Education rather than income, and authoritarian attitudesby Eric Kaufmann / November 29, 2016 / Leave a comment
When it comes to those who support Donald Trump or Brexit, what matters? In partnership with Policy Exchange, I surveyed roughly 1,500 adults in both Britain and the United States in late August. I asked them “on a scale from 0 (strongly dislike) to 10 (strongly like), what are your feelings towards Donald Trump?” Then I broke down the score by income and education. As the blue bars in the first chart demonstrate, among white Americans there is almost no difference in support for Trump between the rich and the poor. White Americans on low incomes rate Trump 4.2 out of 10, those in the middle give him a 4.5 and among the wealthy he scored 3.8. So much for this being a protest by the hard-pressed white working class.
Now take education, the red bars. It’s a completely different picture. The gap between those with a high school education or less and university graduates is 2 full points. The same story holds for the election results. The only reason that richer white people are less keen on Trump than their poorer cousins is that wealthier people have a higher average education level. Once you control for education, income has no significant relationship with Trump support. As pollster Nate Silver put it when crunching the results, “education, not income, predicted who would vote for Trump.” The story is pretty much identical for Brexit.
Why are highly educated people less likely to vote Trump? Is it because education makes people liberal, or do liberals select into higher education? The answer, it turns out, is mainly the second. Pioneering studies by Bram Lancee in Switzerland and Paula Surridge in the UK reveal that people with liberal cultural attitudes were already liberal by age 13. Openness to change—regardless of parental income—makes them more likely to want to learn new things by continuing their education. This means upbringing and personality, set in adolescence, are pivotal. Many security-minded people do go to university. But this makes little difference since their worldviews are established.
Highly educated order-seekers are thus more attracted to Trump’s defensive message than their change-oriented peers. Psychologists call this desire for order authoritarianism, and two key measures of it are beliefs about childrearing and capital punishment. Authoritarians believe discipline is important for children and favour stiff sentences for criminals. On the survey I asked people how much they agreed with a time-tested and outrageous question, “I believe that sex crimes, such as rape or attacks on children, deserve more than mere imprisonment. I think such criminals should be publicly whipped, or worse.” The second chart shows how their response correlates with their support for Trump.
Those who strongly disagree with the question only give Trump an average of 2.2; those who strongly agree, rate him at 5.7. The gap is enormous—three and a half points on the Trump approval scale. By contrast, the gap on income is only half a point, and for education, two points. To a large extent this cultural canyon bisects people at all levels of income and education, just as it slices through the left-right divide.
Now look at the final chart. It’s based on the same question, fielded on the same day by the same company, but in Britain. It’s shows the same pattern as the one above: barely 20 per cent of those who strongly disagree with whipping sex criminals said they voted Leave while 75 per cent of those who most agreed said they did. Not only is the strength of the relationship similar in both cases, but the way that support for Brexit steps upward is almost a carbon copy of the Trump chart. Populist politics in the west reflects a culture war, not the familiar economic clash of left and right.
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