Disruption, disorder and disease are gripping the United States as the 2020 election draws near, leading to an unusual degree of unpredictability about our political future. Despite current state and national polling that favors Democrats, we still can’t say for sure whether the nation will tip left or right.
“Modern democracies are currently experiencing destabilizing events,” three Danish political scientists, Michael Bang Petersen, Mathias Osmundsen and Alexander Bor, write, “including the emergence of demagogic leaders, the onset of street riots, circulation of misinformation and extremely hostile political engagements on social media.”
Driving this destabilization, according their new paper, “Beyond Populism,” is the feeling millions of voters continue to have of being left behind, of “‘losing out’ in a world marked by, on the one hand, traditional gender-and race-based hierarchies, which limits the mobility of minority groups, and, on the other hand, globalized competition, which puts a premium on human capital” — especially on “learning capacity,” roughly measured by the presence or absence of a college degree.
The crucial role of human capital is illustrated in a 2011 study published in the American Economic Review, “Sources of Lifetime Inequality,” by Mark Huggett, Gustavo Ventura and Amir Yaron, economists at Georgetown, Arizona State and the University of Pennsylvania.
The authors found that human capital, including learning skills, accounted for “61.2, 62.4, and 66.0 percent of the variation in lifetime earnings, lifetime wealth, and lifetime utility” — a measure of life satisfaction.
Petersen and his colleagues found that those experiencing rising levels of frustration are motivated to turn to the relative extremes of the political spectrum reflecting “discontent with one’s own personal standing.”
among individuals for whom prestige-based pathways to status are, at least in their own perception, unlikely to be successful. Despite their political differences, this perception may be the psychological commonality of, on the one hand, race- or gender-based grievance movements and, on the other hand, white lower-middle class right-wing voters.
The traditional avenue to standing in society — “tangible benefits including income and job access” and “intangible benefits including cultural hegemony, prestige, authority and social space” — requires the “human capital” I mentioned above, which what Petersen described in an email as “the stock of skills and competencies that allow people to produce economic value” that “involve the cultivation of talents and skills that are valuable for others and, hence, based on a reciprocal relationship wherein status is granted in exchange for service.”
When inequality increases, the issue of status becomes sharper, and “people will simultaneously feel that (a) it is important to get status and (b) that it is very difficult to do so.” In such a situation, at the extremes, “some people will feel that the use of fear and intimidation is an attractive shortcut to getting recognition,” Petersen wrote by email.
“It would be wrong to exclusively think of this as a right-wing phenomenon. People on the extremes of both the left-wing and the right-wing are likely to be high in dominance motivations,” Petersen continued, adding that
we should expect dominance to be a key motivational factor among people supporting or advocating the use of violence for political purposes. While such supporters may appeal to a number of higher-order ideological principles, a personal craving for status seems to be a key motivational factor according to our research.
The difficulty of rising up the economic ladder is reflected in the decline in mobility in the United States. Research by Raj Chetty and colleagues has demonstrated that the percentage of children who make more than their parents has fallen from just over 90 percent for those born in 1940 to 50 percent for those born in 1984. The declines have been sharpest in the South and Midwest, as shown in the accompanying map — in many of the areas that provided key support to Donald Trump in 2016.
One measure of a society’s success is the ability of its low-income children to climb the economic ladder. This tends to happen less in Southern states like Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. This map measures where children who grew up with low-income parents fall in the income distribution as adults, on average.
In a 2019 paper, “The College Wealth Divide: Education and Inequality in America, 1956-2016,” three German economists, Alina Bartscher, Moritz Kuhn and Moritz Schularick, all of the University of Bonn, determined that in the United States since the since the 1970s “the real income of non-college households stagnated, while the real income of college households has risen by around 50 percent.” The income data is, however, dwarfed by the findings on wealth:
While non-college households were treading water in terms of wealth, college households have increased their net worth by a factor of three compared to 1971.
The case made by Petersen and his collaborators that more Americans are becoming marginalized gets strong support from Noam Gidron and Peter A. Hall, political scientists at Hebrew University and Harvard, in their paper, “Populism as a Problem of Social Integration.” They write:
Our key contention is that populist politics reflects problems of social integration. That is to say, support for radical parties is likely to be especially high among people who feel they have been socially marginalized, i.e. deprived of the roles and respect normally accorded members of mainstream society. From this perspective, the sources of social marginalization may lie in economic or cultural developments and in how they combine.
