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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

People often blame immigration and trade for destroying American work, even though automation and technological change are far more likely to take away jobs in the coming years.

What's happening: In a first-of-its-kind experiment, an MIT political scientist tested whether informing people about potential job loss from automation would change their minds about immigration and trade.

  • In three studies, MIT's Baobao Zhang got the same result — people didn't shift their beliefs. Even when presented with evidence that automation was by far the more salient risk to jobs, people continued to hold anti-immigration, anti-trade views.
  • These findings suggest that support for populist Trumpian policies may not be as closely linked to economic anxiety as is often argued.

"Right-wing populism is not only an economic story," says Zhang. "Economic anxiety might not be the main driver for support for Donald Trump. For instance, it could be people feeling threatened by out-groups" like immigrants and foreign workers.

The big picture: This narrative has been around since President Trump won in 2016 on a wave of protectionist proposals — that largely white, middle- and low-income Americans living far from coastal wealth voted in their economic self-interest.

  • But a truly self-interested person, economists say, would focus on the automation, which could wipe out millions of jobs, rather than immigration or trade.
  • The MIT research, which has not yet been peer reviewed, found that learning about automation also didn't make people more likely to support retraining programs that experts say are essential to counterbalance the disruption.

Another root problem is that it's really, really hard to change people's minds, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Zhang previously studied reactions to information about climate change, an issue that remains polarizing despite scientific consensus.

"It may be that cultural factors play a substantial role in protectionist sentiments," says Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings. "Workers may worry about immigrants taking their jobs as automation kicks in but also be concerned about what that will mean for American identity and the future of the country," he tells Axios.

Go deeper

Twitter debuts subscription products to help double revenue by 2023

Photo: Cole Burston/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Twitter said Thursday that it plans to increase the amount of money it makes off of its users by allowing them to pay creators directly for content they like.

Why it matters: The company is trying to broaden its revenue stream away from being dependent mostly on ads, and particularly on ads from big brands.

DHS directing $77 million to combat domestic violent extremism in states, cities

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

For the first time, states and localities will spend at least $77 million of Department of Homeland Security grant money on combatting domestic violent extremism, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced on Thursday.

Why it matters: Domestic terrorism has been on the rise in the U.S., spurred on by growing polarization and the mainstreaming of online conspiracy theories. In the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, Mayorkas has made fighting the problem a "National Priority Area."

Senate confirms former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm as energy secretary

Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

The Senate voted 64-35 on Thursday to confirm former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm as secretary of the Department of Energy.

Why it matters: Granholm, only the second woman to head the department, will play a key role in President Biden’s efforts to accelerate the U.S. shift to clean energy and help other countries do the same.