Thursday, May 26, 2016

Do Brutes Vote For Trump Or Sanders? I address Tyler Cowen's Theory.

At the Marginal Revolution Tyler Cowen takes a crack at explaining what's wrong with today's world (well, today's world from Cowen's angle):

Donald Trump may get the nuclear suitcase, a cranky “park bench” socialist took Hillary Clinton to the wire, many countries are becoming less free, and the neo-Nazi party came very close to assuming power in Austria.  I could list more such events.
Haven’t you, like I, wondered what is up?  What the hell is going on?
I don’t know, but let me tell you my (highly uncertain) default hypothesis.  I don’t see decisive evidence for it, but it is a kind of “first blast” attempt to fit the basic facts while remaining within the realm of reason.
The contemporary world is not very well built for a large chunk of males.  The nature of current service jobs, coddled class time and homework-intensive schooling, a feminized culture allergic to most forms of violence, post-feminist gender relations, and egalitarian semi-cosmopolitanism just don’t sit well with many…what shall I call them?  Brutes?
Quite simply, there are many people who don’t like it when the world becomes nicer.  They do less well with nice.  And they respond by in turn behaving less nicely, if only in their voting behavior and perhaps their internet harassment as well.

Wow.  What a thesis!  Lots of men are brutes, and that's why Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have their support in the US, while in Austria the brutes almost voted in a far-right president.*  How do you like them apples?

Reading that post (and the attached comments**) reminded me of the weird feeling I get when I venture into the evo-psycho blog-land.  Those blogs are among the places where I truly feel like an alien from outer space, because people like me (women) are the object of various dissections and the target of quasi-evolutionary explanations for our innate inferiority and the narrow and small lives nature forces us to lead, all couched in sciencey-sounding language.  We are viewed as an alien species, necessary to domesticate and to manage but not to befriend.

But Cowen's post is almost a reversal on that!  Now it is men who are more likely to be brutes, though the implied reason for that is still innate, and the subtle hints Cowen gives us suggest that the Uprising Of The Brutes is partly due to feminism:

The nature of current service jobs, coddled class time and homework-intensive schooling, a feminized culture allergic to most forms of violence, post-feminist gender relations,  and egalitarian semi-cosmopolitanism just don’t sit well with many…what shall I call them?  Brutes?
There we go. Or there some in Cowen's comments went, for they blamed the schools American feminism has presumably changed as one cause for the unhappiness of many men.

Thus, against all evidence, those comments seem to assume that schools in the past, initially created only for boys, mind you,  didn't have any homework, didn't require children to sit quietly for long and boring hours and were never staffed by predominantly female teachers.  Except that all those points are false.

The problem of boys and schools is much more intricate than the usual canned explanations allow.  It is also almost global, affecting such feminist beacons as Iran and Saudi Arabia, so the causes are probably not found inside Western feminist thought.

Likewise, I find it hard to understand what Cowen might mean by a "feminized culture allergic to most forms of violence."  What is "culture" in this context?

Highbrow stuff, mostly dominated by male artists, as far as I can tell?  Or popular culture, fairly male dominated, too?  Internet culture (oops!)?

Or does Cowen mean something wider than those, such as the way we do most things in the mainstream American culture?  If so, when did that mainstream culture approve of violence?  Or is this a reference to the recent concerns about the brain damage that playing football or boxing can cause?  The fear that spectator sports which allow for vicarious violence might be banned?***

And what is "feminized," in any case?  Demanding that Cowen puts on some lipstick and mascara?  That he talks about his feelings? 

I don't want to nitpick Cowen's post, because he himself states that his thesis is very preliminary.  But it seems worthwhile to place a few of his other arguments into a proper context:

For instance, Cowen notes the suffering of middle-aged white men in the US as evidence that certain men do not thrive in this new, "nicer" society:

Princeton professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton note, in addition, a sharp relative deterioration in mortality and morbidity among middle-aged white American men, due to suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse.
But is that really true, or  true only about men among the middle-aged whites?

Andrew Gelman looks at the question of rising death rates for middle-aged white Americans using the same data as Case and Deaton. His results are that the overall increasing mortality in that age group is driven by the higher death rates of white women.  I'm not sure how that fits into the idea that the current culture is somehow feminized or better for women than for men.

But this also hints at a different problem with Cowen's argument:  Not all demographic groups of American men are equally likely to support Trump or Sanders.  The odds of that support are considerably higher for white, non-Hispanic men, and unless that's the type of man who is most likely to be "a brute" Cowen's thesis needs adjusting.

