Which Percentages, Which Bars

March 13, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Whence Trumpismo, as ABC calls it (here), as though he were a Latin American dictator? Where does Trump get his support? Who are the voters that prefer Trump to the other candidates?

The latest ABC/WaPo poll, out today, has some answers. But it also has some bafflingly screwed-up ways of setting out the results. For example, the ABC write-up (by Chad Kiewiet De Jonge) says what many have been saying: “Trump’s support stems from economic discontent, particularly among working-class whites.” Appropriately, the poll asked people how they were doing economically – were they Struggling, Comfortable, or Moving Up?

That’s pretty clear: economic circumstances is the independent variable, candidate preference is the dependent variable. You compare these groups and find that Strugglers are far more likely to support Trump than were the folks who are better off. Instead, we get a chart percentaged the other way.

Instead of comparing people of different economic circumstances, it compares the supporters of the different candidates. And it doesn’t even do that correctly. If you want to compare Trump backers with Cruz, and Rubio/Kasich backers, the candidates should be the columns. (The poll merged Rubio and Kasich supporters for purposes of sample size.) Here’s the same data. Which chart is easier to interpret?

This makes the comparison a bit easier.  The margin of error is about 5 points. So Trump supporters might be somewhat more likely to see their economic circumstances as a struggle.

There’s a similar problem with their analysis of authoritarianism. “It’s also been argued that people who are predisposed to value order, obedience and respect for traditional authority tend to be strongly attracted to Trump.” But instead of comparing the very authoritarian with the less so, ABC/WaPo again compares the supporters of Trump, Cruz, and Rubio/Kasich.

Instead of telling us who authoritarians prefer, this analysis tells us which candidate’s backers have a higher proportion of authoritarians. And again, even for that, it makes the answer hard to see. Same data, different chart.

Cruz supporters, not Trumpistas, are the most authoritarian, probably because of that old time religion, the kind that emphasizes respect for one’s elders. (For more on Cruz supporters and uncompassionate Christian conservatism, see this post.)

The poll has worthwhile data, and it gets the other charts right. The pdf lists Abt SRBI and Langer Research as having done the survey and analysis. To their credit, they present a regression model of the variables that is far more sophisticated than what the popular press usually reports. But come on guys, percentage on the independent variable.

The Workers

March 13, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The last time I heard anyone talk about “the workers” was in Paris in 1976. A Hungarian student I met there was interested in Freud, but in Hungary it was hard to get books on psychoanalysis. Publishing resources (all government operated) were mostly devoted, she said, to books for the workers. She was not a strong supporter of the government, but she did say that it had made life better for the workers.

What struck me was the way she used that phrase, “the workers,” without a hint of ironic quotation marks, even when she was expressing some intellectual disdain for them. To me it sounded quaint, like something out of a past I had heard of but didn’t really remember. In America, we have workers, of course. Everybody works.  But we do not speak of “the workers.” That definite article would imply that they are a distinct class, a group with interests that are different from those of other groups. The Redsox, the Dodgers; the faculty, the students.

“The workers” also implies that social class is based on relation to the means of production. That’s not a thought that comes easily to Americans. When I ask students about social class, the first thing they mention is income, but when I ask for other aspects of class, long before someone mentions occupation, the responses run to “lifestyle” choices – consumption not production.

I was reminded of the absence of “the workers” recently when my colleague Vikas Singh noted this sentence in a student's paper on alienation: “We, the customers are alienated from one’s own labor.” “Alienated customers”? Was this a slip of the pen? Or was it, as Vikas thought, an indication of how far we have come in conflating “consumer” and “worker”?

To see what has happened to “the workers,” I ran the phrase in Google nGrams, and just to check on American exceptionalism, I compared the British and American corpuses.

The trends follow a similar pattern – rising to about 1940, then declining – but the rise of “the workers” in the 1930s was much steeper in the UK than in the US. After the decline during the War, Britain, with its socialist government saw a renewed interest in “the workers.” The downturn begins almost exactly at the point that the Conservatives and Thatcher come to power in 1979. In the US the downward trend is a nearly uninterrupted decline starting in 1937. By the end of the century, “the workers” appears only about a third as often as it had during the 1930s.