“left behind” — relegated to vulnerable economic and social positions, increasingly alienated from the values prominent in elite discourse, and sensing that they are no longer recognized as valued members of society.
As a result, the authors argue, “subjective social status” — that is, “people’s own beliefs about where they stand relative to others within this status hierarchy” — has become a crucial factor in shaping political commitments:
There is a consistent association between levels of subjective social status and voting for parties of the populist right and radical left. The more socially marginalized people feel, the more likely they are to gravitate toward the fringes of the political spectrum.
Voters who feel a loss of standing, who experience themselves as marginalized, often turn left or right — whites in this category may turn to the right; African-American, Latino and other minority voters can find that the left has more to offer.
leading people who hold traditional social attitudes to feel socially marginalized as a result of incongruence between their values and the discourse of mainstream elites. The growing prominence of cultural frameworks promoting gender equality, multiculturalism, secular values and LGBTQ rights is the most notable of such changes.
Steps toward inclusion are double-sided: they can lead people who hold more traditional values to feel marginalized vis-à-vis the main-currents of society.
that support for the far right is often strongest, not among people suffering the greatest economic distress, but among people who are somewhat better-off if still facing economic difficulties.
susceptible to “last place aversion,” namely, a fear of falling even farther down it; and they often erect social boundaries separating ‘respectable’ people like themselves from others seen as lower down on that social ladder. Thus, the anti-immigrant and anti-ethnic appeals of populist right parties may be especially attractive to them, because they emphasize such boundaries.
Those drawn to the progressive left, in Gidron and Hall’s view, are “voters with status concerns but universalistic values that incline them against ethnonationalist appeals.” These voters “are more often found among sociocultural professionals and people with higher levels of education” and, because they have universalistic values, they are likely to support “left parties” that “promise redistribution.”
Another major difference between voters who back left or right parties is the kind of work they do. According to Gidron and Hall,
There are stark differences in the occupational bases of support for the radical left and right. Left parties seem to have particular appeal for people in professional occupations who may nonetheless feel that they are not receiving the social respect they deserve. By contrast, radical right parties appeal most strongly to people in low-status occupations: manual workers and low-skill service employees.
What about socially marginalized voters who are conflicted — holding, for example, conservative values on cultural, moral and racial issues, but more liberal and pro-redistribution economic views? In these circumstances, the right has the advantage.
In his 2016 dissertation at Harvard, “Many Ways to be Right: The Unbundling of European Mass Attitudes and Partisan Asymmetries across the Ideological Divide,” Gidron reported that:
Cross-pressured voters (those who are conservative on some issues but progressive on other issues) are more likely to support the right; while support for the left requires progressive attitudes on all issues, it is enough to be conservative on one issue to support the right.
Put differently, the right is likely to attract all those who are conservative on some issues — and not only those who are conservative on all issues. Those who oppose state intervention in the economy, those who oppose progressive reforms on cultural questions such as gender norms, and those who oppose greater openness toward immigration should all gravitate toward the right, regardless of whether they are also progressive on some other issues.
How many voters can be described as cross-pressured by conservative cultural views and liberal economic views?
A Voter Study Group analysis of the 2016 election by Lee Drutman found that just under 30 percent of voters feel this way. In addition, Drutman’s study provided support for Gidron’s view that these culturally conservative and economically liberal voters lean decisively to the right. Among the 24.3 percent of voters who fit this category and voted for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, 75.2 percent cast ballots for Trump and 24.8 percent for Clinton, a 3 to 1 split.
Reinforcing the work of Petersen, Gidron and their colleagues are the findings of four political scientists, Ariel Malka, Yphtach Lelkes, Bert N. Bakker in a paper published in May.
The four argue that the focus on Democratic and Republican identification masks another key divide between voters whose prime concern is protection from adverse cultural and economic forces and voters whose agenda is personal autonomy and economic freedom. They call these two constituencies the “protection-based” and the “freedom based.”
The authors describe those with “a ‘protection-based’ attitude package” as voters who combine “cultural conservatism with left economic attitudes.” These voters prioritize “social order and economic stability, which, in the minds of citizens, may be satisfied by leadership and policy action that are unconstrained by democratic rules.”
Citizens who combine a culturally conservative worldview with an economically redistributive and interventionist set of preferences often place high priority on security, certainty, and stability. These citizens seem to apply a mind-set to the political domain that attracts them to policies that maintain cultural tradition and uniformity (social conservatism) and that also entail top-down provision of material security (left-wing economic views). This type of worldview has been referred to as a ‘protection-based’ attitude package, because it involves strong government intervention to provide protection against cultural and economic sources of insecurity.
