[Overview] Trump Voters IV – Ethnocentrism

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII; Part VIII; Single page]

by David Severa

Racial attitudes

Okay, we’ve established who Trump voters are and the kind of environment they live in. How do we get from that to Trumpism? Economic and social malaise don’t self-evidently lead to Trumpism, even if one can sense an intuitive connection. What do these voters believe that makes them distinct? There is plenty of evidence that, above and beyond any economic factors, race and voters’ attitudes towards race matter. We’ve already seen that Trump does even worse among non-white voters than the GOP in general and he has definitely captured the support of outspoken racist whites. But what about Trump voters beyond the fringes? (The alt-right online is loud, not large.) What do they think about race and how has it influenced their votes? The racial divide must be accounted for. From one sympathetic account (which I recommend reading):

Imagine that you were born in a modest Prairie style home in small town Kentucky. Beyond the shadows of the maple trees that surrounded your house, farmland stretched down the highway, interrupted only by small Country homes with white fences, bright gardens, and sunny porches. After high school, you stayed in your hometown and had a family. But jobs were difficult to find. In your father’s day, there were plenty of good manufacturing jobs. But those had left. And the town was changing. The houses that you remembered as warm and sunny were now faded with rotting fences and unkempt lawns. Buildings that used to house hundreds of workers were empty and dilapidated with shattered windows….

Things were getting worse. You knew several people who had lost their jobs to Mexican immigrants who had just arrived in your town. You heard many more complaining about this on the radio, lamenting that immigrants had replaced them at the factory….

So, that was it—your town would continue to decay while politicians continued to pursue policies that hurt you and everyone you knew. And worse still, you weren’t even allowed to say anything about it—weren’t allowed to voice your real political opinions—without being denounced. If you were white, what did you have to complain about? You were privileged. You weren’t a victim. It was time you had gotten with the program. Embraced diversity. And stopped complaining about lower wages, fewer jobs, and changing cultural norms.

Enter Trump.

From a less sympathetic account:

For decades, Republicans relied on the Southern Strategy to win the White House. By using coded racial appeals like complaints about “welfare queens,” “crack babies” and school busing programs, they pulled whites disenchanted with the Democratic embrace of civil rights. The media inadvertently aided the Republican Party by inflating and racializing violent crime and welfare. Political scientist Martin Gilens finds that, “network TV news and weekly news magazines portray the poor as substantially more black than is really the case.” The strategy worked. Economists Ilyana Kuziemko and Ebonya Washington find that racist Southern whites leaving the Democratic Party explains nearly all of the decline in Southern White support for Democrats between 1958 and 2000. Instead of calling out this racism, many centrist Democrats succumbed to it, for instance when The New Republic famously defended welfare reform by placing a Black mother with a baby on the cover. The unwillingness of most mainstream liberals to call out dog-whistle racism has let it fester….

[T]he forces Trump released are not a joke; and the rise of white nationalism and violence against people of color confirm this. The rise of Trump isn’t just an indictment of the GOP, it’s an indictment of the unwillingness of mainstream commentators and politicians on both sides of the aisle to clearly call out racism. The problem is that now, it might be too late.

Enter Trump.

So we have two competing narratives. In the first, white residents of increasingly beleaguered areas come to feel that the wider culture not only doesn’t care about their plight, but actively despises them while valorizing non-whites and immigrants. (One study from 2014 found that whites who believed Obama had done too much for non-whites and that whites had done worse during the recession also felt “feelings of financial frustration and higher levels of blame toward the government in Washington.”) In this account economic and racial factors are intertwined, but racism per se is absent or at least minimized. Animus is not the driving force. In the second racism is “The vile core of Trump’s appeal”, plain and simple. Which, if either, of these obviously politicized narratives is best support by evidence?

Much of the research I’m citing is drawn from one study in particular, “The newest American National Election Studies 2016 pilot survey[,] a 1,200 person internet survey performed by YouGov between January 22 and 28 of 2016 that includes incredibly detailed questions about race and racism.”

It’s possible that some of the measured differences between Trump supporters are really just “differences in how Trump supporters feel they ought to answer surveys” rather than actual differences in hostility. For example,”it might be that Trump supporters are simply more willing to express their dislike of Muslims and Transgender people in a survey”, while others just hide their views better. But this is the data we have.

To avoid getting tied down in discussions of what is and is not racism, I’m not going to use the term and instead just look at responses to specific questions. Readers can draw their own conclusions. Instead, I’ll use the term “ethnocentrism” in a broad sense, covering not just open racism, but also subtler negative attitudes, and a sense of ethnic solidarity.

Some people have argued that “Any political movement that was straightforwardly based on economic distress would find its greatest support among nonwhite Americans.” Thus, Trumpism can’t be, because blacks and Latinos are economically worse off than whites and yet Trump is historically unpopular with both groups. And the recession hit black Americans very hard. However, a political movement based on social decline could find greater support among white Americans, even though white living standards are higher than those of blacks and Hispanics. Remember that the rise in mortality was limited to non-Hispanic whites. According to The Atlantic:

Likewise, the groups that have been affected most viciously by these market trends in the U.S., African Americans and Latinos, have not suffered the dramatic increases in death by suicide or substance abuse that whites have. It may be that changes in the economy have affected these workers in different ways. For instance, whites are more likely to be employed in the declining manufacturing sector than African Americans or Hispanics—and for that matter, they’re more likely to live in the rural communities devastated by this most recent, post-NAFTA era of deindustrialization. Furthermore, whites are less likely to be union members than African Americans (though not Asians or Hispanics).

“Make America Great Again” may not be a slogan that appeals to people for whom, recession aside, things aren’t always getting worse.

Certainly social decline isn’t the only reason for the racial gap. Trump’s racially charged rhetoric on top of decades of estrangement and hostility between minorities and Republicans would have divided voters by race anyway. But it does mean that Trump voters might not just be motivated by race. Stagnation and ethnocentrism aren’t mutually exclusive possibilities, though since one makes Trump voters look bad and the other makes them seem sympathetic they tend to be framed in opposition to each other.

One study found that both attitudes toward race and toward the economy predicted support for Trump. In addition to asking about financial security, they also asked “whether they thought it was more of a problem that African Americans and Latinos are ‘losing out because of preferences for whites’ or whether whites are ‘losing out because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics.'”

The odds that a person who feels strongly that whites are losing out supports Trump are more than three times higher than for a demographically and financially similar person who feels blacks or Hispanics are losing out or that neither group is losing out more. Likewise, the odds a person who says he or she is struggling financially supports Trump are about twice as high as someone who says he or she is comfortable or moving up economically….

Those who voiced concerns about white status appeared to be even more likely to support Trump than those who said they were struggling economically, but the results did not clearly show which concern was more important among Trump’s coalition.

chart2 (Source)

One of the pollsters also said, “What was striking to me in analyzing the data is that even after controlling for a variety of demographics and attitudes… believing whites are losing out continued to be a key predictor of Trump support…. Its importance persisted under a wide range of scenarios.” So even controlling for financial status racial attitudes matter. Clearly Trump is not wholly a phenomenon of economic anxiety. Race matters.

(There’s polling that finds support from Trump voters for more incendiary racial beliefs than I’m discussing here, but I don’t trust Public Policy Polling, a partisan firm, enough to cite them. I think the main points stand with the data I do discuss. Check out Snopes for more details.)

White Americans

What sort of racial anxiety might we be talking about? It isn’t just about simple hostility towards non-whites. Molly Ball, discussing Trump’s complaint at a rally “Why are they allowed to do things that we’re not allowed to do?”, says:

It was a potent summary of the identity politics that seem to form a significant part of Trump’s appeal: the idea that they, the others, enjoy privileges, resources, and status to which we are denied access. It is a sentiment I have repeatedly heard from the dozens of Trump supporters I have met over the past eight months I have spent covering his campaign. More complicated than the overt bigotry of, say, the Ku Klux Klan, it is a form of racial resentment based on historic white entitlement and a backlash to the upsurge in leftist identity politics that has marked American politics in the age of Obama…

Trump’s supporters have told me that minorities commit crimes with impunity, that illegal immigrants get benefits at higher rates than Americans, that gays and Muslims are afforded special status by the government. They lament that Confederate symbols, and the people whose heritage they represent, are sidelined while diversity is celebrated. They don’t understand why Democrats can campaign on overt appeals to the interests of blacks and women and Latinos, but Republicans are deemed offensive if they offer to represent the interests of whites and men.

There is support in the polls for this. Voters “who think their identity as whites is extremely important…. perceive a great deal of discrimination against their race…. [and] who think it’s extremely likely that ‘many whites are unable to find a job because employers are hiring minorities instead'” are all far more likely to vote for Trump:

tesler_trumpwhites (Source)

The numbers at the bottom show the sample size of each group. By themselves, these numbers don’t necessarily give us a great sense of how much support Trump is getting from these more race-focused voters. They could be a smaller portion of his support. However, other polls suggest that these voters make up a large portion of Republicans and of Trump supporters particularly. According to a Quinnipiac poll:

There is a wide partisan division among American voters on the statement, “The government has gone too far in assisting minority groups.” Agreement is 45 percent among all voters, 72 percent among all Republicans and 18 percent among Democrats. Agreement is highest among Trump backers, 80 percent.

Black Americans

Salon offers further reporting on the findings of the ANES survey. Salon hardly has a sterling reputation these days, and the article is definitely pushing an agenda (this is the unfavorable piece I quoted above), but I don’t have any particular reason to think that the data they’re drawing on is incorrect. They found that Republicans had a more negative view of blacks than Democrats, and Trump voters were more negative still:

CohenMc1 (Source)


The ANES survey also included a feeling thermometer test, which asks respondents to place their feelings for different groups on a scale from 0 (very cold) to 100 (very warm)…. [T]he relationship is strongest for Trump support, which shows that  negative feeling toward Blacks is most closely associated with his supporters. The model controls for age, gender and education.

As Trump has expanded his support in the months since this poll was taken and become the presumptive nominee, I would expect that Trump voters would become more similar to Republicans as a whole, since many Republicans will now be supporting Trump. But we can see here the base Trump started with.

The authors discuss further results from the survey here, and they also criticize this Vox article which found that racial resentment didn’t much vary among supporters of different Republican candidates.

One of the authors also Tweeted this from the survey:

% of whites who support Trump who think government favors Blacks: 51%
% of whites who don’t support Trump who agree: 32% (ANES 2016 Pilot)


In January, the Washington Post found:

Trump barely leads among Republicans who say immigrants strengthen America. But he holds a 33-point lead — commanding a solid majority — among Republicans who strongly believe immigrants weaken society.

Pew found that Trump supporters consistently take the harshest stances against immigrants, and not just illegal immigrants:


They are also likeliest to support deporting illegal immigrants, though only a plurality of 42% do. But note the near-even split on whether undocumented immigrants should be given legal status conditionally.

The Washington Post looked at this same study:

59 percent of registered voters nationwide think that an increasing number of people from different races, ethnic groups and nationalities makes the United States a better place to live; only 8 percent say this makes America worse. But among Trump backers, 39 percent say diversity improves America, while 42 percent say it makes no difference and 17 percent say it actually makes America worse. Supporters of GOP rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich were significantly more upbeat on diversity….

Other somewhat-related attributes may be as or more predictive of whether somebody will support Trump: approval of deporting undocumented immigrants, strong feelings that the government is dysfunctional, and support for banning Muslims from entering the United States. (Authoritarian child-rearing attitudes, believed by some to be closely related to Trump support, were less predictive.)

Trump voters are the most hostile to diversity, but still over twice as many Trump voters think diversity improves America as weakens it. Unfortunately, these studies doesn’t really show how much hostility to immigration is driven by economic vs. cultural concerns. Opposition to immigration doesn’t necessarily stem from ethnocentrism or racism, but it is of a piece with Trump supporters’ attitudes towards other groups.


Using a survey from November, Michael Tesler found that concerns about Muslims and Islamic terrorism are also related to support for Trump:

tesler_trumpmuslim3 (Source)

In December, after the shooting in San Bernardino, Trump proposed a total ban on Muslims entering the United States “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”. In March a poll found that 50% of Americans agreed:

While 71 percent of Republican voters supported the ban, 34 percent of likely Democratic voters and 49 percent of independents also did, according to the new poll by Morning Consult.

