Posted on December 8, 2020

The National Populist Illusion: Why Culture, Not Economics, Drives American Politics

George Hawley and Richard Hanania, Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, November 30, 2020

Following President Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential primaries, many voices on the American right began arguing that the Republican Party, and the conservative movement that provides its ideas, had lost their way. Trump handily defeated a large and seemingly formidable field in the primaries, and subsequently defied expectations by triumphing over Hillary Clinton, winning many states long thought to be solidly Democratic. Trump won these victories while rejecting key aspects of the conservative movement’s policy program, especially those related to economics. Trump’s impressive showing among non-Hispanic whites without college degrees provided some credibility to former Trump advisor Steve Bannon’s claim that the 2016 campaign “turned the Republican Party into a working-class party.”

This led to some soul-searching by conservative intellectuals, journalists, and political leaders. Most leading conservatives were quick to distance themselves from the most lowbrow elements of “Trumpism.” Some, however, also believed that the candidate was tapping into something important that previous Republicans had missed. Perhaps a GOP more invested in alleviating working-class anxieties really could enjoy a major electoral windfall.

After Trump’s victory, as these conservatives sought to reverse engineer an intellectually coherent political philosophy that could provide support for the Trump administration, many focused on economic concerns, concluding that populism represented a viable path forward for the right. {snip}

With Trump’s loss in 2020, some conservatives may be tempted to view the last four years as an aberration, and conclude that, given the president’s defeat at the ballot box, Trumpism is dead, and the center right can and should return to its previous talking points and policy agenda. Other conservatives, however, remain convinced that there are elements of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign that remain viable and should be incorporated into a new, forward-thinking agenda for the center right. In particular, they want to revive those aspects of Trump’s successful presidential run that broke with conservative economic orthodoxy. From this perspective, Trump won the 2016 election precisely because of his populist economic agenda: trade protectionism, a promise of new infrastructure projects, and assurances that he would safeguard entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security. This view also suggests Trump lost his reelection bid because he did not follow through on those promises, but other Republicans could pick up the populist banner and carry it to future victories.

This new ideology on the right, which some call “national populism,” has many seemingly attractive features. Most notably, it offers the possibility of maintaining the Trump electoral coalition, and perhaps even expanding it, while jettisoning the more controversial and polarizing elements of Trump’s presidency. Some intellectuals and journalists on the political right have always disliked what they see as President Trump’s nativism, bullying, lies, and eagerness to encourage the paranoid fixations and rude behavior of his followers. They did, however, think that the mainstream conservative movement had long been on the wrong track when it came to policy, and believed that Trump’s movement could be a catalyst for readjusting the Republican Party’s domestic policy agenda.


Leaving aside the merits of different economic policy packages, our question is whether any of these arguments are congruent with the public opinion literature and empirical evidence. To learn the answer, we must know whether Trumpism was ever really about economics. We conclude that talk of a Republican populist coalition dominated by working-class voters is premature. The data do not indicate a new class-based electoral realignment. Racial, ethnic, geographic, and religious cleavages in the electorate remain more politically significant than economic divisions.


The Triumph of Cultural Explanations

Since the 2016 election, social scientists have devoted an extraordinary amount of effort towards explaining President Trump’s surprise victory. They have consistently found that racial or cultural explanations for Trump’s win are supported by more evidence than the alternatives.

It is true that white racial attitudes have become more progressive on most issues over the last decade.[16] However, the movement has been primarily among white Democrats; although Republicans have not become more progressive, they have not become, on average, more prejudiced.[17] The claim that racial attitudes could not have been the motivation of Obama voters that switched to Trump may nonetheless be incorrect. Racial attitudes were just less salient in 2012 than in 2016.[18] In other words, the people who switched support from Democrat to Republican did have more conservative racial attitudes than other Democrats in 2012, but those attitudes were less relevant to their vote choice that year. In the 2016 election, racial attitudes were more activated and relevant to vote choice, likely due to Trump’s taking up the immigration issue and running as an unapologetic opponent of political correctness.

