Scott Sumner  

What's the matter with western Virginia?

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The title of this post is a reference to Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter With Kansas?", which analyzed the question of why voters in relatively poor states like Kansas tended to vote GOP, which is (supposedly) against their best interest. (It's interesting that he picked on Kansas, rather than some place like coastal California or the Upper East Side of NYC.)

I didn't really see any puzzle, as although Kansas is a relatively poor state, it's not a poor state in absolute terms. Relatively few Kansas voters are actually "poor", and some of those are college students. (I was a "poor person" in college.) So the Dems don't really offer many programs that would benefit lots of Kansans, except perhaps crop subsidies and Medicare, which of course are also supported by the GOP.

In any case, the WSJ reports that western Virginia presents a similar puzzle:

Mr. Trump won Buchanan County with 69.7% of the vote in the March 1 Republican primary, the highest percentage vote he has collected in any U.S. county so far. . . .

Nationwide, the 10 counties Mr. Trump has carried by the largest margins have much in common. They are mainly white, rural and southern. They sharply lag behind the national average in household income and education, and top it in poverty and disability payments.

Four of these counties rely on agriculture, says Moody's Analytics, while another three are local transportation hubs. A big employer in one, Tallahatchie County, Miss., is a prison.

While people in these counties feel left behind, they don't face the challenges from immigration or foreign trade that Mr. Trump has made his signature issues. All but two of the counties trail the nation by wide margins in percentage of the population that are immigrants. Few face much pressure from Chinese imports. Buchanan County benefits from trade, especially through coal exports to China.


One of the most basic principles of trade theory is that barriers to imports also tend to reduce exports. This is based on the principle of "general equilibrium", the idea that different sectors of the economy are interrelated. Thus Trump's proposed 45% tariff on Chinese imports would hurt the economic interests of coal country (Buchanan County is in western Virginia.) So what is Trump's appeal?

Instead, Mr. Trump's appeal is visceral. According to an October 2015 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 76% of Trump supporters feel "uneasy and out of place" in their own country, compared with 62% of Republicans who say they wouldn't consider voting for him.
Decades are often defined by broad global political swings, which have no obvious connection, but perhaps have deep linkages that we fail to see. Something "in the air", the so-called "zeitgeist". Thus the 1960s saw student movements in places as diverse as the US, France, China, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, motivated by seemingly unrelated issues. The 1980s saw the rise of neoliberalism. In my view, the 2010s is shaping up as the decade of right-wing nationalism. The specific causes of this trend in the US may differ from the causes in Russia, Poland, India, France, Japan, Hungary, China, etc., but there's clearly something in the air.

It's also worth thinking about those countries that seem less impacted by these trends (Canada, Australia, Singapore?), and what they might tell us about successful governance.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
John Thacker writes:

It's the coal. Coal country in the Appalachians are traditionally very Democratic blue collar union areas that voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008 (albeit after voting Clinton in the primary) but swung the hardest against him in 2012 (even as he did better overall) and have sharply trended Republican. Neighboring places are similar; it shows up the most in West Virginia, which still elects Democrats of the type.

Yes, coal benefits from trade, yes China and Mexicans would do nothing with coal, yes the real competition for coal are things like nuclear power and natural gas from fracking (which Republicans favor), renewables (which Democrats favor), and just all other energy sources being preferred. (Somewhat ironically, electric hybrids may be sort of good for coal in some areas.)

Coal is dying. Coal has been dying. They were hit hard in 2008 and looked to the Democrats and Obama. However, they believe that Obama and the Democrats would prefer to move the US off of polluting coal and put coal out of business. (President Obama has made unguarded statements to this effect; this is largely true.) So they've voted Republican in recent years, but they have never been on board with free trade or the traditional Republican platform, just being repelled by Democrats' seeming anti-coal. (Though, as noted, the Republican enthusiasm for fracking and pipelines also hurts coal.) The collapse of the coal economy is something that they want to blame on somebody.

Trump is offering them a traditional blue collar friendly Southern Democrat type candidacy. These same areas liked George Wallace. I am not surprised at all.

johnleemk writes:

By Singaporean standards, the country has seen an upswing in Trump-/Sanders-style pro-social welfare, anti-immigrant sentiment. The most recent elections saw the opposition make its biggest gains since independence, although it's still a tiny minority in Parliament, and all opposition parties campaigned on platforms of xenophobia + greater government spending on social programmes. The government has shifted course accordingly.

Singapore is of course still administered in a far more neoliberal manner than almost any Western democracy, but it has not been immune to the zeitgeist of the 2010s.

Rajat writes:

If you ask many left-of-centre Australians, they would say that the election of the Tony Abbott Government in 2013 was a reflection of right-wing populist/nationalist sentiment. Abbott campaigned hard on the removal of the $25/tonne economy-wide carbon tax/price and on 'stopping the boats' (refusing to settle asylum-seekers who arrived via boats from Indonesia). Abbott also pursued higher defence spending (by Australian standards). Abbott has since been replaced by the more centrist Malcolm Turnbull, but Turnbull has been criticised by the Left for not jettisoning enough of Abbott's policies.

