Donald Trump and the Failure of Mainstream Social Science Part II

Donald Trump and the Failure of Mainstream Social Science Part II

Uri Harris
Uri Harris

I published an article Sunday where I argued that mainstream social science is pervaded by ideology and that this blocks good scientific methodology. In this article, I cover a concrete example that is relatively recent and available online, a paper titled Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash.

Published in August 2016, the paper’s authors are Ronald F. Inglehart of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Ann Arber and Pippa Norris, McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. It’s part of the Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Research Working Paper Series. Harvard is one of the world’s most prestigious public policy universities, and Norris is one of the world’s most cited political scientists.

The paper’s objective is to identify the main cause of the rise in support for ‘populist’ parties that have disrupted politics in many Western societies. Two causes are considered: economic disaffection and cultural disaffection. The paper examines each cause by connecting them to different demographics through hypothesis and survey results, and then comparing that to demographic data on supporters of these parties. They find that the main cause is cultural: religious people, white people, older people, and men are overrepresented among voters of populist parties, and since these groups tend to hold traditional values they are most likely disaffected by cultural change.

Superficially, this sounds like good scientific methodology. I will argue that it is not, due to the insertion of ideology that blocks genuine scientific analysis, and that the conclusions of the research suffer from it.

The first methodological problem is the pervasive use of morally charged language. For example, the words xenophobia/xenophobic appear 15 times in the paper. One instance is part of the definition of their object of analysis (p. 7):

“Populism” is a standard way of referring to this syndrome; emphasizing its allegedly broad roots in ordinary people; it might equally well be described as xenophobic authoritarianism.

The words authoritarian/authoritarianism appear 21 times (including figures). For instance (p. 6):

During the last two decades, in many countries, parties led by authoritarian leaders have grown in popularity, gaining legislative seats, reaching ministerial office, and holding the balance of power.

The words nativist/nativism appear 6 times. For instance (p. 30):

Populist forces have already proven decisive for the outcome of the British referendum on membership in the European Union in June 2016, with their leaders igniting anti-immigrant and nativist sentiments in England.

The problem with morally charged words is that they are effectively a conflation of two things: a descriptive statement and a moral judgement. This leads to two problems.

First, they give the appearance of being scientific without really being scientific. The word xenophobia uses the naming practice commonly used to diagnose psychological disorders — phobia — to make it seem like questioning large-scale immigration or critiquing cultural practices is a psychological disorder. It isn’t. It’s a moral judgement designed to seem scientific, especially to non-scientists who find themselves browbeaten by words like this. The danger is that scientists themselves are tricked into thinking their analysis is more objective than it is.

Second, it inserts vagueness into the analysis because moral beliefs themselves are vague and often implicit. Is it nativist to cheer for the national football team? Is Barack Obama authoritarian? Are people who criticise female circumcision xenophobic? There are no accurate answers to these questions since the words are based on vague moral judgements. What ‘xenophobe’ effectively means is ‘a person who criticises foreign cultures or resists immigration to the extent that I personally consider immoral’.

This doesn’t just apply to negatively charged moral language, but to positively charged moral language as well. For example, the word progressive appears in the paper 28 times. For instance (p. 14):

In particular, it is well-established that education, age, and gender are strong predictors of support for progressive values.

The effects are the same as with the negatively charged moral language: introduction of vague, moral beliefs into the analysis are made to seem scientific. The word progressive relies on the notion of an arrow of time stretching from the past into the future, and ties a set of values to that notion. But, of course, it’s not a given that these values will stretch endlessly into the future. After all, many Christians were convinced when Christianity was the dominant belief system that the spread of Christianity was identical to progress, and that it was destined to spread everywhere eventually.

Furthermore, it establishes through assumption that since the spread of a particular set of values is identical to progress, anyone opposing these values is backward by definition.

All this morally-charged language introduces vague moral ideology into the analysis, under the guise of science. The consequence of this reveals itself when the authors develop their analytical framework and end up with a framework that seemingly aligns perfectly with their ideology. (At least with respect to cultural values, which is the core of the analysis.) This is unsurprising; when you articulate your research in morally charged language, you inevitably end up with a moral framework.

