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Educated Errors? On Perceptions of Trump's Ideology

More educated individuals generally know more than less educated individuals. If you test what they know about any random political issue, for instance, uneducated individuals are more likely to give an incorrect answer, or say "I don't know," relative to more educated individuals. At first this sounds obvious, but what if the correct answer to a question is that we don't know?

If you think that the purpose and main effect of education is to increase a person's store of true information, then an educated person should be more likely to say "I don't know" when asked what they think about an objectively unknown or uncertain matter.

But what if education does not increase one's store of objectively true information so much as it increases one's familiarity with respectable or high-status opinions? That is, education may primarily educate one about what educated people feel and believe. In this model, education is mostly about gaining familiarity with the ideas and gestures that are valued by the already educated classes, and having some dedicated time to practice mimicking them. Getting educated is not really about developing a fuller or more accurate model of the world, it's about learning to pass as a member of the education club, to get hired by employers who obtained their employment power through their own educated credentials.

If this is the case, then it's possible that more educated people would be less likely to admit "I don't know" in the face of really-existing uncertainty, and would be more likely to say whatever they think other educated people would be most likely to say.

It recently occurred to me that perceptions about Trump provide a nice opportunity for exploring this question empirically. For someone who is so ideologically polarizing, Trump is ideologically ambiguous. Yet, educated opinion seems to be that he is a major reactionary — even fascist perhaps. Either I'm incorrect in my sense of what educated opinion is, or this is perhaps a case where the educated tend to be in agreement — incorrectly.

What is Trump's Ideology?

First, we should establish what is objectively known about Trump's ideology (especially what was objectively known around November 2016, because the survey data we'll explore were gathered at that time). For the bulk of his adult life as a public figure, he was a moderate Democrat. As discussed in Bob Woodward's recent book Fear, this was taken very seriously in the early days of his campaign strategy discussions.

“You’ve got some problems on issues,” Bossie said.
“I don’t have any problems on issues,” Trump said. “What are you talking about?”
“First off, there’s never been a guy win a Republican primary that’s not pro-life,” Bossie said.
“And unfortunately, you’re very pro-choice.”
“What does that mean?”
“You have a record of giving to the abortion guys, the pro-choice candidates. You’ve made
statements. You’ve got to be pro-life, against abortion.”
“I’m against abortion,” Trump said. “I’m pro-life.”
“Well, you’ve got a track record.”
“That can be fixed,” Trump said. “You just tell me how to fix that. I’m—what do you call it? Pro-life. I’m pro-life, I’m telling you.”

It was also mentioned in this conversation that Trump only ever voted in one primary, suggesting that his ideological preferences are probably just not strongly formed. Here's another choice selection from the Woodward book, revealing Trump's profound ideological ambiguity going into his campaign:

An hour into the meeting, Bossie said, “We have another big issue.”
“What’s that?” Trump asked, seeming a little more wary.
“Well,” he said, “80 percent of the donations that you’ve given have been to Democrats.” To Bossie that was Trump’s biggest political liability, though he didn’t say so.
“That’s bullshit!”
“There’s public records,” Bossie said.

Even when you look at the positions that define his Presidential agenda, he's ideologically ambiguous. As Nate Silver has put it, “extremely conservative stances on issues such as immigration with surprisingly moderate (or even leftist) ones on other issues such as trade — with a lot of improvisation (and inconsistency) along the way.”

In a November 2016 article entitled, "We’ve Never Known Less About An Incoming President’s Ideology," Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight presents the table below. Donald Trump is the second-least conservative Republican President in the last 40 years (only GHW Bush was more moderate than Trump).

FiveThirtyEight

I went and wrangled the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study dataset, which has been one of the most common sources of data for many of the buzzy analyses you might have read about in the past year or so. As the figure below shows, the most common perception of Trump's ideology is "I dunno." That's pretty interesting. The second most common is "Very conservative."

So given that "we’ve never known less about an incoming president’s ideology," and that one could make a decent data-driven case that he is a moderate Democrat or a moderate conservative, it seems to me that "Not sure," was arguably the most objectively correct answer. "Somewhat conservative" and "Middle of the Road" also seem like arguably correct answers. But the fashionable perception of Trump as "very conservative" is, as far as I can see, basically incorrect. If this was a quiz and I had to grade it, I would be inclined to mark the answer "conservative" as wrong, too, given Trump's significantly left-leaning policy positions and his history as a pro-choice Democratic Party supporter.

When you look at perceptions of Trump's ideology by education level, as shown in the figure below, you can see that education is negatively correlated with uncertainty ("Not sure," the pink bar all the way to the left). This would be unremarkable for most survey questions, but given Trump's unique ideological ambiguity in November 2016, this pattern may reflect how education has more to do with demonstrating knowledge of respectable beliefs than with analytical or empirical sophistication. 

In the above graph, it's difficult to eyeball the other proportions. So let's zoom-in on the arguably most correct, uncertain answer and what I take to be the respectable/fashionable but incorrect answer (that Trump is either plainly "conservative" or "very conservative.") In the figure below, it's easier to see that education is not only associated with a clear decrease in reasonable uncertainty but a modest increase in the fashionable view that Trump is clearly conservative. Post-grads are not much different than those who have minimal contact with college life, but finishing high school and having some college experience are both associated with clear bumps toward the view that Trump is clearly conservative.

Educated overconfidence Trump's ideology

Overall, these data are not very strong evidence of anything, but they do give a little indication that I may be onto something with my hypothesis — that education may, in some cases, be associated with less correct beliefs. A larger hypothesis might be that, in any context of increasing uncertainty, there will be more and more margins at which the less educated are accidentally more sophisticated than the educated.

3 comments on “Educated Errors? On Perceptions of Trump's Ideology”

  1. What he's being judged on are superficial indicators of fascist-like qualities - bombast and an overt "conflict theory" way of approaching politics (which in the absence of something clearly leftist is just taken as its opposite; those interpreting Trump, i.e. the press, are themselves deeply ideological, which means they paint everyone else as acting ideologically on purpose or as useful idiots) - completely divorced from actually explicated fascist philosophy. "Everything within the state, nothing without" isn't what you'll get from Trump. So that's what I think is going on here. Also you're arguably leaning on surveys and impressions that leave out the last two years of his governing. He did recently float the idea of a big annual military parade ala China IIRC.

  2. Trump has no coherent ideology and he lies constantly. But Trump's policies, his advisors, his cabinet, his judicial nominees are all conservative. The poll question is broad. People answer broad poll questions to signal "who they are", not just "what they believe". If I was answering the poll question, I would have been thinking about what people and policies Trump would promote if elected, I would have guessed that they would be conservative, and I would have been correct.

    Also, I work in a social science research firm and we are literally trained to not offer "I don't know" as an option and to push people to choose another option. Did you look at the survey instrument for this poll and confirm that "not sure" is presented as an equally valid response option?

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