What Political Scientists Get Wrong About 2016

What Political Scientists Get Wrong About 2016

Why Did You Vote?

Untangling the roots of 2016.


Ever since Donald Trump attained the presidency with his signature combination of nativist xenophobia and half-baked economic populism, the leftward side of the political spectrum has argued furiously over the origins of his support. The typical debate frame thus far has been economic anxiety versus racism, with moderates stressing the latter and the left emphasizing both.

Identity Crisis, the new book by John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck, attempts to settle this question once and for all. Like Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels’s Democracy for Realists, the book argues that people do not vote out of economic self-interest. Instead, they vote in response to things like race and religion—as was the case in 2016, when Trump supporters voted out of a sense that white Christians have lost ground in today’s multicultural America. “Trump’s exploitation of divisive race, gender, religious, and ethnicity issues accounted for his win,” Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker, summarizing her understanding of the book. Paul Krugman said the book shows that “what distinguished Trump voters wasn’t financial hardship but ‘attitudes related to race and ethnicity.’”

Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck do not advance quite such a strong version of this thesis in their book. Despite their caveats, Identity Crisis does make the case that economic concerns played a far smaller role in the 2016 election than many have claimed. Trump’s support, the authors insist, stems primarily from an identity-based prejudice among white voters. While their evidence about the racism of many American voters appears indisputable, their attempts to discount the role economics plays both in this racism and in voting behavior in general are unconvincing. There is no question that Trump’s rise is directly linked to his appalling racism, nativism, and xenophobia. It is rooted in a variety of economic factors as well—and acknowledging the role of both, not just one or the other, will be central to defeating the reactionary threat he poses in 2020.

First, the good parts of their argument: Skilled political scientists, Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck argue persuasively that the mainstream media failed horribly at portraying the basic choice in the 2016 election. Trump was unquestionably the more corrupt and scandal-plagued candidate, yet “there was more coverage of [Hillary Clinton’s] scandals than there was of Trump’s.” A careless lapse over e-mail security protocols while Clinton was at the State Department—not nothing, of course, but not remotely in the same league as Trump’s alleged tax evasion, sexual assaults, defrauding students and contractors, or a half-dozen other potential scandals—became one of the most covered topics of the entire campaign.

Indeed, the attention paid to Clinton’s scandals surrounding her e-mails and her family’s foundation “not only was more extensive than coverage of Trump’s scandals but arguably created a more coherent narrative,” they write. That’s an important lesson about perspective for both big-shot political journalists and candidates wishing to avoid the same kind of media treatment that she received. Repetition and sustained coverage are central to public perception, and many news outlets are responsible for focusing so much of their coverage on Clinton’s scandals but not on Trump’s.

Even so, the authors develop a strong case that when the media did turn its focus on Trump, that hurt him politically as well. The role that the media played in influencing the election, the authors argue, likely cut both ways. So what was the tipping point, if it wasn’t the media’s coverage? For Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck, the answer is racism. Using data from surveys conducted in 2011 and 2016, they show that support for Trump was strongly correlated with negative views of black and Muslim Americans that existed before the election. During the primaries, Trump far outstripped his Republican opponents among voters who previously expressed negative views of black people, immigrants, and Muslims.

This is vitally important and conclusive data that the American public cannot ignore. As recent events in El Paso, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere remind us, we live in a country with a deep undercurrent of violent racism. That fact must be squarely confronted and its long historical legacy rooted out. But this doesn’t mean that the economic policies and growing inequality of the past 30 years did not also play a role in the 2016 election.

At times, Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck’s own data seems to point to this. In a 2016 survey that they cite, Trump did about twice as well among those in the under-$30,000 income bracket as Ted Cruz, but his margins decreased as incomes went up, and Trump did about three times as well among people who were convinced the economy and their personal finances were getting worse.

A defensible conclusion here would be that Trump’s supporters included a number of conditional voters—say, the roughly 8 million people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but broke for Trump in 2016—who were likely motivated by economic reasons, among others, as well as committed Republicans. Instead, the authors flatly conclude that “assessments of the economy and one’s personal finances did not appear to be the primary drivers of Trump’s support.”

