The UnPopulist
Zooming In at The UnPopulist
The Demand Side of Populism in America: A Conversation with Tom Shull

The Demand Side of Populism in America: A Conversation with Tom Shull

The UnPopulist survey found that Trump supporters dislike the elites who let immigrants in more than immigrants themselves

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Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Zooming In, a project of The UnPopulist. I'm Aaron Ross Powell. The Institute for the Study of Modern Authoritarianism, the nonprofit parent organization of The UnPopulist, recently fielded a survey to measure populist attitudes among Americans. The poll of 1,000 respondents was administered nationwide from November 17th to the 27th 2023, as a supplement to the weekly America's Political Pulse Survey conducted by the Dartmouth-based Polarization Research Lab.

Last week, The UnPopulist published its findings, and they're fascinating. I'm joined today by the survey's author, Tom Shull, Polling Director at ISMA. We dig into how the survey was designed, what it tells us about the state of American populism, and what questions still need answers.

A transcript of today’s podcast appears below. It has been edited for flow and clarity.

Aaron Ross Powell: Let's start with methodology. I ask about this because the results of any survey like this are the exciting parts, the quotable, “we found, X, Y, and Z.” How surveys are conducted, how they're constructed, why the questions are chosen or worded is both, I think, in a nerdy sense, really interesting, but also is critically important for people who are reading the results and trying to interpret them and trying to make use of them. I don't want us to overlook that. Let's start with, how did this survey come about, and how did you approach the broader question you were trying to dig into?

Tom Shull: In terms of how it came about, I think there was always an interest, certainly for both Shikha [Dalmia] and me, entering this question of populism and from the earliest days of The UnPopulist to find out more, to better understand what constitutes a populist movement, what people are thinking. In a sense, when we were looking at this survey, we were seeing it a little differently from the way others have approached it. You can find some terrific online surveys of populism worldwide. There's a Timbro study, there's a study by Pippa Norris at Harvard, looking at populist parties and the support that they get in various countries around the world.

Pippa Norris's study in particular is just wonderfully broad and extremely detailed and thoughtful in the way she went about it. In a sense, all of that looks at the supply side. It looks at who is providing an opportunity for populist movements to gain political traction. What we were interested in is something that was sparked by the reading we'd done on populism generally, which is what is it that people who follow a "populist leader" or vote for a "populist party," what is it they're feeling? What is it that they're thinking? As we approach this, we were asking ourselves, what can we find out about the folks who in one sense or another might be considered populist?

Aaron Ross Powell: How are we defining that term? Because populism is a somewhat contested, certainly not entirely clear term. If you're trying to seek these people out, how do you find them in the first place?

Tom Shull: Now, that is exactly the question. It's one of the reasons that a lot of times in survey research, people do focus on the supply side rather than on the demand side. At this point, there's been enough work within the academic community to try to distinguish what you might consider populism from simply having a popular candidate who connects well with people and maybe take some views that are a little unconventional or that aren't necessarily favored by the country's elites. What we saw was that in general, if you looked at summaries of the research, if you looked at some of the folks who had done work in this area, there were four different dynamics in play.

We looked specifically at three of those. There were two reasons that we did, and I'll just mention these very quickly because you were interested in the methodology. Then I'll go on to what those are.

The reason that we looked at three of the four was partly the amount of room we had in the survey. This survey was essentially piggybacked or added as a supplement to the America's Political Pulse Survey that's conducted weekly by the Polarization Research Lab at Dartmouth. There are only so many extra questions you add to a survey of that size. That was one constraint we were working under.

In fact, there was another reason for focusing on these three areas, and that is that they were three areas where you could ask roughly the same questions in good conscience of people on both the "left" and "right," or amongst Republicans and Democrats, or however you wanted to look at it. You could look at these three dynamics in particular and feel that you could get a fairly reliable answer that pointed you towards populists on either side of that political divide. What were those areas? What were these things that are looked at within the academic literature as being common to populism per se?