There’s a more recent trend in what we call people who work. They are still “workers” (though not “the workers”), but that term is fading. More and more they are “employees.”

From 1930 to 1980, workers outnumbered employees two or even three to one. Since 1980, that margin has fallen to about 1.5 to one. Perhaps the trend in words reflects the change in the labor market. “Workers” still wears its blue collar, and those manufacturing jobs have fallen from about 19 million in 1980 to 12 million today.

Fewer workers, more “employees,” a term that elides the difference between the sales clerk and the CEO. And perhaps that is the way we think about class. The sales clerk and the CEO have the same relation to the means of production; they both go to work and get a company paycheck. It’s just that the CEO’s paycheck allows for different lifestyle choices.

A Dream Disconfirmed

March 7, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

What happens to a dream disconfirmed? Does it dry up, a dream no longer? Or does it make commitment even stronger?

Ever since When Prophecy Fails, the 1956 study of a flying saucer cult, we’ve known the answer. People will reshape what they know and what they feel in order to preserve an idea that no longer squares with reality.

Failed prophecy was also the theme of a wonderful segment by Zoe Chace on This American Life two weeks ago. She had been spending time in South Carolina in the months before the primary there, and one of the people she met, Alex Chalgren, director of the state’s Students for Trump, was too good a story to pass up. Listen to the podcast (here), and you’ll get a sense of how remarkable and likable he is. You’ll also get a sense of how strongly he supported Trump.

You wouldn’t expect Alex Chalgren to be a Trump supporter. He’s not an angry White man. He is a male, but he’s a high school kid, eighteen years old. He’s not angry, and he is Black.

His early years were rough. He was bounced around from his biological parents to foster homes and back, to group homes and back to foster homes. Then, after a year of asking, he got his teacher in the third grade to adopt him. She later married, and now Alex has two loving parents, both White.

Alex shares the usual conservative talking points – hard work, not handouts; a wall against illegal immigrants; destruction of ISIS – and like his parents he’s an evangelical Christian. But then why not support Ted Cruz as his parents do?

There’s one issue that separates Trump from the Cruz and the others, and for Alex that issue makes all the difference – gay marriage.  “Trump is fine with gay marriage,” Alex tells Chace back in January.
“I'm gay. And so it’s big for me. And everyone knows I’m gay. . . . My parents know. Everyone knows. . . .  Trump is fine with gay marriage, thank goodness. And he’s a realist. He knows that as society moves on, we must move on. . . .   My biggest concern is gay marriage and the economy. For example, if it comes down to Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders, I might not vote or I might vote for Bernie Sanders.”

Now comes cognitive dissonance. The source of the dissonance was not his family – their love for one another clashing with their strong differences about homosexuality. They’d gotten past that. It was Trump.

As Chace says, Trump’s statement contradicts his previous position. Worse, it would seem to leave Alex in a Wile E. Coyote moment. He looks down and discovers that his grounds for supporting Trump have vanished. But unlike Wile E. Coyote, Alex can exercise the powers of mind over what matters. For example, he can say that what he sees and hears is merely a mirage and that Trump doesn’t mean what he’s just said. He can also deny that Trump’s statement is of any importance since it will not reverse the upward arc of gay marriage, and besides, some things are more important than even gay marriage – things like “the survival of our country.”

When people are faced with evidence that contradicts a strongly held idea, they adjust their perceptions and interpretations so as to protect their beliefs. When the flying saucers did not appear at the appointed hour, the members of the flying saucer cult in When Prophecy Fails did not stop believing. They came up with an explanation just as Alex did when Trump hedged his position on gay marriage. This tweaking of cognitions is not surprising. But the members of the UFO group also had a collective emotional reaction, one that was less predictable. The immediate despair and doubt gave way to enthusiasm as they took to spreading the word about the imminent arrival of UFOs. 
The sequence goes something like this
  • public commitment to an idea
  • disconfirmation of that idea
  • stronger and more emotional commitment to that idea (as long as there is a group to support that sustained commitment)
Alex seems to have gone through a similar transformation.

