In 2017, Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, published The End of White Christian America. He presented copious evidence that demographic change was eroding the hegemony of the White Protestant males who had exercised social–and often, legal– dominance since the founding of the United States. He also provided evidence that awareness of their impending loss of status explained most of their political hysteria.
More and more, politics determine which groups are favored and which are denigrated.
Roughly speaking, Trump and the Republican Party have fought to enhance the status of white Christians and white people without college degrees: the white working and middle class. Biden and the Democrats have fought to elevate the standing of previously marginalized groups: women, minorities, the L.G.B.T.Q. community and others.
The ferocity of this politicized status competition can be seen in the anger of white non-college voters over their disparagement by liberal elites, the attempt to flip traditional hierarchies and the emergence of identity politics on both sides of the chasm.
Researchers have begun studying what we have come to recognize as one of the most powerful motivations of human behavior. That research tells us that perceptions of diminished status is a source of rage on both the left and right. Add American divisions over economic insecurity, geography and values, and that rage only deepens.
Status is different from resources and power, although possession of those assets certainly contributes to it. It is based on cultural beliefs rather than material wealth or position.
Edsall quoted a Stanford professor who studies the subject.
Status has always been part of American politics, but right now a variety of social changes have threatened the status of working class and rural whites who used to feel they had a secure, middle status position in American society — not the glitzy top, but respectable, ‘Main Street’ core of America. The reduction of working-class wages and job security, growing demographic diversity, and increasing urbanization of the population have greatly undercut that sense and fueled political reaction.
People convinced that their status is low tend to gravitate to “anti-establishment” and radical candidates on both the Left and Right. Those fearing loss of status are different. One Harvard researcher explains that people drawn to right-wing populist positions and politicians, such as Trump, usually “sit several rungs up the socioeconomic ladder in terms of their income or occupation.”
My conjecture is that it is people in this kind of social position who are most susceptible to what Barbara Ehrenreich called a “fear of falling” — namely, anxiety, in the face of an economic or cultural shock, that they might fall further down the social ladder,” a phenomenon often described as “last place aversion.
Apparently, the more socially marginalized people are, the more likely they are to feel alienated from the country’s political system — and the more likely they are to support radical parties.
Radical politicians on the left evoke the virtues of working people, whereas those on the right emphasize themes of national greatness, which have special appeal for people who rely on claims to national membership for a social status they otherwise lack. The “take back control” and “make America great again” slogans of the Brexit and Trump campaigns were perfectly pitched for such purposes.
Other researchers emphasize that populism and fear of losing status are not the same thing. Populist movements stress group cohesion and equality; dominance, they point out, leads to self-promotion and support for steep hierarchies. That said, the research confirms that it is almost exclusively right-wing political actors who actively campaign on the status issue.
The research confirms that it is fear of losing status, not actual status, that is the key political motivator.
I was particularly struck by this observation from a researcher at Duke:
Those who cannot adopt or compete in the dominant status order — closely associated with the acquisition of knowledge and the mastery of complex cultural performances — make opposition to this order a badge of pride and recognition.
Dismissing journalists as “enemies of the people,” denying the reality of climate change, and refusing to wear masks and engage in social distancing are all part and parcel of this opposition to “elitists.”
Edsall’s column has much more detail on the research. It explains a lot of America’s current polarization. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us what we can or should do about it.