Mitchell’s Musings 5-14-2018: But What Are the Practical Implications?

12 May 2018 11:21 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 5-14-2018: But What Are the Practical Implications?


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


Recently in the New York Times, a controversy arose surrounding an academic paper which suggested that Trump voters were not the stereotyped left-behind blue-collar workers. In fact, according to the study, they were motivated by something other than economics: a fear of loss of status due to increasing diversity of the U.S. population. The counter argument in subsequent Times’ pages is that economic circumstances may tilt people toward a fear of status loss and that the culture vs. economics debate is thus ultimately futile.[1]


While this debate was playing out, opinion polls suggested that the so-called “blue wave” that some Democrats are counting on in the November 2018 midterm election is dissipating. One pollster – finding that declining trend – urged Democrats to focus more heavily on economic-type issues.[2] But, of course, if the key factor determining votes in swing districts is cultural/status rather than economic, such advice is useless. Or is it? The initial Times report (taking the cultural/status view) was not very clear on that point:


What does it matter which kind of anxiety — cultural or economic — explains Mr. Trump’s appeal? If wrong, the prevailing economic theory lends unfounded virtue to his victory, crediting it to the disaffected masses… More important…, it would teach the wrong lesson to elected officials, who often look to voting patterns in enacting new policy. (underline added)[3]


Let’s note that the outcome of the 2016 presidential election was decided by a handful of votes in a few key states. Statistical analysis inherently occurs within a margin of error. If a handful of people who were on the margin decided to go this way or that, and that decision decided the election, it is doubtful that one can say that THE cause was economic and not cultural or was cultural and not economic. Those same people might have voted differently a week before the election or a week later, depending on who-knows-what.


The quote above seems to imply that if one concludes that THE cause was cultural – and therefore without “virtue” – focusing on economics would lead to the wrong policy choice (presumably a choice by Democrats seeking to win back the lost votes). As political advice, however, the virtue/culture observation is not particularly useful. It might even seem to suggest that Democrats should become more racist or nativist if they want to win. Such a strategy would likely cost Democrats more votes than it could gain. Nor is it likely that labeling the voters the Democrats need to convince as white-privileged racists would be a winning tactic.


For 2018, elections are mainly local affairs (since President Trump is not on the ballot). The old saying that all politics is local would seem to be particularly apt. Waiting for a supposed inevitable blue wave was never a good approach to the 2018 elections. Overall unemployment below 4%. There is the prospect that that President Trump might emerge from the North Korean affair with something he could brag about (whether or not it truly deals with the issue). So local economic conditions – not macroeconomics or foreign policy – are the main lever available in “swing” districts. Broad statistical studies - where you need to be 95% confident to assert an association - are of limited value in finding the issues that might induce the needed handful of voters to vote for a change in this district or that one.

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Footnotes:

[1] http://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/early/2018/04/18/1718155115.full.pdf; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/06/opinion/trump-supporters-economy-racism.html; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/03/opinion/trump-industrial-revolutions.html.   

[2] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/democratic-momentum-poll_us_5ae789a7e4b055fd7fcedaac. See also http://www.rollcall.com/news/politics/poll-millennial-support-democrats-slips-9-points-two-years

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/24/us/politics/trump-economic-anxiety.html.

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