One of them is that you have [an] extra or special connection, a direct connection, between a populist leader and the populist followers. Sometimes it's expressed through a connection that they see with that populist leader, him or her, or with their agenda, their policy agenda. They experience a sense that this person, this leader, understands them more uniquely in a way that other leaders, other politicians do not, and is willing to fight for them in a way that other leaders or politicians are not. There's an unusually strong, different special connection.

Another is that what commonly in populist movements is that populist followers will see themselves as, in some sense, victims of, or certainly dissatisfied with the nation's elites. Now typically, those are the elites in government, but sometimes they are outside of government. They may be cultural elites, business elites. It's going to depend on that particular country's situation and culture. But they see themselves in some way as oppressed, or harmed, or ignored by these powerful elites in ways that act to their detriment—against their interests.

Then the third of these is that essentially because they're looking at the populist leader as understanding them, fighting for them, having a special agenda, and who's going to take on these elites, they typically want to see action. They want to see action in the government to make sure that something gets done. That makes them more amenable to the idea of violating various liberal democratic norms, constraints on executive power, things that get in the way of getting things done. Those were the three things that we tested for both people who said they would vote for Donald Trump if the election were held tomorrow, and the people who said they would vote for Joe Biden if the election were held tomorrow.

Now, this fourth area that we also tentatively explored is a question of what I guess I would call a “social other.” People who members of the populist movement look at askance. They're separate from the elites and they look at them and they say, "These folks, they're getting a good deal where I'm getting a raw deal. They're getting things that maybe should be coming my way, and in many ways they're other. They're different. They're not really true fill-in-the-blank Americans, Hungarians, whatever it would be. That other group is going to fluctuate a lot depending on the country, the culture, which side of the political divide you might be on.

When we looked at this, we only tentatively tested people's attitudes towards immigrants in particular, because obviously, immigrants had been highlighted in recent years on the Republican/Trump side of the equation. We're just curious to see what people's views were there.

As we know, we've seen populist movements, certainly what we've considered populist movements in South America that came from the left rather than the right. Even when you look at other movements worldwide, it can come from the left. It can come from the right.

Aaron Ross Powell: Is populism then typically a feature we find on the right or is it both left and right? Obviously, we can see how Trumpism fits within the characteristics you've outlined. As you were talking about it, I was also thinking about that, Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders aspect of the left seems to fit a lot of these characteristics.

Tom Shull: Yes, absolutely. In fact, we hope in the next survey, future surveys, that we look at things like the business elites or the wealthy as a potential societal other. Because yes, you do see elements of that on both the left and the right. As we know, we've seen populist movements, certainly what we've considered populist movements in South America that came from the left rather than the right. Even when you look at other movements worldwide, it can come from the left. It can come from the right. You even look at the Bolsheviks, what they did when they came to power during the Russian Revolution, they focused on the kulaks. They were small landholders, peasants, and turned them into an enemy of sorts and said, "These are the people who are standing in the way of progress. They don't get it.” I would say they don't know what time it is, but there was the sense that this was going to be a collective revolution to help the oppressed and the people who had somehow benefited in ways that they shouldn't, the wealthier peasant landholder, they were the ones with bourgeois values and they were the ones who needed to be moved aside. So, you're right, both the left and the right, we certainly see it on the right as well.

Aaron Ross Powell: I have one more methodological question before we get to the results. I should note to people, we'll talk about the results in this conversation, but there's a lot of really interesting stuff in this, so please just head to The UnPopulist and read. Tom's done an excellent and very clear write-up of the survey and how it was conducted and what was found and plans for the future and so on. I encourage everyone to read that. The survey looks at Trump supporters and Biden supporters. Those are the groups that you're comparing and looking for the populists among them.

I wondered what the difference is in terms of this survey between a Trump supporter and a partisan Republican or a Biden supporter and a partisan Democrat because I could support Joe Biden because I think Joe Biden himself is the bee's knees. I could also support Joe Biden because I'm a Democrat and I support whoever the Democrats nominate and Joe Biden happens to be that guy. Is there a meaningful distinction there? Is there a reason you focused on Trump supporters and Biden supporters versus Democrats or Republicans?

