The Peculiar Populism of Donald Trump (by Thomas B. Edsall)
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Thomas B. Edsall
All wars have unintended consequences, including culture wars.
A look at contemporary television and film demonstrates that in one sense social and cultural liberalism have won the day. Polls confirm a steady leftward shift over recent decades in attitudes toward same-sex marriage, equality of the sexes and diversity in both education and the workplace.
At the same time, liberal victory in the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s, with its emphasis on so-called postmaterialist values — personal fulfillment, openness to new ideas, and support for previously marginalized populations — had its costs, which political analysts have been reckoning. Those costs have become particularly evident in the eruption over the past year of the Brexit vote in Britain, the increasing power of anti-immigrant parties across Europe and the ascendance of right-wing populism in America.
In an article to be published in the June issue of Perspectives on Politics, “Trump and the Xenophobic Populist Parties: The Silent Revolution in Reverse,” Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris put their case in blunt terms:
“Postmaterialism,” they write, “eventually became its own gravedigger.”
The rise of postmaterialism here and in Europe, Inglehart and Norris argue,
brought declining social class voting, undermining the working-class-oriented Left parties that had implemented redistributive policies for most of the 20th century. Moreover, the new non-economic issues introduced by Postmaterialists overshadowed the classic Left-Right economic issues, drawing attention away from redistribution to cultural issues, further paving the way for rising inequality.
As the Democratic Party in the United States and social democratic parties in Europe shifted their interest away from economic policies, hard-pressed members of the working and middle classes — suffering from stagnant or declining wages and lost jobs — led “a backlash against the cultural changes linked with the rise of Postmaterialist and Self-expression values,” Inglehart and Norris write.
Forty years ago, “The Silent Revolution,” Inglehart’ s seminal 1977 book, argued that “when people grow up taking survival for granted it makes them more open to new ideas and more tolerant of outgroups.”
In effect, postwar prosperity in America and in Western Europe allowed many voters to shift their political priorities from bread-and-butter issues to less materialistic concerns, “bringing greater emphasis on freedom of expression, environmental protection, gender equality, and tolerance of gays, handicapped people and foreigners.”
Not everyone experienced this new found economic security, however, and the number of those left behind has grown steadily. Those who do not experience the benefits of prosperity, Inglehart and Norris write, can see “others” — “an influx of foreigners,” for example, as the culprit causing their predicament:
Insecurity encourages an authoritarian xenophobic reaction in which people close ranks behind strong leaders, with strong in-group solidarity, rejection of outsiders, and rigid conformity to group norms.
According to the two authors,
The proximate cause of the populist vote is anxiety that pervasive cultural changes and an influx of foreigners are eroding the cultural norms one knew since childhood. The main common theme of populist authoritarian parties on both sides of the Atlantic is a reaction against immigration and cultural change. Economic factors such as income and unemployment rates are surprisingly weak predictors of the populist vote.
In support of this argument, the authors point to 2016 exit poll data showing that Hillary Clinton won voters who said the economy was the most important issue by 11 points, 52-41, while Trump carried those who said immigration was the most important issue facing the country by nearly two to one, 64-33.
In addition to immigration, issues related to race play a central role.
Inglehart and Norris paraphrase “Strangers in Their Own Land,” the 2016 book by Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist at Berkeley, to show the importance of race in the alienation of many white voters from the so-called liberal culture:
Less-educated white Americans feel that they have become “strangers in their own land.” They see themselves as victims of affirmative action and betrayed by ‘line-cutters’ — African-Americans, immigrants, refugees and women — who jump ahead of them in the queue for the American dream. They resent liberal intellectuals who tell them to feel sorry for the line-cutters, and dismiss them as bigots when they don’t.
Relative — not absolute — economic insecurity plays a major role in the development of these attitudes. Inglehart and Norris observe:
It is clear that strong forces have been working to increase support for xenophobic parties. This seems to reflect the fact that in recent decades, a large share of the population of high-income countries has experienced declining real income, declining job security, and rising income inequality, bringing growing insecurity. In addition, rich countries have experienced a large influx of immigrants and refugees.
They cite the example of Denmark before and after the financial collapse of 2008-9:
In 2004, before the crisis erupted, the overtly anti-Muslim Danish People’s Party won 7 percent of the vote; in 2014, it won 27 percent, becoming Denmark’s largest party. In both years, cultural backlash, rather than economic deprivation, was the strongest predictor of the vote for the Danish People’s Party — but rising economic insecurity made people increasingly likely to vote for them.
There are others making arguments built on Inglehart’s pioneering work on changing values.
Will Wilkinson, a vice president at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, writes in a January essay, “A Tale of Two Moralities,” that “an increasing sense of material precariousness can lead to cultural retreat from liberalizing ‘self-expression’ values.” This process helps us
understand why low-density white America turned out to support a populist leader with disturbingly illiberal tendencies.
In sections of the country undergoing sustained hardship — a result of automation, global trade and the residual effects of the 2007-9 recession — the march toward post-materialist values has, in Wilkinson’s view, come to a dead halt.
