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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 fiancé’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 more likely to vote for the candidate who shares the belief. 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.

One Comment

  1. Bazza says:

    Like the mainstream of the media this poster demonstates a lack of incisive, razor sharp analysis – shock horror FN got a third of voters nah grotesque FN got 16% of the total eligible electorate (up from 11% from the even more grotesque Monsieur Le Pen).
    What is failing to be recognised is that Neo-Liberalism is breaking poorer citizens, they generally feel powerless and generally give up and don’t vote unless some fall in the US for example for a fake champion like Barbarian Adventurer but essentially Neo-Liberal Trump.
    We need to get out and politicise the left behind, the working class, the progressive middle class and try to win the general middle class to the progressive middle class.
    But you need to learn how to communicate with human beings first and perhaps we need to be facilitators of change.
    When I canvass I talk to people about our ideas.
    It has to be a left wing democratic socialism WITH we need to talk with and engage with human beings who have or had to sell their labour to live.
    I would argue the bourgeois socialists ((Top down) hold us back – I have confidence in engaging with CITIZENS AS EQUALS and CITIZENS a word we now need to take back.

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