, I am 59 years old, “white” at a glance (many Americans’ ancestries aren’t that simple), and tend to vote Green Party. I understand why economists and pundits must simplify the issues, but I believe the question here is not whether Americans have economic anxiety but who or how they want to address it. I realize this is news to younger people, but I began to leave the Democratic Party when I realized that the Bill Clinton administration was changing the way statistics were counted so that President Clinton could claim the economy had improved. Regardless of what one or another expert claims, most of us have economic anxiety. If we want someone to blame for that, if we’d like to return to a society we think we remember that favored us by race and/or gender, if we think leading means attacking, then we probably vote Trump, or intend to do so. If we favor reining in Wall Street and large corporations, if we think consumers can only spend if they have money, if we’d prefer to treat everybody decently, we’re out of luck. However, Secretary Clinton has begun to tell us she’ll work for that. Her money trail and work record make that very hard to believe, but people want very hard to believe.

  8. “One man’s fortune is another man’s misfortune”

    That’s the “Hispanic” outlook on their “rise” to the “middle class” at the expense of the “white man” – except the algorithm for their harvesting is set for the moment the middle class ceases to exist…which is right after the “election”…that and stuff like their is no gov. plan for when the water supply disappears in LA, CA – might be part of the reason their tribe migrated south over and over again…? Ran outta water…?

    Every segment of the population categorized by a mono-demographic (black, gay, hispanic, female, etc.) is participating in applying propaganda technology to eliminate the genetically normal “good” people, first, in their mono-demo. Some do it knowingly – the “agent provocateur” (which Obama can be fairly chastised for playing that role as a lame duck pres), but most are from the all-mouth, no REAL accomplishment, “greed is good” school. It is a reverse gene pool cleanse…get rid of the all the non-psychos.

    And yes, the so called “black” community in USA has had that political and economic “experiment” (violent gang leaders thrive financially) applied to it since about the 1960s by CIA et al, but wasn’t a “black” Prez supposed to finally lead them all to the “Promised Land”?

    The specie’s scientific TRUTH is still the truth – every human being is completely unique in time and space. No “ism” that does not organize itself around protecting the INDIVIDUAL – their labor, their dignity, their right to enjoy the fruits of their own honest labor (ie, protection against PREDATORS) is REAL. It is all criminal-ISM – CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY.

    The other is the man to land ratio. Set it, enforce it and at least 80% of the problems disappear – especially the problems (ie. refugees and immigration) caused by the cockroach plan – overtake the white man by breeding more babies than them…

    If I was to succumb to the delusions of grandeur that global leadership, so self-called, is currently indulging in – my “experiment” would be to abandon, immediately, the current USA civilization to the vocal/political mono-groups that have contributed nothing to its creation in the first place and lets see what happens. Us whiteys keep saying “wrong path”, but no one is listening. Maybe Puttin’ on the Ritz should gather us all up In Russia and help us build that proof that the destiny of mankind lies with those peoples who never embraced “slavery” as a means to creating their own individual destiny.

    Trump will stay outta my face. Hillary et al (you know she’s the puppet) – well, it will only get worse – they will double down on getting in my face only to hurt me for their puppet masters…

  9. “Second, there are many reasons to think that insecurity, economic or otherwise, makes people more receptive to racial appeals. See, for example, the relative support for Hitler among small businesspeople and industrial workers.”

    Seems obvious, but I think these dynamics are bidirectional. For instance: didn’t the British introduce tribal politics in their colonies in order to divide native inhabitants along lines of ancestory so they wouldn’t easily organise along lines of social-economic inequality?

    I think there’s a tendency to emphasize non-class dividing lines just to trouble our vision of the real divide; stories of racial or e.g. intergenerational conflict intended to blind us from the true conflict we should be focussed on.

    Pure Macchiavellian logic.

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