Tom Shull: Yes, there were a couple of reasons. One of them is that, obviously, when you're thinking of populism, some of these dynamics that I just described involve the populist leader. If you're asking the question, is Trump a populist leader, then it seems reasonable to ask the question, is Biden a populist leader? That's part of the comparison you want to do and to see if there's a difference. We guessed there would be a difference moving into this survey, but we didn't know. We focused on that in part too, because Trump has drawn from outside the Republican party and we saw that in this survey as well.

We saw 10% were independents, 10% of his support were independents, about 77% said they were Republicans. You had a strong Republican contingent. If you were to go through and look at the Republicans and how they respond versus how, say, Trump supporters respond, you're not going to see really large differences, but you will see some. Again, we chose to focus primarily on the supporters for Donald Trump and the supporters for Joe Biden and gave less emphasis to those who were, say, voting out of party loyalty for the candidate or who looked and said, "Look, I'm voting for this guy because the other guy I really don't like, and I don't want him to win."

Just briefly, let me drop this in. When you look, and this is, I think, one of the reasons that a lot of people are concerned about Joe Biden's campaign right now, in our survey, about 70% of the people who said that they would vote for him if the election were held tomorrow said they would do it out of party loyalty or because they did not want Donald Trump to win. You get less than half of that for Trump. Instead for Trump, about 54% of them said they did it because they support his policy agenda.

There is a distinct difference there in how people are relating to Biden. It's more impersonal than they are to Trump, where half were saying the policy agenda and then responding in a very positive way to a follow-up question about he's the only recent candidate who understands us, he's the only recent candidate who will fight for us. We saw higher numbers of Trump supporters “strongly agreeing” with that statement than you did for Biden supporters.

Aaron Ross Powell: I know I said we would get to the results, but that raised one question that was in the back of my mind through a lot of this, which was that particular finding was surprising because it does seem like the people who say they support Trump, the way they present themselves is as fans of Trump. We see Ron DeSantis basically trying to run as a bundle of Trumpist policies but dialed up. He came in barely second place in Iowa, which was this week as we're recording this, but he's not setting the primaries on fire.

That finding seemed a little bit counterintuitive and it made me wonder. Whenever interpreting surveys, I always wonder about what is called “social desirability bias,” which is the person answering the survey isn't just necessarily answering what they actually believe, but also what they're comfortable telling either the in-person person that is surveying them or the online survey. If you pull people saying, "Do you think that interracial marriage is okay?" The numbers are in the high 90%, but it is likely that a chunk of that is people who don't like interracial marriage but don't feel comfortable admitting it because they know that it makes you look bad.

You desire to be socially liked, so you're not going to say things that you think are going to make you unliked. You're in a sense, lying to the poll. I wonder how do you deal with that in a context where especially among the elites, it's seen as very low social desirability to be fanatically pro-Trump himself. Maybe saying, "I'm not really into the guy, but I like his policies," is a way to signal support.

There is a distinct difference there in how people are relating to Biden. It's more impersonal than they are to Trump, where half were saying the policy agenda and then responding in a very positive way to a follow-up question about he's the only recent candidate who understands us, he's the only recent candidate who will fight for us.

Tom Shull: This question actually came up almost immediately from a couple of the readers of the article on The UnPopulist website. I think it's a absolutely reasonable question to raise. Obviously, you always have a social desirability component, not just when you're dealing with human beings in surveys, but when you're dealing with human beings in general. Social desirability, it helps make sure that we think before we speak and before we act, and helps us get along through the course of our day. While it's tempting to always see it as a negative thing, if you're in polling and survey research, it has its positive values.

