Maybe the most surprising political development during this decade is why increased inequality in almost all capitalist market societies has not resulted in more votes for left parties. Especially telling is the political success of Donald Trump and why such a large part of the American working class voted for him. In a country with staggering and increasing economic inequality, why would people who will undoubtedly lose economically from his policies support him? Why did his anti-government policies such as cutting taxes for the super-rich and slashing the newly established health care insurance system succeed to such a large extent? Moreover, why were these policies especially effective in securing votes from the white working class?
One answer may be in an issue often neglected by the left, namely how people perceive the quality of their government institutions. The idea behind this “quality of government” approach is that when people take a stand on what policies they are going to support, they do not only evaluate the policy as such. In addition, they also take into consideration the quality of the government institutions that are going to be responsible for its implementation.
In several yearly polls, Gallup has reported that, since 2010, between 73 and 79 percent of Americans agree that “corruption is widespread throughout the government in this country.” These staggering figures are by no means unique but there is considerable variation between countries from Greece 99 percent to 26 percent in Denmark. More than ten months before the election that elected Trump as US President, Gallup’s Chairman and CEO, Jim Clifton, wrote:
The perception that there’s widespread corruption in the national government could be a symptom of citizen disengagement and anger. Or it could be a cause—we don’t know. But it’s very possible this is a big, dark cloud that hangs over this country’s progress. And it might be fuelling the rise of an unlikely, non‐traditional leading Republican candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump.
With hindsight, it seems that Clifton was already in January 2016 on to something important. It is well-documented that in his campaign Trump repeatedly accused the political elite in Washington and especially his opponent Hillary Clinton of various forms of very serious misuse of public office. Examples of his accusations of corruption at Clinton are: “She ran the State Department like her own personal hedge fund –doing favors for oppressive regimes, and many others, in exchange for cash. She gets rich making you poor.” And: “Hillary Clinton may be the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency of the United States ….has perfected the politics of personal profit and theft“.
Surveys show that the reason for Trump’s unexpected victory was his ability to get massive support from what has historically been a stronghold for the Democratic Party, namely low-educated white working class voters. However, as has recently been pointed out by, among others, Paul Krugman, this is a group likely to be the big losers from the policies Trump said he will launch. Many would say that race and immigration determined this election, but this can only be a part of the story because in many of the areas where Trump got most of the white working class votes there are few immigrants and no significant multi-ethnic population.
Corruption has many forms, from what it called “petty” to “grand”. Why the latter has resonated with a large part of the voters in this election is not hard to explain. The amount of private money which flows into and dominates politics after the ruling of the US Supreme Court in 2010 in combination with the explosion of lobbyism gives ample ammunition to those who argued that the system is “rigged”. However, given Trump’s huge business interests, there is little that should speak for him to be a suitable candidate for clearing up this system. Moreover, experiencing demand for bribes from public officials is not a huge US problem since only 7 percent report to have done so. This implies that we should look elsewhere for understanding why his appeal to matters relating to corruption became so effective in mobilizing white working class votes.
Corruption is not an easy concept to define and the academic literature is, to say the least, not unified. Empirical research, however, gives a quite surprising answer to what “ordinary people” in general perceive as corruption. What they understand as corruption is much broader than bribes. Instead, it is various forms of favouritism in which money usually is not involved. This can be things like access to good schools, getting a building licence or a public contract where in many cases people feel that the decision has not been impartial and based on clear rules about merit. Instead, political, social or ethnic personal connections dominates who gets what.
My argument is that perceptions of corruption as favouritism may have delivered Trump the Presidency. First, one of the most surprising pieces of data that I have come across is that most white Americans perceive that discrimination against whites is now a bigger problem than that against blacks or Latinos. As I see it, this has nothing to do with reality but when people decide whom to vote for, it is perceptions that count. And, as has been forcefully argued by Mark Lilla, much of the politics from the liberal left in the US, including Hillary Clinton, has been focused on what is known as “identity politics”. In practice, this has resulted in targeted policies to women and various minority groups such as affirmative action and quotas to jobs and education. Instead of focusing on universal programs for all or very broad segments of the population, the Democrats and Clinton came to represent policies seen as favouritism (“corruption”) towards minority groups by the white male working class. Targeted programs are also very vulnerable to suspicion about malpractice in implementation processes because decisions about individual cases are often very complicated (who is eligible and how much preferential treatment is justified). Universal programs, once the hallmark of successful leftist policies, do not suffer from this problem usually.
“Identity politics” being perceived as favouritism may thus be the explanation for why Trump’s “corruption strategy” paid off among the white working class. Lilla has formulated this well:
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In recent years, American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing…. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded.