In a recent article at the usually excellent Washington Post “Monkey Cage” blog, Thomas Wood attempts to argue that, “Racism motivated Trump voters more than authoritarianism.”
To make his case, Dr. Wood leads with a chart showing that, contrary to popular narratives (like this one), Trump voters actually seem less supportive of authoritarianism than those who voted for Romney or McCain.
He then turns to racism—and in particular, data exploring partisan differences in endorsements of “symbolic racism” among whites. Here is the chart:
Now, for the sake of intellectual charity we’ll set aside questions about the extent to which his authoritarianism and symbolic racism scales are accurate measures of respondents’ mental states. We’ll just grant, for the sake of argument, that these are accurate measures of racist and authoritarian tendencies, and that the survey population is sufficiently representative that one could make sound generalizations about Trump and Clinton voters on the basis of his study. With these concessions in mind, what does the data show us?
One thing readers may notice about the second chart, which Dr. Wood makes the centerpiece of his argument, is that the gap between Democrats and Republicans is larger in 2016 than in previous cycles—suggesting race likely played a much bigger role in the 2016 election than in previous years. This is an interesting finding, to which we’ll return in a moment. In the meantime, however, readers should note that Dr. Wood’s data does not suggest that Trump voters were especially motivated by racism. In fact, it points in the opposite direction.
Among both Democrats and Republicans, whites were less likely to endorse symbolic racism in 2016 than they were in 2012. In other words, whites who voted for Trump are actually less likely to endorse symbolic racism than those who voted for Romney. The same holds for Democrats who voted for Clinton relative to those who voted for Obama (in either term).
So, not only are white Republican voters less authoritarian than they have been in previous cycles, it seems as though they’re less racist too. This is truly a newsworthy and provocative finding about Trump voters that would have certainly served as the springboard for rich discussion and further research.
Unfortunately, Dr. Wood never even addresses this phenomenon. He ignores Republican voters’ longitudinal trend and instead focuses on the gap between Democrats and Republicans on his chart—in the service of a conclusion his data does not support.
Dr. Wood asserts, “Since 1988, we’ve never seen such a clear correspondence between vote choice and racial perceptions.” He goes on to concede that, “The biggest movement was among those who voted for the Democrat, who were far less likely to agree with attitudes coded as more racially biased.” This is an understatement.
In fact, the Republican symbolic racism trend was actually towards convergence with the other party. Change in Democrat sentiment drives literally the entire divergence effect he’s referring to…in an article that is supposed to explain Trump voters. This is not a good look.
To elaborate: the gap between Democrats and Republicans was caused, not because Trump voters were more likely to endorse symbolic racism than Republicans in previous cycles (again, the exact opposite is true), but instead because Democrats went out of their way to emphasize just how non-racist they were in 2016—(ostensibly) rejecting symbolic racism more powerfully than they ever have over the 28 years of data presented. They appeared to reject racism far more in this cycle than they did when an actual black candidate was on the ballot–from their own party, no less–the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama. Indeed, Dr. Wood’s data suggest that racist sentiment among Democrats actually increased in 2008, and more-or-less held at that higher level in 2012. This renders the unprecedented drop among Democrats in 2016 even more interesting.
Indeed, if Dr. Wood wanted to focus on the change in the partisan gap among symbolic racism indicators, given that Democrats are the ones driving that effect, the article should have been about them. Such a story would not suggest that Trump voters are especially motivated by racism—again, his own data confound that claim. Instead, perhaps Clinton voters were particularly motivated by…anti-racism? (This is disputed.) He could even still say something like “moving from the 50th to the 25th percentile in the symbolic racism scale rendered whites 20 percent more likely to vote for Clinton” if he wanted–only now he wouldn’t be making misleading insinuations about Trump voters in the process.
On the other hand, if Dr. Wood really wanted to make the article about Trump supporters instead, he should have been far more responsible in describing his results: the “unprecedented” partisan divide among symbolic racism indicators should not have been part of the story at all. Given that it is entirely a product of a severe aberration among Democrats, it isn’t clear what, if anything, can be inferred about Trump voters from the gap.
