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White People Feel Less Informed than They Were Five Years Ago

By contrast, African-Americans tend to feel more informed about politics, their neighborhood, and pop culture than before… and the gap is very wide.

People taking an old-school approach to getting informed, or at least checking the box scores, in Union Station.   Photo: Brandon Chew/Chicago Tribune

One of the big questions in this election, perhaps the big question, is what’s going on with white voters? Or more specifically, white male voters. Drilling even further down, white male voters without college degrees.

Donald Trump, to put it politely, is a basically unprecedented candidate in terms of experience and temperament. Likely as a result, he’s not merely doing very poorly among black, Hispanic, and Asian-American voters, but has weaknesses among white women and white men with college degrees. As Slate’s Jim Newell points out, he’s doing a bit better than Mitt Romney among white men without college degrees, but “Clinton leads among white college graduates, 49 percent to 35 percent. Democrats haven’t won white college graduates in decades—not even in their 1964 landslide!—and here Clinton is poised to take them comfortably … while losing noncollege whites by an absolutely disastrous 43 percentage points.”

A new study by the University of Chicago’s NORC may shed some indirect light on the situation. It’s about where Americans get information and how they feel about that. It’s been covered a bit. FiveThirtyEight noted that “people who oppose gay marriage are less likely to value expert opinion.” Mic discussed the same phenomenon and similar ones for climate change and medicine.

But in the very last section of NORC’s analysis there’s something very interesting about how well Americans feel informed overall. They asked people if they felt better informed about different subjects now than they did five years ago. And the differences between blacks and whites were striking. (The numbers below refer to percentage of respondents who say they feel better informed about each subject now compared to five years ago.)

That’s a really big difference. NORC doesn’t have crosstabs for education and race, but as you might expect, people with a bachelor’s degree or more were more likely to say they felt just as informed now as five years ago on almost every subject; the difference was greater than 10 percentage points for local news, national news, international news, civic life and government activities, and pop culture. So my suspicion is that non- or some-college whites feel especially less informed than five years ago.

There are a lot of ways to potentially read this, but it would seem to tie into other forms of cultural and economic dislocation. One of the best breakdowns of the polling numbers I’ve seen comes from Max Ehernfreund and Jeff Guo of the Washington Post, which gets deeply into the correlations with the support of Donald Trump:

According to this new analysis, those who view Trump favorably have not been disproportionately affected by foreign trade or immigration, compared with people with unfavorable views of the Republican presidential nominee. The results suggest that his supporters, on average, do not have lower incomes than other Americans, nor are they more likely to be unemployed.

Yet while Trump’s supporters might be comparatively well off themselves, they come from places where their neighbors endure other forms of hardship. In their communities, white residents are dying younger, and it is harder for young people who grow up poor to get ahead.

At the Wall Street Journal, here’s how Nick Timiraos described the same data:

Mr. Trump is the only candidate where lower rates of intergenerational mobility predict greater support, Mr. Rothwell writes. This finding backs the idea that Mr. Trump’s supporters, even if they are better off than others, may be taken by “extreme political views when their health status and the well-being of their children fail to meet their expectations.”

[snip]

The study doesn’t dismiss the thesis that economic anxiety is behind Mr. Trump’s rise, but it does show that his strongest support can’t be explained by narrow economic self-interest alone. It concludes that Mr. Trump’s supporters can be identified more easily by cultural angst, which raises other questions about what’s to blame for falling attitudes of social well-being in these communities.”

This doesn’t mean that non-college-educated whites, or whites more generally, are actually no more or less informed than they were five years ago, or that being less informed about politics would lead people to vote for Trump (or, by contrast, that being more informed would lead voters to pull the lever for one of his opponents). But it does seem plausible, at least, that feeling less informed is a form of disconnection that parallels health issues and economic uncertainty, one could be part of the difficult to parse but increasingly clear melting pot of anxieties fueling his success.

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