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Liberals, Populists, Conservatives, and Libertarians... and the Presidential Election
Who voted, and how... 2016 with implications for 2020

Voter Study Group, by the Democracy Fund
  • The primary conflict structuring the two parties involves questions of national identity, race, and morality, while the traditional conflict over economics, though still important, is less divisive now than it used to be. This has the potential to reshape the party coalitions.
  • By making questions of national identity more salient, Donald Trump succeeded in winning over “populists” (socially conservative, economically liberal voters) who had previously voted for Democrats.
  • Among populists who voted for Obama, Clinton did terribly. She held onto only 6 in 10 of these voters (59 percent). Trump picked up 27 percent of these voters, and the remaining 14 percent didn’t vote for either major party candidate.
  • To the extent that the Democratic Party is divided, these divisions are more about faith in the political system and general disaffection than they are about issue positions.
  • By contrast, Republican voters are more clearly split. For the most part, Trump and Cruz supporters look fairly similar, though Cruz supporters are considerably more conservative on moral issues, and notably less concerned about inequality and the social safety net, and more pro- free trade. Kasich supporters are the true moderates, caught in between the two parties on almost every issue, both economic and social.
  • In both parties, the donor class is both more conservative on economic issues and more liberal on social issues, as compared to the rest of the party
  • Democrats may be pressured to move further left on identity issues, given that both younger voters and the party’s donor class are quite far to the left on identity issues. If so, American politics would become further polarized along questions of culture and identity.


It is a truism of modern American politics that the United States is a deeply divided nation. By almost all measures, the two parties are further apart from each other, both at the elite level, and in the electorate, than in the past. There are more and more politically lopsided counties,(i) and only a small percentage of states and congressional districts swing from one party to another.(ii) Partisan unity scores in Congress are very high.

Yet, while the parties are far apart from each other, there are also tensions within them—tensions that were clearly on display in the 2016 primaries. In both parties, primaries revealed rifts, though Democrats were generally more cohesive than Republicans. As it appeared that Hillary Clinton would win the election, it became fashionable for political observers to write about the coming Republican civil war.

While Trump’s victory quieted some of that talk, there are still deep tensions within the Republican coalition, divisions that are now re-emerging as the exigencies of legislating return. Most notably, the nativist populism on which Donald Trump campaigned is at odds with much of what Republicans have traditionally embodied. It is unclear how Trump can both deliver the policies he promised while holding onto support from the more traditional conservatives who stuck with him.

In this essay, I investigate the nature of the political conflict both between and within the two major political parties. I will argue that the primary conflict structuring the two parties involves questions of national identity, race, and morality, while that the traditional conflict over economics, though still important, is less divisive now than it used to be. This has the potential to reshape the party coalitions.
This essay takes as its starting point a few basic points of theory.

First, that we should view politics across multiple issue dimensions. Rather than simply describing political alignments in terms of “left” and “right,” I argue that we should understand that voters are not ideologically coherent (in that they endorse the party line across most issues), but instead have different mixes of left and right views across different issues.(iii) Thus, the party coalitions and resulting majorities depend on which of many potential issues form the dominant conflict, and which conflicts are subsidiary.(iv)


To do this, I created two new indexes:
  • An economic liberalism-conservatism index (which combines views on the social safety net, trade, inequality, and active government)
  • A social/identity liberalism-conservatism politics index (which combines the moral issues index plus views toward African-Americans, immigrants, and Muslims).

This allows us to plot all respondents on a single scatterplot, shown here.

[Image: figure2_drutman_e4aabc39aab12644609701bbacdff252.png]

(and a bar graph on how people  voted based upon whether they were liberal, populist, conservative, or libertarian):

[Image: figure3_drutman_e4aabc39aab12644609701bbacdff252.png]
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist  but instead the people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists -- Hannah Arendt.

