September 12, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

It’s (Mostly) the Morality, Stupid

We overvalue the economy's predictive power in politics.

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I try to avoid discussing bias in journalism, because mostly the problem isn’t bias. The problem is talking about things powerful people don’t want us to talk about. 

But there is a form of bias worthy of discussion in the context of the economy and the president’s campaign for reelection. That form of bias is the presumption that voters know what’s best for them economically, and that what’s best for them economically supplants moral considerations—e.g., that Donald Trump is a terrible president.

Editor’s note

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Even the House Democrats have this bias. That’s why they are dithering over their impeachment inquiry. They have internalized the opposition’s rationalization for 2016. The caucus—or some of it, anyway—believes that “economic anxiety” defeated Hillary Clinton, not bad luck or, most likely, plain ordinary and socially accepted sadism.

The Washington press corps and its commentariat presume that if the national economy slows or contracts, it’s going to hurt Trump. In assuming that that is an empirical fact, rather than an assertion (which is what it is), they are collectively paying close attention to the economy as if its indicators have predictive power. Trump’s aggregated approval numbers, for instance, have gone down a few points. The smartest people continue to presume a wobbly economy is the leading cause. (This is reinforced, of course, by a president appearing to be in a panic over the economy.)

The commentariat assumes that voters make decisions according to their pocketbooks. Yet this was not the case in 2016. Why should we believe it will be different in 2020? To be sure, a minority of voters did base their choices on their material interests (the affluent and the real working class, for instance). But most didn’t. Most postmortems found that racism and sexism were the decisive factors in Trump’s razor-thin victory.

Our bias presumes that what’s best for voters economically supplants moral considerations—e.g., that Donald Trump is a terrible president.

There may be a correlation between the economy and presidential politics, but not necessarily causation. Trump’s polling is now where it was at the lowest point during the shutdown earlier this year. This, to some, is evidence that material interests are at work. The shutdown hurt the economy; people disapproved. The economy is getting hinky; people disapprove. But no one can know if material interests hurt the president during the shutdown. It could be that Americans objected morally, not economically. It could be that they thought Trump was just wrong to shut down the government.

Complicating matters is that the commentariat, in assuming that a slowing or contracting economy is going to harm the president’s odds, underestimates the resilience of the social forces that put him in office, which is to say resentment and bigotry. Moreover, the commentariat underestimates the power of political masochism. Though Trump’s trade war hurts farmers, a huge majority of them still supports him. And even if most revolted, farmers are a minority in, say, Nebraska. Do serious people seriously think a Republican would lose Nebraska to a Democrat?

I’m reminded of Alex Ross’s history of 20th-century music. (Stay with me on this; there’s a good point, I promise.) In 2007’s The Rest Is Noise, he said classical music scholars have typically viewed history through the lens of “progress” by which the present is seen as an inevitable outcome of the past. These histories, Ross wrote, were “teleological tales,” or “goal-obsessed narratives,” that use the past to rationalize the present when in fact the present is a product of vastly more complex phenomenon. 

Applied to politics, I contend that we are valuing economics too much; economics do not require a separate rationale. We are valuing morality too little. Morality often requires a rationale beyond morality. If the president goes down, many will point to his failed stewardship of the economy. But equally plausible is that Americans just didn’t like this president enough to keep him, for whatever reason, and that some of them needed a rationale for voting him out. They did that by citing the economy.

—John Stoehr 

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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