Friday, June 22, 2018

Over-Promoting Economics



Prominent amidst the innumerable explanations for Donald Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton was the widespread notion of the primacy of economic discontent.  One was advanced by a Myriam Renaud of the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion, named after a great Lutheran theologian.  Renaud did not tackle the Trump vote as a whole but did give careful thought to the motivation of a critical bloc, the Christian evangelical voter. In January 2017 she noted

Why bother to try to understand the motivations of white evangelical voters? Because, according to Pew surveys, they make up 26% of the American electorate, giving them significant political clout. (That percentage has held since 2008.) Of course, white evangelicals do not constitute a single voting bloc. They cover the spectrum of political affiliations. But the fact that more than four out of five placed their trust in Trump deserves attention.

She argued

Actual financial struggles, along with the memory of better things, may explain why more white evangelicals voted for the Republican candidate than in previous elections. It may also explain why worries about the economy took precedence over distaste for Trump as a person. Surveys showed that many white evangelicals objected to Trump’s sexism, racism, anti-Muslim-ism, anti-immigrant-ism, and other ugly-isms. Barna Group found that 49% of white evangelicals felt that Trump lacked a strong moral character. Only 15% saw him as “authentically Christian.”

Still, Trump successfully tapped into their economic anxiety—justified or not—with his slogan: “Make American Great Again.” Hillary Clinton, with her insistence that America was already great, probably appeared horribly out of touch. Trump, in contrast, agreed with the new poor that the nation’s economy was in trouble. He promised seemingly quick fixes like eliminating trade agreements that appeared to favor foreign companies over American ones, forcing U.S.-based companies to keep jobs stateside instead of shipping them overseas, and reducing competition for jobs with a tough stance toward illegal immigrants. In his first press conference as President-elect last week, Trump pledged to be “the greatest jobs producer that God ever created.”

Renaud saw in many non-evangelical Trump supporters similar motivation as in his evangelical fans.  She writes that six years since the economic recovery from the Great Recession began

the U.S. Census Bureau reported that incomes in the middle range—when adjusted for inflation—were still 1.6% below the previous 2007 peak of $57,423 per household. Also problematic, these incomes remained 2.4% lower than the high reached during the late 1990s. Most of the registered income gains have bypassed middle-income workers, like the average white evangelical Trump voter, and gone to those at the top of the income ladder. Seen in the broad context of the past few decades, the average wage earner has failed to get ahead. Though more people are back at work, the New York Times’s Binyamin Applebaum wrote, “many of them are still struggling to maintain their standard of living.”

Patricia Cohen, also writing for the New York Times, echoed these grim assessments. Despite recent good news about the economy, she said, “tens of millions of Americans understandably feel that the recovery has passed them by.” Many without skills are stuck with low-paying jobs plagued by irregular and unreliable schedules and by little or no security or benefits. Others, laid off from the well-compensated manufacturing jobs that left the U.S. for other countries, have had to accept lower-wage positions, if they found work at all.

Economic insecurity played its role- but one which has been significantly overplayed. 

Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump because she was pummeled in what Thomas B. Edsall, in an op-ed in The New York Times last October, recognized as "sparsely populated areas of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania"  (three Midwestern and one similar state). He observed "what Democrats missed was the profound political impact recent immigration trends were having on the more rural parts of the once homogeneous Midwest- that the region had unexpectedly become a flash point in the nation's partisan immigration wars."

Edsall, with the benefit of greater hindsight than Renaud, quotes director of the Michigan Economic Center John C. Austin, who found

The "rural” voters here are some farmers, but more likely, as in the hinterlands outside Flint, Monroe, Toledo, Erie, or Janesville, Wisconsin, they are mostly white, working class blue collar workers or retirees, many, sadly, who fled their small cities to escape blacks. They are anxious about the economic prospects for their future, their aging communities (the kids have fled), making folks mad. And now all these immigrants come and are changing the society!! Just as Macomb County, where working class white voters fled Detroit in advance of blacks, now sees nearby communities like Hamtramck becoming (in their view) a Bangladeshi bazaar — and they don’t like that. And they are easily fanned to blame those folks.

Edsall explains

... as recently as 2000, many of the key Midwestern counties that moved from blue to red in 2016 had very few minority residents. Since then, their immigrant populations began to increase at a rapid rate well above the national average. Second, at the same time that immigrants are moving in, younger native-born residents are leaving in droves to seek employment elsewhere, while the remaining white population is aging and is often hostile to change. It is the perfect formula for cultural conflict, and Trump proved to be the perfect candidate to exploit it. Finally, these changes are taking place in a region that Austin points out is home to “15 of the nation’s 25 major metro areas with the sharpest black-white segregation,” making it even more unreceptive to nonwhites than other sections of the country....

At the same time, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and, to a lesser extent, Pennsylvania, have each experienced a net out-migration of native-born residents. The effect of this exodus is twofold.

First, the people leaving tend to be younger and more open-minded, willing to risk moving to a faster growing section of the country. Second, those left behind tend to be older, more closed-minded and more set in their ways.

A demographer at the Brookings Institute informed Edsall

These "left-behind" populations tend to be older and more backward rather than future oriented- less likely to embrace the nation's new diversity and the emerging global economy. This was surely the case among 2016 voters in rural parts of swing states that helped to elect Trump as president.

It's a complicated argument, one which avoids the temptation of romanticizing the Trump vote as a response to economic discontent. Communities disproportionately centered in the Midwest experienced a decline in young people and an increase in diversity, threatening the security of the older population which remained. Less complicated:










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