The problem with this analysis is that Trump has pursued most clearly an ECONOMIC-conservative agenda, consisting mainly of deregulation of industry, which is targeted at working people, consumers, the poor, and most of all at the environment. Trump's agenda consists mainly of denying access to affordable health care, supplying tax cuts to his wealthy friends and donors, allowing the media to concentrate and become a propaganda arm of the Republican Party, denying greater access by the common people to the internet, opening up our rivers and air to pollution, cutting the size of and access to our national monuments and parks, destroying public education, making it easier for police to misbehave, and so on.

The idea that "populists" are socially conservative liberals seems nonsense to me. Populism dates from the 1890s and the campaigns of James B Weaver and William Jennings Bryan. While Bryan was a fundamentalist, his public activity in regard to the law on this issue was limited to his prosecution, after his political career was over, of a biology teacher, soon after which he died.

Today's social conservatives are also economic conservatives, by and large. Although some socially conservative-economically liberal people voted for Trump as well as for Obama or Sanders, they were deceived by Trump into voting for him by promises such as that he would save Medicare and improve Obamacare, which he not done, and creating jobs by building infrastructure, while instead his real plan to create jobs amounts to nothing more than conservative Reaganomics on steroids. So a small portion of these voters may switch back to the Democrats. But these Obama-Trump voters are a small portion of Trump supporters, which still amount to as much as 38% of voters and over 80% of Republicans.

The fact is, that according the the polls I've seen, most Trump voters are just more conservative on all issues than Republicans as a whole. The Trump wing, in other words, despite some exceptions in some Rust Belt states, is simply the right wing of the Republican Party, which also happens to include the racists and nativists which Trump has brought out of the closet. But economic conservatism was always racist anyway. The only difference between Trump and Nixon/Reagan/Bush, is that Trump has replaced a dog whistle with a trumpet. Trump and his voters are not creating another wing of political opinion; he is just bringing out the true colors of the right wing, and most of the right wing likes it that way. And those on this wing who don't like the Trump colors have nowhere else to go, because they are still fanatic and rigid economic conservatives. Sorry, Senator Flake.
"I close my eyes, and I can see a better day" -- Justin Bieber

Keep the spirit alive;
Eric M
Of course, we may have a problem with the definition.  People can be "left" or "right" on economics or social values. Those to the Left on political and social values are liberals; those to the right on both economic and social values are conservatives; those to the left on economic issues and right on social values are populists; those on the right  in economics and the left on economics are libertarians.  This may be an oversimplification. It could be that many of the single-issue voters on traditional values vote  only on guns, abortions, or 'traditional (heterosexual-only)  marriage'. With voters on the Right side on those issues, all that matters is who is most resolutely in favor of guns, an abortion ban, or opposition to homosexuality -- and economic issues do not matter.

This may be an oversimplification.

I lost what I was writing last night. I was going to comment on this material. I'm going to try to reconstruct what I had written. With "left" on scales of economic and social values as negative numbers and "right" on those scales appearing as negative numbers,  I can also show where they clump.

1. Liberals are the largest part of the vote (44.39%).  That is huge -- the largest segment of the electorate. They seem to clump heavily around -0.7 economic, -0.8 social.

2. Conservatives  are 22.94% of the vote. They form the third-largest part of the vote. I will discuss their distribution with  populists.

3. Populists are the second-largest part of the vote (29.34%). I eyeball their distribution, and I notice that those 'populists' who are more left-wing on economics than right-wing on social values tended to vote for Hillary Clinton more than to Donald Trump. Thus draw a line from  -1 economic and 1 social to 0 on each, and those populists largely voted for Clinton. Those on the other side of that line voted even more heavily for Trump than those below and to the left of that line voted for Clinton -- and there are far fewer populists to the left and below that line than above and to the right.

You will probably note that conservatives and populists together seem to clump very closely to the "0" line on the economic spectrum. There is a clear continuity between conservatives and populists. Between the two I would guess that conservatives and populists together  seem centered around +0.1 on economics, but about +0.6 on social values.

