BROOKE GLADSTONE: When President Trump won the 2016 election, defying most predictions, people everywhere looked for an explanation.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The voters rebelled and Donald Trump won the presidency because of that rebellion.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Donald Trump won because of Facebook.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: This is why Trump won, because people are sick of liberals.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Donald Trump won because he ran to change Washington.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eventually, one narrative came to rule them all.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The majority of white working-class voters, concerned about jobs and who wanted change, turned to Trump.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This was the “left behind” theory. White working-class voters were hurting, suffering from stagnant wages and jobs moving overseas and saw in Candidate Trump a way back to economic stability or at least an opportunity to send a big F.U. to the Washington power structure that had left them out of the recovery.
But a new study by University of Pennsylvania political science professor Diana Mutz challenges that narrative. She says that Trump voters weren't primarily motivated by how they had fared financially in the past but by what they feared would happen to their status in the future.
DIANA MUTZ: We started with data from a large sample representative of the population in 2012 and they were interviewed right before that election in October. Basically, that allowed us to establish a baseline as, okay, you know, this person votes Republican generally, votes Democratic generally. Over 90% of people just vote the same way in every election but the key to understanding what flips American election is the people who don't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you were really focused here on that shift of voting and, of course, we saw a lot of that in blue-collar Rust Belt-y neighborhoods. It would be fair to assume that these were low-income people and people maybe who were out of manufacturing jobs.
DIANA MUTZ: The problem with that interpretation is for the last 10 or 15 years the number of manufacturing jobs in the US has actually increased. Now, there was a huge loss before that but what we know about American voters is that they seldom respond to an event 10 years after it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
DIANA MUTZ: So if that were the motivating factor, it should have happened a long time ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah. So the folks in those Rust Belt districts and other districts that switched from blue to red were not primarily the hard-pressed underclass that a lot of the media have been depicting?
DIANA MUTZ: No, they’re largely middle to upper class. They were more rural, certainly, but it does not appear to be the hardship or a lack of recovery after the recession that drove them into the Trump camp.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what was it?
DIANA MUTZ: What it appears to be is a sense that the America that they knew is no longer, kind of a reaction to change that many white male Americans, in particular, find threatening. For example, the rise of a “majority-minority” America is something that we see lots of coverage of these days, and it's already happened if you look at grade school-aged children.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mean a rise of brown America, essentially?
DIANA MUTZ: Yes, they will soon be the majority of Americans. Well, a lot of these folks are used to thinking about this country as a white Christian nation, so that is one source of anxiety and perceived threat to the group’s status. We also see it with gender, as well. Men feel discriminated against in a way that was not true 15 years ago.
The other thing that we see very much predicting switching to Trump is an increased sense of threat from China and the idea that trade is essentially a form of foreign aid that is helping them at our expense and that America is no longer going to be this dominant economic superpower that it once was.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Where is the evidence though that it was status threat and not a sense of being left behind that motivated Trump voters?
DIANA MUTZ: Well, what we know in political psychology about what happens when people feel threatened is the same thing most of us know from our everyday relationships. When we feel threatened, we tend to get defensive and we assert our dominance and our superiority.
One thing that we definitely see in the data is that between 2012 and 2014, Americans increase in their sense of social dominance, meaning that they increasingly wanted to assert that some groups are just better than others and deserve to be on top, and so forth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This information comes from surveys and polls?
DIANA MUTZ: Yes, this is a representative national probability sample of the American public that was done of the same people in both 2012 and 2016.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. You observed that the 2016 election pushed the issue of trade out of the shadows and into the forefront, which directly refutes, you wrote, the long-held belief among political scientists that political elites waltz before a blind audience when it comes to international issues. Blind no more?
DIANA MUTZ: I think that’s the case. The public was already more negative, in general, toward trade than political elites were but they didn't perceive there to be much of a difference between the Republican and the Democratic candidates for president on this issue. Trump capitalized on that and really located himself much closer to the average American in terms of their trepidations about trade.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When we talk about political movements, we tend to assume a kind of change from below, percolating up. You argue that the 2016 election turned that assumption on its head. Is that why it’s been so hard to get the narrative right?