Although support for the ban is highest among Trump’s supporters, at 84 percent, there is also support for a ban among those who support fellow GOP candidates Ted Cruz and John Kasich — at 65 percent and 48 percent, respectively.

Among Democrats, more Hillary Clinton supporters agreed with the travel ban, at 37 percent, versus 27 percent of Bernie Sanders‘s supporters.

Pew found that a smaller number of Americans support profiling Muslims in America, but again that Trump supporters were most likely to be in favor:

Section2_6 (Source)

(And according to left-leaning polling firm Public Policy Polling, 62% of Trump supporters say that Obama is Muslim, versus 54% of Republicans overall.)

Yet again Trump voters take the hardest line, though again they aren’t complete outliers either.


I’ve gone into unusual detail in this section, because race and related topics are obviously particularly sensitive, and I wanted to be sure that any conclusions reached were backed by a wide variety of data.

Obviously Trump draws support from voters that have consistently less friendly attitudes towards various outgroups and are defensive about the prospects of their white ingroup. Probably all of the polls I cited here are more or less picking up on a single factor: ethnocentrism. Combining various questions from the ANES survey into one measure of ethnocentrism, Kerem Ozan Kalkan made this graph:

kalkan_fig2 (2)

I’m not going to speculate if or where these attitudes shade into racism. Certainly by the time you hit David Duke. But if we can separate racist actions from the attitudes that lead to them, I think that ethnocentrism is the right way to understand the underlying attitude that is motivating Trump supporters. This ethnocentrism includes more negative attitudes towards blacks, immigrants, Muslims, but it isn’t just that. There are other associated traits, such as having a strong group identity and hostility to trade and foreign aid (which I’ll discuss later). Again, my purpose here is neither to condemn nor condone, just understand more precisely.

I’d encourage readers to look at the charts above again. Trump is winning the more ethnocentric wing of the Republican Party (which itself itself has a much stronger tendency towards white ethnocentrism than the Democrats), but on a given question many voters who don’t give the ethnocentric answer support Trump and many voters who do don’t support Trump. While I think that this factor is one of the most important ones when understanding Trumpism, it isn’t the only one, or even the only major one. To say that racism is the driving force is too simplistic, but so is to pretend that race has no importance, or that race as a factor can be wholly reduced to economics. Whether economic malaise can drive people to greater ethnocentrism is beyond the scope of these posts.

These polls can’t capture everything about race. If a given Trump supporter doesn’t express racist attitudes, that doesn’t mean there aren’t deeper social forces helping to sort things by race. Race can influence how we vote even if we’re not saying so to pollsters, whether or not we’re not aware of it.

Next: The alienation and anger of Trump voters

(Source for header image)

[Overview] Trump Voters III – Religion and Economics

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII; Part VIII; Single page]

by David Severa


The Republican Party has, in recent decades, established itself as a party for the religious. It has embraced, at least in words, a socially conservative agenda. 85% of Republicans and Republican-leaners describe themselves as Christian, 22% higher than Democrats/leaners, and 45% as evangelical/born again. So why is thrice-married casino magnate Trump, whose religious instincts do not appear to extend beyond pandering as needed, doing so well? Why, when many religious leaders have come out against him? When, in January only 5% of Republican Protestant pastors supported him?

As of March 29, Trump had won “an average of 36 percent of the vote from white “born-again or evangelical Christians,” good for a plurality in 12 states and only slightly lower than his support (38 percent) among all other Republican voters”, which would seem to indicate that religion might not be a huge factor one way or the other. However, not all self-professed evangelicals are the same:

Recently released data from the 2016 American National Election Studies (ANES) Pilot Study illustrate this. The study was conducted from Jan. 22-28, and here I focus on white respondents who called themselves born-again Christian. I divided evangelicals into people who “seldom or never” attend church services, those who “sometimes” attend (a few times a year, once or twice a month), and those who attend weekly or more often than weekly.


There is a clear negative relationship between support for Trump and church attendance. (But also note Trump’s plurality even among the most devout!) And, in fact, non-churchgoing evangelicals are in general more likely to support a Trump-like agenda. They care little for culture war issues, but greatly about economic issues. They hold less favorable attitudes towards Muslims, Hispanics, and blacks than other evangelicals.

There has been less research on Catholic Republicans, but they appear to support Trump at a higher rate than evangelicals (this is of course related to but distinct from the Catholic ancestry previously discussed):

Reporting on Monmouth University surveys has placed Catholic support for Trump at 30 percent in New Hampshire (where he took 27 percent of the evangelical vote), for example, and 44 percent in Iowa (where only 22 percent of evangelicals voted for him)…. In heavily evangelical South Carolina, where a third of evangelicals voted for Trump, Monmouth had 42 percent of Catholics doing the same….  Exit polls from much more Catholic Massachusetts placed Trump’s support from Catholics at an incredible 53 percent, four points higher than his support among evangelicals there…. [T]he Barna Group finds Trump’s net favorability among evangelicals at -38. Not only was it twice as high among Catholics, at only -19, but Catholics viewed Trump more favorably than did any other religious category Barna denominated.

Of note, Catholics attend church much less regularly than evangelicals. There doesn’t appear to be research on whether Catholic churchgoing is similarly related to support for Trump, but it seems plausible. (Also, Catholics are a heterogenous group that should be studied at a higher magnification than “Catholic”.)

Interestingly, the clearest relationship between religion and Trump is the negative one with the size of the Mormon population:


Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming, the three most Mormon states, have hosted some of Trump’s worst performances. Various theories have been posited as to why, including Mormonism’s complicated history as a religious minority. However, there isn’t a divide in Utah between Mormons and non-Mormons, but there is one between regular churchgoers and everyone else. And Mormons are the most religiously involved group in America. Perhaps, then, Mormonism matters not so much in and of itself, but in that it does a better job of getting bodies in pews. (Of course, even non-churchgoing Utahns are still not huge Trump fans relative to their counterparts in the rest of the country; there are obviously other factors. Perhaps a culture that leads to high religiosity influences even the irreligious, or maybe people just vote like their neighbors.)


Now, all of this suggests that a typical Trump voter doesn’t have strong social ties to religion, but it’s not enough to disentangle the causation. Does churchgoing change political attitudes and if so, how? Or is there some third factor causing both? Communities that are religious but not churchgoing also tend to have greater social ills. As Ross Douthat says:

HERE is a seeming paradox of American life. One the one hand, there is a broad social-science correlation between religious faith and various social goods — health and happiness, upward mobility, social trust, charitable work and civic participation.

Yet at the same time, some of the most religious areas of the country — the Bible Belt, the deepest South — struggle mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.

The gains associated with religion come entirely from (or are only correlated with) religious practice rather than having a professed faith. The non-practicing-yet-religious, the “Christian Penumbra”, do more poorly on such measures than both the practicing religious and the irreligious. This is the group most likely to support Trump.

For comparison, Mormons, in addition to higher religiosity, are more socially conservative, less likely to be divorced, and have higher levels of education and income than the US average. They are more pro-immigrant than the rest of the GOP. Salt Lake City has high upward mobility. Mormonism produces – or at least happens to coincide with – social conditions that are hostile to Trumpism.

The social pathologies observed among communities that vote Trump – lower education, lower incomes, higher mortality – suggest that both likelihood to vote Trump and not go to church stem from an underlying cause. In other words, while religious factors may play a role, what’s being detected is likely not just religion, but something larger. (Though religiosity could also be a factor in its own right.)

Income and education

Here, I think that it’s useful to begin by looking at who votes for Republicans out of the nation’s population as a whole. While income may help predict who votes GOP, that doesn’t mean it tells us much about a candidate’s support within the GOP. From the 2012 election (for reference, household income in 2012 was $51,371):

2012 vote by income-01(Source)

As you can see, the average voter made more money than the average American; income and voting are positively correlated. (And since turnout is lower in primaries, primary voters may have even higher incomes on average.) Voters with above average incomes made up a majority of both Obama’s and Romney’s support. But while Romney barely won those making more than $50,000 a year, Obama had much stronger support among low-income voters, winning 63% of those making less than $30,000 a year. Presumably much of this was due to his huge margins among black and Hispanic voters.


I suspect that the sample sizes here are quite small, so take the above chart with a grain of salt. Probably some of the income gap among Hispanics is actually a voting gap between different Hispanic groups – Cubans-Americans, Mexican-Americans… – with different voting patterns. The minimal effect of income on white voters, who Romney won with 59%, seems surprising, so let’s break that down:


I’m not sure I see any real pattern among Southern whites (and some of the sample sizes are small), but the lopsided U-shaped support for Democrats outside of the South fits their usual pattern. Republicans get more support from wealthy whites, but I don’t think it’s fair to straightforwardly call either party the party of the rich or of the poor, especially when you account for other demographic factors. Still, the Republicans are the party of the more-rich, overall. In any case, this should contextualize what I’ve said about Trump voters being lower income – it’s only true relative to support for other Republicans, not to Democratic voters, and even less to the population as a whole.

Everyone other than non-Hispanic whites votes for Democrats in large numbers. Among whites, Southerners support Republicans in comparable numbers. Among white non-Southerners Republicans win the middle and upper-middle classes. (I don’t know that there’s enough data to say that income matters less among these other groups, it may just be that because white non-Southerners are clustered around the 50% mark the swings between income groups seem more important.)

As far as education goes, exit polls had Obama and Romney nearly tied, except for Obama winning 55% of those with postgraduate degrees. In general, Democrats also have U-shaped support when sorted by education. That is, they pick up a disproportionate share of the least- and most-educated, while Republicans do best among those with some college education but no degree. However, the gap is only about 10% at its largest.

So that’s the world into which Trump has entered. While, as we’ve seen, support for Trump is centered in areas that have been struggling in a variety of ways, support from merely the poor would not likely have won him the nomination. And according to 538:

The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.

Cruz’s supporters have a median income of $73,000, essentially the same as Trump’s. But whatever the median, as the Economist shows, he has support from across the economic and educational spectra:

On average, people earning under $50,000 have made up 29% of the Republican electorate in primary states with exit polls, and 32% of Mr Trump’s voting base. However, those earning over $100,000 have accounted for 37% of the electorate and 34% of his base. In Illinois, for example, he took 46% of those earning under $50,000, but they made up only a quarter of the electorate: he won 39% of those earning over $100,000, who were two-fifths of that primary’s voters. Voters with a high-school education or less have made up 16% of the Republican electorate and a fifth of Mr Trump’s base. College graduates and postgraduates account for 43% of his support.

Trump is winning a greater share of low-income voters, but there aren’t that many of them. Lower income voters are a roughly equal share of primary voters as in 2012, so their increased turnout isn’t helping Trump.


Also, the fact that that Trump voters are older means that these numbers may overstate their socioeconomic position. A low-income recent college grad supporting Sanders may be likely to have higher lifetime earnings than an above-average income Trump voter. If Trump voters have larger families, they may feel more financial strain than these numbers indicate. Further analysis would be needed to disentangle these effects.

In March, Politico noted “In six of the statewide GOP exit polls so far, Trump was the most popular candidate among college-educated voters. In another six, he was their second-place choice. (Only in Oklahoma did Trump fall out of the top two among those with college degrees.)” So while his support is concentrated among less-wealthy, less-educated Republicans, it is by no means limited to them. He often still wins the groups he’s doing worst with.

Given that Trump kept winning handily, his broad support shouldn’t be too surprising:

Regional economic predictors seem stronger than these individual measures, which tentatively supports my hypothesis that a typical Trump voter is someone who lives in a struggling area, without necessarily being among the hardest hit themselves. Ross Douthat says:

One useful way to think about Trump’s constituency is suggested by this Alec MacGillis piece from last fall, which investigated the swing of less-well-off red-state voters, particularly in greater Scots-Irish America, into the Republican Party in the age of Obama. (A swing that pre-dated Trump, to be clear.) As MacGillis pointed out, the voters swinging rightward are not the very poor or the chronically jobless, not the people most likely to benefit from, say, Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Rather, they are a mix of relatively prosperous blue collar workers and what in a European context we would call the petit bourgeoisie — a coalition that straddles the working class and the lower middle class:

“In eastern Kentucky and other former Democratic bastions that have swung Republican in the past several decades, the people who most rely on the safety-net programs secured by Democrats are, by and large, not voting against their own interests by electing Republicans. Rather, they are not voting, period. They have, as voting data, surveys and my own reporting suggest, become profoundly disconnected from the political process.