4. Libertarians comprise only 3.31% of the electorate, and they split almost evenly between Clinton, Trump, and "other" (I would presume Gary Johnson).  Catering to libertarians  will likely get no mainstream politician any significant swing vote.  This is a small and capricious part of the electorate likely to be more trouble after the election than it is worth seeking for marginal votes.

How did Trump win? Assuming no cheating (which may be a big assumption), Donald Trump ran as a populist and not as a conservative. I would guess that since 1980, Ronald Reagan and the elder Bush ran as unabashed conservatives and won big in the 1980s with an electorate much more conservative on economics and social values than that of the Double-Zero decade and the 2010s. In the 1990s the elder Bush lost because he left an opening for a populist third-party challenge in Ross Perot. America may have been more conservative in the 1990s than it is today (think of Bill Clinton's "Don't ask/don't tell" position on homosexuality which today is downright reactionary), but Bill Clinton won twice. America was nearly split evenly between liberals and the populists in the lower-left sector of the populist quadrant on one side and conservatives in the first half of the Double-Zero decade. But America was drifting Left on economic and social values.  Obama was able to address the failures of Dubya as President and make promises of national health care while offering promises of rescuing the capitalist system from its worst tendencies. At least partly successful in getting his agenda, President Obama was re-elected. Now we get to recognize that Donald Trump ran as a conservative-populist fusion. Conservatives and populists together comprise 52.26% of the vote. 

By winning the right votes despite getting fewer raw votes, President Trump got the 45.93%  of the vote. As President he has since governed almost as a pure exponent of plutocracy -- something like William McKinley.  To be sure he has not pushed Christianity over any religions except Islam, and he has done nothing to overturn Obergfell vs. Hedges, restore Jim Crow practice, undo women's rights, or destroy unions. He might wish to exempt the super-rich from taxes and eviscerate what power workers have through unions, but he is clearly anti-environment. He would like Americans to rely less upon education as a means of getting ahead. (Take note: authoritarian and totalitarian causes prosper best with a populace barely literate. Thus Stalin, Franco, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Trujillo, Castro, Duvalier, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Assad pere and fils, Khomeini, and many African leaders. Hitler, Mussolini, and Pinochet had oppressive regimes, but all three were clearly hostile to any elevation of the masses through education. Education deteriorated in Nazi Germany. Note that Donald Trump said that he 'loves low-information voters'. People barely able to read can obey orders but not contemplate the consequences of those orders, which is about what Hitler needed for staffing the 'guard' personnel of the murderous concentration camps. People who can think beyond the words on a page or words spoken in a rabble-rousing speech are trouble for a tyrant). Trump's dream is the antithesis of the people clumped where the liberals are concentrated. It is crony capitalism with all the economic power that it can exercise -- Scandinavian efficiency in industry, but Third-World living standards for those who do the work. The ideal American does a miserable job and goes to his dreary apartment or trailer to watch mindless TV or play video games.

OK, I loathe this President, and the more that I see of his rhetoric degrading everything except elite power, indulgence, and gain, the more I hold him in contempt. I started to write this analysis before the indictments of Manafort, Page, and Papadopoulos, and those are irrelevant to this analysis. I will avoid discussing any consequences of such upon this Presidency in this analysis.

I will conclude that Hillary Clinton did a poor job campaigning, seeking votes that could not bend for her or would not have helped her. Trump dared make promises to blue-collar workers enduring economic distress even if he had no intent to realize his promises. But even before the indictments of October 30, and there will be more, Donald Trump was a disaster for the American people as shown in existing polling -- Gallup polling yesterday having an approval rating of 33% and disapproval at 62% even with the economy humming along and no obvious international disaster in progress. This President won an election despite being a poor match for American culture and political values.
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist  but instead the people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists -- Hannah Arendt.


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