A thought for Sunday: Trump voters and the “peasant mentality”

A thought for Sunday: Trump voters and the “peasant mentality”

I am currently reading a comprehensive tome on 19th century European history, “The Pursuit of Power,” by Richard J. Evans.
One episode that made a big impression on me was the decision by Otto von Bismarck (no conservative he) upon the establishment of the German Confederation, to eschew property qualifications for the franchise for the Reichstag and embrace universal male suffrage (p. 257).  Why? In so doing, he “bypass[ed] the liberal middle classes to appeal to what he assumed were the loyal and conservative masses in the countryside.”

I was reminded of Bismarck’s shrewd insight upon reading a post by Dietrich Vollrath:  “The return of the peasant mentality.”

Discussing the outcomes of recent research, Vollrath writes:

[W[hen people move from rural to urban, or urban to rural places in these countries, do their wages change?....
The combination of facts tells you that there is selection out of rural/agricultural work and into urban/non-agricultural work for people with lots of human capital. There is not some distortion that prevents rural people from moving to higher wage positions, apparently, its just that all the really skilled or smart people move off the farm.


What’s really interesting is that this pattern shows up in the Raven’s Z-scores …. a crude, but effective, proxy for IQ….  So it’s not just that people who are lucky enough to get an education in an urban area stay there, and people unlucky enough to miss out on schooling in rural areas stay there. People with better measures of inherent smarts tend to end up in the city, or are in cities to begin with.

Perhaps we should take seriously the idea that peasants are really different, not just in their constraints (which the development literature …, but in their underlying preferences as well ….

One sees the pattern repeating over and over, across all sorts of societies, from the Spanish Civil War of 1937 to most of Mexican history. A decade or so I read that many of the Chinese immigrants to the U.S. in the late 20th century were Fujianese.  What distinguished the leavers from the stayers?  More than anything else, it was the propensity for risk-taking.

If we think in terms of the Biblical Parable of the Talents,  the risk-taking servants who invested their two and three Talents tend to leave economic backwaters and gravitate to high-growth areas, while the fearful and conservative servant who buried his one Talent tends to stay behind in the economic backwaters.
Which brings me to the small urban and rural Trump voter in the U.S. What distinguishes those people who have left the Rust Belt for greener economic climes vs. the stayers?  Maybe, like the Fujianese, and like the populations that Vollrath’s post describes, the biggest distinguishing factor is the willingness to take a risk vs. social conservatism.

That the stayers might have an “underlying preference” for things staying the same as always  can explain a lot about the phenomenon of the right-wing populist voter in the U.S.   They don’t want globalism, they don’t want change, and they don’t want retraining either.  They want the kind of jobs, and the kind of society that they remember from their youths.

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