Part 5—By tribal law, survey says Only One Thing: Why do people answer survey questions the way they do?
More specifically, why did people answer that one survey question in that "deplorable" manner? We refer to the question shown below, a question from last year's General Social Survey:
Question from the General Social Survey:According to Hillary Clinton, responses to that survey question establish her claim that half of Donald J. Trump's supporters were "deplorable," perhaps "irredeemable."
"On the average African-Americans have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people. Do you think these differences are because most African-Americans just don't have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty?"
In her new book, What Happened, Clinton describes her claim as "well-documentated reality." According to Clinton, the documentation is found in these responss:
Responses by non-black Republicans:Were half of Donald J. Trump's supporters "deplorable," perhaps "irredeemable?" Mother Courage has said, in a published book, that yes, they actually were, she was right about that all along!
Yes: 53.1 percent
No: 43.1 percent
Don't know: 3.7 percent
Responses by Republicans overall:
Yes: 53.3 percent
No: 42.8 percent
Don't know: 3.9 percent
It's "well-documented reality," she has said, based on those responses. Over Here in our liberal tents, we have been made very glad.
In our view, there's a minor problem with that attempt at documentation. It stems from the large numbers of other respondents who answered that survey question in the exact same way.
Below, you see the way African-American respondents answered that question last year. After that, we offer a fuller set of percentages, showing how many members of various groups gave the deplorable answer:
Responses by African-Americans:We liberals can all feel good on one score! Among the specified groups, the highest percentage of Republicans gave the "deplorable" answer.
Yes: 46.3 percent
No: 51.3 percent
Don't know: 2.4 percent
Percentages giving the deplorable answer:
Republicans: 53.3 percent
Hispanics: 46.9 percent
Blacks: 46.3 percent
Whites: 39.8 percent
Democrats: 34.4 percent
That said, blacks and Hispanics weren't far behind Clinton's "deplorable" group—and more than a third of Democrats gave the wrong answer too!
These numbers may start to suggest a problem with Clinton's sweeping denunciation of the very bad people Over There. They leave us asking that question again:
Why do people answer survey questions the way they do?
Let's get specific—why did so any black respondents answer that survey question that way? To state the obvious, we can't give you an answer to that. But it leads us to this next question:
Why didn't Hillary Clinton mention these numbers in her book? We'll give you the two most obvious possible answers:
1) She never reviewed the full data set.In Answer 2, we encounter a capsule history of the trillion wars the human race has waged in the years since we crawled from the swamp. Answer 1 reflects the way our contemporary discourse tends to work.
2) She's happier when she calls The Others names.
Why did so many black respondents give the "wrong" answer to that survey question? Beyond the suggestions we've already trailed, we won't bother trying to answer.
We'll only say that "creative" questions of this type—"inkblot, Rorschach-style survey questions—may tend to generate much more heat than light. Over Here in our liberal tents, our more excitable tribal players have spent the past decade cherry-picking responses to survey questions in the way that was executed here:
We damn The Others for their responses. As we do, we lack the honesty to tell the world that our infallible, flawless selves strongy tended to answer the question the same darn way.
(We have especially tended to do this with survey questions on the so-called "social issues," where black and Hispanic respondents will often tend to give the same answers for which we damn Those Southern White Crackers as hopelessly backward and stupid. This can make it look like we aren't especially honest. More often, we're just too lazy, too dumb and too unskilled to have examined the full data sets. In fairness, these data sets are often withheld or disappeared by our fiery liberal "thought leaders.")
Why did so many people, in so many groups, answer that survey question that way? Why did so many blacks and Hispanics give the "deplorable" answer?
We don't know how to answer those questions. That said, we humans have a lot of images and ideas clanging around inside our heads. Having said that, we'll also say this:
Once you head down the road of telling us who is deplorable, you may have a very long hike trying to find your way back.
Ever since the dawn of time, members of tribal groups have been declaring The Others deplorable. In recent years, this has become a near-obsession Over Here, among our less than impressive, but self-impressed, liberal tribe.
We especially like to spot the racists! As has always been the norm, we tend to find them under every bed, just so long as we look Over There.
This need to denounce The Others is an age-old moral and intellectual sickness. We thought William Saletan may have had a minor case of this particular flu in this recent piece at Slate.
