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.
I don’t see many people moving from the inner cities to the country either.
Must be their “underlying preference” for things staying the same as always….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.”
Yea Sammy, when they were “yutes.”
well, at the risk of sounding like Sammy
us country people like country. only higher wages can induce us to move to the city. and that is only when the banks take our land, or the “smart” city people cheat us out of a fair price for out product…. or bad weather does us in.
of course city people like to tell themselves how smart they are because they weren’t’ smart enough to do farm work, but they get paid better. and they get used to the lights and glamor.
btw, i lived in chicago and los angeles most of my life. so i am a country person now by choice. i dont mind if the money’s no good. you take what you need and you leave the rest.
but i do get sick of hearing people who learned a few circus tricks in college telling themselves how smart they are.
This has been the way of things forever. It’s one of the reasons local lords tied their serfs to the land. Otherwise, the brighter, more hardworking serfs would leave for the city where they could get rewarded. Even free farmers living on free land were limited. If they wanted to do more or get more, they had to go to the city.
There is a popular fantasy that rural areas are independent of their urban centers, but that hasn’t been true for a long, long time, if it ever was. The countryside can only do as well as the cities it depends on to purchase its produce, It is hard to do more than subsistence farming without metal tools, plant and animal breeders, energy distributors and so on, depending on the region and era.
I know enough people “living the dream” out in the country, but dependent on diesel fuel or solar panels or rural electrification and roads to town to sell their produce and the town at the end of the road with people to buy it. I’m usually polite and appreciate the view and fresh tomatoes, but I’ve never bought the mysticism.
No mysticism here. We know all about cities and diesel. We also know about the need city people have to tell themselves how smart they are.
There are rewards and rewards, you know. Maybe we should get you a book about the rewards country people found when they went to the city and got factory jobs.
Coberly, I think you know what the rewards were when country folk moved to the city to get factory jobs. It was a life with more than they could achieve in the country with no work available for them at wages upon which they could subsist with their family (wife, children).
Starvation or grubbing for roots to keep from starving or stealing from your neighbors farm wasn’t an option.
Farming is a business.. and was and is always a business. If you can’t make ends meet in a business you have to give it up and find another way to make a living. The banks foreclosed on farms during the Great Depression because those farms couldn’t pay the interest or principle on the loans they took out … defaulting on loans.
It was no different in the Great Recession when banks took homes because people couldn’t make their mortgage payments on them.
You might want to think of farming as a lifestyle, but it’s no more of a “lifestyle” than working in a factory living in the city is a “lifestyle”.
If you like working a farm year-round, and can make ends meet sufficient to meet your needs and desires then that’s just a choice of how you want to spend your time and effort to achieve those things you want in life or from it. But except in niche small farms the efficiencies of scale dictate prices and volumes are required to make ends meet so small farmers are continuously forced out of business by simply changes in technology … more capital intensive farming is more productive and more competitive than labor intensive farming.
In CA labor has to be low enough cost to compete with capital and that required in effect imported low wage labor or if it’s not imported then using illegal imported labor …. which is yet a lower labor cost than the legal imported variety.
Ultimately this is a demand created by the general public whose food budgets are expected to be within a certain range of incomes. If farm production were purely labor based, foods would cost more and people would have to pay more and thus spend less on other things they want. So employers increase their wages so the other parts of the economy won’t suffer and that leads to an inflation that levels off at the labor cost of food production.
What’s happened is that capital has continually found ways to keep labor demand low enough to maintain a higher supply of farm labor than demand and that keeps labor wages lower, and thus food prices down even while producing more and more food from (note I didn’t say “on”) the same acreage.
As to those who would say “smart” people move to the cities and the dumb farmers stay behind, that’s a load of bullshit. Risk taking only occurs when something’s at risk. When your livelihood fails there’s not risk taking. You move to where you can find a new livelihood from pure necessity to survive and keep your family housed, clothed, and fed.
It’s why the cities grew. It’s why the Okies moved to California and Oregon farm belts.
Two of my uncles (now deceased) were brothers who grew up on a farm in North Dakota. When the depression hit, the form was foreclosed and they moved to CA. One went into farming on a small 10 acre parcel near the old town of Folsom because they were building Folsom Dam and he could work there as a carpenter and still work his little farm to make ends meet.