DIANA MUTZ: I think so, and I think there is a, a tendency to overemphasize economics as an explanation for people's behavior. We're used to thinking of big political changes as driven by the downtrodden, what we’ve called the “Left Behinds” since the 2016 election. In this case, though, it's about dominant social groups, whites, men, Christians, and they’re worried about their future status, not so much in the economy but in American society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s so weird. Thomas Frank said it all boils down to “it's the economy, stupid” and you're saying “it isn't the economy, stupid.”
DIANA MUTZ: Right. You know, if you look at the data between the day before and after the election, you would think that the economy radically changed because all of a sudden people will say if their guy is in power, the economy’s in great shape and, if their guy is not in power, oh, the economy is in terrible [LAUGHS] shape. So a lot of that is just echoing people’s partisan sentiments.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Unless they’re actually feeling it in their own lives, which is something that Thomas Frank points out. It’s not about what they read, it's not about what the politicians say. It’s what they’re experiencing, what they’re feeling. I think on that you would agree.
DIANA MUTZ: Well, no, I wouldn’t, actually. There are two ways of voting on the economy. You can vote on the basis of how you personally are being affected but you can also vote on the basis of your perceptions of how the collective as a whole is faring.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
DIANA MUTZ: And what political scientists have seen is that it's much more important how you think the collective is doing. People do hold politicians accountable for that. They seldom hold politicians accountable for their own pocketbooks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I am absolutely flummoxed by that. It is so contrary to everything that I understood to be true.
DIANA MUTZ: It is surprising but it’s a, it’s a huge area of research in political science, precisely because we all thought that people were looking at the price of things, looking at their own situations and voting, more or less, as a referendum on how they personally had been affected.
As it turns out, people have a very hard time attributing what happens to them personally to government policies. It’s not that they're not unhappy when they lose a job, and so forth, but when you ask them to explain why this happened, they tend to attribute it to more local forces. They don’t say, oh, it’s because so-and-so had this trade agreement, and so forth. I mean, honestly, it’s very difficult to track how you personally are being affected by the policies in Washington.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s been research done that suggests that for generations people voted against a president who happened to be in office when there was a terrible flood or tornado, blaming politicians for the weather --
-- for things they had nothing to do with, just reflecting a fundamental dissatisfaction.
DIANA MUTZ: Yeah, I think people’s mood matters a lot, setting aside how they personally are faring, whether they're optimistic or pessimistic about the future, and so forth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if you can’t get healthcare, that’s inevitably going to affect your vote, right?
DIANA MUTZ: Healthcare, n -- well, we find that the people most likely to benefit from things like any form of universal healthcare are not the people most likely to support that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m just wondering what's addressable here. I mean, if people are worried that the nation is getting browner, well, tough luck.
DIANA MUTZ: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That horse is out of the barn. Is this a generational thing? You know, are they -- is their influence going to be felt less and less in the next few years? Let's put it that way.
DIANA MUTZ: Yeah, there are going to be generational effects. There’s also going to be big changes that come because there are more minorities in the United States and they are going to be a formidable voting bloc, as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It sounds, from what you describe, that in the midterms, for instance --
DIANA MUTZ: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- no one’s going to change their mind.
DIANA MUTZ: Well, what we've seen in all the elections since Trump was elected is an unusual surge in turnout, where a lot of the people who normally don't bother to vote in midterms and who aren’t consistent party line voters seem to be turning out in much larger numbers, perhaps as a result of the fact that Trump represents a pretty radical change for most Americans.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hm, Diana, thank you very much.
DIANA MUTZ: You’re welcome. It’s been fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Diana Mutz is a professor of political science and communication at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, another battlefront in the culture wars. Who gets to portray those classic TV archetypes?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.