The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder — the sheriff’s deputy, the teacher, the highway worker, the motel clerk, the gas station owner and the coal miner. And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder, as a growing dependency on the safety net, the most visible manifestation of downward mobility in their declining towns.

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that these are the ur-Trump voters. Which means that — to borrow a vivid characterization from an earlier Dougherty piece (which helped inspire Kevin Williamson’s famous/infamous critique of white working class dysfunction) — they aren’t actually “Mike from Garbutt,” an opioid-addicted upstate New Yorker taking disability and contemplating leaving the unemployment line for a job at a casino. Instead, they’re probably Mike’s sister or cousin or former co-worker, who look at his situation and see a cautionary tale, an anger-inducing story about how welfare dependency political-class indifference are hastening their own communities’ decline.

What we’ve been talking about is income as a single number attached to a given voter. That doesn’t capture how a voter’s financial situation has changed over time, or how their expectations for the future have changed. From the Washington Post, this graph shows “that Trump’s gains among Republicans were larger among those who reported that their personal finances had gotten worse, compared to those whose finances had gotten better. The gap is now roughly 20 percentage points.” This is a much better predictor than income:



This matches a key attitude of Trump voters: that things are getting worse: (“Make America Great Again!”) However, there is a lot of evidence “that people’s perceptions of the economy—and even of their own financial situation—have a lot more to do with their political leanings than with objective economic facts.” Republicans say that the economy is worse when a Democrat is president and vice versa. (Overall, Americans have a positive economic outlook at the moment, by the way.) So it isn’t clear whether the above graph shows a relationship between voter’s finances or voter’s perceptions of their finances (or some combination). Perhaps questions more focused on specifics – did your income decrease over the last 12 months? – would avoid this confusion.

(This isn’t just a case of voters being convinced by Trump’s message that things are terrible though. People who were dissatisfied “about their lives, jobs, income, and economic situation in January 2015” were dramatically more likely to back Trump. The anger predates his candidacy.)

I wonder if the fact that less-educated men have seen their incomes decline over the last few decades also accounts for some of Trump’s stronger support among men. As education levels have improved too over this period, the population of people without high school diplomas today is not directly comparable to the population in the past, so the decline is probably overstated. However, an important point that I haven’t really seen made is that even if average income growth is merely stagnant or growing very slowly, that means that there is very likely a larger pool of people for whom things are in fact getting worse. Thus, if declining incomes lead to social dysfunction, it’s entirely possible that weak growth could have a larger negative impact than might be assumed from just noticing a 1% drop in growth.

To recapitulate, race predicts voting so strongly that 90+% of Republicans are white. Among whites, income plays a significant though not overwhelming factor in voting Republican. But among Republicans the effect of income on support for Trump is small relative to some of the other factors we’ve discussed. The same is true of education. And while he receives disproportionate votes from downscale Republicans, they are not the bulk of his support.


I couldn’t find good research on whether or not individual Trump voters were likely to be unemployed, or out of the labor force, but the New York Times looked at the areas that support Trump:

Likewise, a better predictor of strong Trump support than a standard-issue economic indicator like the unemployment rate is a high proportion of working-age adults who aren’t working (the correlation was strong for both men and women).

To be counted as unemployed, a person must have actively looked for work in the last month. But “not working” is a broader definition that would also include, for example, people who are discouraged by what seem like grim job prospects; who are living at home tending to the house; or who are disabled and stay home while receiving government assistance.

Nationally, 23 percent of the 25-to-54-year-old population was not working in March, up from 18 percent in 2000. The areas where Trump is most popular appear to be at the forefront of that trend.


So far we’ve covered the basic demographics of Trump voters. Next we’ll move on to their beliefs and worldviews, but first let’s review what’s been covered.

While Trump is very unpopular among non-white voters, this hasn’t harmed him much in the primary, as the Republican party is already 90% white. Among whites he does best among Appalachians and those with ancestry from Catholic countries. He does 5 to 10% worse among women. He does better among the middle aged and elderly and among the less educated and voters with lower incomes, but none of these effects are all that large individually. He hasn’t brought in many new voters to the GOP, though he has increased turnout among less attached Republicans.

Region matters a great deal. Living in areas that are socially dysfunctional matters a great deal. High mortality, “old economy” jobs, less education, low labor force participation, weak attachment to religion matter. Trump’s support in his worst counties in Utah and his best counties elsewhere differs by over 50%. Michael Brendan Dougherty summarizes:

Trump drew in the secular and moderate Northeast Republicans who had been sidelined by the conservatives. He combined those with the populist, nationalist South, particularly unchurched evangelicals. He threw in the downwardly mobile parts of Appalachia as well. The Trump coalition is a mix of Chris Christie and Jeff Sessions, with a dash of coal country thrown in.

So the prototypical Trump voter is a non-churchgoing but Christian older white male from greater Appalachia or the Northeast with some college education, maybe not doing poorly himself, but living in an area that is. (Though most Trump voters won’t fit this profile!) That Trump voters are often surrounded by social decay is the most uncertain part. More research should be done to distinguish the effects of living near poverty and living near non-whites who are poor. But we still haven’t connected the Trump voter to Trump. Why Trump? Why his populism and not Sanders’s socialism? Bill Clinton won most of Appalachia twice, so why not Hillary? Why now? It can be too easy to just say that of course this sort of voter would support Trump, to take it for granted. But why?

Next: Trumpism and Ethnocentrism

(Source for header image)

[Overview] Trump Voters II – Geography and Culture

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII; Part VIII; Single page]

by David Severa





As you can see in these county-level maps from the New York Times, while Trump’s support rarely dips below 20% outside of the Mormon West, there is nevertheless significant regional variation in his support. (Ignore Wyoming, which has an odd caucus system. West Virginia and Nebraska voted after everyone else had dropped out.) Some states, Texas and Ohio, he lost to a favorite son. He also has notable pockets of weakness in the Great Plains and Midwest. He does well in the Deep South, mid-Atlantic, and parts of the West. For the most part, his support goes from 20-something percent to 50-something percent, a more significant spread than for the other factors I’ve looked at so far.

However, this regional map is in some ways distorting, as some states are much more Republican than others and some states much more populous than others. (A map distorted by population density would be useful.) This is a graph of Trump voters relative to voters for non-Trump Republican candidates, and to the rest of a state’s population:

image (1)

(Data from 1, 2, 3; graph created by me; Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, states that voted after every other candidate had withdrawn, and all territories are excluded)

The first striking thing is how small many of these primaries are, even in Republican states in a high-turnout year. (And the restrictive and time-consuming caucuses are even tinier.) But Trump’s support is clearly smaller in the Northeast than elsewhere; he’s dominating a smaller party. Many of these primaries come down to a few thousand ballots out of only a few tens of thousands cast.

But what drives this regional variation among Republicans? 

The places where Trump has done well cut across many of the usual fault lines of American politics — North and South, liberal and conservative, rural and suburban. One element common to a significant share of his supporters is that they have largely missed the generation-long transition of the United States away from manufacturing and into a diverse, information-driven economy deeply intertwined with the rest of the world.

They “compared hundreds of demographic and economic variables from census data, along with results from past elections, with this year’s results in the 23 states that have held primaries and caucuses.” What they found:

Capture (Source)

I’ll cover this more in the next section, but what “American” ancestry means is that, when asked to describe their background, some people simply say “American” rather than naming a country in Europe or wherever. In practice, the people who do so are white Americans mainly from Greater Appalachia and the Deep South. Also, I’m pretty sure that the authors are implicitly dividing whites into three groups: those with Catholic ancestry, those who report”American” ancestry (who are mostly actually White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), and others. They call this last group WASPs, but I believe it also includes people with German and Scandinavian heritage. Of these three groups, those with Catholic and “American” ancestry are the ones supporting Trump.

Brian Arbour and Jeremy M. Teigen did their own, similar analysis. (Note that their term for “American” ancestry is “unhyphenated American”.) They found similar correlations for ancestry, less education, and worse economic conditions:


Notably, these two studies differ, at least in interpretation, on the impact of race and immigration. Irwin and Katz:

Despite evidence that some individual Trump voters are driven by racial hostility, this analysis didn’t show a particularly powerful relationship between the racial breakdown of a county and its likelihood of voting for Trump. There are Trump-supporting counties with both very high and very low proportions of African-Americans, for example.

One of the strongest predictors of Trump support is the proportion of the population that is native-born. Relatively few people in the places where Trump is strong are immigrants — and, as their answers on their ancestry reveal, they very much wear Americanness on their sleeve.

Versus Arbour and Teigen:

Interestingly, Trump’s support increases as the percentage of African Americans and immigrants in a county increases. Trump and his campaign have been criticized for bashing immigrants and for being slow to disavow the Ku Klux Klan’s support. We doubt, then, that blacks and immigrants are the ones voting for him. Rather, apparently those unhyphenated white GOP primary voters are pulling the lever for Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-minority platform and attitudes specifically because they feel threatened by those “others.” Some scholars refer to it as the “racial threat” hypothesis.

Preliminary research by one of us (Arbour) shows that regions with concentrations of unhyphenated Americans also voice more racial resentment than the rest of the country — and even more than in the rest of the South.

Unfortunately, neither article provides enough information to resolve this discrepancy. Perhaps the relationship between local diversity and Trump support is different in some parts of the country in a way that isn’t being captured by these studies, but that’s pure speculation on my part. I’m also not sure why the second study finds that Latino and immigrant populations have opposite effects on Trump support.

The Washington Post has an interesting interactive graphic that lets you see how well the candidates did in each county relative to various measures like race, education, income, and so on, with more states included than in the above two analyses. It’s a bit confusing, but if you can draw a line that fits through the red dots from bottom left to upper right, that indicates a positive correlation with Trump’s vote share. Here’s a screenshot of Trump’s support relative to the black population in a county:


The author says:

Trump’s success in heavily black counties isn’t a function of black support; this is the total population of the county that’s depicted. That strength in black counties is also why he seems to do obviously better in poorer counties — until you limit that to only the white population. Then, the apparent link drops significantly.

So this agrees with the other Washington Post analysis: (white) Republicans vote Trump in counties that are more black. However, it doesn’t seem to be the main factor. “This isn’t like the Democratic contest, where knowing the percentage of the population that’s black can give you a good sense of who will win.”

Trump country is also relatively poor and uneducated. (But again, we’re just talking about relative concentration of support!) You can find profiles of these ultra-Trumpist areas. As the Times says, these regions have been suffering for a long while:

There were only weak correlations between Trump support and various measures of economic performance from 2007 to 2014, including the lingering damage from the 2008 global financial crisis. Rather, the economic problems that line up with strong Trump support have long been in the making, and defy simple fixes….

In places where Trump does well, relatively high proportions of workers are in fields that involve working with one’s hands, especially manufacturing. The decline in manufacturing employment is not a story of merely a rough few years for the economy; nationwide factory employment peaked in 1979, and as a proportion of total jobs has been declining almost continually since 1943. Forces including mechanization and trade have put employment prospects in the sector in an ever-worsening position.

Note that this analysis only shows the social conditions correlated with Trump support, it doesn’t show which voters in these counties are the ones voting for him. For instance, it could be the relatively well-to-do, while the poorest aren’t voting at all. Yes, Trump voters are poorer and less educated than other Republicans, but that doesn’t mean that they’re poor themselves. At any rate, it’s a caveat worth keeping in mind.

And as I quoted above, the relationship between support for Trump and poverty is attenuated when you only look at the white poverty rate, which weakens the case that Trump voters are themselves necessarily disproportionately poor:


At least some of the relationship between Trump support and poverty is actually the relationship between Trump support and race. Further research into how race and the economy tie together at the county level would likely be very informative.

White ethnicity

Understandably, there has been much discussion about Trump and race. But there has been relatively little discussion of Trump and ethnicity. Specifically, whether support varies by ancestry among whites. Let’s return to the gap between unhyphenated Americans/those with “American” ancestry and everyone else.


According to the Washington Post:

The people who identify this way are concentrated in Appalachia and rural areas in and around the South. They are heavily Protestant and less likely than average to have graduated college. They cluster especially along the migration path taken by highland Southerners before the Civil War — those farmers from the hardscrabble Southern hills who never had enough money to buy land in the fertile parts of the Deep South and who moved from the Appalachian highlands across the Upper South and into the near Southwest….

But are whites’ feelings of “American” ancestry why they support Trump, or is it just that Trump does well generally among downscale and rural voters? To find out, we ran a model that tests them together, using election results and county-level census data on American ethnic identity, socioeconomic status, race, religion, immigrant status and age.

Here’s what we found: When we control for those other factors, places with more unhyphenated Americans do indeed vote more strongly for Trump. For every 10 percent increase in a county’s share of unhyphenated voters, we found about 3 percent more support for Trump.

In other words, this region and these voters break for Trump above and beyond what would be predicted by other, especially economic, variables.

Outside of Appalachia, whites with Catholic ancestry also support Trump disproportionately. Discussing the New York primary, Nate Cohn says:

His best district might be New York’s 11th, which includes Staten Island and which has many voters of Italian ancestry. The model estimates he’ll receive 58 percent of the vote there.

It might seem strange to focus on something like Italian ancestry, but the number of voters with ancestry from predominantly Roman Catholic countries in Europe (like Italy, Ireland or Spain) is one of the strongest drivers of Mr. Trump’s support. Conversely, a high share of voters with ancestry from Protestant northwest Europe (like England, Germany or the Netherlands) has predicted lack of support. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Trump’s support in the area includes two prominent Catholic politicians, Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie.

Of note, both of these groups historically favored Democrats until the realignment that began in the 1960s, while WASPs, who have supported Republicans longer, aren’t voting for the Republican insurgent.

Cohn also discusses this split further west:

Iowa, Utah, Kansas — and Wisconsin — have something else in common: a large population who report their ancestry from predominantly Protestant countries in Northern Europe.

These voters represented the base of the Republican Party for the century after the Civil War, whether it’s the old-stock “Yankees” who spread west from New England, or the German, Scandinavian and Dutch immigrants who generally settled over the same stretch of the northern part of the United States later in the 19th century.

These voters are probably the biggest problem for Mr. Trump that you haven’t heard of: He would fare about 30 points worse in counties where all of the white residents reported their ancestry from Protestant countries in Northern Europe than he would in a place where none did, according to our model. It’s the type of thing that helps separate Northern Virginia — where Mr. Trump struggled greatly — from the Boston area, where he excelled.

He further speculates that cultural “niceness”, deeper ties to the Republican party, and less racism might be the cause. Conservative pundit Michael Barone has wondered if the cause is higher social connectedness:

My first clues came from the Dutch. Heavily Dutch-American counties in northwest and central Iowa and western Michigan, around Grand Rapids, were Huckabee and Santorum territory in past years.

This year, unlike surrounding territory, they voted for Ted Cruz, with Trump a poor third. Dutch-Americans have dense networks of churches and civic groups — unusually high social connectedness….

[Robert] Putnam reports that social connectedness is highest in states with large Scandinavian- and German-American populations and in Utah. It’s lowest in — no surprise — Nevada, one of Trump’s best states.

In the 13 states highest in social connectedness, Trump has gotten just 21 to 35 percent in primaries and caucuses. In the 11 states lowest in social connectedness (except for Cruz’s Texas), his percentages ranged from 33 to 47 percent.

As we’ve seen and will see more fully, much of Trump’s base is in those parts of white America that aren’t doing well in a variety of ways. So if ethnic background is correlated with, or if there are cultural causes underlying these social problems then we should expect to see a correlation with support for Trump. It’s an issue that should be investigated more fully.


Death has been in the news lately. Last year Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton released findings that, unlike for any other group in America or in any other developed country, “The mortality rate for white men and women ages 45-54 with less than a college education increased markedly between 1999 and 2013, most likely because of problems with legal and illegal drugs, alcohol and suicide”. There has since been some debate whether the mortality rate is actually increasing or just stagnant, but everyone agrees that something is seriously wrong.

The death rate of whites is another predictor of Trump’s support. Even after controlling for factors related to income, employment, education, and urbanization, “the middle-aged white death rate in a county was still a significant predictor of the share of votes that went to Trump.”  (Note that this is measuring higher mortality in general, not the recent possible increase)


Yet again, a negative social indicator predicts Trump support.


There is a great deal of regional variation in support for Trump, but some of his highest support comes from Greater Appalachia and the Northeast. Relatedly, white Americans with Catholic ancestry and self-reported “American” ancestry vote for Trump. The areas that support Trump seem to suffer from various social ills, from higher mortality to low education to declining economies. Race and ethnicity also play a role. Living in areas with a larger black population also seems to be correlated with support.

Next: Trump, religion, and economic disaffection

[Overview] Trump Voters I – Demographics

[Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII; Part VIII; Single page]

by David Severa

Welcome to the first Overview at Veracities! This will be a regular feature where we summarize the current state of research on various topics we think are interesting. We’ll take as broad a view as possible to give you an overall picture of what is and isn’t yet understood. First up: the demographics of Trump support.

Something altogether unprecedented is happening in American politics, unless it isn’t. A new bloc of voters have been awakened from their quiescent slumbers, unless they haven’t. This bloc heralds the rise of a reinvigorated Republican Party, unless it threatens to tear the party apart. Much of the American public is surrendering to an authoritarian or even Fascist impulse, unless they aren’t. Trump voters are either certainly X or certainly not-X.

Many (mostly unflattering) comparisons have been made to Donald Trump since his official entry into American politics last year, from Andrew Jackson to George Wallace to modern European right-wing populists and even to Hitler. So while it isn’t clear that Trump is wholly unique, he is clearly an anomaly deserving explanation.

More specifically, I want to look closely at who is voting for Trump. What are their demographics? What are their beliefs? Their motivations? How do they see America and the world? I’ll begin by looking at basic demographic factors and then move on to broader social factors. Then I’ll talk about the ideas and ideologies that have been attributed to Trump voters and how well supported these attributions are. I’m not going to be able to disentangle the entire web of causation and correlation. I won’t be saying “23% of Trump’s support is due to a loss of manufacturing jobs”. Instead, I hope to illustrate a world and a worldview. (Spoiler: Trump supporters are right wing populists not just motivated by economic concerns.)

I’ll mainly talk about his support during the primaries, partly because that’s where the data is and partly because as nominee he’s likely to win even those Republicans who aren’t natural Trump supporters, muddying the difference between Trumpists and other Republicans. I’m not trying to explain the demographics of the Republican Party itself, so this article will focus mainly on how Trump support differs from that of other candidates, rather than from the nation as a whole. In general, he is somewhat popular among Republican groups and very unpopular among everyone else, but there are of course differences in degree.

Over time, Trump’s support among Republicans has grown from around 25% in late 2015 to around 40% in late April, which means that Trump’s coalition has broadened. The research and articles cited here come from different points in time, so their numbers may not always be directly comparable. But for creating an overall impression, hopefully that won’t matter too much. I have, however, mostly limited myself to sources from after the first primaries and before Trump became the presumptive nominee after winning Indiana.

Trump voters within the Republican Party

To date, Trump has received 10,999,775 votes, 40.65% of the total. While the absolute number is comparable to those of past nominees, because turnout has been higher this year, his share is considerably lower, and he is on track to become the first Republican nominee in decades who hasn’t won a majority of popular votes. Who, then, makes up his victorious plurality?

This Wall Street Journal infographic is an excellent introduction. It breaks down support for Trump along a number of dimensions in comparison to “Establishment Voters” supporting Bush and Rubio and “Social Conservative Voters” supporting Cruz and Carson. (How quickly time flies in campaign season!) Of the three groups, Trump supporters are least likely to have college degrees, least likely to have household incomes of over $75,000, and least likely to regularly attend church.

Only 31% call themselves “very conservative” versus 51% of social conservatives and 20% of establishment supporters. Nevertheless, they oppose same-sex marriage and support gun rights, though they are the least pro-life of the three groups.

They are the group most skeptical of the rest of the world. 81% of Trump voters say that immigration hurts America more than it helps, versus 60% of Social Conservative Voters and 45% of Establishment Voters. Trump voters are also most skeptical of free trade and most inclined to focus on “problems at home rather than overseas”.

That should give an overall picture. Poorer, alienated from institutions, focused on America. But note that he draws support from both sides of each of these divides. That will be a recurring theme: while one can say that Trump voters are more or less concentrated in a given group, his support is quite broad, at least among Republicans. The typical Trump voter is not a stereotypical Trump voter. It’s at most useful to talk about tendencies rather than make categorical statements.

Live vs. online polling

Trump does “about five percentage points” better in online polls than when talking to a live interviewer, possibly due to social desirability bias: “people are afraid to tell another human being that they support the Republican because, even though they like him, they know about his controversial statements and do not want to be judged negatively.” The gap was larger, closer to 10 points, for voters with bachelor’s or graduate degrees, and for more informed voters.



Trump is often accused of sexism and he has a history of controversial statements towards women and it’s reflected in the polls. He’s very unpopular overall, but there is a clear gender gap: 58% of men and 70% of women view him unfavorably. “The gap between his favorable and unfavorable rating among men averaged 22 percentage points in March 1-28 interviewing, compared with a 47-point gap among women.” Also, while his numbers have been declining for months, the decline has been roughly the same among both men and women; he simply started off doing better among men.

For comparison:

According to a national Quinnipiac University survey in March, only 29 percent of women have a favorable view of Cruz, while 46 percent have an unfavorable view. A CNN-ORC poll the same month found that 28 percent of the women surveyed overall had a favorable view overall of Cruz, and 58 percent had an unfavorable view.

Still, in both surveys, Trump’s numbers were considerably worse: His unfavorability rating hitting 67 percent in the Quinnipiac poll, and 74 percent in the CNN survey.

Let’s focus on the GOP. Among Republicans, Trump is the only candidate with a significant difference in how many men and women wouldn’t consider supporting him:


Of course this is just for the primary; most of these people will wind up voting in the general for whoever the nominee is, regardless of what they say now. And in any case, according to exit polls, Trump still won a plurality of women voters in most states, though consistently smaller than his pluralities among men:

Capture19(Data from here; graph created by me; not all states exit polled)

(Most primaries were pretty evenly split between male and female voters. Except for New York and Connecticut, men never made up more than 53% of the electorate.)

Alabama produced an anomalous gap of 16 points, but in general the difference in support hovered between 5 and 10%. Ted Cruz, on the other hand, polled more evenly between men and women, though generally behind Trump among both.

Overall, Trump’s poor standing with women has cost him some votes in the primaries, but will be a larger issue in the general election.


In December, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that “Among those aged 18 through 34, just 19% have positive feelings about Mr. Trump. Among those aged 50 through 64, the level rises to 35%. It’s 32% among those aged 65 and over.”

Among Republicans specifically there is also an age gap, though it’s not huge:

Capture7 (Source)

Exit polls have found a similar difference:


(Data from here; graph created by me; not all states exit polled)

The youngest voters were generally least supportive of Trump, but otherwise things are close. In no race were 18-29-year-olds most likely to vote for Trump. In only one race, Arkansas, were those aged 30-44 most likely, excluding ties. The elderly and most especially the middle-aged are clearly likeliest to support him. For the most part the gap between least- and most-likely groups is under 15 points, and often 10.

However, these groups did not make up equal shares of the electorate. Roughly 10+% of the electorate was 18-29, 20% was 30-44, 40+% was 45-64, and 20+% was 65+, with variation by state. Therefore, a large plurality of Trump voters were middle aged:


(Data from here; chart created by me; not all states exit polled; percentages may be slightly off for states where the 18-29 demographic was too small to be counted)

Again though, we can only speak of tendencies: Trump draws support from many groups of Republicans.


Trump is wildly unpopular with non-white voters overall. His net favorability with Hispanics is -65%, compared to other Republicans, who roughly break even (and to +33% for Clinton). One “tracking poll found that Trump was viewed unfavorably by 86% of black voters and 75% of Latinos.” An “NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found two-thirds of voters overall saying that they could not see themselves voting for Trump. Among nonwhite voters, the figure was 84%.”

But what about among non-white Republicans? Have they helped or hurt Trump?

