Robots for Trump?

Another really nice column from Thomas Edsall incorporating the latest social science research.  In this case, a look at how the areas most affected by job loss from automation went heavily for Trump.  Here’s the key map:

It is not a coincidence that this map sheds light on President Trump’s Electoral College victory in 2016.

“My take is that grievances, both racial and against cosmopolitan, liberal elites, have played an important role,” Acemoglu wrote me in an email:

But economic hardships, as they often do, made these fault lines more salient. Dormant grievances have become more alive. [emphases mine]

Acemoglu argues that recent technological developments have helped drive voters to the right:

The swing to Republicans between 2008 and 2016 is quite a bit stronger in commuting zones most affected by industrial robots. You don’t see much of the impact of robots in prior presidential elections. So it’s really a post 2008 phenomenon…

According to Acemoglu and Restrepo, men take about twice as big a hit in terms of lost jobs as women do. Although both sexes suffer wage losses when robots replace people, the size of the drop in employment for women was about half that of men…

In political terms, the workers who experience the highest costs from industrial automation fit the crucial Trump voter demographic: white non-college voters, disproportionately male, whose support for the Republican nominee surged from 2012 to 2016

And, some related research on the impact of international trade:

In a September 2017 paper, “Importing Political Polarization? The Electoral Consequences of Rising Trade Exposure,” David Autor, who is also an economist at M.I.T., and three of his colleagues, dug further into the demographics of those suffering the economic costs of trade with China.

Autor and his co-authors found that

Trade exposure catalyzed strong movements towards conservative Republicans between 2002 and 2010 in counties with majority non-Hispanic white populations.

The gains made by hard-right Republicans came at the expense of moderate Republican and Democratic incumbents.

Even more significant, Autor determined that though generally speaking trade shocks did not “favor conservative politicians,” shocks “that disproportionately affect white males” did…

The authors provide more detail, explaining that the

rightward shift is driven by trade shocks to industries that have traditionally employed white men in relatively large numbers, and is largely unrelated to shocks to other industries.

Acemoglu, Autor and their colleagues provide a synthesis between the economic and the sociocultural explanations of the rise of the populist right. In doing so, they provide a corrective to the recent tendency in segments of the liberal media to downplay economic factors and to focus instead on racial resentment and cultural dislocation as the primary forces motivating Trump voters.

myself have written that

Republican voters have a strong sense of white identity, they harbor high levels of racial resentment and they sometimes exhibit authoritarian leanings.

The point here is that the two generalized explanatory realms — the one focused on race and the other on economic shock — overlap. It is not either/or but both that gave us President Trump.

Good points from Esdall and interesting stuff.  But, I think he still too readily dismisses those of us who downplay economic anxiety and focus on the racial dimension.  If there’s not racism and racial resentment, that’s simply not there to be activated no matter what one’s economic or other concerns are.  The racial resentment was there to be activated and it was activated and the evidence is clear that it drove votes, especially for non-college whites.  Economic concerns without racism do not equal Republican votes.  Economic concerns plus racism do equal Republican votes.

I also loved this comment to the article (NYT is a huge outlier in having interesting and valuable comments), so I’m posting it in full:

Great information, as usual. The problem I’ve got with the economic argument is that it’s clearly in the best interests of lower-income Republicans to vote for Democratic policies.

It was Obama who advocated continuing the auto bailout, saving millions of jobs, while Romney wanted to end it. Nearly 20 million lower-income people obtained coverage via Obamacare. Obama raised taxes on only the top 5% and in fact cut payroll taxes for two years for workers. It was Senator Dick Durban (D-IL) who proposed the “Creating American Jobs and Ending Offshoring Act of 2010” which was stopped by Republicans in Congress. Obama proposed a measure that would have expanded overtime pay for millions of workers, which were delayed by the courts until Republicans could kill it. Obama advocated raising the minimum wage, while Republicans blocked it. It is Republicans that advocate “Right to Work” laws that weaken unions and labor power, enabling the 1% to get ever more of the income and wealth.

If it is a perception that these actions benefit non-whites over whites, then that is a function of Fox News. I suspect the rise of Fox News viewership among lower-income whites is more correlated with the surge in lower-income voters to Republicans than robots. It’s easier to scapegoat non-whites and non-Christians than admit they are voting against their own economic interests.

Anyway, Edsall does a really nice job showing how economic and racial attitudes worked in concert to give us Trump.  But, without the deplorable racial attitudes, there is no President Trump.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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