Trump voters were motivated by fear of losing their status

IN THE newly revived “Roseanne”, a popular sitcom about a white blue-collar family in the Midwest, the main character, Roseanne Connor, explains to her leftie sister why she voted for President Donald Trump. “He talks about jobs, Jackie”, she says. By putting these words in the mouth of the matriarch, the creators of “Roseanne” reflected the widely held assumption that blue-collar voters, especially in the rustbelt in the Midwest and north-east, voted for Mr Trump because they felt poor and feared they would get poorer. The reality seems to be more nuanced.

On April 23rd the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study suggesting that white, Christian and mostly male voters turned to Mr Trump because they felt that their dominant status was at risk, not because they felt left behind economically. Diana Mutz, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, used a representative group of around 1,200 voters polled on the same wide-ranging set of questions in October 2012, just before the re-election of President Barack Obama, and in October 2016, just before Mr Trump’s victory. She found that change in financial wellbeing had little impact on how those surveyed voted. Instead, they flocked to Mr Trump because of the way he talked about threats to America’s global dominance from China and other countries, and because they feared their way of life was threatened by increasing racial and ethnic diversity.

Those who argue that voters let their wallet determine their choice of candidate for the presidency argue that voters reward the party that has benefited them financially and punish the party that has not. America’s badly battered rustbelt was crucial for Mr Trump’s victory, contributing to the widespread idea that economic hardship was largely responsible for Mr Trump’s success. This explanation has been embraced by those on both the left and right, who have asserted that Hillary Clinton lost the election because she did not campaign enough in the Midwest and ignored the working class.

Polling data show that whites without a college degree were indeed Mr Trump’s staunchest supporters, prompting him to explain “I love the poorly educated!” while campaigning in Nevada. Yet according to Ms Mutz, members of this demographic favour Mr Trump because they felt their old dominance was threatened, and pined for a time when America’s dominance was indisputable—economically, militarily, culturally and politically.

Ms Mutz notes two other reasons why this demographic was not guided by financial considerations in its vote for Mr Trump. One is that the economy, and manufacturing especially, was improving before the election in 2016. Joblessness was low. Many factories in the Midwest complained about being unable to find enough skilled workers. Second, studies suggest that voters’ own finances rarely determine their choice at the ballot box. A survey by the National Opinion Research Centre at the University of Chicago in 2016 found that worries about pensions, education and health care barely played a role in voters’ decisions to back Mr Trump.

Ms Mutz says experimental research suggests that multiculturalism can be experienced by whites in America as a form of status threat. It produces negative attitudes towards outsiders of all kinds and greater identification with the Republican Party and especially the Tea Party. Her findings suggest that the Democratic Party has a big challenge. It is easier to remedy economic anxieties because they are tangible. Cultural angst is more insidious. Calming the worries of those who feel frustrated, marginalised and underappreciated will be the biggest challenge for proponents of free trade and ethnic and racial diversity. They have to contend with the fact that rational arguments may fail to persuade those who are guided by their gut.

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