Another minor point is worth a closer look.  From the post:

For American men ages 18-34, more of them live with their parents than with romantic partners.

This is offered as extra evidence of something smelling off in the lives of young American men. And it could be the case.  But the actual Pew survey on the living arrangements of young adults adds nuance to the story.

First, young men have been more likely to live with their parents than young women since 1880:

Second, although the percentage of young men living with their parents has grown in the recent past, so has the percentage of young women living with their parents.

If you read the Pew survey you might notice that it's really about the decrease in the numbers of young adults who live with a spouse or a romantic partner, and ultimately about the question whether marriage and cohabiting are dying institutions.

And I believe that this is the point Cowen tries to make, too. Why later partnering would hurt men more than women remains unclear, and the fact that the trend lines are similar for all ethnic and racial groups doesn't explain why only white brutes would feel frustrated by the status quo.

In short, I disagree with Cowen's thesis.  The world has not become noticeably nicer, though the United States has become much more unequal in income and wealth distribution.

That would be my starting point if I was made to explain the appeal of outsider candidates in the US elections.  But it would only be a starting point, and the whole explanation would be a long one, because it would also have to account for the myriad reasons why larger percentages of white men, in particular,  choose Trump or Sanders, and those reasons are not exactly the same.****

*  Note how these types of theses slice off a lot of details to create the effect of a single strong argument.

Take the case of Austria's presidential elections:  Sixty percent of men voted for Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate, while forty percent of women did.  The percentages were reversed for the independent candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen (who used to be a Green).   So are forty percent of Austrian female voters also brutes?  And if so, are forty percent of Austrian male voters not brutes?

Likewise, Bernie Sanders has considerable support from women, especially young women.  Or among young female brutes, I guess.  Even Donald Trump seems to be solidifying his position among Republican-voting women, though they might not like his sexism and racism.

** Which aren't as bad as the usual evo-psycho ones.  Some of them are quite good, though there's the usual sprinkling of menz-created-the-universe-and-themselves-without-any-help-from-weak-wimminz folk.   Still, the comments thread strikes me as overwhelmingly male, and has neat little peeks into the World Of The Traditional Family Man:

As “brutish” as manufacturing might sound to Mr Cowen, a lot of people found it “nice” to have quiet, respectable jobs, go home to their families and open the papers without fearing for the immediate futures of their nations.


Do you look the door behind you every time you move from one room of the house to the other? No, because it’s assumed that your house’s is borders are secure enough to make you feel secure, psychologically. Taking it to the neighborhood level, because you can have a mental space where, despite distant dangers, you can put your feet up and not worry about the little lady out doing the shopping or the kids playing in the neighborhood.


It used to be that a guy came home from work and had to listen to his wife complain for an hour. But he could nod his head, have a few drinks and tolerate it… and he could tell her to buzz off when he’d had enough. Now a days, his wife, his kids and d*mn near everybody on the planet thinks they have the right to b*tch and moan to the guy all day long and if he doesn’t listen nicely and address their concerns he’ll be shamed on facebook, etc. Chr*st people, let me alone!

***  Perhaps we should have public floggings and executions?  To get violence mainstreamed, that is.  (It doesn't seem to make men more docile in the ISIS controlled areas of Syria and Iraq or in other places where such practices still exist.)

****  The only remaining rival to Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump is Hillary Clinton who has long ties to the African-American community.  Clinton's sex matters in complicated positive/negative ways to at least some women and men.  That she is also the first woman ever to have a chance of governing this country matters, too.  Trump has openly bashed Latinos and immigrants in general.  And that matters.

Dashed economic expectations may be harder to swallow than not expecting much at all from the economy.  Some have argued that the former applies to working class white men who lost well-paying factory and mining jobs to outsourcing and globalization, the latter might apply to minorities and recent immigrants and perhaps also working class white women, given that their expectations might have been lower in the first place.  Then there are the historical patterns of voting by sex, race and ethnicity, and the fact that the Republican establishment has always been openly anti-worker and the Democratic establishment has set workers' concerns aside.

The above is just a set of notes and not intended as a complete explanation.  I'm not foolhardy enough to try for one without several months' research.  And I should stress that though Sanders and Trump are seen as "outsiders" (despite neither being an outsider to power), I am certainly not arguing that they are the same.  Sanders' policies are explicitly about reducing income inequality and increasing upwards social mobility, while Trump's comments about fixing the problems of outsourcing and trade agreements are off-the-cuff and the solutions he offers are both impractical and 180-degrees removed from his own past business practices.