It’s important to understand that a huge majority of Republican primary voters are non-Hispanic whites. In 2012, self-identified Republicans were 89% non-Hispanic white, 2% non-Hispanic black, 6% Hispanic, and 1% Asian. Trump hasn’t changed that. Of the 26 states that were exit polled, in only 5 states were non-Hispanic whites less than 90% of the Republican electorate: Nevada (85%), Georgia (88%), Texas (82%), Virginia (86%), and Florida (78%). Along with North Carolina and Ohio, these are the only states where non-Hispanic white Republicans have been analyzed separately in these exit polls.

Trump won the mainly Latino minority vote in Nevada with 42%. In every other state with available data, he lost Hispanic and non-White voters. Given that turnout is up overall while the minority share of the vote hasn’t changed much, there have obviously been more minority voters in the primaries to date. However, these voters have mainly opposed Trump. He is losing both non-white Republicans and non-whites overall.

New voters?

Republican turnout has been dramatically higher than in 2012 – some 60% – this primary season. (Although note that this doesn’t necessarily translate to better turnout in the general election.) One reason for this is simply that the contest has been seriously contested for longer than in 2012. (Democratic turnout is down 19% from 2008, though it’s just a two person race and Sanders has never had Obama’s odds of defeating Clinton.) Who are these new voters? New Republicans? Loosely attached Republicans?

While turnout has indeed been high this cycle, it’s not clear that Trump is really expanding the party:

Republicans are seeing their voter registration rolls grow instead of shrink for the first time in years at this stage in the federal election cycle, but not by much. “The Republican Party share of the voter registration in the country is up slightly, as compared to the last tally, which was November 2014,” said Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News. “It’s the first time the Republicans have gone up instead of down since 2004.”

In February 2016, there were about 30.5 million registered Republicans nationally, Ballot Access News reported. That’s compared to 30.9 million in October 2014, 31.3 million in October 2012, 30.9 million in October 2008, and 29.0 million in October 2004.

Most partisans don’t vote in primaries, so increased turnout can easily come mostly from newly energized Republicans. Trump has undoubtedly drawn less attached Republicans to come to the polls, but remember that Trump has mostly only won pluralities rather than majorities, so some amount of increased turnout is due to the anti-Trump vote.

Unfortunately, most exit polls haven’t asked people if it’s their first time voting in primaries, so we don’t have a full picture of who Trump is bringing in. According to the Los Angeles Times:

In Iowa’s caucuses this year, Trump clearly did well with first-time participants. The share of voters taking part in the state’s caucuses for the first time rose from 38% in the 2012 exit poll to 45% in 2016, and Trump won the first-timers handily. In New Hampshire, by contrast, the 15% of voters casting a GOP primary ballot for the first time this year was only marginally higher than the 12% four years ago, and Trump’s share of their votes, 38%, was only slightly better than the 35% he got among repeat voters.


Polls show that moderate Republicans — not Democrats and independents, as Trump often claims — have also helped boost turnout numbers in 2016.

According to the analysis by Public Opinion Strategies, which included the most recent round of voting on Tuesday in Utah, Arizona, and Idaho, 42 percent of Republican primary voters so far this year identify themselves as “somewhat conservative,” up from 33 percent at this stage in the 2012 race.

As Trump supporters are less likely to self-describe as strongly conservative than other Republicans, this change is plausibly due to Trump bringing in new voters to the primaries.

Democratic defectors? Independents?

Anecdotes abound about voters torn between Trump and Sanders, and pundits have wondered if Trump, not a doctrinaire conservative, might attract Democrats. One poll in January found that 20% of Democrats would vote for him – but also that 14% of Republicans would vote for Clinton! However, this poll is most likely an anomaly:

According to the Reuters tracking poll, which follows responses over time to measure changes in support or opinion, more than 73 percent of whites who voted for President Obama in the last presidential election hold a negative opinion of Trump, versus 27 percent who hold a favorable opinion. It’s difficult to do a direct comparison, but this is in line with Mitt Romney’s standing among white self-identified liberals in the September before the 2012 election. Better is an apples-to-apples comparison between Trump and his nearest rival, Ted Cruz. Whites who voted for Obama like Cruz—a doctrinaire conservative ideologue—about as much as they like Trump, 28 percent favorable to 72 percent unfavorable.


A March Washington Post poll found that in a hypothetical matchup with Trump, Hillary Clinton wins Democrats 86 to 9 percent. That means, right now, that Trump does indeed gain a few more Democratic defections than Romney did. The problem is that Trump is only winning Republicans 75 to 14 percent. In other words, more Republicans are planning to vote for Hillary than Democrats are planning to vote for Trump, which helps explain why Clinton is leading in almost all the head-to-head polls.

(Trump has gained Republican support since clinching the nomination.) While this election is itself anomalous and Trump is relatively unpredictable, the weight of evidence to date suggests that Trump lacks appeal to both Democrats and independents. And in fact, votes to date back this up: “The share of the GOP primary electorate that identified as Democrat stayed steady at 5 percent, while the percentage of independents grew one point, from 26 to 27 percent.”


Again, increased turnout means that more Democrats and independents must have voted Republican, but the numbers are small overall. In no way could they be a major part of Trump’s base. His main support comes from Republicans, both party stalwarts and especially more weakly attached voters, not from drawing in non-Republicans.


Like for the GOP as a whole, support for Trump is overwhelmingly white. Relative to other Republicans, Trump voters are older and more male, but Trump often won among women and the young regardless. He may be drawing in less attached Republicans, but independents and Democrats haven’t much helped him.

Next: Where are Trump voters from? What are their ethnic backgrounds?

(Source for header image)

[Dialogue] Genetic Engineering – Conclusions

[Introduction; Round 1; Round 2: Libertes, Precautiones; Round 3: Libertes, Precautiones; Round 4; Single page]

by David Severa

Libertes’ Conclusion

It’s a fair point that pushing for a total ban is unlikely to do much harm, and might even lead to better regulations. That doesn’t make a ban a good idea.

Does genetic engineering “pose existential threats to human survival or flourishing”? Not the sort that Precautiones has dreamed up. Her idea of some irreversible change is patently absurd. This will not be a sudden process. It will play out over decades and generations, as we slowly learn more about our genes and our minds. There will be research and public feedback and ceaseless debates.  We will not stumble blindly into anything. We might make mistakes (and I guess one could imagine a far-fetched conspiracy by world leaders to enforce permanent obedience at a biological level), but this is a process we’re approaching with human values, and if our efforts fail our values, we will change our course. Not easily, but that’s life. That’s progress. It’s messy. There are existential risks involved in genetic engineering, but it’s not an all-or-nothing decision. We can – and by necessity will – start small.

I think that this is a good example of Precautiones’ flawed approach. She falls back on dark insinuations about human nature, without much evidence to back up her worldview. It’s not even that she’s necessarily wrong, it’s that public policy decisions of such vast importance can’t be made on the basis of so little real support. On whether parents can be trusted to do what is right for their children, the only evidence Precautiones brought to bear was abortion rates for fetuses with Down syndrome. On whether governments will allow a relatively free market, the only evidence is that some governments provide/mandate provision of embryo selection for a number of obviously deleterious genetic diseases. On whether there are unavoidable trade-offs between desirable traits, no evidence is provided. The arguments for negative externalities are similarly airy. There is little but a massive superstructure of apparently-plausible stories and dark hints.

Admittedly, hypotheticals and speculation are unavoidable when talking about a future that is at least decades away. And while I’ve tried to provide numbers or reference studies where possible, lots of gaps had to be spackled with guesses. Hopefully I’ve sketched a plausible, positive vision of a future with genetic engineering – at least shown that dystopia is far from guaranteed – but of course things could go wrong in ways anticipated or unanticipated. The evidence and arguments are more on my side, but unknowns will swamp our predictions.

The question then becomes what actions should we take when confronted with a new technology that looks to be on-net positive, but with significant – yes, even existential – risks? “Where does the burden of proof lie?” With those wishing to prohibit, as always. If it were an all-or-nothing decision, then a ban until we are more certain about the effects could make sense. But as I said, that’s not the problem we face. I can think of no reason why the default position is not one of free choice.

I won’t leave you with some grand statement, just a simple recapitulation of my case. There are good reasons to think that genetic engineering, if chosen by parents from a sensibly regulated free market, will prove to be an amazing boon to humanity. Children will lead better lives, and society will benefit even beyond that. Such a market is possible, but not guaranteed. We will have to push for it collectively. There are risks, but manageable ones. A ban on genetic engineering makes absolutely no sense.


Precautiones’ Conclusion

Libertes reverts to discussing free choice as if it is unencumbered by the choices of others, like we live in a world without tragedies of the commons or prisoner’s dilemmas. He says that “There will be research and public feedback and ceaseless debates. We will not stumble blindly into anything.” But what if there are the metaphorical arms races we’ve discussed? The nuclear arms race involved research and public feedback and ceaseless debates, yet it was mostly through dumb luck that the world avoided catastrophe. And these dynamics could play out at the individual and/or national level. The pressure to have a child that competes already does strange things to parents. The pressure to compete militarily or economically can lead to the exact sort of irreversible changes that Libertes blithely dismisses. So it may well be an all-or-nothing decision, in which case even he agrees that “a ban until we are more certain about the effects could make sense.” My precautionary principle more than holds.

Libertes talks about evidence, but there are more types of evidence than he’s acknowledged. Historical truths, and how they inform our understanding of the present, are notably absent from his analysis. In the first paragraph of my first post I reminded our readers of the horrors of eugenics. And not isolated incidents. Broad, cross-national inhumanity. Real horrors, that prove how evil people can be even in the name of an apparent good cause like the betterment of humanity. That’s why I came up with all of those ways that things could go wrong. I wasn’t pontificating about nothing. Hypotheticals stemming from an understanding of humanity are the best tools for understanding we have. And history, better than anything else, gives us insight into human nature as it is – the human nature that will be eugenically remaking itself.

In many circumstances, most people are essentially decent, but if you push them out of their comfort zones, into the unfamiliar or frightening, they can do terrible things. The decisions the new eugenics imposes aren’t like the pressures of war, but they’re abnormal, sliding into a bloodless cruelty of utilitarianism unchecked by our better passions. To understand that requires not just evidence, but reflection and insight. What may seem “airy” is hopefully a product of that insight. You can’t predict the future with it, but you can suss out its rhythms and recurrences. Greed, selfishness, and lust for power at all levels will fatally compromise any attempt to improve human nature, at least until we pass some as yet unknown horizon.

But right now the path to eugenics must go through either the enormity of government control of reproduction, or into the downward-sucking whirlpool of individual competition and individual ignorance and cruelty. Or both. If we reach the other side alive and unscathed it will be due to no skill of our own, but some unearned fortune. A far better option is to turn away. There is so much else in the universe to understand and master before we turn to ourselves, so many topics presenting so much less danger. A complete prohibition on genetic engineering (or however close we can get) is absolutely called for. And with the first human embryos already edited we already have one foot over the point of no return. Action must be swift and it must be strong. I’m not optimistic. The siren call of “progress” will always be alluring. I’m aware of the immense difficulties entailed by my position, but if it’s a losing cause then I can hardly think of a nobler one.

That’s it for this dialogue, thanks for reading! Who won? What points did both sides totally fail to consider? What changes to the format would you have us make in the future? Let us know in the comments, over email, or on Tumblr. We’d love to hear from you.

Veracities will return very soon with a very in-depth look at the demographics of supporters of Donald Trump. Stay tuned!

[Dialogue] Genetic Engineering – Precautiones’ second reply

[Introduction; Round 1; Round 2: Libertes, Precautiones; Round 3: Libertes, Precautiones; Round 4Single page]

by David Severa

Something may be desirable without being probable, and pursuing the improbable does not necessarily come at the expense of crafting second-best fallback solutions. I’m not under any illusions about the difficulties involved, but I still think that the fight is worth it. And while I’ll push for what I believe in, I’m certainly glad that there are others out there thinking about what to do if we fail.

Some arms control agreements work, and even if they’re imperfect they can still restrain behavior and prevent arms races. For instance, most but not all nations have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. While nations like North Korea and Egypt haven’t joined, and nations like Syria have been found in flagrant violation and only weakly held to task, the Convention hasn’t collapsed. In fact, “65,720 metric tonnes, or 90%, of the world’s declared stockpile of 72,525 metric tonnes of chemical agent have been verifiably destroyed.” In other words, countries are compliant even knowing that others sometimes aren’t. Similarly, agreements like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty haven’t stopped proliferation wholly, but the spread has been slower than might be expected, and the international community has been able to successfully (hopefully) pressure Iran on its nuclear program. As to eugenics, I see no reason why the occasional violation (likely to be small-scale for the most part) should trigger collapse of the whole edifice.