The framework developed by the researchers is essentially a continuum from moral to immoral. On the one end on the continuum sits an amalgamation of all that is moral to the authors: pluralistic democracy, tolerant multiculturalism, multilateralism, and progressive values. These people are cosmopolitans, which as the authors point out is Greek for ‘citizen of the world’. On the other end sits an amalgamation of all that is immoral to the authors: anti-establishment sentiment, a strong leader, popular will, nationalism and traditional values. These people are populists, or as the authors point out earlier in their paper, they could equally be described as xenophobic authoritarians.

This is not an empirically sound framework, it’s just a bunch of vague, morally charged words. Needless to say, problems arise when the authors then try to use this framework for their empirical analysis, which amounts to placing voters somewhere on the moral-to-immoral continuum.

Firstly, it fails to account for conflicts within these values. They’re so loosely defined that it seems like they all fit together seamlessly, until they are applied to real-life situations. Consider the authors’ take on the resistance to political correctness that to various degrees characterises much recent political debate (p. 29):

Less educated and older citizens, especially white men, who were once the privileged majority culture in Western societies, resent being told that traditional values are ‘politically incorrect’ if they have come to feel that they are being marginalized within their own countries.

And, with reference to Donald Trump (p. 31):

His rejection of “political correctness” seems particularly appealing to older, religious white traditionalists who find themselves left behind by growing support in America for such issues as same-sex marriage, rights for transsexuals, gender equality for women in politics, and immigration rights.

This follows automatically from the authors’ framework. They’ve effectively locked in a set of values under the implicit label of ‘the Good’, and so they’re forced to rationalise opposition to any of it as being immoral (i.e., ‘backward’). There is no other option, because there’s nowhere in the framework to place people who, for example, think that the overzealous enforcement of multiculturalism and/or sexual liberties has stifled free speech on topics such as religiously-motivated terrorism.

And secondly, there is nowhere to place people who think that the large waves of Muslim immigrants in Europe has suppressed cosmopolitan values. The irony, of course, is that many of these immigrants tend to be more religious and less tolerant of various rights than even people that vote for populists. Are these immigrants xenophobic? Are they authoritarian? And where do they fit in the framework?

So there’s nowhere on the moral continuum to place people who resist various forms of cosmopolitan values because they think they conflict with other cosmopolitan values. Nor is there anywhere to place the immigrants, who in many cases would be far toward the ‘immoral’ pole on the authors’ continuum, except that they don’t fit the narrative of the backward old white Christian man.

And if one were to look beyond ideology, one would likely find that these two factors are a huge driver of populist support. The notion that many people in Europe are resisting large-scale immigration because they’re clinging to traditional values is ridiculously simplistic.

But the authors can’t possibly know this, because their analysis never has a chance to get off the ground. By introducing their ideology through morally charged language that then coalesces into a moral continuum, their framework, and thus their analysis, lacks the degrees of freedom to separate the underlying variables where they conflict. And so, unsurprisingly, they end up with the conclusion that their ideology is correct.

And this affects the predictability of their model. The only prediction the authors explicitly make is that populism is likely to continue, which isn’t much of a prediction at all. Implicitly, though, their conclusions point to a prediction that as time passes and older generations of white people die off, Western society will become more ‘cosmopolitan’, i.e., with more pluralistic democracy, tolerant multiculturalism, multilateralism, and progressive values. But is this true?

There are two factors that suggest it might not be the case. Firstly, the fact that the main source of population growth in many Western countries are immigrants or second-generation immigrants who tend to be quite religious and not actually that tolerant of the authors’ cosmopolitan values. Secondly, there appears to be a conflict between certain elements within these values, for example between rights-enforcement and free speech, which might challenge the notions of pluralistic democracy. But these issues are not addressed at all, because they are made impossible a priori by the authors’ ideology.


Uri Harris has an M.Sc. in business and economics. His work can be found at

Photo by Gage Skidmore.


See also: Donald Trump and the Failure of Mainstream Social Science Part I

Donald Trump and the Failure of Mainstream Social Science Part III

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