This isn’t the only problem with their analysis. In fact, there is a deeper one. Their methodological individualism—the theoretical framework stipulating that political behavior is linked to individual circumstances—causes them to consider only the ways in which economic changes affect a single voter, not how they affect a community. “Whether white voters were concerned about their finances, about losing their job, about not making their rent or mortgage payment, or about not being able to pay for health care should have more strongly influenced their choice between Trump and Clinton,” the authors write.

The problem here is that direct pocketbook effects are not the only route by which someone’s politics might be changed as a result of shifting economic conditions. For one thing, even if an individual is doing fine, that person’s friends or family might not be. More broadly, general economic malaise can make communities seem troubled and thus change a person’s political views, even if his or her paychecks keep coming. Likewise, an economic crisis on the scale of the 2008 financial meltdown might discredit traditional politicians and policies and raise the stature of outsiders peddling unorthodox solutions. It might also drive people toward cultural prejudice, including a politics of tribalism and racism, in its wake.

Focusing on voting behavior alone in their study, Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck leave out almost all of the truly worst-off people in society—the chronically homeless, felons, people in extreme poverty, addicts—who rarely vote. (A prosperous middle-class community might have a population similar to one in a severe depression, but they will likely vote very differently.)

County-level studies provide decently strong evidence for the hypothesis that Trump’s support in 2016 stemmed from these kinds of larger social effects related to economic change. Compared with Mitt Romney, Trump did much better in places with serious declines in manufacturing jobs, particularly in the Rust Belt. As one study found, “Counties in which life expectancy stagnated or declined saw a 10-percentage-point increase in the Republican vote share between 2008 and 2016.” Another study determined that Trump support was correlated with the “chronic use of prescription opioid drugs.” And in the 2018 midterms, an analysis by the Brookings Institution found that of the 20 poorest congressional districts, all but five went Republican.

Humans are inherently social creatures whose reasoning process always has a strong collective aspect. We do not vote simply out of economic self-interest; often, we also vote out of the perceived economic interest of our community. The point of this very book is that American politics is in a state of crisis precisely because people have abandoned democratic reason in favor of instinctive communal loyalty. And yet when it comes to collective behavior around economic factors, the authors suddenly embrace a Margaret Thatcher–style individualism. “Counties do not vote,” they write. “People do.”

There are still other problems with Identity Crisis. Suppose we grant, for the sake of argument, that Trump’s support stems primarily from racial animus. Does this rule out the possibility that the racial animus itself may be fueled by economic problems? On the individual level, when times are hard, people can resort—and often have—to bigotry and racial prejudice. In such circumstances, demagogic politicians may emerge to heighten and exploit those feelings, scapegoating minorities for economic troubles and stoking the underlying racism. (Note that the opinion surveys discussed earlier collected their data after the 2008 financial crisis.)

A recent paper by Nicholas Sambanis, Anna Schultz, and Elena Nikolova studying the effects of austerity-induced mass unemployment in Greece contends that they discovered just such a trend. “We find a strong relationship between job loss and decreased generalized solidarity,” the authors write. “We find evidence of in-group bias and the bias becomes more pronounced due to exposure to austerity policies.” Another paper by Thiemo Fetzer examining the United Kingdom found that support for the far-right UK Independence Party was “strongly and causally associated with an individual’s or an area’s exposure to austerity since 2010.” The authors of Identity Crisis bring up this angle briefly, noting that “when economic concerns are politically potent, the prism of identity is often present.” But this potentially fruitful line of inquiry goes almost completely unexplored. In their analysis, racism seemingly exists outside the social and economic forces that might give it strength and never plays its own role in bolstering a political or economic system.

There is also the internal dialectic of Republican Party politics. The GOP has long coupled its racist politics with a laissez-faire economic program calling for low taxes, free trade, and deregulation. The 2008 financial crisis hugely dented the credibility of such a policy, even among the right’s voting base, and so as the GOP’s economic policies have lost popularity, the party has, consciously or unconsciously, ramped up its racism and culture-war bigotry in order to compensate.