Now, those agreements were signed because states saw them as being in their interests, or at least not especially opposed to their interests. Chemical weapons aren’t actually particularly effective. Nations protected by America’s nuclear umbrella have good reasons to support non-proliferation that might not hold in the future. And so on. Will countries see it in their interests to ban eugenics? Much harder to say. Given Europe’s abhorrence of even just genetically altered food, they seem likeliest to support a ban. Of large nations, perhaps China seems least likely. We can at least guess at how social forces will typically be arrayed. In a given nation the business community and military, both seeking efficiency and relative advantages to competitors, seem naturally friendly to eugenics. Many religions seem naturally opposed. NGOs and the like would perhaps be split, with public opinion determining which side is stronger. And how will public opinion fall? Who knows, but a concerted effort to inculcate moral revulsion could have an effect. Without public opinion on our side the fight would be doomed, given that the elite will likely be favorably disposed. More than anything else, that’s what success will come down to.

But will public opinion have much sway in authoritarian countries like China? No ruler can avoid considering popular opinion altogether, but some governments have a freer hand to do what they want and to control the media so as to control the public. A nation like China would need to either shed its authoritarianism or have its leaders be convinced that a eugenics program was not in their interests, for instance as a destabilizer to their rule. I’m not sure which possibility is less likely and this is the biggest sticking point for any worldwide ban on genetic engineering. In most nations, at more or less the same time, there will need to be a confluence of support, and that relies on factors that are outside the control of activists. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be waiting to pounce if the moment is right, and it doesn’t say anything about the desirability of a ban, which is the question under discussion. As I said, a ban would be best, but other paths should be considered simultaneously.

The question of how long we can expect such an agreement to last, or how long it should last, is an interesting one. If no actions are ever taken to edit the human genome, then over tens or hundreds of thousands of years natural selection will change us itself. (Though maybe humans will prove as durable a form as sharks.) But that’s well beyond the scope of our discussion. I won’t say forever, because I don’t know what social technologies the future will develop. Maybe the anarchists will work something out and we’ll live in an individual-choice utopia where coercion is but a distant dream. I doubt it, but who knows? The ban should be indefinite, at least.

Libertes raises an objection to this, which I’ll take the liberty of rephrasing: We should consider starting eugenics programs now, while there are people raising ethical concerns who will spur us to act more responsibly.  If, however, we create a strong norm against eugenics as being beyond the pale, then those in the future most likely to violate such a taboo are more likely to be evil in other ways. By passing up the chance to take control now, we leave a void which will not be filled by those we would choose. It’s a clever argument, but I wouldn’t put too much weight on it. In those more utopian futures people may also choose to end limits on genetic engineering, so you have to decide which sort of future seems more plausible. It’s not one-sided. I’d say the dystopian too, but not with enough certainty to influence my actions in the present.

My real objection is that we are the ones living in that dystopian future where norms against eugenics are breaking down in a way that the unscrupulous and evil will take advantage of. I’ve already made my case to that effect.

And my case still stands. If it were truly impossible, then there would be no case for prohibiting eugenics. But it’s just very difficult, and pushing for a ban doesn’t rule out second-best regulations. In fact, by moving the Overton window, we may be strengthening whatever future regulations will look like if nothing else.

One final point. At the very beginning of our discussion Libertes states that “My starting assumption is that activities shouldn’t be banned without clear and pressing reasons for doing so.” Now that I’ve sketched out a variety of possible irreversible harms that can result from eugenics I’ll argue that this is wrong. In many domains this might be the right attitude, but not here.

I haven’t yet elaborated on the ultimate damage that may be done. My biggest worry is that, in time, some will to strive may be lost. That is, many of the problems I’ve mentioned could conceivably be reversed. But what if the will to undo mistakes is lost, or the ability to recognize the mistakes we’ve made? What if we make a reduced humanity that can’t even understand its own condition and thus never seeks to restore what’s been lost. Excessive conformity, or excessive obedience, or excessive passivity, I don’t know what the cause might be, but it’s why I worry so much. It’s not just about harms, but irreversible harms. Here’s my own version of the precautionary principle:

Changes to the current order that may pose existential threats to human survival or flourishing must be rigorously proven to be safe before being permitted.

This seems quite strong and reasonable. Of course “may” is a slippery term, but without getting into the exact boundaries, surely wide-scale eugenics fits as well as anything else in history.

Moderator’s comments for Round 3

  • Can parents be trusted to make the right choices for their children?
    • Round 1: What further evidence might be brought to bear? For instance, do parents accurately guess how happy the life of someone with a given disability is likely to be?
  • Is there a right to an unaltered genome?
    • Round 2: Both sides agree that framing this discussion in terms of rights is unhelpful.
  • Will positive or negative externalities predominate?
    • Round 1: Libertes has argued that there are positive externalities to genetic engineering, while Precautiones has pointed to negative ramifications such as loss of human diversity, permanent inequality, and de facto government control of reproduction. Are negative or positive trends likely to predominate?
    • Round 2: Both of you have identified possible positive and negative externalities that might be produced, but is it even possible to weigh these against each other with so little evidence right now?
  • How much freedom from government intervention is possible or desirable?
    • Round 1: Are the practical limits to the libertarian approach listed by Precautiones – state takeover, the poor lacking access in practice – real? If so, are they avoidable?
    • Round 2: Both of you assume that government regulation of genetic engineering would necessarily be harmful, but perhaps you could flesh out what those harms would be. Is democracy really so inadequate a check as you both seem to think?
  • Is a total ban on even mere research possible?
    • Round 2: Does this include research on genetic diseases?
    • Round 3: Despite different approaches, both sides seem to agree that the odds of a total ban are small. The question thus becomes whether or not Precautiones is right that a ban is nevertheless worth pursuing, and that depends firstly on if genetic engineering will be good or bad (as we’ve already discussed) and secondly on if the opportunity cost of pushing for a ban is too high.
  • Trade-offs
    • Round 2: Are the trade-offs between traits Precautiones discussed likely to be real? Is the vicious cycle of competition? Can we know that right now?
    • Round 3: If intelligence is mostly correlated with other, positive traits, that’s at least circumstantial evidence that such trade-offs won’t be too significant. Is there a rejoinder to this?
  • No time like the present?
    • Round 3: Are there reasons to think that the present is a better or worse time to begin a genetic engineering program than the future? Surely this is simply unknowable to any useful degree?
  • Where does the burden of proof lie?
    • Round 3: Should genetic engineering be legal or banned by default? And how much evidence is needed to allow/disallow it?

[Dialogue] Genetic Engineering – Libertes’ second reply

[Introduction; Round 1; Round 2: Libertes, Precautiones; Round 3: Libertes, Precautiones; Round 4Single page]

by David Severa

So far we’ve been talking about a “ban” on genetic engineering as if it were some unitary thing. “Will the ban work?” “Is the ban feasible?” But for this prohibition to work it has to happen not just in one country, even one as powerful as America, but more or less everywhere, permanently. When one thinks about the scope of that challenge, and the near-impossibility of coming anywhere close to that level of cooperation, then even people with grave fears of eugenics should come to see that amelioration is a better, workable approach.

Let’s start with the current international situation. There are currently some 200 countries, many of which are large enough that they could feasibly fund their own research into genetic engineering without relying on outside assistance. And as CRISPR and other techniques become better understood in coming years, and as the number of sampled genomes keeps rising, entry will only become easier. Researchers in China are pushing faster than in the West; the first human embryos to be edited with CRISPR were in China. If some nations don’t view genetic engineering with abhorrence, why should they agree to a ban? If some nations see an advantage in pursuing genetic engineering (for the reasons I’ve discussed) while others abstain, why should they agree to a ban? Why should any nation agree to a ban that other countries aren’t adhering to, if it risks putting them at a great disadvantage? The only situation in which I could imagine a ban working was if there was a strong reason to believe that genetic engineering was not in fact very useful, but then the agreement would be secondary anyway. As it stands, one medium-sized nation would be enough to derail any agreement, as its neighbors would break away to stay competitive and so on. There may be treaties or UN declarations, but expect them to have as much weight as interwar arms control agreements did. You could hold things back some, but no more.

Hypothetically though, imagine the world actually came to an agreement and hashed out a workable ban. What then? It seems impossible to imagine that norms won’t ever shift in the following decades or centuries. Will no pocket of humanity anywhere pursue genetic engineering to fruition? Because as soon as anyone does, then containment or reversion to the status quo ante become ever harder. The engineered will be more successful (since that’s what it means for the engineering to work, more or less) and thus genetic engineering will be no easier to stop once it gets started than any other successful technology. (If even better ways to improve human nature non-heritably were developed, that would do it, actually.)

Opponents might argue that even a non-permanent agreement is better than nothing, so as to give us time to prepare if nothing else, but I’m not so sure. We’ve already had decades to prepare for genetic engineering, and it isn’t clear that more time would help. The battle lines have been sketched, if not yet drawn. It also seems reckless to me to just assume that the future will be a better place better able to come up with better solutions to these hard problems. There is, at most, a rough tendency towards progress in history, one that can often be reversed. And while our current global order is hugely flawed, the past shows many ways in which things could be worse. What if the future push towards genetic engineering comes at a terrible time for humanity? It’s not implausible, since they’d be overturning important, long-standing cultural norms. The world could get locked in by a single generation’s harmful ideas. We should not be at all certain that our descendants will make better choices than us. If genetic engineering is to become a reality, I’m inclined to say that the certain problems of today are a safer bet than the uncertainties of tomorrow.

Next, I think that Precautiones made an excellent point: to say that a market can function without intervention is not the same thing as saying that a market will avoid political interference. I don’t think that any market is totally immune to that. Democracy and a free press will ameliorate some of the more harmful tendencies. (Dictatorships won’t be as bound, but they were never likely to bow to an internationally-imposed ban anyway.) However, I confess that I’m now starting to realize that I haven’t thought nearly enough about balancing freedom of action with reasonable regulations. It’s a difficult problem even for much less fraught topics. In practice there may be no alternative but muddling through and trusting in the people to push back and fight for their own rights, but was there ever an alternative to that? A great deal of discussion is required.

Pivoting from the civilizational to the personal, I’d like to look more at whether genetic engineering will involve trade-offs between intelligene and other desirable traits. Here is psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman:

Consistent with prior research, IQ was most strongly related to openness to experience. Out of 9 dimensions of openness to experience, 8 out of 9 were positively related to IQ: intellectual engagement, intellectual creativity, mental quickness, intellectual competence, introspection, ingenuity, intellectual depth, and imagination. Interestingly, IQ was much more strongly related to intellectual engagement and mental quickness than imagination, ingenuity, or intellectual depth, and IQ was not related to sensitivity to beauty.

Out of 45 dimensions of personality, 23 dimensions were not related to IQ. This included gregariousness, friendliness, assertiveness, poise, talkativeness, social understanding, warmth, pleasantness, empathy, cooperation, sympathy, conscientiousness, efficiency, dutifulness, purposefulness, cautiousness, rationality, perfectionism, calmness, impulse control, imperturbability, cool-headedness, and tranquility. These qualities were not directly relevant to IQ.

8 dimensions of personality outside the openness to experience domain were positively related to IQ, including organization, toughness, provocativeness, leadership, self-disclosure, emotional stability, moderation, and happiness– although the correlations were much smaller than with intellectual engagement and mental quickness. IQ was negatively related to orderliness, morality, nurturance, tenderness, and sociability, but again, the negative correlations were much smaller than the relationships among IQ, intellectual engagement, and mental quickness.

Now, not all of these relationships will hold up, but it gives a sense of things. (And don’t forget correlations between different personality traits. No getting around the complexity of the human mind.) While most desirable traits are uncorrelated or positively correlated with IQ, there are in fact a few unfortunate, but small, negative correlations. On the whole this seems encouraging, and remember that perhaps we will be able to counter any small problems created with fixes elsewhere. After all, there are plenty of smart and sociable people, so it’s obviously possible.

