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Looking to the past, not the future. Feeling lost, resenting immigrants. Feeling broke, picked on. Self-medicating, rejecting education. Wanting a rule-breaking leader to end the misery.
These are some of the characteristics of white working-class voters who were three times more likely to support Donald Trump in the 2016 election, according to an expanded analysis of more than 3,000 people surveyed before and after the election by PRRI/The Atlantic of white Americans who are marked by “cultural dislocation.”
“These new results show that feelings of cultural displacement and a desire for cultural protection, more than economic hardship, drove white working-class voters to support Trump in 2016,” says PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones. “The findings cast new light on how Trump’s ‘Make American Great Again!’ slogan tapped these fears and anxieties and a deep sense of nostalgia for a previous time in the country when white conservative Christians perceived that they had more power and influence.”
The PRRI survey is remarkable in ways its press release doesn’t quite say. It suggests Trump’s supporters don’t do well distinguishing between their feelings and factual circumstances. Take their relative economic class—they’re not necessarily poor, but they aren’t satisfied. They don’t like what they see, but want someone else to fix it. They’re traumatized and lash out. Many are inclined to blame others and self-medicate, yet reject self-betterment through higher education. The survey shows that lots of people in overlooked America vote based on their frustrations and darker emotions.
“Compared to cultural factors, economic factors were less strong predictors of support for Trump,” PRRI’s press release said, using neutral language. But what are cultural factors besides personal biases, beliefs and perceptions unfettered by fact-based realities?
“White working-class voters who reported feelings of economic fatalism—defined as those who believe that a college education is a risky gamble—were about twice as likely as those who believe college is a smart investment in the future to have favored Trump,” PRRI continued. “Notably, white working-class voters who reported simply being in poor financial shape were nearly twice as likely as those who reported being in better financial shape to support Hillary Clinton.”
Here are 12 excerpts from the PRRI/Atlantic White Working Class Survey conducted between September 22 and October 9, 2016. The report also draws on a set of four focus groups conducted in Cincinnati, Ohio, in December 2016 and additional PRRI surveys that contained samples of white working-class Americans. Here’s how they describe Trump’s white working-class base.
1. Nostalgia for the 1950s. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of the white working class believe American culture and way of life has deteriorated since the 1950s, compared to a majority (56 percent) of white college-educated Americans who say American culture and way of life has improved.
2. Strangers in their own country. Nearly half (48 percent) of white working-class Americans agree, saying things have changed so much that they often feel like strangers in their own country, while 74 percent of white college-educated Americans reject this notion.
3. Protection from foreign influence. Sixty-eight percent of white working-class Americans believe the American way of life needs to be protected from foreign influence. Fewer than half (44 percent) of white college-educated Americans express this view.
4. Losing the American identity. More than two-thirds (68 percent) of white working-class Americans along with a majority (55 percent) of the public overall believe the U.S. is in danger of losing its culture and identity.
5. Attitudes on immigrants and immigration. More than six in 10 (62 percent) white working-class Americans believe the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens American culture. However, nearly six in 10 (59 percent) white working-class Americans believe immigrants living in the country illegally should be allowed to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements, while 10 percent say they should be allowed to become permanent legal residents. More than one in four (27 percent) say we should identify and deport illegal immigrants. Support for a path to citizenship is only slightly lower than support among the general public (63 percent).
6. Perceptions of reverse discrimination. More than half (52 percent) of white working-class Americans believe discrimination against whites has now become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities, while 70 percent of white college-educated Americans disagree.
7. Bad financial shape. Fewer than four in 10 of the white working-class report they are in excellent (5 percent) or good (33 percent) shape financially, compared to six in 10 who say they are in fair (35 percent) or poor shape (25 percent). White working-class Americans are about as likely to say their financial situation has diminished (27 percent) as to say it has improved (29 percent). White college-educated Americans, in contrast, are about three times as likely to say their financial circumstances have gotten better than gotten worse (41 percent vs. 14 percent, respectively).
8. College doesn’t pay off. A majority (54 percent) of the white working-class view getting a college education as a risky gamble, while only 44 percent say it is a smart investment.
9. Wanted: rule-breaking leader. Six in 10 (60 percent) white working-class Americans, compared to only 32 percent of white college-educated Americans, say we need a strong leader who is willing to break the rules, because things have gotten so far off track.
10. Yes to restoring felony voting rights. More than seven in 10 (71 percent) white working-class Americans and about three-quarters (74 percent) of the public overall agree a person who has been convicted of a felony should be allowed to vote after he has served his sentence.
11. Substance abusers likely. Nearly four in 10 (38 percent) white working-class Americans, compared to 26 percent of white college-educated Americans, say they or someone in their household has experienced depression in the last 12 months. Twelve percent of white working-class Americans report a family member has struggled with alcoholism, while a similar number (8 percent) say the same of drug addiction. Among white college-educated Americans, fewer say someone in their household has struggled with either alcoholism (9 percent) or drug addiction (3 percent).
12. Drug treatment over jail time. Approximately seven in 10 (71 percent) white working-class Americans and three-quarters (74 percent) of the public support a law mandating drug treatment instead of prison for those using illegal drugs on their first or second offense. More than eight in 10 (82 percent) white college-educated Americans also support a treatment option over incarceration. Drug treatment is the preferred option among an overwhelming number of black (78 percent) and Hispanic (67 percent) Americans.
The PRRI/Atlantic survey underscores how much of Trump’s base are deeply traumatized, stuck in their lives and think little of education as a path to improvement. (These are not the corporate elites who support Trump because they are seeking to increase their wealth through government deregulation and privatization of public services.)
“White working-class Americans display a strong sense of economic fatalism, which influenced their vote choice in 2016,” said PRRI research director Dan Cox. “A majority of white working-class Americans believe that college education is more of a risk than an investment in the future, a view that is at odds not only with white college-educated Americans, but with black and Hispanic Americans as well. And white working-class voters who lost confidence in the education system as a path to upward mobility were much more likely to support Trump in the 2016 election.”