Technobrats And Monocausality

Before we get to the meat of the post, Steve Randy Waldman comes up with a humdinger of a quote, one I think I’ll be using often:

Vox is a wonderful publication along many dimensions. One of its virtues is that it provides constant exercises in how a few statistics or credentialed quotes combined with ones own authoritative voice can mislead bright writers into thinking they know the one scientific truth of things.

Ouch. But let’s move to the topic at hand (boldface mine):

Politics is not about individuals. It is about communities and communal identities. Osama Bin Laden was a wealthy man, the men who brought down the twin towers were educated people who would have been able to live and prosper in Western countries. Surely, then, such acts of terrorism have nothing to do with the poverty and pathologies and resentments of Middle Eastern countries, since the individuals who perpetrate terrorism are not primarily the poor or those most directly affected by those pathologies? Terrorists must just be motivated by terrorism, that is the only explanation. I hope that the shallowness of this argument is self-evident, dear reader.

Double ouch. By the way, would anyone ascribe the rise of the fascist Golden Dawn Party in Greece* to ‘Fascists Are Gonna Fascist?’ Anyway, now let’s move to the topic at hand:

Matthews and several of his peers at Vox have invested themselves in a narrative that says the sophisticated, carefully evidenced take on the Trump phenomenon is that it’s all racism, nothing else matters. Now, it is obvious that racism and nativism and neofascism are an important and particularly disturbing aspect of the Trump phenomenon, that people who overtly identify as racist or neo-Nazi have found a home in a tent that Donald Trump has made comfortable for them. But it is also obvious that, within the Republican Party, Trump’s support comes disproportionately from troubled communities, from places that have been left behind economically, that struggle with unusual rates of opiate addiction, low educational achievement, and other social vices. If you insist on focusing on individuals, you may miss the connection, because the worst off within communities — actual chronic discouraged workers, addicts — are likely to express no opinion to the degree they can be polled at all. Trump primary voters are white Republicans who vote, automatically a more affluent baseline than the white voters generally. At the community level, patterns are clear. (See this too.) Of course, it could still all be racism, because within white communities, measures of social and economic dysfunction are likely correlated with measures you could associate with racism… Explanations have consequences, not just for the people we are imposing them upon, but for our polity as a whole. I don’t get involved in these arguments to express some high-minded empathy for Trump voters, but because I think that monocausally attributing a broad political movement to racism when it has other plausible antecedents does real harm.

There’s a lot more at Waldman’s post, but that damn Rothwell paper the technobrat pundit set keeps citing as evidence has been badly misinterpreted:

Yes, the segregation and distance to Mexico effects are racist, but the mortality/health effects among white people aren’t due to racism….

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.”

…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.

As Waldman put it, “it is also obvious that, within the Republican Party, Trump’s support comes disproportionately from troubled communities, from places that have been left behind economically.” And there will be consequences to misidentifying the problem:

But many not-unusually-racist “white” people who, fairly or not, perceive Clinton as an icon of a corruption, now see Trump as the only game in town. It is tempting, among those of us who would be appalled by a Trump victory, to try to sway undecided voters by equating voting for Trump with racism full-stop. That’s a bad idea. If it becomes the mainstream view that Trump voters are simply racists, it leaves those who are already committed, those who are unwilling to abandon Trump or to stomach Clinton, little choice but to own what they’ve been accused of. Racist is the new queer. The same daring, transgressional psychology that, for gay people, converted an insult into a durable token of identity may persuade a mass of people who otherwise would not have challenged the social taboo surrounding racism to accept the epithet with defiant equanimity or even to embrace it. The assertion that Trump’s supporters are all racists has, I think, become partially self-fulfilling. In and of itself, that will make America’s already deeply ugly racial politics uglier. It will help justify the further pathologization of the emerging white underclass while doing nothing at all to help communities of color except, conveniently for some, to set the groups at one another’s throats so they cannot make common cause. It will become yet another excuse for beneficiaries of economic stratification to blame its victims. Things were bad before this election. They are worse now, and we should be very careful about how we carry this experience forward.

Though I suppose the writers and shareholders at Vox will come out alright regardless…

*This isn’t hyperbole: the minister of the interior is nicknamed “The Hammer.” Why? Because he used to beat his political opponents with a fucking hammer.

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One Response to Technobrats And Monocausality

  1. Rob in CT says:

    The Waldman piece attracted a couple of pro-Trump commenters who did their level best to prove the “technobrats” at Vox right.

    Regarding his analogy to the 9/11 attackers, my recollection (admittedly a little hazy now, 15 years on) was that they were primarily motivated by feelings of humiliation, which itself is only partly about poverty. It’s absolutely about resentment, but the specifics matter.

    So, to Trump supporters: what are the resentments, exactly? To me, it sure as hell looks like an angry reaction to change – social, demographic, and, yes, economic. The country is getting less white, and white people can see the day when they’re not a majority approaching. It’s getting real, instead of being some far-off thing. Gay marriage flipped *fast*. Some of them react to this with fear and anger. Those who don’t aren’t especially likely to be Trump fans.

    And the economics, look, yes we have problems. But I think it’s interesting that the backlash to the civil rights movement showed up in 1966. Were the mid-1960s a bad time for Americans, economically? Today isn’t 1966, but it’s also not 2009 either. Things are… meh, I think is a decent word. Maybe a tick better than meh. Obviously that’s a 50,000 foot view and when you drill down there are places where things are a whole lot worse than meh. But that’s *always* true, isn’t it?

    Trump started off in politics with Birtherism. His rise in the primaries this cycled began with his nasty anti-immigrant rhetoric. Even his babble about trade is basically the same stuff: “Others (China/Mexico) are screwing you. I’ll fix ’em!” He’s promising to stomp on Others, foreign and domestic.

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