Bowling Alone with Donald Trump

In 2007, liberal scholar Robert Putnam stumbled upon a sociological discovery that he sat on for years. Why? His research showed that where there is more Diversity™, there is higher distrust among the citenzry, and this distrust crosses racial lines.

Love him or not, Michael Barone’s quantitative analyses are relatively astute and merit close attention. In his recent column, Barone attempts to correlate Putnam’s findings with locations where Trump surges (“Does lack of social connectedness explain Trump’s appeal?“):

So what factor distinguishes Trump and non-Trump voters? My answer is social connectedness or, Robert Putnam’s term in Bowling Alone, social capital. Socially connected people have strong family ties and wide circles of friends, are active in churches and voluntary organizations and work steadily.

Putnam’s thesis is that social connectedness has declined sharply since the 1950s. But as Charles Murray notes in Coming Apart, that decline is uneven. Whites in the top third of income and education scale still have plenty of social capital. But there’s been a precipitous decline among whites in the lowest fifth of those scales. They work less steadily, attend church less often and participate very little in voluntary organizations.

SocialCapital_USIn other words, upscale whites living in Belmont (usually progressive) have a sufficient reserve of social capital, while downscale whites living in ‘Fishtown’ are pretty much exhausted of their social capital. This might have something to do with the fact that upscale whites live in places like Chappaqua, NY, where non-Hispanic whites & Asians are 88% of the population, while downscale whites live in places like Philadelphia, PA, where non-Hispanic whites & Asians are only 42.9% of the population.

Once you exclude non-Hispanic whites & Asians from a population, you’re left largely with demographics that…. how shall we say it… test the limits of others’ altruistic impulses (e.g., social capital.)

Looking over the election returns, I sense that Trump’s support comes disproportionately from those with low 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…

Similarly, exit polls show Trump doing worse with evangelicals who attend church weekly than with those who don’t. This helps explain why Trump carried South Carolina and lost Oklahoma, where church attendance is higher.

Then there is majority-Mormon Utah, whose Mormons have very high social connectedness compared to other Americans. Only 14 percent of Utah Republicans voted for Trump.

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.

Might the root cause of this be philosophical navelgazing on the part of the ‘pathological altruism’ crowd?

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

In states with medium social-connectedness but many retirees who vote in Republican primaries — Florida, Arizona — Trump has run in the high 40s. Similarly in Massachusetts, where only a sliver of voters are registered Republicans, their social connectedness may be limited to listening to Howie Carr on talk radio…

[S]ocial connectedness strikes me as the most useful explanation I’ve seen yet of the variations in Trump’s appeal. It’s plausible that people with few social connections and inclined to blame elites for their problems might see in Donald Trump, who promises singlehandedly to make things great again, “a sense of collective identity,” as Clare Malone of writes.

Malone’s idea here is likely true, and would explain the appeal Trump has to politically-ignored whites yearning for a sense of collective identity, but in many ways this idea only touches the surface.

While variations of Trump’s appeal is interesting as a topic, and may be significant in the counter-intuitive world of electoral politics, what ultimately matters as a historical trend is Trump’s national level of appeal, which currently stands at 43%.

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