To answer more directly, there are a couple of things I would say, maybe four. One is that you have this as an online survey. I think what we've definitely seen over the past 10 to 15 years is that social desirability does not seem to affect people in the same way when they're responding online, when they're acting online, than it would if they're acting face to face. Years ago, when I was working with Peter Hart and Bob Teeter team working on the NBC/Wall Street Journal, Survey of Public Opinion, and other major polling projects, we were having people call on the phone.

I think social desirability, it gets very awkward. Someone asks you an awkward question of the kind that you just raised like interracial marriages, you've got a human voice on the other end, and you're very aware that there's a human being who may be judging you and social desirability is an issue. When I'm looking at a screen and I'm just clicking dots and I'm guaranteed anonymity, we've seen people obviously say things on Facebook, on Twitter that are probably much more aggressive and hurtful than what they would say if they were talking to that same person. That's one.

I think let me quickly touch on a few other points. One is that in the literature, you do have scholars saying that the attachment often is expressed as attachment to the agenda, not necessarily the person. There are reasons for that. I'll go into a third reason. If you think about this in your own personal life, when you've listened to, maybe it's a politician, but it could be an economist, a sociologist, a philosopher, maybe it's just a political intellectual who really struck a nerve with you, who impressed you with their insights.

If someone were to later ask you if you were moved by them as people or by their ideas, you'd probably say their ideas, especially since they're in the ideas business, but if you reflect on it, you have to, I think, admit, concede that very often there's a personal element. That there is something about the way that person presents their information, the way they think about it, the way they convey it, that also appeals to you strongly. I think you're probably seeing a fair amount of that in the populist movement.

Then of course, remember this: a key part of the populist genius is in choosing a platform, framing issues, finding areas of discontent that have not been addressed before, or that have been left unaddressed for a long time. I would say that Donald Trump was very perceptive in that regard. He saw that there was a lingering frustration with the way immigration was being handled in America. If you get right down to it, you saw those same concerns back with Ronald Reagan when he was passing immigration reform. Here we are, 40 years later, and some of those concerns just still had not been quite addressed politically.

That I think is part of what you're probably seeing in that area when we see a lot more loyalty to the policy agenda than we do to Trump himself. Again, remember the people that we qualified as populist followers of Trump are folks who also strongly agreed that he's the only recent candidate who understands people like me and is willing to fight for people like me. Those were two separate questions. They had to strongly agree with both of them.

Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you. That all makes a lot of sense. Let's then turn to the results. What were the biggest findings of this? I guess the ones that you found the most interesting or intriguing.

Tom Shull: I think one thing that jumped out, setting aside the question of how many populists are there and what do they look like, questions that we went into the field to look for. What I was struck by having looked at polling survey research in the past that did not have that intention was that you saw a majority of Trump supporters and not just Trump supporters, but Biden supporters expressing a very high level of skepticism of elites in the federal government. Whether they were elected officials, which we asked about separately, or whether they were members of the bureaucracy, and we asked about them separately as well.

You would think, given a lot of the talk about the “deep state” or the “administrative state” on the right, that you would find some definite resentment there or maybe harsh views. What we saw was that this was also common amongst Biden supporters, so that you had large majorities essentially agreeing that people amongst our national elected officials were harming the interests of people like me in pursuit of their own self-interest. It was very direct. It wasn't just saying they're doing a bad job. It was saying they're harming people like me by pursuing their own personal interests, their own special interests.

We saw that, like I said, amongst large majorities of both Trump and Biden voters, and maybe the only real distinction that I would draw is that it was marginally higher amongst the Trump supporters when you look at strongly agree and agree. Probably the biggest difference was this, a plurality of the Trump supporters strongly agreed, whereas a plurality of the Biden supporters merely simply agreed. There were many who strongly agreed, but the emphasis was a little bit higher. The passion was stronger amongst the Trump supporters.