Foobarista writes:

It's a sense that globalism and possibly economics itself has little to offer poorer Americans. If all the "rational" options mean you're screwed, why not try "irrational" ones like embracing nationalist politics?

If the elites all say that immigration, globalization, and immiseration are your destiny, you're going to go with anti-elites who promise that they can turn back the tide and restore the world you knew.

Andrew_FL writes:

"In my view, the 2010s is shaping up as the decade of right-wing nationalism. The specific causes of this trend in the US may differ from the causes in Russia, Poland, India, France, Japan, Hungary, China, etc., but there's clearly something in the air."

Incredible you managed to utter this sentence without succumbing to the temptation to blame "deflation."

Neil S writes:

"It's also worth thinking about those countries that seem less impacted by these trends (Canada, Australia, Singapore?), and what they might tell us about successful governance."

It is my understanding that all three of the nations you mention have extremely restrictive immigration policies oriented toward admitting highly skilled / wealthy / successful individuals. Perhaps this removes a perceived threat and contributes toward a relatively more homogeneous culture.

Scott Sumner writes:

John, So I'm right? (It's emotion, not economic interest)

Johnleemk, You said:

"The most recent elections saw the opposition make its biggest gains since independence"

That's not accurate. You are describing the 2011 elections. In the 2015 elections the governing party bounced back.

Rajat, I was in Australia when Abbott was running for office, and I immediately sensed he was a bad choice. I'm not surprised he was replaced. In a relative sense, Australia seem far less nationalistic than most countries.

Neil, Actually, these three countries have some of the highest rates of immigration in the world. But yes, all three try to admit mostly high-skilled immigrants. It's worth noting that most of our immigrants (in America) now come from Asia, whereas a decade ago it was Latin America. So we are becoming more like Canada and Australia in that respect, but still not as skills-focused as they are.

I'm not sure what you mean by "homogeneous", as those countries are fairly diverse, at least ethnically.

Foobarista, Do the elites say immiseration is our destiny? I don't recall hearing that. In any case, lots of affluent people are voting for Trump. He just got 60% of the GOP vote in NY, and there aren't that many poor Republicans in New York. And Trump won in affluent parts of Massachusetts, like Middlesex county.

Andrew, No, it's not deflation. The Great Recession may have played a role, but there are clearly other factors as well.

Neil S writes:

Scott - by restrictive, I was focusing more on the people excluded than the people included.

By homogeneous, I am more interested in values / mental frame than in appearance. I know any number of people who look like me, but hold values that I find repugnant...and many others who look nothing like me, but whose values and core beliefs are highly aligned with mine.

My hypothesis is that allowing in highly skilled and educated immigrants creates opportunities for the less skilled existing members of a society and thus generates little societal pressure, where admitting large quantities of lower skilled individuals creates competition with the less skilled existing members of society (though benefiting the immigrants and the more skilled existing members of the society).

Thus, the admission policies of Canada, Australia, and Singapore tend to alleviate stress among the lower classes, while the de facto policies of the US exacerbate social stresses among the lower classes.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

I would put Neil S's point even more succinctly:

Migration policies which support (or in Australia's case slightly increase) the capital/labour ratio are much less politically disruptive--even at a higher level of intake--than policies which reduce the capital/labour ratio.

And that is not merely because, as Neil S suggests, that more of the benefits flow to the existing working class but also because it inevitably means a much more diverse migrant inflow, hugely reducing identifiable "us v them" problems.

Floccina writes:

Maybe it is that the left has overplayed its hand, They have pushed people too hard and too fast and gotten too far in front of the people. Suddenly you cannot refuse to decorate a cake with 2 men getting married, you cannot refuse to photograph 2 men kissing in a wedding, you cannot say anything remotely bad about a blacks as a group. You have to speak very carefully about race. You have to be very careful speaking about muslims. HRC is always angrily talking about women getting paid less than men. Suddenly people are talking about white privilege implying they want to knock whites down a notch rather than about black disadvantage implying that you want to lift them up a notch. The Travon Martin, Eric Garner and Furgison cases were not that clear cut but President Obama talked like it was all the fault of whites being racists. Some people feel even Hispanic immigrants are favored over them by those in power like Obama and HRC which might seem absurd to them . And so Trump.

Of course maybe it is none of that but that trump voters believe his rhetoric that he can make America greater. So great that they will be doing great. Maybe his voters are just gullible.

I would like to more polls asking Trump voters why they voted for Trump. Her is one list of reasons: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/08/donald-trump-voters/401408/
It is not what we think.

Floccina writes:

It is late to be commenting here but this: Uptown Trump is of interest. Of course it could be rich people in sympathy voting for what they think blue collar workers want. I think it is possible blue collar workers do not want manufacturing jobs which tend to be very boring harsh atmospheres. Walmart is a nicer environment.

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