Saletan is perfectly smart. That said, his opening passage wasn't (headlines included):
SALETAN (8/29/17) What Trump Supporters Really Believe/Saletan started with an earnest question and answer. "How many of Trump’s supporters are racists?" he asked.
The president’s racist base, by the numbers
Since the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, President Trump has been curiously deferential to racists...
Why is Trump so solicitous of bigots? Conventional wisdom on the left says that it’s because he’s a bigot himself, and also because bigots are an important part of his base. But is that second part true? How many of Trump’s supporters are racists?
We may never know the full answer, since many people don’t disclose their prejudices in surveys. But some do. And among Trump fans, that number turns out to be significant. Overt racists aren’t a decisive share of the electorate, but they’re a substantial part of the president’s coalition. And this gives them far more power than they would otherwise enjoy.
"We may never know the full answer," he replied.
In our view, that was a saddening call-and-response. Of course we'll never know the full answer to that tribally thrilling question! Compare the question Saletan asks to a second possible question:
A tale of two possible questions:In theory, that second question could be easily answered. In theory, we could produce an answer to which we'd all agree.
How many of Trump’s supporters are racists?
How many of Trump’s supporters weigh more than 200 pounds?
Saletan's question is different! We all agree on how you determine that someone weighs 200 pounds. We don't agree on how you determine if someone is a racist. There's no established way to form such a judgment—and when Saletan sifted through data from five recent surveys, we'd have to say that he seemed to end up doing some picking and choosing.
Saletan offered a perfectly viable hypothesis. Despite the suggestions lodged in those headlines, he ended up saying that the large majority of Trump supporters can't be shown to be "overt racists." But he said there were enough such people in Trump's base to explain Trump's solicitous behavior toward their kind.
That's a perfectly plausible thesis. We'll only say that Saletan seemed to do some picking-and-choosing when he displayed the survey results which let us know how many "overt racists" can be found Over There.
We'll cite one example, then quit. Here's one passage from Saletan, in which we're shown how many members of Trump's base are in fact "overt racists:"
SALETAN: In the Morning Consult poll, 3 percent of conservatives, 5 percent of whites, and 6 percent of Republicans admit to a favorable impression of neo-Nazis. Among people who strongly approve of Trump’s performance, the number goes up to 12 percent. Remember: These are the people who are willing to tell a pollster that they sympathize with Nazis. The poll doesn’t show how many others are concealing such views.Among people who strongly approve of Trump's performance in office, 12 percent admitted to a favorable impression of neo-Nazis. Assuming that people understand the term "neo-Nazi," that does sound like a lot.
Please note, though: that's the number of neo-Nazi lovers among people who strongly approve of Trump's performance. Among the roughly equal number of people who somewhat approve of Trump's performance, the number of neo-Nazi lovers drops to five percent.
Overall, the number seems to be roughly 8.5 percent among people who approve to Trump's performance in office. And that still sounds like a lot!
That still sounds like a lot! That said, here are the numbers in that same survey for other groups of respondents:
Percentages who admitted to a favorable impression of neo-Nazis:We don't know why those people answered that question that way, but that's the way they answered. With that in mind, we can tell you that Saletan's data strike us as somewhat selective. Similar patterns obtain all through the five surveys from which he culled his data.
People who approve of Trump's performance: 8.5 percent
Liberals: 11 percent
Hispanics: 11 percent
Roman Catholics: 11 percent
Clinton voters: 8 percent
Trump voters 7 percent
Obama 2012 voters: 7 percent
Romney 2012 voters: 6 percent
Republicans: 6 percent
Democrats: 7 percent
Our sainted mother often presented us with a stifling bromide when we were growing up. "Ask a silly question, you get a silly answer," she'd Delphically proclaim.
Our academicians tend to clog their surveys with a wide array of questions. Their questions may or may not be silly. But the selective way we use their data to attack The Others may seem deplorable, and utterly brainless, at times.
Saletan offered a perfectly sensible thesis. At the same time, it seemed to us that he was possibly cherry-picking the data he offered in support of that thesis—and yes, the question with which he began was perhaps a bit silly.
As for Clinton, she's adamantly refusing to say that her offhand remark last fall was unwise and unhelpful, full stop.
We fiery liberals have often said that Donald J. Trump can't admit when he's wrong. In the case of that remark by Clinton, he may have found a partner for doubles on our failing society's increasingly crowded courts.