Social Sciences: Is Anybody Out There?

Can the Social Sciences Account for Voter Behavior?

Pythagoras was not a social scientist though he was interested in human perception.  Either he or his followers gave us important laws  about music perception.  But it would be  two millennia before scientists turn their attention primarily to human behavior and institutions.

What have social scientists contributed?  Considerable! A textbook in any beginning social science class is thick and full of information. We’ve made progress in our scientific understanding of humans and their institutions but we clearly have a long way to go.  Case in point: the election of Donald J. Trump.  All  “explanations” of the 2017 presidential  election were after the fact.  No one prior to the results produced a theoretical account of what was about to happen.  All of the usual statistics gurus and normally reliable polling resources had it wrong.

Politics is difficult to address with the nation so divided.   But our job as social scientists is to explain and understand behavior even something as touchy as voting.  Around 33 to 40 percent of voters voted for Trump and continue to staunchly support him.  Voters have the right to choose whomever they wish.  Why was Trump so appealing and why has this appeal not wavered?

What Was the Appeal?

Trump’s theme was: “Make American Great Again.”  What  did it mean?  When was it great and when did it become not great?  What defined it as being great and how was Trump going to restore that greatness?   To some the theme  implied America of the 1950s and a predominately white culture.  It was a time without gay marriages, Black pride, a women’s movement, foreigners, and good paying jobs were available to men without college degrees.  Life was uncomplicated and  good.  But did the theme imply white racism?

The Trump campaign denied any such meaning.  It meant rather that Trump was going to reverse the job drain to other countries that resulted from globalization and all the unfair treaties to which the US had agreed. Products would be US made and jobs would not be stolen by foreigners, especially those coming illegally into the country of which there were thought to be millions.  Not only did they take away jobs but they brought crime and didn’t pay their fair share of taxes.  Trump even promised to build a “great and beautiful” wall across the border to Mexico – and Mexico would pay for it all.

Trump also promised to make US citizens safe from terrorism by banning people most likely to cause terror – Muslims!  Was this thinly veiled xenophobia and racism?  It seemed, however, to add to his appeal not detract from it.  Though he didn’t use the term, Trump was proposing a return to isolationism.  Gone would be the days when the US would find itself hopelessly ensnared in the business of other countries and he would avoid the mistake of foreign military conflicts, though he promised to greatly increase funding to the military.

Though Trump didn’t claim to be traditionally religious, he was twice divorced and lives the life of a pampered billionaire, he appealed to Christians by bragging that if he were president saying “Merry Christmas” would be OK again.  He also stressed a renewal of freedom from religious persecution that Christians seemed to feel.

He made himself the hero to many of the forgotten working class  struggling with life in the 21st century  US.  These were coal miners, laid off factory workers, and those left behind due to technology and  corporations moving to countries with lower corporate taxes.  He appealed to their sense of betrayal by their Washington representatives by claiming that he would “drain the swamp” of these self centered politicians and lobbiests.  Presumably to replace them with  down-to-earth folks like themselves.  Never mind that Trump was a New York City real estate mogul who would come to fill his cabinet with like-minded millionaires and billionaires many from the despised Wall Street.

Donald Trump was the master of the media.  He quickly came to utterly dominate it.  Many news programs  covered  Trump non-stop and viewers couldn’t get enough.  Ratings went through the roof and big money was made.   Real estate mogul  and Manhattan builder, it was his experience and verve in reality TV as host of “The Apprentice” that served him best.  He had a flair for the dramatic.

He talks in TV speak.  His pronouncements are uttered in short simplistic sentences full of drama and chutzpah.  He would repeal and replace Obamacare his first day in office with something everyone would love.  He would bomb the hell out of ISIS and finish them off in no time.  He would bring back jobs lost to foreign countries mostly via unfavorable trade agreements which he would renegotiate.  He would repeal and replace Obamacare with something everyone would love.  And most importantly, he would keep us safe from foreign terrorists, Muslims in particular.

He tore through his Republican primary opponents with his outsized personality and vicious attacks on them and their families.  He claimed for example, that Ted Cruz’s father was somehow involved in the assignation of John F. Kennedy and he published unflattering pictures of Cruz’ wife.  His brash reality-TV-uncensored -tone was shocking and despised by many but his growing number of adoring fans loved it – no more ‘political correctness.’  He reduced the front runner Jeb Bush to irrelevancy in short-order by deeming him as lacking sufficient energy.