My farming uncle always looked and acted like a country bumpkin. .. I mean shit caked boots, and a piece of straw hanging out one side of his mouth. He drove dumpy old looking 3rd hand pick-ups (but they were always the most reliable vehicles in the road, though you would never have known it by looking at them) .. always caked with dirt and mud, and rust and dented up, no hub-caps, torn upholstery if any,etc. But he always owned a nice late model family car. His barn(s) were always dilapidated looking and like they needed heavy repairs (but his hay bales in the barn were always dry).
He spoke slow, and deliberately, and always told the truth, with a shit-eating grin on his face… and was loved by everybody … and he always lost at poker games.
Years later when I was in my 40’s I asked him why he played so much poker with his buddies when he always lost. My uncle just said if you want to win you have to lose at some things — with that big shit-eating grin as he winked at me.
My other uncle moved to SF and got into a bank job, from there to a small housing finance and development in LA which was booming. He was the wheeler dealer financier type. Smart as a whip in finance… could see a deal a mile away and get it. He was quick and visibly smart.
Long story short: One ended up a multimillionaire and the other a pauper supported by his kids. I’ll let you guess which was which.
By the time I was 50 I understood. My farmer uncle was the really smart guy… he just didn’t advertise it or let it be generally known, and in fact made every effort to mask it completely. .. and he succeeded at this all the while amassing more and more farm land little by little in all the right places for future suburban growth. .And then I remembered when I was 20 and in college still and poor. And he told me, when it comes time for you to buy a house —
Go in the direction from the major job center where the sun’s at your back in the morning going to work and at your back in the evening when returning home. Go as far along that direction until you can afford a house.. the further you go the cheaper the price per square foot will be. That’s where you buy your first house. And then wait… the population will move toward you and as it does your house and property will increase in value far, far more than inflation, and then you can sell it at a great profit and buy two houses, one to live in and one to rent. And then wait. And then hyou can sell those houses and by 4 more … and then wait. And by the time your 50 you’ll be wealthy and never have to work again.
Now I didn’t follow his advice completely. But I went in the direction from the main job center he said, and bought property at the distance from that job center that I could afford, and I waited.
And sure enough the population moved to me and house and property appreciated like crazy and with that I bought a 2nd house, which I rented. And I own both of them and owe nothing and their value is still increasing at unfathomable rates and the land further down that direction is increasing too of course. Now I live in a suburb of the major city but I’m in the same spot I was in when I bought the property.
You think my farmer uncle was an exception? He wasn’t .. it’s the smart guys that can turn farming into something else … appreciating land values.. farming is just a way to wait… not a way to make a great living or get ahead. His rule was if people think you’re smarter than they are they are suspicious of you, not trusting, so you have no influence with them, cannot learn things that will help you. Little things which get said in passing if they trust you. Who’s thinking of maybe selling their farm? Who might need a loan you can offer them at low rates (and guess who they’ll sell to first more than likely when they get ready to call it quits). He always paid the going market rates for the land he bought… always way ahead of the developer who would certainly follow in due course of time.
Farming wasn’t how me made a fortune. He was a farmer because it enabled him to make a fortune.
thanks for your story.
i don’t think you are disagreeing with me.
Hogwash. I moved out of my rust belt hometown after college because the economy there was already in decline (late 1980s) and I couldn’t get a decent professional job. I’ve been quite successful and am politically left wing, but leaving my support group of friends and family was quite stressful.
I despise globalization because what it did to the people I left behind. They didn’t deserve to have their livelihoods ripped away from them by venal politicians (both Republican and Democrat) acting on behalf of the wealthiest .01% simply because they wished to stay with their community.
I didn’t vote for Trump, but I still have hopes that his election will ultimately destroy the whole horrid, immoral worldwide neoliberal order once and for all.
a little hard to tell what you are calling hogwash… the doctrine that city people are smarter, or my demurral.
i’ve never been able to make myself believe “the worse it gets… the better it gets for us” which is what some of my liberal friends used to say about “the establishment” fifty years ago.
no. the worse it gets the worse it gets.
as for the politicians, they have always been venal. that’s the nature of the job. i suspect they have relatively little to do with the decline of the rust belt. there is some truth to the idea of the “march of progress” except that “progress” is not always “good.” it’s just that things change and that causes other things to change and pretty soon change is too big to stop. the politicians are just better at staying on top of the pile.. and they do it by telling us what we want to believe.
An awful lot of people over history have migrated because they were forced to by circumstances, economic or political. The Irish from the famine. The Highland Scots from the English. The Okies from the dust bowl. I’m sure you all can come up with many more.