Other scholars have thus confirmed that racial and immigration attitudes, rather than economic views, explained some Obama voters backing Trump in 2016. Although economic insecurity may have played some role in President Trump’s success, it was a small part of the story; skepticism about large-scale immigration was unquestionably a stronger predictor of support for the president. The fact that Trump performed well among whites of lower social status may also be misleading, as this group also had a very low turnout rate in 2016. According to some measures, a majority of Trump’s support came from whites in the class distribution’s top half. The question of whether economic anxiety prompted support for Trump is also more complicated than many national populists suggest. Many Trump supporters were primarily motivated by the fear of declining group status resulting from demographic change, rather than more conventional pocketbook concerns. The idea that voters supported Trump’s immigration restrictionist agenda for cultural or racial reasons, rather than economic insecurity, is reinforced by similar research on right-wing populism in Europe.


Following the 2020 presidential election, Senator Rubio was repeating what had become a kind of conventional wisdom on the right when he declared that the Republicans could become “a multiethnic, multiracial, working-class party.” The 2020 election seemed to show the emergence of new political cleavages because the electorate was less racially polarized than it was in previous presidential elections. President Trump increased his share of the minority vote compared to 2016, but lost support from non-Hispanic whites. Furthermore, as had been the case in 2016, President Trump performed very well among white voters without a college degree, suggesting the generalization of the Republicans as the party of the rich and white was no longer valid. An examination of the 2020 exit polls conducted by CNN, however, does not provide strong evidence of a class-based realignment in voting. Trump carried voters without a college degree by only two points. Biden won a majority of the votes from people making less than $100,000 per year; Trump won a majority of those making more. The relationship between income and presidential vote choice furthermore does not appear linear. Biden beat Trump in the lowest income group, but performed slightly better among those making between $50,000 and $100,000 per year.

The biggest divides in vote choice in the U.S. remain between demographic groups not defined exclusively by economics–that is by race, ethnicity, and religion instead, in addition to those of differing cultural attitudes. Whereas 58 percent of non-Hispanic white voters supported Trump in 2020, he only earned 26 percent of the minority vote. Although the latter represents an improvement for Trump compared to 2016, it still indicates high levels of racial polarization in voting. Religion also remains a major cleavage. Sixty percent of Protestants supported Trump, compared to just 31% of those with no religious affiliation. Cultural differences therefore remain a crucial fault line in American politics. Furthermore, if there is one party presently situated to be the long-term home of working-class voters, it is the Democrats. We have witnessed some movement in a handful of demographic groups when it comes to vote choice, but for the last several election cycles we have seen more continuity than drastic change.

Two figures below show what happens when we compare theories of voting based on socio-economic status to those based on identity and demographic variables in determining support for President Trump. Figure 1 shows how the probability of voting Trump in 2016 changed based on income and attitudes towards immigration among white Americans. Among those who were most accepting of immigration, fewer than 10% were Trump voters, compared to over 80% among whites most opposed to immigration. The impacts of income are barely noticeable in the data.

Figure 2 shows how white Americans responded to a question about how warmly they felt about then-candidate Trump, given during the 2016 Republican primaries, based on a regression that included variables related to various attitudes, identity categories, and socio-economic status. As can be seen, cultural attitudes in the form of feelings towards political correctness, immigration, and white identity, have the largest effects. Next come demographic variables, that is, an individual’s sex, age, and religion. Finally, there is education, and then income, which has for all practical purposes zero discernible effect.



The United States faces several economic challenges in the years ahead. We encourage policy makers to be creative and think beyond twentieth century conservative and liberal talking points and agenda items that may be increasingly anachronistic. However, we also believe in maintaining a sober and dispassionate mindset when considering the political implications of a policy agenda. Based on our analysis of the data and literature, we consider it implausible that the national populist economic agenda, especially one divorced from the “culture war” aspects of Trumpism, can provide a new surge in Republican support in future elections.


{snip} While the national populist wing of the conservative movement has exhibited energy and creativity, a major realignment of working-class voters into the Republican ranks is unlikely in the near future, even if the party shifts its economic priorities to the center or left. We furthermore suggest that, when it comes to economics, the most politically advantageous policies for Republicans will be those that result in high levels of growth and low levels of unemployment–whether or not those policies can be reasonably described as “populist.” To the extent that economic policy specifics matter, it would make more sense to advocate simple programs that clearly help people, such as direct payments to families, than more complicated plans that set out to redesign the economy.

For the most part, Republican voters support their party not because of what it can deliver economically, but for cultural reasons. To a large extent, the Republicans may simply benefit from not being Democrats, a party that has moved far to the left in recent years on identity issues. One recent study showed white Americans turning against a Democratic candidate in large numbers if she talked about white privilege, with no impact based on whether or not she presented herself as a moderate or more extreme on economic issues.