[Dialogue] Genetic Engineering – Precautiones’ first reply

[Introduction; Round 1; Round 2: Libertes, Precautiones; Round 3: Libertes, Precautiones; Round 4Single page]

by David Severa

The moderator asked for evidence that parents do or do not act with their children’s interests at heart. While I could point to innumerable examples of selfish or cruel or violent parenting, I suppose that wouldn’t be enough. There’s no doubt that many parents would abuse eugenics, but the question is how many? Would the bad outweigh the good? Unfortunately there isn’t a great deal of direct evidence because this is a problem we’ve mostly not faced. But there are analogies. Remember how I mentioned that a large majority of fetuses with Down syndrome were aborted? The corollary is that “When nonpregnant people are asked if they would have a termination if their fetus tested positive, [only] 23–33% said yes”. We can’t trust what people say they would do until they actually have to take action. Ignore polls where respondents say they’d never ever CRISPR their kids. Frankly cynicism is warranted. In the privacy of a clinic, people will be more hard-headed. I won’t say that most parents would consciously choose anything harmful, only that it’s easy to justify what’s in your self-interest.

Parents will also have to consider what other typical parents are likely considering. It isn’t the only think people care about, but having children who can compete socially and economically is valued and those are traits where a mastery of zero-sum competition is crucial. (Yes, positive-sum cooperation is also important.) There are ineradicable benefits to being on top of a hierarchy. It may be true now that intelligence is correlated with cooperation and law-abidingness, but intelligence matched with ruthlessness could be selected for. Or ability to cooperate in small groups at the expense of everyone else. Not that our level of control will be so precise, but one could imagine trends in those directions as people copy what seems to work. What if parents feel that they have no choice but to cut out the niceness genes (so to speak) just so their kids have a chance at competing? If everyone knows that everyone else is doing this…

Libertes wondered “whether there might be unavoidable trade-offs between, say, increasing intelligence and increasing altruism. If there are, then the technology will simply be less effective than expected and thus less of a reason for concern.” This is wrong. If there are major trade-offs then eugenics will be less effective than hoped, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. What if improvements in intelligence necessarily come at a cost to altruism and parents choose intelligence en masse? Such trade-offs may wreck the alignment of parental and societal interests that Libertes needs for his arguments to work. What if we can’t have everything? Why wouldn’t parents choose the selfish option? It would be impossible to coordinate against. And then we have a generation of bright kids with weak consciences. Of course that’s just an example. So little is understood about the brain that we can’t say what will be possible. Still, such negative externalities would clearly undercut the purported benefits of genetic engineering.

Again, eugenics can lead to harmful competition that degrades the happiness of the enhanced and everyone else. That alone doesn’t justify prohibition, as prohibition might be ineffective. However, a ban may be more effective than you think, as the government could ban not just clinics, but all research into genetic engineering on humans. Without a detailed understanding of the genetic architecture of the mind, and without practicing on human embryos in particular, there would be no doctors with the ability to do anything. Such a ban wouldn’t be simple, but withdrawal of government funding would be an effective stick. You can’t have a back-alley billion-dollar research program. No need to arrest worried mothers-to-be.

Now, Libertes has devoted a lot of words to say that a robust private market in eugenic treatments is possible. Barring unanticipated problems, his sketch seems feasible enough on its own. But the question is not just whether you could make a functioning market based on individual choices in theory, but how much control the government will take in practice. A proof of concept is insufficient. For instance, in vitro fertilization is elective. However, in the US fifteen states mandate that insurers cover IVF for infertile couples. In the UK the NHS not only covers IVF, it covers pre-implantation genetic screening, where couples at risk of passing on certain heritable diseases screen embryos and discard those with the disease. No one has to have IVF, but non-coercive subsidies will still alter behavior. If one set of genetic treatments is covered, but you have to pay full price for anything else, what will people choose? What if it’s all you can afford? What if the government bans some lines of research but not others? That would be more distorting than a total ban. Libertes’ analysis is fatally flawed; he shows that there could be a market without intervention, when he needed to show that a market could resist intervention. To show that he will have to make entirely different arguments. And in fact his arguments about positive externalities to society would give cover to government interference under a paternalist guise.

One last point. Libertes argues that there is no right to an unedited genome, as having genes selected by one’s parents is no more coercive than having genes chosen by chance. I’m not sure if that’s right – we don’t know just how precise our control might be – but I won’t contest it here. Rights talk is too often circular and agreement is rarely reached. Much better to stick to more concrete harms.

To recap: freely chosen eugenics – to the limited extent it’s possible – would harm both children and society, but the state will have its hand in everything and it will pursue its own interests, which won’t align with the rest of humanity. (The government could clamp down on vicious cycles of competition, but I think we both agree that the cost would be too high.) An outright ban of all of this is feasible. So why not?

Moderator’s comments for Round 2

  • Can parents be trusted to make the right choices for their children?
    • Round 1: What further evidence might be brought to bear? For instance, do parents accurately guess how happy the life of someone with a given disability is likely to be?
  • Is there a right to an unaltered genome?
    • Round 2: Both sides agree that framing this discussion in terms of rights is unhelpful.
  • Will positive or negative externalities predominate?
    • Round 1: Libertes has argued that there are positive externalities to genetic engineering, while Precautiones has pointed to negative ramifications such as loss of human diversity, permanent inequality, and de facto government control of reproduction. Are negative or positive trends likely to predominate?
    • Round 2: Both of you have identified possible positive and negative externalities that might be produced, but is it even possible to weigh these against each other with so little evidence right now?
  • How much freedom from government intervention is possible or desirable?
    • Round 1: Are the practical limits to the libertarian approach listed by Precautiones – state takeover, the poor lacking access in practice – real? If so, are they avoidable?
    • Round 2: Both of you assume that government regulation of genetic engineering would necessarily be harmful, but perhaps you could flesh out what those harms would be. Is democracy really so inadequate a check as you both seem to think?
  • Is a total ban on even mere research possible?
    • Round 2: Does this include research on genetic diseases?
  • Trade-offs
    • Round 2: Are the trade-offs between traits Precautiones discussed likely to be real? Is the vicious cycle of competition? Can we know that right now?


[Dialogue] Genetic Engineering – Libertes’ first reply

[Introduction; Round 1; Round 2: Libertes, Precautiones; Round 3: Libertes, Precautiones; Round 4Single page]

by David Severa

First, I think it’s important for me to clarify that I’m not a libertarian and I’m not calling for a libertarian solution to anything. What I am is pro-market, and what I am calling for are market-based solutions. I completely share my interlocutor’s concerns with excessive government control of something as important as the human genome. However I don’t believe that the way to keep government out of our reproductive choices is for the government to enact a massive ban on certain reproductive choices! Quite the opposite. If we’re going to make emotional appeals, imagine prospective parents in their 40s looking to have their first child and seeking illegal genetic treatments out of concerns about disorders that are more common with older parents. Are you going to arrest the mother for that? The father?The doctor? Are you going to force people into buying subpar or even unsafe medical services? Bans don’t simply end demand, they push it underground into black markets. Bans don’t eliminate, they reduce.

Let me answer two of Precautiones’ questions, “How expensive is it? Who pays for it?” I’m not sure that the market for genetic engineering will particularly resemble the broader health care system. The reason people have health insurance is mainly to cover large, unavoidable, and often unexpected costs. Because this is (often) seen as a right or basic human necessity, governments intervene heavily or even monopolize the health care sector. Hence the breakdown of normal market controls on cost. The American mess is well known – opaque pricing, lack of expertise among patients and lack of time in emergencies making it hard to shop around, many layers of impenetrable bureaucracy – but many other countries have difficulties with costs (though none as bad).

Genetic engineering would be different. It would be a choice. Parents would have time to think things through, to shop around for what they want in terms of quality and price, to save in advance if need be. The market would be far more functional. In fact the market would resemble that for elective cosmetic surgeries. Quite unlike health care as a whole, plastic surgery costs have dropped in real terms in the US:

plasticprices (Source)

It’s not a completely unregulated market, and nor would genetic engineering be. But it’s obvious that the standard virtuous cycle of competition leading to innovation and lower costs could work. For another point of comparison look at the recent drop in genome sequencing costs:

costpergenome2015_4 (Source)

Now, even if costs are dramatically lowered from their starting point, that’s no guarantee of broad affordability. (There’s a free market in mega yachts, after all.) And in vitro fertilization, presumably a necessary component of genetic engineering, isn’t cheap. Cost per round of IVF can be well over $10,000 in the US, and below or around $5,000 in other developed countries. That’s prohibitively expensive for many people. But while the cost of IVF hasn’t decreased in the last few decades there are some reasons to think that it might in the future: more widespread use, standardization, automation, larger clinics, and more effective techniques. It’s clearly impossible though, to predict where costs will settle. I strongly suspect that genetic engineering will eventually become affordable to most people, but that’s just a suspicion.  (To be honest, I had expected to be able to paint a rosier picture when I started this section.) Still, the government control Precautiones warns of isn’t guaranteed at all, and might not even be likely. If most parents can pay their own way, that puts them in control.

I’m torn about whether subsidies would be a good idea or not if costs don’t come down enough or if they haven’t come down enough yet. A simple grant covering some fraction of the cost for poor families would alleviate distributional concerns, but we come back to the problem of what the subsidies will cover. State governments in the US are happy to high-handedly regulate what food people on food stamps can buy, and subsidies would be an excellent way to exercise the soft coercion Precautiones is worried about. Perhaps it will depend on the specifics.

As to the (interesting and unexpected!) argument about the third world being cut off from the gains of genetic engineering, that seems unlikely to me. Even if the third world remains much poorer than average in the future there would still be a tremendous amount of money to be made overall. Plus knowledge travels rather freely these days. If military secrets aren’t that secure, how will scientific knowledge and trade secrets be kept safe? Indeed, different laws worldwide along with the possibilities of medical tourism make it more likely that nations will be unable to keep genetic engineering out rather than keep it in.

But even if the benefits from genetic engineering are unevenly distributed, will those shut out from the treatment actually be worse off? Returning to Hive Mind, Jones argues that there are great benefits to being in a nation full of smart and productive people, even if you’re below average. Barbers, a relatively low-skilled occupation, make much more in the US than in India. That should be obvious to everyone. Plus smarter people will come up with more inventions to improve the lives of everyone. Concerns that the enhanced, who will likely overlap in traits with the unenhanced, will take over and rule for their own benefit as a caste seem overblown, though I guess not strictly impossible. Maybe there will be worries about inequality, sure. But we have those now, and frankly inequality seems to me something that people dislike all out of proportion to the (non-zero) harms it causes, though fleshing that argument out would take us too far afield. In any case, the free market will likely enable people to join the ranks of the enhanced, not keep them out, and a transitional period of inequality would be better than the alternative of stagnation.

The concern about a loss of human diversity – an end to autism, perhaps – is valid. Something may be lost forever. Whether humanity will create new sorts of diversity to make up the difference remains to be seen. But given the high human cost of many disorders like severe depression, I suspect the changes will be worth it regardless.

One last point: Precautiones asked whether there might be unavoidable trade-offs between, say, increasing intelligence and increasing altruism. If there are, then the technology will simply be less effective than expected and thus less of a reason for concern. This dialogue will soon read like an argument over the potential impact of cold fusion.

[Dialogue] Genetic Engineering – Round 1

[Introduction; Round 1; Round 2: Libertes, Precautiones; Round 3: Libertes, Precautiones; Round 4Single page]

by David Severa

Libertes’ Opening Statement

Genetic engineering is worthy of the most careful thought and this discussion goes right to the biggest questions. Should we change human nature at a biological level? If so, who should be in charge? My starting assumption is that activities shouldn’t be banned without clear and pressing reasons for doing so. The history of science and technology shows that freedom is foundational to progress. (Which isn’t to say that some regulation may not be wise, that goes beyond what I’ve set out to prove.) Genetic engineering should generally be freely available to individuals, and that freedom should extend to prospective parents choosing their child’s genotype, even (should it prove possible) selecting for such traits as intelligence and personality. Any prohibition would be harmful to individual liberty, to future children, and to society as a whole.

Given that freedom of choice is our starting premise, it falls upon opponents to prove the necessity of a ban for some greater purpose. I will go through some of the obvious arguments and show them to be inadequate.

