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Trump voters were motivated by economic worries, says ‘Freakonomics’ co-author Stephen Dubner

Racism and xenophobia are only the symptoms of that anxiety, he says.

Tribeca Talks: 'Freakonomics' At The 2010 Tribeca Film Festival Jason Kempin / Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

In the rush to explain how Donald Trump came from behind to win the presidency, two vaguely defined factions have emerged: One says Trump’s voters were motivated by anxiety about the economy; the other says they were driven by racism and fear of immigrants from Mexico and the Middle East.

On the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, journalist and “Freakonomics” co-author Stephen Dubner says he believes the former is closer to the truth.

“I don’t think there’s this massive, widespread zeal to pull back and to disassemble our population,” Dubner said. “What I do think, however, is that when people are feeling anxious about a number of things, they look for something that will make them feel good in the short term.”

People who act on xenophobia, fear and racism, Dubner explained, do so because they feel unhappy or that “they can’t get traction” in society. And behavioral economics, the field that brought Dubner together with his “Freakonomics” co-author Steven Levitt, offers a theory for understanding where those feelings come from.

“Even though we think of ourselves as absolute animals,” Dubner said. “If you ask me, ‘How many units of x would it take for you to be happy?’ — dollars, food, units of happiness, whatever — and I say the number, and you give it to me, I’ll be very happy … until I find out that my next-door neighbor has 2x. And then I’m miserable.”

“Really, we’re relative animals, and that’s a big problem,” he added.

Dubner also discussed a recent episode of his podcast “Freakonomics Radio,” in which he explored the idea that social trust is higher in homogeneous societies — that is, increasing diversity has made citizens of countries like the U.S. and the U.K. trust each other less.

“That said, nobody is making the argument, except for maybe some isolationists from every camp, who say, ‘I don’t want to be around anyone who isn’t just like me,’” he said. “There’s always been that, and there will always be that. And I don’t think it’s up to me or you to say people shouldn’t have those feelings. But all the smart money, and the right-thinking people, agree that diversity is not only a right, but it’s also a boon, a strength. Economically, that’s the case.”

You can listen to Recode Media in the audio player above, or subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with the movers and shakers in tech and media every Monday. You can subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask, hosted by Kara Swisher and The Verge's Lauren Goode, answers all of the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
  • And finally, Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, such as the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on iTunes — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Peter. Tune in next Thursday for another episode of Recode Media!

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