Is it the economy (stupid), or racism (stupid)?

(The title is a riff on ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’)

Why did so many people vote for Trump? Over the last year I’ve read a lot of articles and posts that, starting from dismay, take one of the following two lines:

  • It’s unfair, patronising, and simplistic to just write off Trump-votes as expressions of xenophobia – we should focus on the real economic distress that these people are feeling, on stagnant wages and lost jobs.
  • It’s evasive special-pleading to not recognise the driving force of xenophobia or racism here (and actually more patronising not to take people at their word); xenophobic racism is a real and powerful phenomenon in Western societies, not just an epiphenomenon of economic interests.

Are Trump (and Le Pen, UKIP, etc.) doing well because of economic hardship, or because of racism? Do they reflect fallout from the 2008 financial crisis or a backlash against multiculturalism and the progress of things like the civil rights movement? (Here’s just one example, which expresses the dispute especially clearly: is “White Nationalism… the prime mover, [or] a symptom”?)

I always feel torn by this question,  and I think part of the challenge is that it’s really more than one question, wrapped up together. On one level it’s a causal question, of the sort that dispassionate social science could investigate: what in fact led to all this? Which past events would have had to not occur, for this not to have occurred?

Would all this not have happened, if there had been no financial crisis and average incomes had kept on increasing (or, more radically, if the benefits of that increase had been spread more evenly)?

Or was some sort of xenophobic backlash inevitable, however well people were doing economically, with things like the financial crisis just providing the pretext and the catalyst, and global movement of jobs and labour just providing the target?

It’s hard to say with confidence. And the two aren’t mutually exclusive factors: maybe both factors are necessary, maybe the outcome we see wouldn’t have happened without both economic stagnation and also pre-existing traditions of xenophobic nationalism. More social science is needed, I suppose, and if anyone can suggest relevant data I’d welcome it.

But there’s another question lying beneath the causal one, a question of emotional relating. The movements in question express a lot of anger, and whether we think of xenophobia as the prime mover or as a symptom decides, in part, how we relate to that anger.

If this anger is really a product of economic distress, then most left-of-centre people will think that the anger is, in itself, appropriate and warranted – just displaced, misdirected. The reaction will be “yes, you’re right to be angry – but the right target isn’t migrants, it’s capitaism/neoliberalism/laissez-faire economics/globalisation/etc.”

But if xenophobia is the prime mover, then most left-of-centre people will think that the anger is unwarranted, something that should simply be let go of. The reaction will be “no, you’re not right to be angry – the things you’re angry about (racial diversity, the declining prestige of Christianity, etc.) are good things that don’t deserve your anger. Maybe the lefties also think you should be angry about capitalism, but that would be a distinct, independent anger.

(Note that both of these views are compatible with being angry at Trump voters – and they should! The question is whether that condemnation says ‘you’ve made a terrible mistake in directing your in-itself-warranted anger’ or ‘you’ve made a terrible mistake out of unwarranted anger’.)

If this is the question on left-leaning people’s minds – whether to endorse xenophobic anger but see it as misdirected, or reject it as something that should be let go – how could we answer it? Well, a question of what this anger is ‘really about’ is a question of meaning, of what a pattern of feelings and thoughts in someone’s mind is representing.

Unfortunately, the most plausible way of thinking about this question of meaning would take us back to the causal question. Someone’s anger is ‘really about’ whatever most directly caused it, even if they for whatever reason express it as being about something else. But then we’re back to asking what caused the anger in question – what in fact made these people so angry in the first place? If the right answer is “a mixture of things”, then is there even a determinate fact about what the anger is ‘really about’?  And if there isn’t, how should left-leaning people relate to it – as something to be redirected, or simply rejected? Is it psychologically or sociologically possible to do ‘a bit of both’?

(Apologies for a post that began with a question and ended with more questions. I’m not saying I’m uncertain about whether to fight this xenophobic movement with all means available – we have to.)

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3 Responses to Is it the economy (stupid), or racism (stupid)?

  1. joanroelofs says:

    I’m glad that you are blogging, and that political philosophy is your issue. I might chip in sometime; I’m in Mexico now and busy with the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende.
    Some say that patriarchy was at the root of the Trump vote. Men lost their jobs and now their wives support the family, and along comes this woman running for President. . .

    • lukeroelofs says:

      Hi Joan, thanks for commenting! I didn’t know about the Center for Global Justice but they look awesome – is that this group:

      Patriarchy is also a candidate explanation, and one I would have talked about if I weren’t trying to curtail my normal tendency to make my posts super-long by including too much. I think it’s a live possibility not only that the direct gender dynamics of the Trump-Clinton contest mattered, but also that people’s gender-identities were a mediating factor in how things like race or economics affected their thinking. The alt-right loves to talk about perceived national and cultural weakness in the (rather nauseating) terms of ‘cuckolding’, and perhaps they’re just articulating a sort of Freudian inter-twining of nationalism and sexuality that’s unconsciously present in more mainstream Trump-voters. Unfortunately it’s hard to evaluate that sort of hypothesis because the counter-factual alternative isn’t clear: we don’t know how people would feel about nationalism if they lived in a non-gendered society, because we don’t have good empirical examples of that.

  2. Allan Olley says:

    I may have misunderstood you but it seems like you are saying these discussions are an attempt at basic understanding. I would understand the motivation to be more about questions of what should be done in response to support of Trump: how they might influence Trump supporters to more constructive political opinions; ask if their are legitimate political issues that Trump supporters are concerned about that their opponents have neglected that need to be taken up; or to give up all hope of suasion/engagement with Trump supporters in favour of focusing on direct political action (protests, court challenges etc.).

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