In the mean time his Democratic opponent-to-be was  Hillary Clinton.  She struggled mightily against an unknown challenger from Vermont, the self described democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders.  She showed early weaknesses against Sanders whose message resonated with younger voters. And they became passionately attached to him.  Clinton prevailed but, as became apparent, not unscathed.  While everyone knew exactly what Sanders’ message was, Clinton suffered a real communication problem.  What exactly was her message, more of the same Obama agenda?

Clinton was tailor-made for Trump.  She and her husband were vilified and hated by the Conservatives and especially those at the extreme.  It was easy for the Trump campaign to whip up his voter base who seemed  to bitterly hate Hillary Clinton.   Clinton was an excellent debater in the traditional sense, but outshone by Trump because of his made-for-TV personality.  He referred to her as “crooked Hillary” and called for her to be “locked up.”  This ugly phrase soon began to be repeated in unison by Trump’s audience everywhere he went.

Trump also was aided by a murky team of data analysts who called themselves Cambridge Analytica. (A separate blog will be devoted to the methodology of this group and ones like it).  It is of upmost importance that readers, unfamiliar with what Pythagoras is about to say, familiarize themselves with its implications.  If you utilize the Internet you have become part of “Big Data.”  Unwittingly, you have had your pocket picked of all of the important information about you!  Somewhere, someone at this moment has just about every piece of information about you that can be known.  Who your friends are, websites you regularly visit, products you buy, your political affiliation, your address, your favorite foods, your social security number, your age and health, and on and on.  We have unwittingly made a Faustian bargain to provide all of our sensitive information for the privilege of using the Internet and its social media.  In addition as pointed out in an earlier blog, we write the material for the social media sites that lure in viewers in the first place.  You pay to play and then pay again.

All of these data you and everyone provide are important because it is worth a fortune to many people. Internet providers, Social networks like Facebook and Twitter earn a king’s ransom collecting  your data from your keystrokes and selling it.  This is all bad enough but now comes along companies like Cambridge Analytica that buy millions of data points about you and others and run algorithms on that data.  The point is simple; find reliable correlations among the data points: what reliably goes with what.  If the correlations are not spurious then a rough and ready prediction can be made about your future behavior that they can use for their purposes.

For example, there was a strong correlation between people who grilled outside and worked on their gardens and lawns in Iowa and who later voted for Donald Trump!  People who Cambridge Analytica determined to show paranoia expressed fear of being burgled and were very likely to purchase a gun and also importantly, vote Republican.  How is this information possible to get?  From you, simply telling them via your computer.  People reveal almost everything about themselves via social networks on the Internet.  You don’t think you do but you do.  In addition, folks are tricked into receiving gifts if they  just fill out an innocent looking questionnaire.  Not so innocent!  You reveal so very much about yourself with one of these.  We are told we can trust social media, after all their success depends on it – but do not be deceived – they can’t be trusted!!  Your data are being collected and sold as you read this.

How much Cambridge Analytica helped Trump get elected is disputed.  But it seems that they were either good or lucky at identifying who was most likely to vote for Trump and then they were heavily targeted toward the end of the election.  Cambridge Analytica found that there were many potential voters who were “double haters.”  They hated both Trump and Clinton.  These folks were targeted and then sent very negative information on Clinton, it was predicted  they would vote for Trump.  Most of these thus identified and targeted, opted for Trump.  Yes, folks it is the Brave New World we live in.  It is also not clear as of this writing how extensive and/or successful the Russians were at hacking and meddling in the election.

What’s the Concern?

A huge subset, perhaps one-third, of the citizenry of the united States passionately supported a candidate who had as his introductory salvo a savage attack on Mexican immigrants.   He previously claimed that Barack Obama was not a United States citizen.  He mocked a disabled reporter by grotesquely contorting his arms and face.  He disparaged the physical appearance of a female opponent and referred to the menstrual cycle of a  reporter whose question during a primary debate he didn’t like.  He was caught on an audio recording bragging about grabbing the genitalia of females without suffering retribution.  He called for a total ban of Muslims entering the U.S. in what seemed a thinly veiled attack on them.  He  appeared to encourage violence by asking his audience to “punch the crap” out of demonstrators and offering to pay their defense costs.

Even as president of the United States, Trump tweets insults daily at those he believes oppose and dislike him.  He rails against the Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press, calling their work he doesn’t like “fake news” and lies.  He has refused to give up control of his extensive business empire dismissing any regard for possible conflict of interest while president.  He has installed his unelected family members in the White House as “advisors.”  He and his campaign staff are currently under investigation by two committees in Congress, and a special prosecutor, for alleged collusion with the Russian government concerning  possible interference in the presidential election.  The list of transgressions seems endless but the above hopefully summarizes how voter support for Trump seems difficult for some to justify.

