Wednesday 10 May 2017

Economic Anxiety and Donald Trump

How to understand the rise of populist politics? In a time of unprecedented social peace, how can large numbers of people turn away from the sensible, managerial mainstream and find the simple answers of crackpots and charlatans beguiling? How is it a third of French voters supported a fascist last Sunday? How did we get President Donald Trump? All kinds of explanations are in play, but the one that's done the running is anxiety, which is usually (and unhelpfully) separated out into economic and cultural anxiety. This has spawned an interminable zero-sum debate over what matters the most and, as per political debates, there are other stakes in play. If the economic argument is correct, then the Clintonian/Blairist and the still-shiny Macronite Third Way is wonky flimflam and the socialist critique, including emphasis on the importance of interests, is substantially correct. And if cultural anxiety is the explanation, then all the pundits and leading politicians are on the money, we have to carry on listening to them, and the horrible stuff about class and things can be boxed away.

There is nothing the social world throws up that can't be analysed, explained and, if needs be, critiqued. Indeed, we need to understand the world in order to change it, and that means taking it as we find it. That must be the starting point of any kind of progressive politics, or it's something else. That in mind, I'm interested in the latest intervention in the anxiety debate, covered here by Emma Green of The Atlantic. According to research by the Public Religion Research Institute (original findings here), the best predictor of support for Donald Trump after self-identified party affiliation is cultural anxiety. According to the research, some 68% of white working class Americans from the mid-western states believed the American way of life was under threat by foreign influences, and 79% of this group were set on voting Trump. 62% of the same group believed immigration represented a cultural threat and they are sceptical, by 54%, of the merits of a college education (rising to 61% among the men).

This refutes the claims of economic anxiety how? Well, quoting direct from the PRRI piece:
Despite the conventional wisdom that Trump attracted financially depressed voters, white working-class Americans who report being in good or excellent financial shape are significantly more likely to say that Trump understands their problems than those who report their financial condition as being fair or poor (48% vs. 39%, respectively). A majority (55%) of white working-class Americans in fair or poor shape say Trump does not understand the problems facing their communities well.
This is incredible and revealing. Incredible because the entire claim of the research that cultural anxiety matters more than economic anxiety hangs on this passage. Revealing because they reduce the question of economic anxiety solely to being poor. Despite themselves, they confirm the relevance of class, of the better off who disproportionately helped Donald Trump to victory, just like some of us have argued from the beginning. It is, for example, entirely possible to be poor and not feel insecure. Millions of people run very tight budgets but secure in the knowledge that their wages are due to be paid on x day of the month. Insecurity however will set in when their job is under threat, or whether the firm wants to introduce flexible/reduced hours, and so on. Meanwhile, a well paid manager whose remuneration is fixed to continual monitoring performance reviews, a successful small business person who frets over her competitors, the megabucks professional worried about the drying up of their consultancies, all these people are much better off than low paid working class people, but are likely to also suffer higher instances of economic anxiety. Their default setting is an existential craving for stability and certainty. And who can blame them, they are human after all. Yet that can, and has, taken them down some very dark paths. Generations of socialists have known that these demographics disproportionately fill out the support of reactionary parties and movements, confirmed again by the PRRI in the case of Trump. Economic anxiety therefore isn't just a matter of being poor, it's about the content of your relationship to the means of existence and how that frames your outlook. Or, if you prefer, your relationship to the means of production, and that the content of that being conditions consciousness.

In addition to the conceptual muddle, there is a strange issue with how the report is presented as well. For all the stressing of cultural anxiety, we have vignettes culled from interviews that capture the working class experience quite succinctly:
"It’s that kind of mentality with the businesses that we work for these days that they know they can get away with paying us nothing half the time because they know we have nowhere to go."

"The middle class can’t survive in today’s economy because there really isn’t a middle class anymore. You’ve got poverty level, and you’ve got your one, two percent. You don’t have a middle class anymore like you had in the ’70s and ’80s. My dad started at Cinco making a buck ten an hour. When he retired he was making $45 an hour. It took him 40 years, but he did it. You can’t find that today; there’s no job that exists like that today."