We're talking about what, 74% of Americans agreeing that political elites in the federal government are harming the interests of people like me through their own self-interest. The same thing, we've got, what, 69% of the American public saying this about bureaucratic elites. I think maybe just as striking as that was that you had only 4% and 7% of Americans disagreeing or strongly disagreeing with that statement. That's very low number who are willing to say, "I think that's wrong." That stood out. That to me stood out, separate from the question of Trump and Biden populists.

I'll go ahead and highlight, I think, a couple of others. One is that there was a high degree, higher than I expected to see, of people who were willing to tolerate the idea essentially of their preferred candidate, whether Biden or Trump, acting outside the law in order to correct what they perceived as various wrongs. We were careful in this case because one of the populist dynamics that I mentioned to you was this idea of expanding executive power, giving more power so that things get done and the people's will finally gets enacted.

We were asking very directly, how would you feel about that? Talk about social desirability, I went into that with fear and trembling thinking, "Who's going to say in a million years that they want their preferred candidate to go ahead and break the law?" Holy cow. In the end, we swallowed hard and just asked the question. It was something along the lines of, I would trust Joe Biden or Donald Trump as president to decide when to follow the law and when to ignore it to achieve justice.

Now that “to achieve justice” comes from some of the preamble that placed that question. Because we started by saying, "Look, there've been a lot of people," and we customized the question for the respondent. If you're a Republican, something along the lines of, we've seen a lot of the enforcement agencies like the Department of Justice and the IRS being used by Democratic Party leaders in Washington, DC to target Republican leaders and supporters while protecting their own people, okay? We started with that sense of weaponized justice and we flipped it.

74% of Americans agreeing that political elites in the federal government are harming the interests of people like me through their own self-interest. The same thing, we've got, what, 69% of the American public saying this about bureaucratic elites.

Obviously, Democrats heard that Republicans were doing this. You've got Hunter Biden going on right now, so there would be people who would recognize that. The thing that really struck me was even though we had created this negative scenario where you felt like the other party was cheating and acting outside the law, or at least using partisan influence in law, you had as many as 47% of Biden supporters agreeing or strongly agreeing that they would trust Joe Biden to go ahead and decide when to ignore the law in order to get things right, to achieve justice.

With Donald Trump, it was around 43%, actually just a little bit less. This surprised me. We had one other question along these lines because we always gave people two ways to qualify as a populist. This was exploratory. We were trying to figure it out, but we also asked, "Hey, would you trust your candidate to go ahead and just issue an executive order to get something done when Congress is being recalcitrant because the other party is just not behaving?" You still had larger percentages than maybe you'd like to see say, "Yes, just issue an executive order, get this done, let's get on with it."

I think that there, the high pluralities, that surprised me too. That I think is an issue moving forward. An issue for us, we want to explore that more in our surveys, but I think it's also an issue of public understanding and public education about what's really necessary to maintain liberal democratic norms.

Aaron Ross Powell: I'm glad you highlighted that pairing of findings about dislike for distrust of elites and governing elites and willingness to have your guy bend or break the law because those stood out to me. I was thinking about that and wondered how much—obviously there can be very good reasons to be skeptical of the quality of our governing elites, of their interests. We could have public choice economics reasons for that. There's Bootleggers and Baptist problems and log rolling and all of these reasons why Congress is dysfunctional and the incentives that exist in government.

You can have that clear-eyed picture of politics without romance or you can see it as I want to institute a white nationalist dystopia. Those liberal elites and their institutions and the presidents of the Ivy League are the ones who are preventing that from happening. So I distrust them. That matters. Your reasons for distrusting matter. But the violating the law one, in a constitutional democracy, we have mechanisms. Even if we really wish the government would do this thing, we can say, but breaking those norms, breaking those rules, overstepping your bounds, even if it fixes the problem right now can be catastrophic in the medium to long run.

I wonder how much…It seems like ours has become a culture of political overstatement. That the way that you indicate that you care about a particular issue is by being incredibly strident about it, is by saying, "No, this particular thing isn't just something we should care about, but it is the most important thing. If we don't address it to my satisfaction, it will mean the end of the world." You may not actually believe that, but that's how you express the seriousness of your conviction. I wondered how much the willing like, I want my guy to break the law was essentially that.