Wilkinson’s conclusion is based, in part, on his discovery of an unexpected trend in the United States, starting roughly in 2000, which he found evidence of in the series of World Values Surveys.
In normal circumstances, two fundamental shifts — from traditional and religious values to secular and rational values, on one hand, and from survival to self-expressive values, on the other — “tend to move in the same direction over time,” Wilkinson writes. “In the United States they haven’t.”
Instead, he points out, the United States has gone in two seemingly opposite directions over the past 15 years, becoming “significantly more secular-rational, while losing ground on self-expressive values.”
Whites living in low density, exurban and rural areas are driving the shift back toward survival values, Wilkinson argues.
The accompanying map, based on Bureau of Economic Analysis data originally put together in visual form by Howmuch.net, shows the high concentration of income and wealth in a relatively few urban metropolitan areas, where comfortable conditions encourage post-materialist values, and the low growth, low wealth character of the rest of the country where day-to-day economic concerns predominate.
The relative hardship experienced by many Trump supporters is reflected in a number of studies.
Take just one measure. For most Americans, the most common form of wealth lies in the value of the homes people own. Conversely, those people who own homes valued below what they owe on their mortgages have more debt than wealth; they are, as the saying goes, “underwater.”
In a postelection study posted on Nov. 29, the Center for American Progress, a pro-Democratic think tank, found a direct correlation between the percentage of “underwater” homes in a county and the likelihood of that country voting for Trump, as shown in the accompanying chart. Even more telling, the percentage of underwater homes was highest in counties that switched from voting for Obama in 2012 to voting for Trump in 2016.
The Economist examined counties that cast higher margins of support for Trump in 2016 than for Mitt Romney in 2012, and found that health-related issues were a key variable: “lower life expectancy, higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heavy drinking and lower levels of regular physical activity.”
Along similar lines, Shannon Monnat, a professor of sociology at Penn State, reported in a Dec. 4 study, “Deaths of Despair and Support for Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election,” that “Trump performed better than Romney in counties with higher drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rates.”
This was especially true in the industrial Midwest where, Monnat reported,
Trump did better than Romney by an average of 16.7 percent in the highest mortality counties compared to 8.1 percent in the lowest mortality counties.
“LK,” an anonymous blogger who posts frequently at Social Democracy for the 21st Century, a liberal website sharply critical of the cultural left, was more outspoken, writing on Jan. 26:
It’s simple: the working class — and even a significant part of the non-cosmopolitan middle class that might vote for the Left — has always had a degree of cultural, ethnic and nationalist feelings, while the modern Left has bizarrely ejected all these things out of leftist politics and engaged in the deranged fantasy that these things don’t matter at all.
The result, in LK’s view, is disastrous:
The Left — as it currently exists with its toxic obsession with internationalism, multiculturalism and identity politics for everybody except the majority of people who might form its base — will simply die if it doesn’t understand this.
Walter Russell Mead, a historian at Bard, argued in an essay in Foreign Affairs on Jan. 20 that many Trump supporters have come
to believe that the American establishment was no longer reliably patriotic, with “patriotism” defined as an instinctive loyalty to the well-being and values of Jacksonian America.
While much of the elite “with cosmopolitan sympathies see their main ethical imperative as working for the betterment of humanity in general,” according to Mead, Trump supporters see “the cosmopolitan elite as near treasonous — people who think it is morally questionable to put their own country, and its citizens, first.”
Inglehart and Norris conclude their current essay on a modestly optimistic note, suggesting the possibility that there might yet be an alliance between the populist right and the Democratic left:
So far, emotionally-charged cultural issues cutting across economic lines have hindered the emergence of a new coalition. But both the rise of populist movements and the growing concern for inequality, reflect widespread dissatisfaction with existing political alignments. In the long run, a coalition based on the 99 percent is likely to emerge.
Wilkinson does not share this outlook:
To the extent that increasing economic security is liberalizing, and stagnation and decline tend toward an illiberal, zero-sum survival mind-set, this amounts to a recipe for the political imposition of relatively illiberal policy on increasingly liberal and increasingly economically powerful cities. This is not a stable situation, and bodes ill for the future of American freedom.
In practice, Wilkinson’s bleak prediction depends heavily on the success or failure of President Trump’s attempts to undermine the pillars of democratic government: the system of checks and balances, the rule of law and the watchdog role of the media.
Can Trump deliver on his promises to millions of culturally beleaguered and economically threatened constituents — those he calls “the forgotten men and women of our country”?
Trump’s “authoritarian xenophobic” rampage has taken him to the White House. From his point of view, there are no reasons to let up. The Trump agenda has developed its own internal logic: the more wreckage, the more publicity; the more publicity, the more success. Trump’s executive order severely restricting immigration and refugee resettlement from seven predominantly Muslim countries, for example – despite large protests here and abroad — has the support of nearly half of Americans (49 percent, according to Reuters-Ipsos).
Trump is betting that his flamboyant strategy will take him through his first term and beyond. As atrocious as it is, who can blame him?
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