And I mean that as seriously as when I argued that Massachusetts whites were genetically superior to Alabaman whites–which is to say, not all. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
One of the more frustrating things of this election cycle has been watching upper-middle and gentry class pundits set up strawmen about racism and economic causes, one suspects to discredit any serious leftward movement on economics. The most recent entry has been the reaction to a working paper by Gallup economist Jonathan Rothwell. This has been reported as providing evidence that support for Trump has nothing to economics and is racist in origin (we’ll get to the sloppy thinking that highlights later).
But if you actually read the paper there are four key effects that account for Trump support:
1. Racial segregation. According to Rothwell (boldface mine):
People living in zip codes with disproportionately high shares of white residents are significantly and robustly more likely to view Trump favorably. A one standard deviation in the racial isoaltion index predicts a 2.9 percentage point increase in Trump’s popularity. This holds among white non-Hispanics and white-non Hispanic Republicans, though the strength of the relationship falls to 1.8 percentage points. [note there are two different models used by Rothwell; I’m not going to cover both of them unless there are significant differences between the models].
2. Distance from Mexico. Rothwell:
A standard deviation in distance to the Mexican border predicts a significant 1.1 percent percentage point increase in the likelihood of viewing Trump favorably in the full sample. This relationship is not significant among only white non-Hispanics, but interestingly, it becomes significant again for white non-Hispanic Republicans.
People living in commuting zones with higher white middle-aged mortality rates are much more likely to view Trump favorably. A one standard deviation in mortality predicts a roughly 2 percentage point increase in favorable views toward Trump. Other mesures of health were considered, including overall race-adjusted life expectancy, overall mortality rates, and white age-adjusted mortality rates. Race-adjusted life expectacncy was not significant, but the overall 2014 mortality rate was significantly positive in favor of Trump. White mortality was far more predictive, however, and middle-aged white mortality had the strongest relationship to Trump support.
In results not shown, I find that people living in CZs with higher obesity rates and higher shares of people reporting poor or fair overall health status are significantly more likely to favor Trump, when they replace the mortality rate. These variables become insignificant when the white middle-aged mortality rate is included in the model, suggesting the latter is a stronger overall indicator of poor health. The fact that the obesity rate and self-reported health status were not available for whites only may also explain why they have less explanatory power.
4. Lack of intergenerational mobility–a minor effect:
Somewhat related to health and general social well-being, a one standard deviation in the causal effect of a cz on intergenerational mobility predicts a 0.6 to 0.7 percentage point increase in favorable views toward Trump. This is a small effect relative to the others, but it is robust overall and among non-Hispanic whites. To be clear, this is not meant to suggest that with undue certaintly that growing up in a place that causes lower social mobilty causes Trump support. This analysis only identifies the correlation. In any case, it does not provide any explanatory power among non-Hispanic white Republicans.
Yes, the segregation and distance to Mexico effects are racist, but the mortality/health effects among white people aren’t due to racism. (BREAKING: DRIVE-BY PUNDITRY BASED ON NOT READING THE PAPER MISSES THE POINT).
To return to the snark from the post headline, we know that disease can have a genetic basis. Therefore, a significant fraction of Trump’s support is due to the genetic composition of certain white populations. I’m being snarky, because there is a large economic component of health outcomes. How pundits can claim this paper proves that Trump’s support is exclusively due to racism escapes me when white mortality is a strong indicator of Trump support. As Rothwell himself notes, “Yet, more subtle measures at the commuting zone level provide evidence that social well-being, measured by longevity and intergenerational mobility, is significantly lower among in the communities of Trump supporters.”
Onto the strawmen. I’ll outsources this to Carl Beijer (boldface mine):
As Jeff Spross points out (and as I’ve insisted ad nauseum), “the argument that economic distress underlies Trump’s success was never that it’s the only thing that underlies it.” …insisting that leftists are overstating the role of economics when leftists merely insist that economics plays a role is a way of making the equally untenable argument that the economy doesn’t play any role at all…
If liberals read it with an open mind, what they would notice is that Rothwell is actually describing a completely orthodox leftist theory about how the intersection of racism and classism have catalyzed the toxic politics of Donald Trump….
Superficially, this finding is at odds with what the Post identifies as the “widely discussed explanation for the success of Donald Trump”: the theory that he has won support with his promise “to curtail trade and other perceived threats to American workers, including immigrants.” Neither trade nor immigration seem directly relevant to the health and mobility problems that Rothwell credits for the rise of Trumpism.
But if we simply understand these problems as expressed in a generalized economic anxiety, the study makes perfect sense. And that’s where racism comes into play. “Trump is giving his supporters a misleading account of their ills,” Rothwell tells the Post – an account that plays on racist / nationalist bigotry. By getting Americans to blame immigrants and foreigners for their general feeling of immiseration and precarity, Trump has successfully channeled their politics away from the actual economic causes.
Obviously even this is a simplification of the role racism plays in Trump support, but nothing here is incompatible with standard left intersectional analysis. On the contrary, this is orthodox leftism to the point of utter banality: capitalists often rely on racism to get people to misunderstand their economic problems.
It’s almost like there’s an attempt to downplay certain economic policies, even those policies would help those the upper-middle and gentry class pundits claim to help (boldface mine):
In a way it’s difficult to respond to such charges because they have no concrete content. All through the campaign I asked how a federal minimum wage of fifteen dollars an hour (the current minimum wage is $7.25) is not an issue pertinent to black Americans and Latinos, who are disproportionately likely to be low-wage workers? How decommodified national health care is not a “black issue”? Or free public higher education? Or massively increased public investment? Or renegotiating existing “trade” agreements and blocking the Trans Pacific Partnership, which would further strengthen corporate power against all working people? And so on. No one has argued that black, or other nonwhite, Americans indeed would not benefit disproportionately from implementation of those items….
By contrast, what does it mean to “address racism”? No one in American politics with any aspirations to respectability openly embraces racism — not even Donald Trump. In fact, everyone, even Trump, insists that he or she opposes it.
How is it “economic reductionism” to campaign on a program that seeks to unite the broad working class around concerns shared throughout the class across race, gender, and other lines? Ironically, in American politics now we have a Left for which any reference to political economy can be castigated as “economic reductionism.”
(There are some real zingers in that interview, by the way).
Anyway, to circle back around, obviously racism plays a significant role in the rise of Il Trumpe–I’ve made that point myself for years (and, for what little it’s worth, I was claiming the Republicans were a white nationalist party long before it was cool). Unless you want to claim that the increased white mortality in pro-Trump communities is largely genetic, and that underlying genetic variatiaon is driving this pattern, health outcomes and intergenerational mobility are economic issues–and, taking the paper at face value, these seem to have an effect–meaning their solution requires economic remedies.
Aside: Even Ross Douthat gets this…
Aside II: Ryan Lizza seems to be one of the few mainstream journalists who took the time to read the paper.