I don't actually want my guy to break the law, but saying, this thing is so important that Biden should circumvent or Obama should sign an executive order or Congress is so bad that maybe we actually have to do this. Again, that's another one of these ones where a lot depends on what you're strident for. As far as what we do about this because I think a lot of what's interesting about this survey and the results of it is we want to defend liberalism. We see populism as a threat. Here is more information about the state of things. What do we do with it? How does this influence our strategy going forward?

It seems like a lot of this ultimately depends on what people want from government and why—I don't think the answer is just to say you should always trust the elites.

Tom Shull: I think you bring up a very important point. It is one that I addressed in the essay that we posted at The UnPopulist. Look, for any one of the things that I mentioned earlier, which is saying that elites have harmed the interest of people like me in pursuit of their own self-interest, let's take that for just a moment. You and I are both familiar with public choice theory, which looks at some of the incentives that are faced by people working in a bureaucracy or people working in Congress for that matter. The incentives sometimes do not behave in ways that we might expect them or want them to.

Sometimes the incentive is to essentially support the interests of a special interest group for a variety of reasons. They're actually quite compelling and that I may, as a public official, find convincing. I move forward with those in a way that I might not if I were simply responding to what my constituents wanted or if I were simply responding to what I would have thought was the right thing to do. We know that there is a literature out there that shows this kind of perverse behavior, and yet it does not immediately follow that the people who are engaged in that behavior are bad people, that they are in some way evil, or that they are malevolent, that they're trying to hurt other people, or that they're just very cynically saying, "I don't really care about those rubes out in the flyover states or whatever. We'll just give them the shaft and keep on moving." Is it possible that there are people like that there are Simon Legrees in government? Inevitably, because there are Simon Legrees in the human race, and so you're going to get some of them in government. Maybe you get a few extra because they like the power that it gives them.

As a practical matter, you can hold some of these populist attitudes independently and do so for reasons that are different from a passion that drives you to want to actually go ahead and see the very process of liberal democracy get streamlined and simplified so that an executive can just get things done. If he has to break a few eggs to make an omelet, so be it. There is a difference. It's one of the reasons that we went with a very strict definition. We didn't just say that "Hey, if you show any one of these attitudes, whether it's towards elites or towards your candidate or towards the law, we're calling you a populist." We didn't do that.

We said, "What happens for people who exhibit all of those?" When it came to questions of passion and feelings about elites, about the candidate, that we looked for a very strong agreement. When it came to the question of breaking the law, we looked for simply an agreement or strong agreement, simply because the effect in that case is the same. Ultimately, that brought down the number of populists that we found considerably.

If we had simply just said, "Look, we're going to toss everybody who exhibits any one of these attitudes into a great big pot and call them populists," then we would have been rounding up a whole lot of people who were essentially expressing concerns that they had but would not necessarily involve themselves in a populist movement or a populist view of how government should run.

Aaron Ross Powell: I want to highlight one other finding that I thought was really interesting and was one of the starkest contrasts in your results. That was about what we might call social trust or trust of others. Effectively that jumped out at me was you asked about, if you've lost your wallet, how likely do you think it is that it will be returned to you? Can you just tell us what the findings on that were?

When you looked at the Trump populists, only about 16.5%, which is almost exactly one in six, feel they would get their valuables or their wallet back. Now that's interesting. It's less than half the national average.

Tom Shull: Yes, absolutely. In order to do that, I should preface it with a key finding that I have not mentioned yet. That follows from my last answer. That is, how many populists did we find? We found what would be through a very strict definition that I mentioned earlier, a small number. It represented about 10.3% of Trump supporters we saw as fitting into that populist mold. We found about 2.5% of Biden supporters fitting into that mold. It was roughly a four-to-one ratio. If you're talking about the actual number of people, it's not quite four to one if you're looking at it in terms of the percentage of support for Trump or Biden, it was a little more than four to one. So about a four-to-one ratio.

When we look at the question of Trump populists, that 10.3% in particular, we see some interesting things, some striking things. One of them was on this question of general trust. Do you think your wallet or your valuables would be returned to you if it were found by a stranger? All right. This question actually was part of the America's Political Pulse Survey that was the larger survey we were piggybacked on. That question typically got about 34% of Americans to say, "Yes, I think I would get my wallet back. Yes, I think I would get my valuables back."

When you looked at the Trump populists, only about 16.5%, which is almost exactly one in six, feel they would get their valuables or their wallet back. Now that's interesting. It's less than half the national average. I started immediately digging around and looking. It's like, are there other people who feel this way? Trump supporters as a whole, about 30% do. That's almost twice as many as the Trump populists. If you looked at Biden supporters, they're around 40% thinking it. Biden populists, interestingly, are up around 48% saying they would get it back.

There's a very different outlook on the world amongst the Trump populists. You also see very high percentages of them saying that they don't believe that government authorities would treat them fairly. That's up at 70% plus. I don't believe that if I called about a public service to complain, I would get a response. That's over 70% plus. If you ask the question of whether they think a member of Congress would accept a bribe, over 70% think that that's likely, it's very likely. These are just expressions of a real concern about, obviously, can they trust the government? Can they trust other Americans? Very low, extremely low.

I looked for other groups, like I said, and just didn't find anyone who really approached that level of skepticism about other Americans.

Aaron Ross Powell: I found that absolutely fascinating in part because you can interpret it in a lot of very different ways. You can say, are they analogizing from their own experience in the sense that this reflects that the communities that the hardcore populists live in are less trustworthy? The people within them behave in untrustworthy ways. They don't have the kinds of social connections, and so they simply think the world outside their immediate community must work the way that they see their community working. Could it be their community is high trust in the sense that I think the people if I dropped it on the block over, it would probably get returned but my nonstop media diet of everything outside your door is scary has convinced me that basically, the whole world outside of my community is an untrustworthy, evil place where everyone is dishonest. Going to the, what do we do about it, how you address this problem, because this does seem like a problem, and my guess is a very motivational one in how their politics manifest, that the solutions to that look rather different.

Tom Shull: That is a great question. Great question for future research. I think that we have to take both of those possibilities seriously, and it's possible that it's both at the same time. For instance, you know from having interviewed Stephanie Muravchik and John Shields, the authors of Trump's Democrats, that these communities that they studied so closely, that had been absolutely rock solid bastions of democratic support for decades, in one case since the Civil War, and that flipped for Trump when he ran for president, one of the things you saw in those communities was a very strong sense of local community.

They believed in and supported the members of their community, absolutely to the exclusion of people just one county over, one city over. There may be a definite component of that acting on this question of general trust. Then, another thing that Muravchik and Shields found was the sense that many of the folks that they talked to were not necessarily people who had suffered economic loss as a result of changes in the economy over recent decades, but even though they themselves were doing all right, they were in a community and surrounded by people who had been in many ways, hurt by that economic change, had not been able to adapt, had seen changes in their economic circumstances.

One could imagine in that special case of those Trump's Democrats, that they would have a feeling that they couldn't trust what outsiders would decide about, say, trade policies or keeping manufacturing in America or what have you, even though they could trust the people in their immediate community.

[I]n this question of whether the political leaders in Washington, DC have intentionally failed to reduce undocumented immigration. 67% of Trump supporters said yes.

Aaron Ross Powell: We're running out of time, so let me give you, as a final question…You've done this survey. It's produced a lot of fascinating results, it's raised a lot of really intriguing questions. What's next?

Tom Shull: [chuckles] There are a good number of things that are next, but I'll tell you one thing we will be looking at in particular is that question of the fourth dynamic I mentioned; who might represent that societal other? This allows me to also mention a couple of things about this survey that I haven't brought up so far. One is that we saw very high levels of what's known as affective political polarization from both the Biden and Trump populists. Now, what is that? It's actually a question asked on the America's Political Pulse Survey. They ask you to rate your party on a scale from zero to 100, then they ask you to rate the other party on zero to 100.