The protection-based constituency is, thus, made up of those who feel under assault by liberal cultural trends and their challenges to traditional morality and by economic forces that are shifting rewards to those with higher levels of education and “learning skills.”
On the other side is “a freedom-based” attitude package that “combines left-wing cultural with right-wing economic views, reflecting acceptance of cultural and economic risk rooted in the value of freedom.” Malka and his colleagues suggest that “Anglophone democracies are more likely to associate free market economics with political freedom and democratic liberalism” and note that
citizens of English-speaking countries tend to score higher than citizens of other countries in self-report measures of individualism, which tap a focus on personal as opposed to collective goals, individual autonomy, self-differentiation, and competition.
consistent support for procedural democratic rules is linked with a classically liberal mind-set focused on individual autonomy to pursue economic interests and cultural preferences without government interference.
Four years ago, Trump won by decisively carrying what Malka and his colleagues call the protection-based constituency — voters whose privileged status as white Americans Trump has promised to protect, despite the implausibility of that promise in a world of increasing racial and ethnic diversity.
These cultural conservatives are now “Trump’s to lose,” Malka said, noting that “he cannot afford to lose many of these whose economic attitudes are well to the left of the Republican Party’s.” During the current crisis, Trump has addressed core economic anxieties of these voters with legislation funneling an extra $600-a-week to the unemployed, a $1,200 grant to adults in household with incomes below $150,000. a moratorium on evictions from federally supported housing and $350 billion for loans to small businesses. In this context, Malka wrote me, Trump’s “efforts to stoke cultural conflict with authoritarian actions make sense from the standpoint of keeping this group on his side, but it comes with other electoral costs.”
Who Trump doesn’t have on his side are the millions of Black and Latino voters frustrated by even greater economic hurdles than their white counterparts, compounded by a history of segregation and discrimination. These voters, an ever-growing share of the electorate, loom even larger now than they did four years ago, and they are squarely in the Democratic camp.
“It’s already clear that the 2020 electorate will be unique in several ways. Nonwhites will account for a third of eligible voters — their largest share ever — driven by long-term increases among certain groups, especially Hispanics,” according to a Pew Research report. Trump, who is exceptionally dependent on white support, faces the prospect of trying to win over an electorate in which the share of white voters has fallen, over the past 20 years, from 76.4 percent to 66.6 percent.
Trump’s approval level, always low among Black and Hispanic voters, has plummeted as he has sharpened his ever-present appeals to bigotry. In the first months of 2020, 16 percent of African-Americans approved of Trump, according to Gallup. In the period from late May to June, that fell to 10 percent. Among Hispanics, Trump’s approval over the same period fell from 34 to 26 percent.
For Trump, this is his 2020 dilemma: As of July 28, Covid-19 cases reached 16.3 million worldwide, with 4.3 million in the United States Total deaths have reached 650,805, 147,672 of them in this country, according to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to Politico, a mere third of Americans (32 percent) say they support Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
Trump pointedly declined to attend services for Representative John Lewis as mourners lined up for blocks outside the east front of the U.S. Capitol in 90 degree heat on Monday. He increased the number of federal paramilitaries in Portland as he attempted to confront Black Lives Matter protests he described as “anarchy.”
Trump is trapped between pressures: to keep feeding red meat to the white working and middle class voters who continue to support him while struggling to slow the defection of white, well-educated suburbanites who delivered 42 House seats to the Democrats in 2018 and who now threaten to restore Democratic rule across the board.
Facing these cross-pressures, Trump has clearly staked out where his allegiance lies: with conservative white America.
At a time when even the state of Mississippi is removing Confederate emblems from its state flag, Trump told Chris Wallace ten days ago on Fox News Sunday:
When people proudly have their Confederate flags, they’re not talking about racism. They love their flag, it represents the South, they like the South. People right now like the South. I’d say it’s freedom of, of, of many things, but it’s freedom of speech.
Asked about changing the names of military installations currently honoring Confederate generals — a proposal that has support from the Armed Forces and some Republicans in Congress — Trump replied:
Excuse me, excuse me. I don’t care what the military says. I’m supposed to make the decision …. We’re going to name it after the Reverend Al Sharpton?
Trump knows where he is going. The question is whether enough of the electorate will follow.
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