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Abhor the event: voting patterns and the rise of Trump

With the Republican party going off the rails, why did so many voters act like nothing had changed? 

Michael Goebel
25 November 2016
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Donald Trump. Press Association/Andrew Milligan. All rights reserved

Well before America and the world woke up to the calamitous certainty of a Trump presidency, liberal recriminations and fiercely competing narratives had already emerged. Given the impact of the election, the agitation is as understandable as the divergence of interpretations. The prevention of further contagion — for instance in France’s upcoming election — depends on making sure the diagnosis is correct.

Historians, of course, have no particular prerogative in this debate. However, since Trump’s election is now unfortunately a past event, deciphering its deeper reasons falls into their natural remit. They should sound a word of warning against making too much of the relatively small number of unforeseen voting patterns on November 8. As the great French historian Fernand Braudel once wrote, there are good reasons for social scientists to “abhor the event,” chief among them that “the short-term is the most capricious and deceptive form of time.” We should not let it draw us into too much speculation about the motives of a relatively small minority of voters.

Each of the three major explanations of the election emphasizes one element of the classic triad of race, class, and gender. CNN’s Van Jones famously called the election a “white lash,” the economist Thomas Piketty predictably pinned the outcome on economic inequality, while the feminist historian Joan Scott argued that we should concentrate on why Clinton’s “appeal to reason” fared badly against “Trump’s performance of over-sized masculinity.” The gender and race narratives have both suffered setbacks because many liberals found the voting preference for Hillary among women and minorities wanting in the light of Trump’s aggressive misogyny and racism. 

The notion that class was decisive has proved stickier. The argument is that the victims of globalization have radically articulated their desire for change. A campaign in which one candidate promised continuity and the other a sweeping change, in order to return to a distant idyllic past, seemingly substantiates this assumption. The quantitative centrepiece of the working-class rebellion hypothesis, meanwhile, is that there was a 16-point net swing from Romney to Trump in the income bracket below $30,000.

Those highlighting the centrality of class concede that the Clinton voter was on average poorer than the Trump voter. However, they then point out that this was to be expected and that what truly matters is the shift from one election to the next. In other words, while the 40–45% of the electorate we knew would vote for Trump deserves no analytical attention because they always vote Republican, we should focus our energy on understanding the remaining 4–9% who also did. It’s similar to arguing that short-term changes in the voting patterns of a fraction of the electorate are the one overriding reason for what happened — then admitting only these small short-term changes into the pool of potential explanations.

But should we really be surprised to learn that a populist demagogue who promised jobs and railed against cosmopolitan professionals pulled 16% more of the vote in the bottom income bracket than the staunchly conservative Romney? A part of that surge, at any rate, is explained away by the reversion to the low pre-Obama turnouts among African Americans and Latinos. Of course the fact remains that, as in all elections the world over, class mattered — though more in the form of education and occupation than income. But the question is whether we should be taken aback by how much or by how little the vote changed since 2012?

Outside observers of the American political system will be most baffled by the strange combination of a major party going completely off the rails, while the vast majority of eligible voters behaves as if nothing had happened.

Historians are trained to craft their accounts along the axes of continuity and change. They then build questions based on identifying the most surprising finding that deserves analytical attention. Outside observers of the American political system will be most baffled by the strange combination of a major party going completely off the rails, while the overwhelming majority of eligible voters behaves as if nothing had happened — including vast levels of abstention. Much commentary mistakes the election’s fateful consequences for a landslide at the ballot box. We’d do well in remembering that the outcome differed only marginally from previous results; that it was decided by a few tens of thousand missing votes in the wrong places; and that voters, far from sending a message of change, confirmed the incumbent party in 445 of the 466 seats up for grabs in the House and Senate.

Much of the surprise about changing voting patterns may be the outcome of an overreliance on pre-election polls that marginally overestimated persistence — not so much in terms of whom people would vote, but in terms of who would vote at all. But that polls a few weeks ago already factored in the continuities in voting patterns should not dull our curiosity about this persistence. In light of a campaign, candidate, and now president-elect unlike any other in living memory, we should be most amazed by how little all this impacted what people did on November 8.

The election also confirms many long-term trends in American history, where it has become less common over time for a party to stay in power for more than eight years. Increasingly, change comes from marginally different turnouts rather than from voter migration. Under such circumstances, enthusiasm among followers counts for more than fear of the opposite candidate.

Much of the election’s post-mortem quietly assumes that voters have a set menu of concerns and wishes predating the election and that they then cast their ballot for the best-matching candidate. Yet there are good reasons to question this premise, as political scientists are increasingly discovering the possibility that voters first pick their candidate and then adjust their concerns and wishes to the message they hear from their chosen leader. 

It still seems wiser to “abhor the event” than to hectically over-interpret its “deceptive and capricious” nature. What really needs an explanation is the astonishing stability of the Republican vote in spite of a candidate as morally outrageous as Trump.

 

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