Firstly, the idea that children have some sort of right to an unedited genome can quickly be dispensed with. It is transparently a post hoc rationalization for pretending that something is fundamentally bad just because one is uncomfortable with it. Rights – both positive and negative – are in essence about keeping the possibilities for individual choice as wide as possible. Freedom of speech and religion and conscience are obvious. Positive rights – “freedom from want” – are also about helping to free people from coercive circumstances. (Not to take a stand on positive rights, just pointing out the underlying logic.) Is a child’s freedom of action in some way limited because of an altered genome? No more or less so than anyone else whose choices are limited by their luck in the genetic lottery. (And in general one would assume that parents will try to expand their child’s options, not contract them.) No one finds it morally objectionable that children of musicians are often drawn to music, after all. Could parents try to push a child in a preferred direction? Certainly, but they do that already. It is unavoidable that our parents’ choices will influence us in ways we cannot control, and the power of genetic engineering is at most a difference in degree rather than in kind. (Plus, in practice, we will never have the sort of control that will let us create predestined automatons.) An unedited genome does not make you freer, and so a “right” to one is simply nonsensical.

Next, let’s turn to a much more serious issue: raising a child is not a simple matter that can be decided on the basis of individual liberty. A ward is not a mere extension of their guardian and their interests are not obviously concordant. Any time someone is acting on another’s behalf – especially on behalf of a child who can’t just walk away – there is a grave risk of abuse of power that it is wholly appropriate to regulate, even in a more libertarian society. We have no compunctions about taking children away from abusive parents. However, we still defer to parents by default. We don’t take children and raise them communally. Why? Because even if parents aren’t perfect, it isn’t obvious that anyone else will do better. Parents have more of an interest in their children than anyone else and are likelier to do do what’s best for them than anyone else. The foster system does not have a good reputation.

It seems straightforward to extend this (not total!) deference to parents from child-raising to before birth (we don’t usually legally regulate the behavior of pregnant women [certainly we shouldn’t], though social sanctions for risky behaviors may be appropriate) and even to before conception. To say that we don’t trust parents enough to use technology like genetic engineering responsibly implies that we’re far too trusting of parents after birth as well. One could make that argument of course, but I doubt that many would be comfortable following the logic of a ban on genetic engineering to its end. Parents want their children to be happy and to do well and if they use genetic engineering it will be mainly to that end. It won’t be perfect and smart regulations will be needed, but we already trust parents enough for a permissive approach to be commonsensical.

Let’s get more specific. Which traits will parents prefer? Most obviously greater intelligence, a lower predisposition to disorders such as depression, and a lower predisposition to violent behavior. (Along with curing diseases and perhaps selecting for appearance, but those are outside our discussion.) No doubt there will be experimentation and variability, but those changes would likely be the most common by far. And they are quite unambiguously positive! What a miracle it would be to cure severe depression! (It should go without saying that genes are hardly the only factor in determining phenotype, but as long as genes have influence, then genetic engineering can nudge traits in one direction or another to some degree.) Don’t get me wrong, people can lead wonderful, valuable lives without high IQs (and IQs are only an imperfect measure of intelligence), but all else equal greater intelligence does open up more opportunities in life – and not just economic ones. Intelligence offers problem solving abilities and a greater ease in navigating life’s difficulties. To repeat myself, not every change will be to the better, but the typical change will be, and that’s what matters.

So we can trust parents (along with reasonable regulations) to only use genetic engineering when it is likely to improve their children’s well-being. But what’s good for the individual is not always good for society. Are there negative externalities large enough to justify a ban? No. In fact, quite the opposite; there are likely to be great positive externalities. Common sense would suggest that a smarter, less aggressive, and emotionally healthier society would be a better place to live in and that’s what the evidence would suggest.

Hopefully the benefits of reducing crime – especially violent crime – are obvious. Fewer people killed, injured, scammed, taken advantage of, and so on. But beyond that there are social costs to crime. Locked doors, neighborhoods falling into ruin, children unable to play outside. These costs are hard to measure, but they are likely great.

Higher intelligence also creates positive externalities. Hive Mind, the recent book by Garrett Jones, proposes several avenues through which improving a nation’s average intelligence might improve its economic prospects (not the only issue, but a very important one). First, the more intelligent save more, which allows for a greater investment in capital over time. Second, the more intelligent are better able to cooperate with one another in complicated situations. This is borne out in experiments where IQ is positively correlated with cooperation in games. Third, they are more likely to have a good grasp of public policy and thus be better able to push for good governance. Fourth, that if people imitate their peers, a large number of smart, patient, and cooperative people could encourage others to behave better. I’d encourage everyone to read the book for further explication. While engineering intelligence isn’t certain to have these positive spillovers, they all seem eminently plausible.

Another concern might be that parents will waste effort in fighting for their child’s relative position rather than their absolute abilities. For instance, everyone trying to make their child taller than average. This is a risk, and perhaps one that deserves regulation. However, many traits are more like intelligence, where being better than average is ideal, but absolute ability is still beneficial. Thus, not all such selective spirals will be harmful.

Not only are there no major negative externalities associated with genetic engineering, there are likely to be large positive ones. So parents will choose what is best for their children and that will benefit everyone else. The case for any sort of prohibition is tremendously weak. We don’t know how a world-altering technology will reshape us. There will always be surprises, but that’s true of every far-reaching change. All we can do is assess things rationally step by step. And all reasonable arguments point in one direction: letting parents alter the genes of their children-to-be will benefit both their children and the world. Unsurprisingly, letting people choose for themselves is best.


Precautiones’ Opening Statement

The introductory statement only mentions eugenics in passing, so it falls to me to remind everyone of what eugenics meant in practice. I’m sure our readers are familiar with the basic story, but the human cost bears repeating at the start of every one of these discussions. A century ago politicians, the public, and virtually the entire scientific establishment had decided that they finally understood human nature (scientifically!), and that they had the means and the will to improve it (scientifically!). That they knew best. What happened when ideology gave sanction to power unconstrained by humanity? The predictable. “Between 1907 and 1963… over 64,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized under eugenics legislation in the United States.” Classes of people were prevented from marrying. In Nazi Germany hundreds of thousands of the “unfit” were sterilized and tens of thousands were poisoned and murdered by the state. Please keep these numbers in the back of your mind. Imagine faces to go with them.

Now the issue before us is rather different at first blush from historical examples of eugenics. No one is proposing sterilization or death. Instead, we are told, the future shall be one of humane improvement, having learned from the mistakes of our predecessors. Those currently living won’t be touched. Instead we shall act upon the unborn, upon embryos. We will still have children, just different ones. Better ones. The heavy hand of government will be stayed. It will be a family decision. Would that it were so simple.

I’m not sure if I’d support this soft eugenics even if the rosy picture painted by supporters were plausible. Perhaps for some of the more serious genetic diseases. But it’s a moot point. Reality won’t match up to libertarian fantasias.

In no developed country does the government stay out of health care. Hell, in many countries the government is essentially the only health care provider. Even America’s private insurance markets are mandated to provide certain forms of coverage. Even if we assume that governments will avoid flexing their eugenic muscles as obviously as in the past, that’s still an incredible amount of power. Let’s say that in a few decades CRISPR or whatever becomes a viable way to alter the human germline. How expensive is it? Who pays for it? Who decides what alterations are acceptable and which are not? Who decides what alterations are acceptable if you can pay for it yourself, but not otherwise? Can you get providers outside of the government-run health care system? Will insurers be free to not cover pregnancy costs if your baby isn’t engineered? Will the government fund research only into areas of genetics that will benefit the state? How bad will the tragic, unanticipated fuck-ups be? I’m not going to provide answers to these questions, as the answers will vary by time and place. My point is that the government cannot help but have a massive say in any sort of new eugenics. The law doesn’t have to be de jure coercive to be coercive in fact.

How will the government decide which gene edits they or private insurers will pay for? Will it be what parents want? Much more likely it will be whatever the bureaucracy deems to be in the national benefit. Presumably there will be some compliance with public opinion, but how much is hard to say, since decisions will be made several levels removed from democratic input. “Which allele will increase economic output 20 years from now?” you can almost hear them ask. Over time there will undoubtedly be drift towards inculcating greater docility and obedience, perhaps under the guise of reducing violence. And over generations will control become ever easier? (I’m not implying any conscious conspiracy theory. Complex systems can have direction.) I understand the impulse to let parents choose, and I value reproductive freedom. But is that freedom of choice realistically going to be an option in our radically imperfect world? I think not. The government will wield its power while never forcing anyone to do anything.

So far I’ve assumed that genetic engineering will become cheap enough to be provided broadly, but let’s think about inequality if that’s not the case. Certainly medical costs aren’t guaranteed to go down. The rich might pay out of pocket, but that’s hardly reassuring. Making a few better off won’t be some simple Pareto improvement. How much mobility can we expect in a world where the upper class has remade itself into an upper caste? Even if the differences aren’t large, will the engineered wall themselves off from the rest of us? If the promise of democracy is thwarted all too often now, will the future even bother with democracy as a fig leaf when most people are deemed unfit? This scenario seems like science fiction cliché, but we could easily be blundering towards it.

And let’s not just think of access within nations, let’s think of the gap between rich and poor countries. The developed world is the first to afford new technology. Might the first world give itself yet another head start that lets it exploit the third, using even greater economic clout as a political cudgel? If genetic engineering is seen as a sensitive technology that can’t be exported, will nations unable to start their own programs be locked out permanently? Again, I’m not prognosticating, I just want to keep emphasizing that there are countless ways this could go wrong and be harmful on net.

Hopefully I’ve established to my reader’s satisfaction that parents will never have any simple freedom to choose, simply by nature of the problem. But if I haven’t convinced you, let’s think about what parents would choose if they were unconstrained. It isn’t at all obvious that they would do what’s best for their child. Why wouldn’t they do what’s best for themselves? Why not create a smart, hardworking child without an ounce of real independence? Someone easy to deal with. There’s no gene for filial piety, but I promise that people will look. As with bureaucrats, there needn’t be a malicious or selfish thought in anyone’s head. Yet somehow people explicitly trying to do the right thing so often find that the right thing aligns with their self-interest. That’s the part of human nature that will thwart any attempt at improving itself.

What about the disabled or those who are simply different in some way? Between 70 and 85 percent of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. There aren’t yet tests for traits like autism, but probably the numbers would be similar if there were. And eugenics will be much less difficult, less of an emotional ordeal. Granted that some disorders bring little to anyone but pain and tragedy, but do we trust parents to distinguish between those disorders and ones that will simply make life more difficult for them or make them look bad? I don’t, and the numbers for Down syndrome back me up. Classes of people with different experiences, different ways of viewing the world that greatly enrich us all will simply cease. Who truly wants such a monoculture? How do you measure that loss? Who has the right to winnow humanity?

One final point. If these traits we’re selecting for work in opposition to one another – for instance, what if the easiest way to increase intelligence also decreases altruism – then how will we balance those trade-offs? I suspect that efficiency and productivity will be the dominant considerations in practice. Would we be able to resist the pressure if that’s what others chose?

In summary, individual choice is not possible to any real degree. The state will have great power which it could use for its own ends, even if it avoids the crude cruelties of earlier eugenics and even without ill-intent. The poor could wind up locked out permanently. Who knows what such a society would look like. And even if parents are left to make some decisions themselves they won’t reliably do so with their child’s interests at heart. It would be too easy to move towards this future step-by-step and so an outright ban of all human genetic engineering is called for.

Moderator’s comments for Round 1

These are prompts for further discussion and will be updated after each round.

  • Can parents be trusted to make the right choices for their children?
    • Round 1: What further evidence might be brought to bear? For instance, do parents accurately guess how happy the life of someone with a given disability is likely to be?
  • Is there a right to an unaltered genome?
  • Will positive or negative externalities predominate?
    • Round 1: Libertes has argued that there are positive externalities to genetic engineering, while Precautiones has pointed to negative ramifications such as loss of human diversity, permanent inequality, and de facto government control of reproduction. Are negative or positive trends likely to predominate?
  • How much freedom from government intervention is possible or desirable?
    • Round 1: Are the practical limits to the libertarian approach listed by Precautiones – state takeover, the poor lacking access in practice – real? If so, are they avoidable?
(Source for header image, Source for second image)