Why is Trump adored by reasonable and decent people?   Exit polls showed that 80 % of Evangelical Christians, who pride themselves on following the moral teaching of Jesus, voted for Trump.   Most Republican members of Congress seem paralyzed at the thoughts of speaking up against him even as his erratic behavior continues to plague their political agenda. As of this writing his signature campaign pledge to repeal and replace Obamacare with something so much better has suffered a devastating defeat as members of his own party refused to support the Senate bill.

A Closer Look

Hillary Clinton had as much governmental experience as one could have.  She was First lady, Senator from New York, and finally Secretary of State.  She could be the first women president and should garner a majority of women votes.  But exit polls showed that 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump!  (CNN poll).  She had the backing of women from almost every minority constituency in the US ( 94% of black women and 68% of Latino Women) but 63% of white men voted for Trump while only 31% chose Clinton!  So much for the effectiveness of the women’s movement among white women.  Feminism apparently stopped at the voting booth.

Trump made his points in  simple language familiar to TV viewers.  Clinton appeared ill at ease and over-scripted on TV and allowed Trump to draw her into fights that led her away from her talking points.  She was no match for him as a TV persona.  In addition, she probably was hurt when 55% of eligible voters failed to cast any ballot.  It is also conceivable that the last minute vague revelation of the then FBI director that some Clinton emails were discovered on disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner’s lap top.  The FBI director later admitted that these emails were not new and that nothing of a top secret nature was on them.

  • As a percentage of eligible voters, Clinton received 28.43% (65,845,063) of all votes compared to Trump’s 27.20% (62,980,160) and Did Not Vote’s 44.37%(102,731,399). Only 8 states + Washington DC, had high enough voter turnouts where one of the actual candidates won more votes than people who did not bother to vote. Iowa and Wisconsin for Trump and Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire and DC for Clinton.

Millennials, mostly stayed home, only about half bothered to vote.  of those voting 55% did support Clinton.

What Motivated Trump Supporters?  Do Polling Statistics Help?

The most common refrain gleaned from polls and self-reports, that motivated Trump supporters was economic fear and insecurity.  Yet, a study by the Atlantic   magazine suggests financially troubled voters in the white working class were more likely to prefer Clinton over Trump disregarding party affiliation. Being a Republican was the best predictor for support for Trump.  In addition, it was cultural anxiety—feeling like a stranger in America, supporting the deportation of immigrants, and not valuing  educational investment—that best predicted support for Trump.

While white, non-college-educated voters tend to prefer Republicans, Trump won them by a larger margin than any presidential candidate since 1980, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Pew Research Center also showed  nearly two-thirds of the white working class say American culture has gotten worse since the 1950s. Sixty-eight percent say the U.S. is in danger of losing its identity, and 62 percent say America’s growing number of immigrants threaten the country’s culture. More than half say discrimination against whites has become just as problematic as discrimination against minorities.  The survey shows that many white working-class Americans, especially men, no longer see the American dream possible through a college education. … Was it this sense of economic fatalism, more than just economic hardship, that was the decisive factor in support for Trump among white working-class voters?

There was also an implicit cultural/educational war initiated by the Trump campaign.  Trump’s enemies became his supporters’ enemies.   They were labelled “elites” as in “elitists.”  They were the snobby educated folks who “flew over” in jets traveling to their elite coastal destinations.  They believed in man-made climate change and evolution.  They supported gay marriage and all possessed college educations.  There developed among many Trump supporters a disturbing sentiment of anti-intellectualism.  Trump himself at times denied global warming calling it a hoax initiated by the Chinese!

Interviews of staunch Trump supporters indicate that they have also adopted his hatred of the mainstream media.  Preferring to get their information from Trump friendly sources such as Fox News and conservative talk radio hosts such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Laura Ingram.  His supporters seems to fall for the time honored ruse that any negative news about Trump is simply cooked up by the mainstream media as “fake news.”

Fact checkers have sprung up in an attempt to try and set the record straight concerning claims by Trump and his staff.  Trump insisted that his inauguration drew some of the largest crowds ever, far greater than for Obama.  He claimed that thousands of Muslims cheered the 9/11 bombings of the World Trade Towers.  Such statements are rather easily refuted and it was believed that such “facts” would dissuade his supporters.  But when so confronted with the facts, the effect was simply to harden the erroneous beliefs of his followers.  Logic failed in the face of emotional commitment to Trump.

Can Social Science Offer Any Theories to Account for Trump Supporters Beyond The Statistics Mentioned Above?

The answer to the above question is yes and will be in Pythagoras’  next blog.











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