With regards to the relative significance of authoritarianism and racism, he could have more legitimately asserted that, “Trump voters seem to be more strongly influenced by racism than authoritarianism–although they were less motivated by either of these factors than Republican voters have been in previous cycles.” This latter part–which he omitted–is the significant story in his data on Trump voters (as compared to those who voted for other Republican candidates).
Dr. Wood should have also been explicit about how much of the total variance in voting behavior was explained by the factors he focused on, as reflected in the R2 of his regressions. I suspect a majority of the variance would remain unexplained by his authoritarianism and racism scales.
Following these standard best-practices would have had the added virtue of drawing readers’ minds to the following question: “if both racism and authoritarianism were less appealing to white Trump voters than to previous Republican constituencies—and if they don’t explain most of the variance in voting behavior anyway–is there some other omitted variable that may explain Trump voters even better?”
My informed guess is that one factor that would likely predict support for Trump over Clinton far better than racism or authoritarianism would be something like, “opposition to the status quo” or “opposition to the political establishment” or “desire for major social change” or “distrust of major social institutions.” Indeed, Dr. Wood’s own data suggests that the antipathy between Trump voters and social elites was mutual. To quote: “the degree to which the wealthy disdained the 2016 Republican candidate was without recent historical precedent.”
But of course, social researchers overwhelmingly identify with the Left. They usually think of opposition to the political establishment or status quo as positive traits, and claim to champion those disdained by the rich and powerful. Therefore testing these omitted variables would require openness to the possibility that the very people progressives seem to despise most of all (Trump voters) might actually be motivated by–or outright embody–some trait they deeply admire.
In far too many instances, it is just assumed that Trump voters must be motivated primarily by some “bad” factor (ignorance, authoritarianism, racism, sexism, etc.); the task of social researchers is reduced to merely nailing down which of these morally-contemptible traits best explains the data. Meanwhile, by failing to discuss the extent to which Clinton voters were also motivated by negative impulses (the same ones or others), it is implied that their votes must have instead been guided primarily by benign traits such as love for their fellow man, patriotism, rational self-interest, etc. Dr. Wood’s essay was an exemplar of this genre.
Statistically, he was able to paint this picture because the decline in authoritarianism was greater than the decline in racism, while the decline in endorsing symbolic racism among Democrats was larger than the decline among Republicans. So even through there were actually declines across the board, symbolic racism could be made to seem relatively more significant–if that were the impression one wanted to convey. Of course, pointing to a decline in racism among Republicans in 2016 to demonstrate that Trump voters are particularly racist is an obviously bizarre and incoherent way of interpreting the data. Yet that is precisely what Dr. Wood did.
A Teachable Moment?
How is it possible that a scholar who presumably knows better could make such glaring errors–and subsequently have such obviously flawed work approved by a group of other smart people who also know better?
Although Dr. Wood is a Republican who worked on the Romney campaign, one of the big stories of 2016 was the disdain Romney’s faction of the party felt towards Trump and his supporters. These sentiments are also widely held on the Left, especially within the academy. A convergence of motivated reasoning on his part, and confirmation bias on the part of his reviewers, likely contributed to this weak piece of scholarship being published.
Of course, the essay in question was not just written by a professor of political science at a major state university and vetted by a team of prominent wonks—it was also published in the Washington Post, presumably with some editorial oversight from the paper in the process. Unfortunately, an additional layer of review would be unlikely to help in this instance given that the same ideological bubbles that plague institutions of higher learning also distort the work of many mainstream media organizations.
Given their ubiquity, combatting systematic biases in social research will not be easy. However, getting a handle on this problem will likely prove necessary for ensuring the continued utility, credibility, and viability of the enterprise.
In the meantime, given how deeply passions about Trump run among social researchers (scholars are people too, after all), the burgeoning field of literature on Trump and his supporters should be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism and a critical eye (for instance, consider the obvious but largely unaddressed confounds of those “white supremacy” narratives about Trump’s election).
Indeed, this is especially important for Trump’s “resistance”: if they want a viable chance of beating him in 2020 (and, as things currently stand, the odds are not in their favor), then they’ll need a sober understanding of who voted for Trump and how best to reach them…even if this means being more charitable towards Trump voters than they feel naturally inclined to be.