“I feel enslaved by the student debt that I have, and I don’t have a degree, and I feel that any job that I may get I will never pay it off in my lifetime.”

“My fiancĂ©’s worked for the same company for 21 years, and it’s a union [job], and they are hiring Mexicans. And I don’t want to be racial, but that’s all that they’re hiring. He makes like $31 an hour, and they’re coming in at making like $8 an hour.”

“I’m tired of the minimum wage being offered so low it makes it impossible to provide for your family no matter how hard you break your back."
Not the quotations I would have chosen if I wanted to prove cultural anxiety mattered and the economic was phooey.

Despite itself, the report establishes a link between economic status and interest. For instance, asked about whether the national minimum wage should be more than doubled from $7.25/hour to $15/hour, by 53% to 44% respondents agreed. Split by gender, however, we find that men oppose it by 50% to 45% while women support it 60% to 37%. It also notes support rises to 82% among black workers and 77% for hispanics. Cultural issues? Or the fact that the latter three groups are more likely to work minimum wage jobs than white working class men and would, therefore, directly materially benefit from a raise?

As we have seen, there are some findings here that are useful, but what absolutely isn't is their steadfast failure to place them in a social context. While the sampling is pretty robust, their conclusions are on dodgy ground because their variables are not connected with one another. Each is set up as an independent variable without any relationship to the others. So the view that the American way of life is under threat only tells us that people who believe that are more likely to vote for the candidate who shares the belief. How does that help? It does not explain how this works with other variables, of who believes this, nor offer hypotheses as to why they might believe it. It's a bit like stating people voted for Brexit because of immigration without trying to explain why that was a powerful motivator. And the quotes, why? These strike something of a Freudian note as the repressed breaks through to put question marks over their argument.

The biggest problem with the report is their failure to define what they mean by economic anxiety, which they simply identify with being poor. And because poor people tended not to vote for Trump, (which, as any Marxist would have said, like duh), they conclude economics has nothing to do with it. It's almost as if the data was written up with a determination to prove the culturalist argument. That it would be blandly passed off as fact rather than interrogated by journalists. As far as I'm concerned, this is an opportunity missed for a few petty Beltway points. The truth is with a bit more care and intellectual honesty, a complex, interesting, and accurate picture of how anxiety works, of how the experience of economic realities - which goes beyond wages and jobs and combines with culture - can be gleaned from the data. It's just that, instead, the PRRI have given us a hatchet job.


Speedy said...

Surely it's not a binary choice - as you say it has to be looked at in context. For example, re Brexit, older white working class people who were not economically threatened might have voted because they didn't like the way their neighbourhoods had changed, while their children, facing competition from immigrants at work and for access to services, may have made a more economic choice.

The lower middle "Daily Mail" reading class has always been the most reactive on either side of the Pond. They also swept Hitler and Mussolini to power. They are culturally-attached because they have absorbed the lessons of identity well and, on the whole, "played by the rules". And, financially, they have often benefited from it. But they come from the same PLACE as many of the people who, for whatever reason, did not benefit. So their economic and cultural identities are interwoven, one way or another - they feel economically insecure and culturally threatened. And when they coalesce they are the majority.

This explains Brexit, Trump and Le Pen.

Phil said...

This is a stick-bending piece in the hope (often vain) that for someone, somewhere the cogs will start turning and realisation hits that, yes, economics matters to politics. You can wrap yourself up in the flag and moan about immigration as much as you like, but unless you offer something that attends to the interests of your base and the wider electorate (the majority of whom have interests identical to your base), you may as well whistle in the wind.

Ken said...

So this report is where woke Twitter has been getting its sneer quotes from recently? The line is that racism and sexism, not economic anxiety, drives Trump votes and if you don't believe that, check your privilege.

How this narrative plays into the most die-hard Clintonism is left as an exercise for the reader.

MikeB said...

A wish to avoid insecurity - in the sense of a feeling of life being unpredictable and uncontrollable - is surely at the heart of human psychology. In development studies, it's a commonplace to observe that subsistence farmers are amongst the hardest to persuade to adopt a new farming practice. Even if the benefits in terms of increased crop yields are evident, they often prefer to stick with methods that they understand better and know will produce more *predictable* - if lower on average - yields.