A similar pattern has been seen in much of the North Atlantic. A 2015 paper coauthored by Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick, and Christoph Trebesch that examined 140 years of political history in 20 advanced countries (including more than 800 elections) found that financial crises are associated with a 30 percent rise, on average, in the vote share of extreme-right parties. It’s impossible, of course, to establish a perfect causal explanation for such a huge data set, but are we really to believe that every single one of those countries had a purely coincidental postcrisis outbreak of racism and extremism? The study’s authors certainly think otherwise, writing that these crises likely fueled racist scapegoating: “Voters seem to be particularly attracted to the political rhetoric of the extreme right, which often attributes blame to minorities or foreigners.”

Indeed, with the most notable case from the past century—Nazi Germany—virtually every historian agrees that the desperate economic conditions after World War I and the 1929 crash played a key role in the rise of Adolf Hitler, for more or less the reasons articulated above. “It is extremely unlikely that Hitler would have become Reich Chancellor without the impact of the Great Depression,” the historian Ian Kershaw argued.

All of these considerations pose a powerful challenge to the argument in Identity Crisis that the economy had little to do with voting behavior in 2016. At one point, the authors even argue—contrary to one of the firmest rules in political science, that the party in power during an economic collapse gets swept out—that bad economic times could only benefit the Democrats:

Rising unemployment has historically favored the Democratic Party in presidential and gubernatorial elections, perhaps because Democrats are perceived as caring more about the issue of jobs and employment than do Republicans. If anything, then, the Great Recession should have driven the voters experiencing economic hardship to Obama and the Democratic Party.

Yes, perhaps if unemployment had been 100 percent on Election Day in 2010, the Democrats would have won every seat in Congress!

It remains a bit of a mystery why the authors of Identity Crisis are so fixated on trying to prove that there were not multiple factors that led to Trump’s election. No one is denying the roles that racism and the media played, but why can’t growing economic inequality and the difficult circumstances produced by the 2008 financial crisis have played a significant role as well? One reason may be that the broad liberal professional class—including much of academia—was heavily invested in Clinton’s candidacy and felt profoundly humiliated when she lost. Arguing that Trump won because of media malpractice and an embittered white America alleviates them of the need to do any other soul-searching. They do not have to ask whether the Democratic Party chose the wrong candidate or ran a poor campaign; they do not have to wonder if, by abandoning working-class Americans—white, black, and brown—over the last several decades, the Democrats have managed to turn voters away. Another reason may be the development of an anti-populist ideology within political science, as in the aforementioned Democracy for Realists, which argues that policy of any kind is almost totally irrelevant to electoral outcomes because voters are too ignorant and tribalist to understand how programs might benefit them personally.

Whatever the reason, books like Identity Crisis offer a potentially dangerous analysis of American politics, especially in the run-up to the 2020 election. At the end of their book, the authors raise the possibility of a continuing doom loop of identity resentment and counterresentment, with only a weak chance that human contact and better elite choices might oppose the trend. At no point do they consider the possibility that broadly beneficial economic policies might scramble the identity coalitions enough to create a sustainable Democratic majority.

Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck are certainly correct to say that social and cultural identity form a very important axis of political discussion, and they are right to highlight the venomous role that racism has played in American public life and in the 2016 election. But where they go wrong is in largely ruling out the way that economics can be an equally important factor in shaping voting behavior. Along with ethnic, religious, and racial identification, class can be one of the most meaningful motivators when it comes to political preferences, and it is one that cuts across other identities. In 2018, for example, Missourians voted two to one to block a union-busting measure passed by the state legislature, while Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill went on to lose her reelection bid.

Whatever the sources of the recent myopia among political scientists, it is very important for the Democratic coalition not to lose sight of the political value of progressive economic policy or the political danger of failing to deliver it in times of economic crisis. If we consider the outbreak of extreme-right politics around the world over the last decade—from Brazil and the United States to the European Union, Turkey, and beyond—it simply beggars belief to conclude that the worst financial crisis in 80 years and the badly botched response to it that followed were not somehow involved. There is a good book to be written about the complicated links between financial crises, bigotry, and racism. Identity Crisis is not it.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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