Economics Isn’t the Only Factor

There are several interesting ideas in F. H. Buckley’s op-ed at the Wall Street Journal on the effects of the social/identity and economic dimensions on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election:

Before the arrival of Donald Trump, the Republican establishment tended to define politics along a one-dimensional economic axis. Their Democratic opponents were socialists while they were the growth and opportunity party. Mitt Romney’s candidacy embodied this view. His campaign’s 59-point plan of sensible free-market ideas was a manifesto for Republican insiders. No one but them ever read it. The Republican one-dimensional man was left in 2012’s dustbin.

The Voter Study Group’s Lee Drutman recently looked beyond the simple left-right paradigm in a questionnaire asking 2016 voters to identify both how they voted and how they felt about various economic and social issues. Mr. Drutman then mapped the results in a diagram, with economic preferences on the horizontal axis and social preferences on the vertical. The diagram revealed some surprising insights about American politics.

Most Hillary Clinton voters were deeply liberal on both axes. The surprise was the Trump voters, who were very conservative on social issues but moderate on economic ones. By Mr. Drutman’s count, 73% of all voters were left of center on economics. Most of the remaining Trump supporters were quite moderate on economic questions.

After the election, the so-called NeverTrumpers claimed that each of their favored candidates would also have beaten Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Drutman’s figures show what a pipe dream that is. A presidential candidate like Ted Cruz, who defines himself primarily through right-wing economic policies, begins with nearly three-quarters of the electorate in the other camp. Such a candidate isn’t likely to go very far.

While the great majority of voters were liberal on economic issues, a small majority (52%) were social conservatives at the top of the diagram, enough to swing the election to Mr. Trump. Only 3.8% of voters were libertarians in the lower-right quadrant, socially liberal and economically conservative. They split their votes evenly between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton.

The crucial differences between the two parties came down to social concerns, including pride in America, immigration, and especially moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage. The social-conservative awakening that helped elect Mr. Trump came when voters recognized that the liberal agenda amounted to something more than a shield to protect sexual minorities. It was also a sword to be used against social conservatives.

The Trump voters might have grumbled about the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision, but same-sex marriage didn’t pick anyone’s pockets and no great political protest followed. That changed, however, when homosexual activists employed their newly won rights to start putting religious believers out of business.

In particular, the Democrats gave the back of their hand to Catholic voters, the principal bloc of swing voters in America. Democrats of the past would have been horrified to learn that their party makes faithful Catholics feel unwanted: That’s what they thought Republicans did. But Mr. Trump courted white Catholics, and they provided him with the winning margins in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. Those three states determined the outcome of the election.

Among them are the multiple dimensions that affect an election. The bulk of the electorate don’t cast their votes for a single reason but for multiple reasons including social/identify, affiliation, policies, economic, and other reasons. Trying to isolate the reasons for voting to any single factor is an exercise in self-delusion.

But look at the scattergraph from the op-ed that I’ve reproduced above! Note how concentrated the Clinton vote was in the lower left hand quadrant. That tells us that there really is no practical way for Democrats to eschew identity politics in pursuit of “Trump voters” (if there are such things). Today’s Democratic Party is identity politics.

17 comments… add one
  • Tom Maguire

    Any speculation in the (firewalled) piece about how Bernie might have fared?

  • No, Sanders goes unmentioned. Here’s the balance of the op-ed:

    The sweet spot in American politics is thus the upper-left quadrant of the double majority: economic liberals and social conservatives. It’s the place where presidential elections are won, and the winner is usually going to be the candidate who’s won’t touch Social Security and who promises to nominate judges in the mold of Antonin Scalia. In other words—Donald Trump. Mr. Drutman labeled such voters populists, but I prefer the term that Mr. Trump himself has applied to them: the Republican “workers party.” They constituted nearly 30% of voters in 2016 and they split 3 to 1 for Mr. Trump.

    What of the future? The Democrats know they’re in a bind. They want to learn how to connect with the forgotten voter in the heartland, but the “Better Deal” they trotted out last month is simply more left-wing economics. The problem for Democrats is they’ve already nailed the pocketbook issue. It’s on the social side where they’re weak. It’s hard to see how they can moderate their maximalist positions on abortion, Black Lives Matter and transgender issues. The entire current leadership of the Democratic Party would need to be replaced.

    That’s not likely to happen. Instead, the Democrats will bet on the triumph of their socially liberal ideas, force-fed to students at our universities and preached by most media outlets. They assume that the arc of history, to which President Obama so frequently appealed, bends only their way and that all history moves in their direction. Everything that has gone before was merely a prologue for history’s apotheosis in the persons of Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton—it’s Herbert Butterfield’s Whig theory of history dressed up as a campaign strategy.

    The Republicans won the 2016 presidential election, but it hasn’t made governing any easier. Because of the separation of powers, there are now two—or maybe even more—different Republican parties. For presidential elections, however, the Republican Workers Party will be the future of American politics.

    I particularly like the notion of Whig history as campaign strategy.

  • TastyBits

    Not all Trump voters are Trump supporters, and some of these supporters are only part time Trump supporters. And, some of these part time Trump supporters are not Trump voters.

    You could probably add a z-axis and a time component to the spectrum.

    I think that the gay marriage issue is similar to many other social, economic, political, etc. issues. It turns out that President Obama had a mainstream position on gay marriage. He was against it before he was for it.

  • steve

    This is over reading things. Hillary is the big X factor. I still think that almost any other half decent Democrat beats Trump and then we have a different chart. Also, I am pretty sure that with all of the data out on how white people voted for Trump because they feel oppressed, I think you would have to say that both parties are engaging in identity politics, it is just that the GOP has been better at it. The “wall” was really effective.

