Economic anxiety and racism

Among the millions of words being spilled about Donald Trump, a lot recently have been spent on the question of whether his rise is spurred by economic deprivation, or just by a kind of status-seeking white identity politics. The catchphrase is 'economic anxiety': the disaffection and alienation felt by working class people who've been hurt by globalisation and deregulation.

Matt Yglesias is probably the most insistent proponent of the view that Trump's support has very little to do with economic problems faced by his supporters, and much more to do with their intense discomfort with growing racial and cultural diversity in the US. Mostly he's expressed this view by retweeting the racist rants of Trump supporters and sarcastically labelling them displays of economic anxiety. This week he's presented the case more fully, and a few people have responded. In good blogging style, I think they're all wrong. But the argument is important to understanding a much wider and more interesting range of political events than just the rise of Trump.


Yglesias does a good job demolishing one version of the 'economic anxiety' argument. Here's a quote that is particularly cutting:
"[W]hen Trump voters say they're upset about needing to press one for English, mad that Black Lives Matter protesters are slandering police officers, and worried that Muslim and/or Mexican immigrants are going to murder their children, it's perverse to interpret them as secretly hankering for a refundable child care tax credit.

[...] the argument about the nature of American identity that's playing out around the country right now is real and important on its own terms, and it's far and away the biggest driver of political behavior this cycle."
This is the point that retweeting racists proves very powerfully: Trump supporters aren't supporting him because they love his economic policies, or because they're angry about their stagnating incomes. They support him because, to greater or lesser degrees, they hold racist views and rightly see Trump as the candidate of throwback to an era of white dominance.

This is devastating to a certain genre of thinkpiece which suggests that parties and politicians should go out and 'listen to the concerns' of voters who support Trump (or UKIP, or One Nation.) Implicit in this idea is the claim that these voters aren't really racists, just voting for far-right demagogues to get attention, and that if you went and patiently asked enough questions, you'd ultimately get an answer that was about the decline of manufacturing employment or the retreat of the welfare state, rather than about racism. There's very little reason to think this is the case. In fact the concerns of these voters are, very often, directly about the xenophobic issues that get the big media attention. You can listen to them if you like, but it doesn't make them any less wrong or uncover any exciting new path to change people's minds.

But obviously there's more to the argument than that. The more sophisticated version doesn't try to make economic anxiety a motive of far-right voters - it recognises that anger at diversity is the motive - but instead suggests that it's an underlying cause of the racism. When people are suffering economically, they turn to identity politics to restore their sense of pride and security. This is an idea which gets quite wide discussion in a range of contexts: you'll have heard, for example, the claim that material deprivation is what makes people liable to be radicalised by terrorist groups. I've used a parallel idea on this blog to try to explain Dylann Roof. This is basically what you get, for example, from Ryan Page:
"During the Reagen era, neoliberals from both parties killed unions and forced wages into stagnation [...] Wages fell during the Great Recession [...] home prices have recovered to some extent, but more and more people are locked out of that wealth creation [...]

[Many] predicted this would eventually lead to a more coercive, authoritarian politics, as irate citizens abandon elite notions of democracy and social respectability, demanding some kind of disruptive change, and elites scramble to keep them pinned down through economic and physical coercion. That prediction, rooted in on-the-ground economic realities, has been borne out by Trump."
This story is a lot less comforting than many people try to interpret it as being. It doesn't mean that if the left produced a new agenda for restoring a serious social contract and improving the life chances of working-class voters who have been hurt by globalisation, Trump voters would be convinced. That thought relies on a shift back into the naive version of the economic anxiety argument. In reality, these voters have - for whatever reason - developed racist preferences and now support a racist political platform. You may think that they developed those preferences because of economic deprivation, but that doesn't change the fact that these are their preferences and you're not going to win them over without satisfying them. A strong, equalising economic platform might stop the further spread of the longing for white dominance, and avoid there being new generations of Trump supporters. But it wouldn't do anything now. This is a story whose moral is one for the long term.

Nonetheless, it's much more plausible an analysis of why economic anxiety might underlie support for Trump. It fits well with the idea that his supporters are 'globalisation's losers', whose relative economic position has worsened most over the last twenty to thirty years. And the same logic has been applied to One Nation in Australia or to UKIP and Brexit in Britain.

After the Australian election in July I started to get sceptical. One Nation as a party has always been much more successful in Queensland than elsewhere, and that remained the case in 2016. But it's hard to claim that Queensland is doing worse economically or has a larger share of losers from globalisation. Have a look here and you don't see particularly striking differences between Queensland, and say, Victoria. And if you take a longer view then Queensland's economy has clearly benefited significantly from the natural resources boom in the last decade, at the expense of Victoria and New South Wales where there had historically been more manufacturing employment. Why not say instead that Queensland is a much more conservative state which contains many more people who just distrust foreigners? That's a much simpler explanation which seems also to fit the actual situation much better.

Now there is pushback in the US as well, particularly on the basis of some new findings that Trump supporters actually don't tend to be those who have been particularly economically hurt, by globalisation or otherwise, in the past few decades. This, too, seems to be a case where people have developed an overt xenophobia genuinely in response to significant cultural change which they see as a threat to the way they liked living their life. Positing underlying economic causes of their cultural discontent doesn't actually seem to work.

None of that is to say that some people are just immutable racists and there's nothing to be done about it. But, certainly in the short- and medium-term - less than a century, to take a stab - sometimes cultural and racial anxiety is simply cultural and racial, and has to be addressed that way. Probably more could have been done over several decades to bring people around to supporting and feeling comfortable with racial and cultural diversity. But that would have had to take the form of actually convincing people that racism is bad and that shifts in the organisation of society weren't something they needed to worry about. It wouldn't have had much to do with economics.

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