What's the matter with western Virginia?
By Scott Sumner
The title of this post is a reference to Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas?“, which analyzed the question of why voters in relatively poor states like Kansas tended to vote GOP, which is (supposedly) against their best interest. (It’s interesting that he picked on Kansas, rather than some place like coastal California or the Upper East Side of NYC.)
I didn’t really see any puzzle, as although Kansas is a relatively poor state, it’s not a poor state in absolute terms. Relatively few Kansas voters are actually “poor”, and some of those are college students. (I was a “poor person” in college.) So the Dems don’t really offer many programs that would benefit lots of Kansans, except perhaps crop subsidies and Medicare, which of course are also supported by the GOP.
In any case, the WSJ reports that western Virginia presents a similar puzzle:
Mr. Trump won Buchanan County with 69.7% of the vote in the March 1 Republican primary, the highest percentage vote he has collected in any U.S. county so far. . . .
Nationwide, the 10 counties Mr. Trump has carried by the largest margins have much in common. They are mainly white, rural and southern. They sharply lag behind the national average in household income and education, and top it in poverty and disability payments.
Four of these counties rely on agriculture, says Moody’s Analytics, while another three are local transportation hubs. A big employer in one, Tallahatchie County, Miss., is a prison.
While people in these counties feel left behind, they don’t face the challenges from immigration or foreign trade that Mr. Trump has made his signature issues. All but two of the counties trail the nation by wide margins in percentage of the population that are immigrants. Few face much pressure from Chinese imports. Buchanan County benefits from trade, especially through coal exports to China.
One of the most basic principles of trade theory is that barriers to imports also tend to reduce exports. This is based on the principle of “general equilibrium”, the idea that different sectors of the economy are interrelated. Thus Trump’s proposed 45% tariff on Chinese imports would hurt the economic interests of coal country (Buchanan County is in western Virginia.) So what is Trump’s appeal?
Instead, Mr. Trump’s appeal is visceral. According to an October 2015 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 76% of Trump supporters feel “uneasy and out of place” in their own country, compared with 62% of Republicans who say they wouldn’t consider voting for him.
Decades are often defined by broad global political swings, which have no obvious connection, but perhaps have deep linkages that we fail to see. Something “in the air”, the so-called “zeitgeist”. Thus the 1960s saw student movements in places as diverse as the US, France, China, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, motivated by seemingly unrelated issues. The 1980s saw the rise of neoliberalism. In my view, the 2010s is shaping up as the decade of right-wing nationalism. The specific causes of this trend in the US may differ from the causes in Russia, Poland, India, France, Japan, Hungary, China, etc., but there’s clearly something in the air.
It’s also worth thinking about those countries that seem less impacted by these trends (Canada, Australia, Singapore?), and what they might tell us about successful governance.