This is only for Republicans and Democrats or people who lean that way. We have seen in the past, very high levels of polarization. What they do is they simply take the difference between those two. If you consider your party a 100 and you consider the other party a zero, then the difference is 100. Typically you're going to see things in the 50s. It's pretty darn widespread, whether you're talking about it by race or gender or income or, sorry, race, gender, income, education and it looks pretty even across that. 

Then when you look at these Trump populists, these Biden populists, suddenly it jumps up. It jumps up by over 40%. It's statistically significant. The difference between Biden supporters in general and Biden populists, a statistically significant difference at a confidence level, 95%. You see these differences instead of seeing things that are a 50-point difference, suddenly they're in the mid, sometimes high 70s. That's one thing. This suggests that maybe the real resentment and this won't come as a shock, but it's something we want to test, is really towards the other side.

The societal other is those guys on the other side that I can't trust who go out of their way. They get special breaks from the elites, maybe they managed to win an election they shouldn't have won. Whatever it would be, or they game the system to make sure that these wealthy guys on the Republican side manage to get all the really good returns in corporate America, whatever it would be. That I think is something we will be looking at. Then part of the reason that I focus on that is because the question we asked on this fourth dynamic about what the societal other might be was about immigrants, and it just came up a dead blank in so many ways.

Here we've been through Muslim travel bans and we've got red states busing immigrants to blue states. We have all of this frustration and resentment over this issue. Then we asked people, "Would you generally agree that immigrants take jobs from American workers?" 22% of Americans agreed with that, just 22. Immigrants weaken the American economy, reducing our wealth, just 18%. Immigrants reject core American values, 17%. Next to nothing.

We had 50% saying, we just don't agree with those statements at all and do not agree that this problem with undocumented immigration that we see is actually intentional, that our political elites have been letting this go on for a long time. Why? Because they really want it to happen. Let me just talk briefly because this was an interesting finding. Biden supporters were even lower on this anti-immigrant thing. Trump supporters, though, were not particularly high in general. 33%, 27%, 29% agreed with that, but you would consider that an overwhelming loss if that were an election and that's all the votes it got.

The place where you saw this much stronger difference was in this question of whether the political leaders in Washington, DC have intentionally failed to reduce undocumented immigration. 67% of Trump supporters said yes. That's the same group that basically didn't agree with the negative statements about immigrants on balance. Only 14% of them said all three of those things that were negative that I mentioned earlier. Now, when you go to Trump populists, suddenly 50% are agreeing with those things. 94% agree that our political leaders have been intentionally letting undocumented immigration go on.

We do have a sense, as you talk about what we will do moving forward to the next poll, that we're onto something, that these academic definitions do have some traction. They have some grip. What we see is more of what we expected to see than we would see if we just looked, say, at a Trump supporter or Biden supporter on their own. We see a much stronger version of that. At the same time, we're not seeing the caricatured cartoon version of resentment, say, against immigrants for all of the debates that we've had.

The suspicion then is this societal other, it just may be us. We've seen the enemy and he is us. That will be something we'll be looking at. We'll also be trying to look at the question that came up earlier, which is, why are we getting so many people essentially saying, "Yes, I'm okay with my guy violating the law. That's all right." Questions like that, attitudes towards business and cultural elites. I think that the question of whether or not people are comfortable with seeing the political parties weakened, the media weakened, other mediating institutions. Those are the things that we'll be looking at next time around.

Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening to Zooming In at The UnPopulist. If you enjoy this show, please take a moment to review us and Apple Podcasts and also check out ReImagining Liberty, our sister podcast at The UnPopulist, where I explore the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical social, political, and economic freedom. Zooming In is produced by Landry Ayres, and is a project of The UnPopulist.


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