Early in my lawyering career, the partner I was assigned to said something I still remember: “There is only one legal question, and that’s ‘what do we do.'”
That is also the basic question at issue in all policy debates. We citizens can only hope that what policymakers will decide to do will be informed by fact, rather than by emotion, partisanship, disinformation from those with a stake in the outcome, or fixed ideologies that make reasoned decision-making impossible. In less hot-button matters,at least, that goal still seems achievable.
But what do we do when we are faced with distasteful realities about the electorate–realities that determine the behaviors of elected officials chosen by those voters? Dylan Matthews at Vox recently addressed one such unpleasant reality.
Noting the efforts of essayists and pundits to “take the concerns of Trump voters seriously,” he pointed out that, in fact, these would-be sympathetic observers are actually tiptoeing around the real concerns of Trump supporters, which are not rooted in economics:
There is absolutely no evidence that Trump’s supporters, either in the primary or the general election, are disproportionately poor or working class. Exit polling from the primaries found that Trump voters made about as much as Ted Cruz voters, and significantly more than supporters of either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Trump voters, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver found, had a median household income of $72,000, a fair bit higher than the $62,000 median household income for non-Hispanic whites in America.
It is very hard to disagree with what Dylan pinpoints as the actual motivation of a troubling number of Trump supporters:
So what is driving Trump supporters? In the general election, the story is pretty simple: What’s driving support for Trump is that he is the Republican nominee, a little fewer than half of voters always vote for Republicans, and Trump is getting most of those voters.
In the primary, though, the story was, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp has explained at length, almost entirely about racial resentment. There’s a wide array of data to back this up.
UCLA’s Michael Tesler has found that support for Trump in the primaries strongly correlated with respondents’ racial resentment, as measured by survey data. Similarly, Republican voters with the lowest opinions of Muslims were the most likely to vote for Trump, and voters who strongly support mass deportation of undocumented immigrants were likelier to support him in the primaries too.
In April, when the Pew Research Center asked Republicans for their views on Trump, and their opinions on the US becoming majority nonwhite by 2050, they found that Republicans who thought a majority nonwhite population would be “bad for the country” had overwhelmingly favorable views of Trump. Those who thought it was a positive or neutral development were evenly split on Trump.
Matthews notes–with examples–why policies providing more substantial economic security (which he supports) are unlikely to ameliorate racial animus, and then he addresses the “what should we do?” question:
One thing this analysis decidedly does not imply is “Hey, Trump supporters are just racists, let’s give up on them.” Trump’s nomination is a threat to America that must be addressed and never allowed to happen again. Giving up is not an option. We have to figure out some way to respond….
Any solution has to begin with a correct diagnosis of the problem. If Trump’s supporters are not, in fact, motivated by economic marginalization, then even full Bernie Sanders–style social democracy is not going to prevent a Trump recurrence. Nor are GOP-style tax cuts, and liberal pundits aggressively signaling virtue to each other by writing ad nauseam about the need to empathize with the Trump Voter aren’t doing anyone any good.
What’s needed is an honest reckoning with what it means that a large segment of the US population, large enough to capture one of the two major political parties, is motivated primarily by white nationalism and an anxiety over the fast-changing demographics of the country. Maybe the GOP will find a way to control and contain this part of its base. Maybe the racist faction of the party will dissipate over time, especially as Obama’s presidency recedes into memory. Maybe it took Trump’s celebrity to mobilize them at all, and future attempts will fail.
But Donald Trump’s supporters’ concerns are heavily about race. Taking them seriously means, first and foremost, acknowledging that, and dealing with it honestly.
Agreed. But how?