Similarly, the abused children I used to see in work who had the greatest difficulties tended to be those whose carers were unpredictably abusive. For those children, it was "preferable" to know how and when abuse would happen than if it were apparently random. Appalling though it still was, that way they could better prepare to survive it.

Paul Cotterill said...

Lots of working class people do express their overall anxiety as a cultural anxiety, and distrustful of others outside their main group, because to be culturally anxious has become a part of their identity.

Thus, to seek to root anxiety in economics (and I agree the definition needs unpicking in a way I can't here) is seen as an attack on identity.

The challenge for the left - Marxist or Habermasian - is to find a form of communication and engagement (so forms of political practice) which allow working class people, in ther own near and dear (lifeworld) contexts to cope with then displace that part of their identity. This can only be via trust-building, and hence the need for new forms of associational,
grassroots democracy (aka communicative power building). This links to the need to reassert the value of truth, that is becoming lost in mainstream late liberalism.

In the English context, where cultural anxiety-as-identity expresses itself as nasty English nationalism across a much wider number of people than it's comfortable to admit (for fear of being seen to patronise, any such attempts need to be in context of our colonial past, which has been shoved under the carpet by Britpop etc but intertwines with 'cultural anxiety' on a 'we are a great trading nation who also won the war' pride basis to create an especially toxic mix, aka Hard Brexit.

The economic devastation currently on its way towards us (though it can be diverted still, just about) does at least offer the opportunity for a period of collective learning (and guilt, in the Bernard Schlink sense), but the left will need to have a handle on that, or it could go the other way completely (as it nearly did in late 70s Germany).
None of this is new, but the left in England has been so focused on eeeking out an intellectual living from its pseudo-Gramscian traditions, that it's been lost to the mainstream. i'm fond of quoting sociologist John Rex, from the 70s, on what makes the working class quite racist, because it gives something to hold on to about how 'cultural anxiety' does exist as a real phenomenon, but allows us to root it more directly to the colonialist excesses of capitalist exploitation than do narrower, synchronic arguments about economic status (which while true, have no sense of truthfulness in the Willimans/Arendtian/Habermasian/Aristotleian dialogic sense, and so do not work.

Paul Cotterill said...

Rex says:

"British people confronted with immigrants from what used to be the Empire, cannot but be expected to react to them in terms of the roles which the immigrants used to fill. This is not a matter to be established by some naively designed attitude test [here's he's referring to the whitewash that was the Survey of Race Relations]. It is matter of history and of logic.

It is part of the situation of the British working class that it has lived, particularly during the period of the second British Empire from 1880 onwards, in a world in which the British economy and British life were structurally related to the economies and societies of the Colonies. No Englishman concerned with his reputation during that period would have wished to become confused with a colonial native, and, if this were true in general, it was particularly true of Birmingham [where Rex based his studies] where the populist politics of Joseph Chamberlain's local political caucus were combined with the advocacy of imperialism abroad.

All of these attitudes, moreover, could only have been strengthened by the experience of conscript soldiers who took part between 1945 and 1965 in a series of colonial wars, including those in Malaysia, Kenya, Aden, Suez and Cyprus. The whole of the imperial experience from Chamberlain down to Antony Eden and beyond was built into the consciousness and the very language of the people of Birmingham, and only a liberal or socialist optimist of the most unrealistic kind could expect that other ideological conceptions of anti-racist kind could act as a sufficient counterbalance to neutralize those beliefs.

The assimilation into British society of colonial immigrants, then, was bound to be a traumatic experience for low middle- and working-class people, simply because they were more likely de-statused themselves, through having to accept these people as equals, as fellow workers and neighbours. In work, some kind of status line could be drawn with black colonials doing the dirty work, but status lines could not so easily be preserved when black men presented themselves as neighbours. to live with the blacks raised the possibility that one might be classified with the blacks for status purposes, which was a terrifying threat for those whose status had become insecure anyway as they were left behind by educational, industrial and urban change."

Speedy said...

Thanks Paul, I've never considered that, but it is self-evidently true.