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11/4/19

Yet another study on economic factors driving Trump voters

Just getting around to an important study on the factors behind political alignment published in Politics & Society a few months ago. The paper, by Herbert Kitschelt and Philipp Rehm, discusses the roles played by income and education among white voters.

At the risk of oversimplification, the model they develop looks something like this:


Distinct voting tendencies among each of these groups over the past sixty years provides compelling evidence that there may be something to these models. High-income / low-education voters, for example, have tended to veer right since around 1970; but low-income / high-low education voters have tended to veer left until quite recently.


Why does this matter?

This finding matters because it is yet another study affirming the role of class in our politics - and discrediting arguments to the contrary. Consider for example this discussion of the 2018 elections by Zack Beauchamp in Vox:
Sides et al. argue [that]..."by 2015, white voters who had a high school degree or less were 24 percentage points more Republican than Democratic (57%-33%)." 
This isn’t a class divide in the traditional sense; there are plenty of relatively high-income whites without college degrees (think of a successful, self-employed plumber). Rather, the “diploma gap” tracked measures of racism and racial resentment more than anything else.
Here, Beauchamp tries to argue that class isn't relevant by insisting that even "high-income whites without college degrees" support the GOP; thus, the so-called "diploma gap" just measures "racism...more than anything else." 

But if we accept Kitschelt and Rehm's analysis, we find uneducated white voters supported the GOP for very different reasons. Those who were well-off but threatened with precarity because of their lack of education had conflicting class interests, so their reactionary views on identity proved decisive. For the uneducated poor, meanwhile, what proved decisive was their "perception of Trump’s centrist stances on economic issues". If they had viewed him as an economic conservative, this would have vetoed any temptation to swing right because of factors like racial animus; but because they viewed him as a moderate who would protect various welfare programs, they gave free rein to reactionary views on identity. A candidate they viewed as an austerity candidate would have lost those votes.

Note, incidentally, that even the factor we have called "education" is not particularly distinct from questions of class. One of the main role that education plays in determining one's politics has to do with its effect on mobility: educated voters tend to be upwardly mobile and economically secure, uneducated voters tend to be downwardly mobile and economically insecure, and these are just as relevant to one's politics as income is. Education is also, of course, related to what the authors call "libertarian...non-economic" views - that is, egalitarian views on identity; but even this, we know, is difficult to untangle from matters of class.