    On the Dem side, I think that transgender was a bridge too far. It has such a strong yuk factor, especially the bathroom and shower stuff in schools, that they actively lose a lot of independents and some of their own voters by pushing this issue.


  • I think you would have to say that both parties are engaging in identity politics, it is just that the GOP has been better at it. The “wall” was really effective.

    But that isn’t what the scattergraph tells us. To take that position you have to establish the claim that the scattergraph is a phony.

    On the Dem side, I think that transgender was a bridge too far.

    And the numbers are so small. In the world of the Platonic ideal that might not make a difference but in the real, pragmatic one we live in it does.

    I think it’s interesting to compare the strategy used in normalizing homosexuality with what’s being attempted WRT transgenderism. Quite a few years ago they got homosexuality removed from the DSM. The politics of that is quite interesting.

    However, that set the stage for everything that was to come. That opportunity isn’t available for transgenderism. They need it to be a treatable condition.

  • PD Shaw

    That is a curious distribution. It seems on most ideological quizzes a lot of Americans, or let’s say college-educated, middle-class Americans, are going to be in the lower right quadrant, as moderately fiscal conservatives / socially liberal. I assume the questions selected are different, so is the result, but I think the result suggests a lot of the electorate is not necessarily where the blogosphere resides.

  • Andy

    I’m perplexed like PD at the emptiness of the lower-right quadrant and also that that the left half of the graph holds a huge majority of voters. Perhaps I’m missing something, but it doesn’t seem to me that a solid majority of Americans are economic liberals.

    I’d like to see the methodology used to make that graph.

  • Here’s a non-firewalled link to the study. I think it should clear up some of your questions. He does make some mention of Sanders supporters in it and casts a little cold water on the hypothesis that Sanders could have beaten Trump.

    BTW, my view is that the main thing we can conclude from the 2016 presidential election is that there are a lot of disaffected voters.

  • Andy


  • Modulo Myself

    Steve’s right about Hillary. Worst candidate for the 2016 election. I bet nobody in her campaign really even imagined winning the popular vote but losing the EC.

    And if you look at that chart as simply a collection of particles, it really looks like the blue particles are trying their best to keep away from the red. Hillary was basically the face of the blue particles–nobody reacts to being called ‘deplorable’ like Trump voters did without secretly believing that yes in fact we are deplorable. She was the worst possible candidate for defusing this dynamic without alienating the blue particles.

  • steve

    “But that isn’t what the scattergraph tells us. To take that position you have to establish the claim that the scattergraph is a phony.”

    Not so much phony as not having the questions to find other groups. AS PD noted, seems like there should be people in that lower right corner.


  • CStanley

    Is the dearth of people in the lower right perhaps due to an attempt to tease out those who think of themselves as economic conservatives but in reality support redistribution that benefits them, like SS and Medicare? I’m thinking of the Tea Party, for instance.

  • CStanley

    BTW, my view is that the main thing we can conclude from the 2016 presidential election is that there are a lot of disaffected voters.

    That is my view too, and my reaction to steve’s comment about any other Democrat beating Trump. While that may be true, it doesn’t mean that person would be any more successful at governing, and it might have just prolonged the reckoning.

  • Andy

    Here’s where the dataset comes from:

    “The Democracy Fund Voter Study Group is using a unique longitudinal data set that most recently surveyed 8,000 adults (age 18+) in December 2016 via YouGov. Participants were identified from a pool of respondents who participated in a similar survey in December 2011 as well as a second pre-election interview in 2012 and a third interview following the 2012 presidential election. For these 8,000 respondents, we have measures of their political attitudes, values, and affinities in 2011 as well as self-reports of their turnout and vote choice in November 2012. The full dataset will be made available in the coming weeks. ”

    And the methodology.

    The scatterplot was created by the author using the following criteria from that dataset:

    To do this, I created two new indexes:

    – An economic liberalism-conservatism index (which combines views on the social safety net, trade, inequality, and active government)

    – A social/identity liberalism-conservatism politics index (which combines the moral issues index plus views toward African-Americans, immigrants, and Muslims).

    I think there is a lot of diversity within these two categories that gets averaged out and actually the author discusses this diversity in several instances. Unfortunately the author doesn’t describe the how his indices are calculated.

    Anyway, I think the Key Findings are reasonable and also troubling.

  • Ben Wolf

    There’s a clip of a Fox News employee saying something rather shocking within the video linked below (I couldn’t find the clip separately) and I think it explains a great deal as to why Republicans keep winning while voters are economically left.

    Only a couple of years ago such a statement on Fox would have been anathema, but the change is representative of the real brilliance behind Trumpism: its appropriation of the class struggle language of the Old Left. See if you can spot what I’m talking about.

  • Ben Wolf


    Teasing out the economic leftism of the average American is a matter of how one asks the question. As an example, if you ask specifically whether they like Medicare For All, you find plurality support. If you ask more generally whether they think the federal government should make sure everybody gets health care, you get a large majority saying yes. The same appears to apply regarding issues like commercial monopoly. If one asks whether government should make breaking it up a priority most people say yes. Ask whether they support breaking up an individual company and support falls.

  • I noticed in that clip that they’re still blaming the wrong people. Don’t blame the corporate donors. Blame the corrupt Democratic leadership. There’s mounting evidence, for example, that the “hack” of the DNC wasn’t a hack at all but a leak, i.e. an inside job. That they’ll blame anybody but themselves is a tell. The object of the game is keeping their phony-baloney jobs.

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