His main reason for supporting Trump has been disconfirmed, but his commitment is even stronger. He has raised the stakes from a rational support of Trump’s politics to a personal identification with Trump himself.  “You see how I do my hands here? That’s like Trump. He does this.”*

* Needless to say, this was before the leading candidates of the party of Lincoln became obsessed with the length of Trump’s fingers and what that length might betoken.

(Earlier posts on reactions to failed prophecy are here  and here.)

Ignorant, Apathetic . . . and Realistic?

March 5, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Here’s a multiple-choice question:

1. Voting by people like me
    a.  doesn’t really affect how the government runs things
    b. gives people some say about how the government runs things

Yesterday, Pew (here) told us how we answered this question.

The Pew survey was concerned mostly with how people are getting their news about the presidential campaign. But yesterday’s report focused on those few Americans (9%) who are content to let a week or more go by without getting any news about the election.

“Half of this group thinks that their vote doesn’t really affect how the government runs things.”

The two sentiments – about the news and about one’s own influence – seem to be part of a more general feeling of alienation from government. The General Social Survey used to ask about this alienation with the variable ANOMIA7, which asks people to Agree or Disagree with the statement, “Most public officials (people in public office) are not really interested in the problems of the average man.” A clear majority – never less than 65% agree.

The GSS hasn’t asked this one since 2006, and the time before that was 1994 (maybe that “average man” has something to do with it.) A similar item in the 2102 GSS allowed for a more nuanced response.

This looks more like the uninformed Pew respondents – evenly split between “None/A Little” and “Some or more.”

But which side has the correct answer to that multiple-choice question? The disaffected, alienated citizens, the ones who don’t care to find out about the election and don’t think their vote or ideas matter – they are ignorant and apathetic. But might they also be realistic? And those of us who watch the news and the debates, who check out the political tweets in our Twitter feed – we’re certain to vote come November. We want to make a difference. But are we fooling ourselves?

In their 2014 paper (here) which got some attention even in the popular press, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page looked at 1779 policy decisions to see how the actual outcomes lined up with the preferences of three different types of people or groups
  • organized interest groups
  • “economic elites”
  • average citizens
They graphed the results to show how likely a policy was to be adopted at each level of support from each type of source.  For interest groups, they counted up the interest groups that favored a policy and subtracted the number that opposed it.

The more that interest groups were relatively unanimous in favor of a policy, the more likely the government was to adopt that policy.  (The preferences of interest groups were frequently similar to those of elites and to those of the public, so the authors statistically controlled for this overlap. The graphs show the effect of just one variable controlling for the effects of the other two.)

The data on economic elites showed the same kind of influence. The more that rich people were together on an issue, the more likely they were to get their way.

What about the average citizen?

The slope is close to zero. Ninety percent of average citizens may favor or oppose some policy, but  their preferences have little impact (unless, of course, these preferences are also those of interest groups or, especially, economic elites). These folks may be citizens united, but they are also citizens powerless.
As Gilens and Page summarize their findings.

Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all. By contrast, economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy. This does not mean that theories of Economic-Elite Domination are wholly upheld, since our results indicate that individual elites must share their policy influence with organized interest groups. Still, economic elites stand out as quite influential—more so than any other set of actors studied here—in the making of U.S. public policy.

When I first looked at the Pew data on the alienated non-voters, I thought about it in terms of cognitive consistency. If you don’t feel that your vote makes a difference, it makes no sense to bother finding out about the candidates.

The same logic applies to the “good” citizens. If you follow the news, if you develop a preference for a candidate, if you think it’s important who gets elected, then you will be more likely to vote. And if you’re going to vote, it would make sense to also think that your vote made a difference. So the news followers develop a false sense of efficacy. If the Gilens-Page study is right, however, if you want to have any influence at all, voting is far less important that other things you might do, like aligning yourself with an interest group, or getting rich – really, really rich.