Studies Provide Answers On What Made People Vote For Trump And Brexit

Two new studies indicate that anxiety about the loss of white privilige and lack of cognitive flexibility caused people to vote for Trump and Brexit. Many will resent these conclusions, but maybe the cap fits. Jim Lambert/Shutterstock

The election of Donald Trump and the vote for Britain to leave the EU surprised most observers, but that didn't stop plenty of people providing hot takes, convinced they understood the reasons. Seeking a more evidence-based approach, political scientists and psychologists conducted studies of what differentiated people who voted one way from those who went the other. Two papers on the topic have now been released. The one on the US election is likely to induce some angry denunciations as “fake news”, but that's nothing to the response we can expect to the Brexit motivation paper.

After Donald Trump's election, pundits debated the influence of economic hardship against racial anxiety, but with little hard evidence. Professor Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania took advantage of a project asking identical questions – including ones about trade, immigration, racial matters, and attitudes to candidates – to a group of 1,200 people in October 2012 and 2016. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they report that the “results do not support an interpretation of the election based on pocketbook economic concerns.”

Instead, Mutz concludes: “Candidate preferences in 2016 reflected increasing anxiety among high-status groups rather than complaints about past treatment among low-status groups. Both growing domestic racial diversity and globalization contributed to a sense that white Americans are under siege by these engines of change.”

Mutz concluded that the people most likely to vote for Trump, after either voting Democrat previously or not voting at all, were those who felt their place in the world was being threatened. This came in part from a perception that America was having to share its status as the world's most powerful nation. It was also driven by people who feared the possibility of losing the benefits of being part of a dominant ethnic group.

The interpretation that most of Trump's voters were motivated in large part by resentment at having to treat blacks, Asians, and Hispanics as their equals is unlikely to go down well in some circles, most particularly with Trump voters. However, if you think that conclusion is controversial, wait until you hear what PhD student Leor Zmigrod and collaborators at Cambridge University have to say about Brexit supporters in the same edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Cambridge team took a sample of 332 UK citizens and asked them how they voted in the referendum, as well as their attitudes to related issues regarding national identity and culture. They also had the same group do two long-standing tests of intellectual capacity. The Remote Associates Test measures verbal creativity, while the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test is used to assess strategic planning and abstract reasoning, particularly for people who have suffered brain damage.

What the authors call “subjective and objective cognitive inflexibility” (but others might call the inability to adapt to changing circumstances) predicted greater nationalism, conservatism, and support for authoritarian policies. On the plus side, people with these sorts of attitudes were also more likely to be conscientious and emotionally stable. The paper concludes that the results of these tests accounted for almost half (47.6 percent) of the variability in support for Brexit.

Zmigrod stressed many other factors are at play in the other half of the variance. “Ideologies such as nationalism are highly complex constructs, and there are many reasons people believe what they do and vote the way they do,” she said in a statement. The same applies equally well to Mutz's conclusions.

Nevertheless, Zmigrod added: “In today’s politically-polarized climate, it is important to understand more about the psychological processes behind nationalistic and social attitudes if we are to build bridges between communities.”

Whether the picture drawn will build more bridges than it burns remains to be seen.

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