“Identity politics” perceived as favoritism may be the explanation for why Trump’s strategy of accusing the political elite and Hillary Clinton of corruption paid off so well among the white working class.
In a number of yearly polls, Gallup has reported that, since 2010, between 73 and 79 percent of Americans agree that “corruption is widespread throughout the government in this country.”1 These staggering figures are by no means unique, but there is considerable variation between countries, from Greece at 99 percent to 26 percent in Denmark. More than ten months before the election that made Donald Trump the President of the United States, the Chairman and CEO of Gallup, Jim Clifton, wrote:
The perception that there’s widespread corruption in the national government could be a symptom of citizen disengagement and anger. Or it could be a cause—we don’t know. But it’s very possible this is a big, dark cloud that hangs over this country’s progress. And it might be fueling the rise of an unlikely, non–traditional leading Republican candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump.2
With hindsight, it seems that in January 2016 Jim Clifton was already onto something important. It is well-documented that in his campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly accused the political elite in Washington, and especially his opponent Hillary Clinton, of various forms of very serious misuse of public office. Examples of his accusations at Hillary Clinton for corruption are: “She ran the State Department like her own personal hedge fund–doing favors for oppressive regimes, and many others, in exchange for cash. She gets rich making you poor.” And, “Hillary Clinton may be the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency of the United States…has perfected the politics of personal profit and theft.”
Surveys show that the reason for Trump’s unexpected victory was his ability to get massive support from what has historically been the strong-belt of the Democratic Party, namely low-educated white working class voters. However, as has recently been pointed out by, among others, Paul Krugman, this is a group who is likely to be the big losers from the policies that Donald Trump, in his campaign, has said he is going to launch.3 Many would say that race and immigration determined this election, but this can only be a part of the story because in many of the areas where Trump got most of the white working class votes there are few immigrants and they are also not areas with a significant multi-ethnic population.
Corruption has many forms, from what is called “petty” to “grand.” Why the latter has resonated with a large part of the voters in this election is not hard to explain. The amount of private money flowing into and dominating politics since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2010, combined with the explosion of lobbying, gives ample ammunition to those who want to argue that the system is “rigged.” However, given Donald Trump’s huge business interests, there is little to show that he would be a suitable candidate for clearing up this system. Moreover, in terms of public officials actually experiencing demands for bribes, this is not a huge problem in the United States since only 7 percent report to have experienced this.
Corruption is not an easy concept to define and the academic literature is, to say the least, not unified. Empirical research, however, gives a quite surprising answer to what “ordinary people” in general perceive as corruption. What people come to understand as corruption is much broader than bribes. Instead, it is various forms of favoritism in which money usually is not involved. This can be things like access to good schools, getting a building license, or a public contract where in many cases people feel that the decision has not been impartial and based on clear rules about merit. Instead, political, social, or ethnic personal connections determines who gets what (Charron, Lapuente and Rothstein 2013; Mungiu-Pippidi 2015; Rothstein and Varraich 2017).
My argument is that perceptions of corruption as favoritism may have delivered Donald Trump the presidency. First, one of the most surprising pieces of data that I have come across is that a majority of white people in the United States perceive that discrimination against whites is now a bigger problem than discrimination against blacks or people from Latin America. As I see it, this has nothing to do with reality, but when people decide whom to vote for, it is perceptions and not reality that counts. And as has been forcefully argued by Mark Lilla, much of the politics from the liberal left in the U.S., including from Hillary Clinton, has been focused on what is known as “identity politics” (Lilla 2016).
In practice, this has resulted in targeted policies to women and various minority groups such as affirmative action and quotas for jobs and education. Instead of focusing on universal programs that include all or very broad segments of the population, the Democrats and Clinton came to represent policies seen as favoritism to minority groups by the white male working class, which they perceive as a form of corruption. Targeted programs are also very vulnerable to suspicion about malpractice in the implementation processes because decisions about individual cases are often very complicated (who is actually eligible and how much preferential treatment is justified). Universal programs usually do not suffer from this problem.
“Identity politics” perceived as favoritism may thus be the explanation for why Trump’s “corruption strategy” paid off so well among the white working class. Mark Lilla has formulated this well: “In recent years, American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing… If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded.”
Charron, Nicholas, Victor Lapuente, and Bo Rothstein. 2013. Quality of Government and Corruption from a European Perspective: A Comparative Study of Good Government in EU regions. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Lilla, Mark. 2016. “The End of Identity Liberalism.” Pp. Sunday Review Nov 18, 2016 in New York Times. New York.
Mungiu-Pippidi, Alina. 2015. The Quest for Good Governance: How Societies Develop Control of Corruption. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Rothstein, Bo, and Ayshia Varraich. 2017. Making Sense of Corruption. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (forthcoming).
(Note: Bo Rothstein is a Professor of Government and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government and Fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford)