Tag Archives: racial resentment

Identity Partisanship

A recent Vox “explainer” by Ezra Klein rebuts some post-2016-election punditry–while confirming emerging political science research on partisan identity.

Klein’s article began with an important point that is often overlooked: the term “identity politics” is too often used to diminish the importance or legitimacy of political demands made by historically marginalized groups. It is a handy way to dismiss demands by African-American voters for action on police brutality, for example.

Corporate CEOs asking for tax cuts or suburban voters demanding action on health care costs, well, that’s just normal politics.

This narrowed definition obscures the true might of identity politics. Virtually all politics is identity politics, and the most powerful political identities are the biggest political identities — Democrat and Republican, which are increasingly merging with our racial, geographic, religious, and cultural groups to create what the political scientist Lilliana Mason calls “mega-identities.”

These mega-identities influence the way we interact with reality. Who we are influences not just our policy preferences, but what we believe is true. The column quotes from a recent, important book titled “Identity Crisis.”

  • During Barack Obama’s presidency, polling showed Republicans making more than $100,000 a year were more dissatisfied with the state of the economy than Democrats making less than $20,000 a year. Economic anxiety was “in large part a partisan phenomenon.”
  • It was also a racial phenomenon. Prior to Obama, measures of racial resentment didn’t predict views on the economy. After Obama, they did. It’s worth stating that clearly: The more racially resentful you were, the worse you thought the economy was doing, even controlling for your party, circumstance, and so on. This flipped as soon as Donald Trump was elected: The more racial resentful you were, the more economically optimistic you became.
  • Among Republican primary voters, Trump did not do better with Republicans who worried that “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” or that the system “unfairly favors powerful interests.” Nor did he routinely lead the field among Republicans who felt betrayed by their party. There’s little evidence, in other words, that Trump voters were registering outrage with the political system as a whole.
  • Trump destroyed the rest of the Republican field among primary voters who were angry about immigration. He did 40 points better among Republican voters with the most negative views of immigration than among those with the most positive views. Trump’s success, in other words, was that he ran an issue-based candidacy on an issue where he was closer to the Republican base than the other candidates were.
  • The same was true with attitudes toward Muslims: “Trump performed significantly better with Republican voters who rated Muslims relatively unfavorably in 2011 than he did with Republican voters who rated Muslims relatively favorably.” By contrast, views of Muslims did not affect support for Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.
  •  And so it went for race too. Republican voters who attributed racial inequality to a lack of effort among African Americans rather than past and present discrimination were 50 points likelier to support Trump. Similarly, Republicans who told pollsters they felt coldly toward African Americans in 2011 were 20 points likelier to support Trump than Republicans who said they felt warmly toward African Americans.

There was much more along the same lines. It adds to the steady accumulation of evidence that has emerged in the wake of the 2016 election, that Obama’s Presidency moved less-educated, more racially-resentful Americans to the GOP, and widened the attitudinal and cultural gap between the parties.

In Pew Research Center surveys from 2007, whites were just as likely to call themselves Democrats as Republicans (roughly 44%-44%). But whites quickly fled the Democratic Party during Obama’s presidency. By 2010, whites were 12 points more likely to be Republicans than Democrats (51%-39%). By 2016, that gap had widened to 15 points (54%-39%).

This, um, white flight was concentrated at the bottom of the education ladder. “Whites who did not attend college were evenly split between the two parties in Pew surveys conducted from 1992 to 2008,” write the authors. “But by 2015, white voters who had a high school degree or less were 24 percentage points more Republican than Democratic.”

The conclusions of the study were unambiguous, and debunked both the theory that economic anxiety drove Trump’s voters, and the theory that a weak economic recovery catalyzed the racial resentment that drove Trump’s voters.

The correct synthesis is the reverse: Racial resentment driven by Obama’s presidency catalyzed economic anxiety among Trump’s voters.

As other studies have documented, racial resentment has been stoked–“activated”– by growing White Christian realization that America’s demographics are changing. As Klein says,

 Politics is increasingly revolving around fights that activate the Democratic-diverse America identity and the Republican-white America identity.

We shouldn’t expect Trump to be the terminal point of this kind of political appeal, which means we need books like Identity Crisis that help us understand it.

Truth And Consequences

What do you do when research consistently comes up with a result that is explanatory but politically incendiary–data that enrages the very people who need to be calmed down?

Anyone who followed the trajectory of the Trump campaign recognized the degree to which racial animus suffused it. That animus wasn’t a surprise; it had been stoked by the behavior of Republicans during Obama’s Presidency–the intransigence of the Congressional GOP, and the eruption of “birthers” and conspiracy theorists and garden-variety racists among the base.

As my youngest son says, there were only two kinds of voters who cast ballots for Trump:  unapologetic racists and voters for whom Trump’s bigotry wasn’t considered disqualifying.

The degree to which racial resentment influenced Trump voters has been confirmed in study after study.  Vox recently reported on a survey of the minority of millennials who voted for Trump.

Even when controlling for partisanship, ideology, region and a host of other factors, white millennials fit Michael Tesler’s analysis, explored here. As he put it, economic anxiety isn’t driving racial resentment; rather, racial resentment is driving economic anxiety. We found, as he has in a larger population, that racial resentment is the biggest predictor of white vulnerability among white millennials. Economic variables like education, income and employment made a negligible difference.

To anyone who’s been following the research on this, the findings should come as little surprise. There have now been numerous studies that found support for Trump is closely linked to racial resentment, defined by Fowler, Medenica, and Cohen as “a moral feeling that blacks violate such traditional American values as individualism and self-reliance.”

The article reviewed a number of previous studies that have come to a similar conclusion. (I’m aware of several others) The author argued that it is important to understand the increased role racism plays in today’s politics in order to counter it–that those of us who are less threatened by the waning of white privilege should have “empathetic discussions” with Trump supporters in order to reduce their levels of fear and resentment.

Somehow, I doubt that a frank-but-“empathetic” discussion that begins with one person saying “I know your vote was racially motivated” is going to end well.

That is the dilemma. It really didn’t take a multitude of studies to see where Trump’s appeal lay. All it took was a look at his rhetoric and the composition of his rally crowds. The question is: what do we do about it?

Racial bias has always been there (Southern Strategy anyone?), but the studies indicate that it has spiked–leading to the election of a man who constantly feeds it.

The election of a black President was a shock to many people who held negative racial attitudes but had felt it prudent to suppress their expression. The prospect of a majority-minority country by 2040 or so, the sudden ubiquity of “uppity” women, same-sex marriage…all these things destroyed their complacent belief that straight white Christian men would always be in charge.

All the empathy in the world isn’t going to make African-Americans “know their place,” return women to the kitchen and nursery, and put gays back in the closet. The pace of social and technological change isn’t suddenly going to abate. The progress that terrifies Trump voters may slow, but it is unlikely to reverse.

An older lawyer with whom I practiced many years ago used to say that there is only one legal question: what do we do?

“What do we do?” is the question Americans of good will face now, and I doubt that “empathy” –no matter how appropriate–is the answer.

The good news is that there are many more Americans who don’t vote their fears and resentments than there are those who do. While we wait for the hate and fear to subside–and they eventually will– we need to redouble our efforts to get those voters to the polls.

Telling It Like It Is

Today, unfathomable as it is, Donald Trump will become President of the United States. How could this happen?

Granted, Trump lost the popular vote overwhelmingly, but despite being manifestly unfit for the office, he mustered enough support from millions of Americans to win the Electoral College. The Chattering Classes have offered a number of explanations, almost all of them centering on Democratic failures: the “liberal elites” were unable to “connect” with middle America; Clinton paid too little attention to Michigan, or to the economic distress of rural voters; Democrats didn’t show enough respect for the values of small-town America. Etc.

Trump’s voters often said that what attracted them was that “he tells it like it is.” At risk of being very politically incorrect, let me tell you what I think they heard. Let me tell it like I think it is.

Post-election analyses showed that most Trump voters were not poor. As Myriam  Renaud recently reminded us, however, there’s a difference between “psychic” and fiscal poverty, and she shared a trenchant Eric Hoffer observation.

[Hoffer] found that the intensity of the discontent found among the new poor is not necessarily tied to economic hardship. Indeed, individuals born into misery do not usually revolt against the status quo—their lot is bearable because it is familiar and predictable. Discontent, the emotion Trump tapped into so adeptly, is more likely to afflict people who have experienced prosperity. When their comfortable life is diminished in some way, the result is intolerable. According to Hoffer, it is usually “those whose poverty is relatively recent, the ‘new poor,’ who throb with the ferment of frustration. The memory of better things is as fire in their veins.”

Economic uncertainty, not deprivation, and the loss of white male privilege explain a lot more than fiscal distress. Trump won because he gave people who were experiencing a perceived loss of status or privilege someone to blame for that loss.

It is impossible to argue that a vote for Trump was a vote for his “policy agenda.” He didn’t have one, unless, of course, you think that building a wall to keep Mexicans out, ejecting Muslims (or in the alternative, creating a registry), demeaning women, threatening (brown) immigrants, cozying up to the KKK and the neo-Nazis, and insisting that our first black President was illegitimate are “policies.”

In the wake of the election, Trump has backed off other campaign promises, but his overt racism and misogyny have continued. As an article in the American Prospect put it,

President-elect Donald Trump wasted no time in establishing a hideous double standard of racist privilege in the White House. His appointment of Stephen Bannon as chief strategist and his picks of Jeff Sessions for attorney general and retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as national security adviser have been praised without qualification by Klansmen, neo-Nazis, the alt-right, and other white supremacist groups.

While “nice” liberals offer economic explanations of the election and counsel “kinder, gentler” attitudes toward Trump voters (who were predominantly, albeit certainly not exclusively, less-educated white rural males), scholars who have analyzed the data have reached different conclusions. There is an emerging consensus among those political scientists that although economic dissatisfaction was part of the story, racism and sexism were much more important.

As an article in the Washington Post explained,

Donald Trump repeatedly went where prior Republican presidential candidates were unwilling to go: making explicit appeals to racial resentment, religious intolerance, and white identity. ..racial attitudes were stronger predictors of whites’ preferences for Trump or Clinton than they were in hypothetical matchups between Clinton and Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio..

Other research confirms, as FiveThirtyEight reported, that prejudice was one of the “distinguishing attitudes” of Trump voters in the 2016 primaries.

The Economist tested Clinton’s “deplorables” percentage:

At first glance, Mrs Clinton’s 50% estimate looks impressively accurate: 58% of respondents who said they backed Mr Trump resided in the poll’s highest quartile for combined racial-resentment scores. And at a lower threshold of offensiveness—merely distasteful rather than outright deplorable, say—91% of Mr Trump’s voters scored above the national average.

What about the argument that Trump voters “overlooked” Trump’s narcissism, sexism and racism because they thought he would be more effective at job creation? Salon reported on the results of an American National Election (NES) study probing that possibility.

Eighty-four percent of whites who believe it is “extremely likely” that whites can’t find a job because employers are hiring people of color instead support Trump, compared with 23 percent of those who think it is “not at all” likely. Among white Democrats, 58 percent who believe people of color are taking jobs support Trump over Clinton, compared with less than 1 percent of those who believe it is not at all likely. Eighty-one percent of white women who think it is “extremely likely” people of color are taking jobs supported Trump, compared with 26 percent who don’t think that.

I have colleagues who privately admit that the evidence points to the importance of racial resentment and the appeal of White Nationalism in motivating Trump voters, but who shrink from making that claim publicly.

The problem is, if we refuse to face facts–if we refuse to acknowledge the deep wells of tribalism, racism and sexism that persist despite America’s constitutional and legal commitments to equality–we will never eradicate it. We will never have honest conversations about the fears and resentments to which people like Trump so skillfully appeaI. (That actually may be the only real skill Trump has.)

When Trump promised to “make America great again,” his voters heard “I’ll make America White again.”

I understand that it isn’t pretty. I understand that confronting it is uncomfortable. But ignoring the elephant in the room is no longer an option.

There are numerous “resistance” movements springing up in the wake of the election. They are all important, some critically so. But nothing is more important than resisting Trump’s efforts to take politics back to an “us versus them” power struggle, where “us” means white Protestant straight males and “them” is everyone else.

It Seems We Aren’t So “Exceptional” After All

The election is over, but the racial and cultural resentments that led to the election of  Donald Trump are not over, and the incalculable damage he will do to America and the world is just beginning. Unfortunately, when the largely rural and less-educated population that voted for him realizes that he cannot deliver on his fanciful and frequently unconstitutional promises, they are likely to blame it on all the “others” they already resent–immigrants, Jews, Muslims, African-Americans. Uppity women.

Several people have compared this election to England’s Brexit, and there are obvious parallels (including, I’ll predict, significant levels of “buyer’s remorse.”)Nativism and white nationalism, not economics, motivated both votes.

A recent essay by Zach Beauchamp in Vox makes a pretty convincing case that–much as we like to believe America is somehow different from other Western democracies, as much as we pride ourselves on our “exceptionalism”–what we are seeing here is not that different from the nativist movements currently challenging European democracies.

It’s tempting to think of Trump as something uniquely American, but the truth is that his rise is being repeated throughout the Western world, where far-right populists are rising in the polls.

In Hungary, the increasingly authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, has started building a wall to keep out immigrants and holding migrants in detention camps where guards have been filmed flinging food at them as if they were zoo animals. In Italy, the anti-immigrant Northern League, led by a politician who has attacked the pope for calling for dialogue with Muslims, is polling at more than three times its 2013 level, making it the country’s third most popular party. And in Finland, the Finns Party — which wants to dramatically slash immigration numbers and keep out many non-Europeans — is part of the government. Its leader, Timo Soini, is the country’s foreign minister.

These politicians share Trump’s populist contempt for the traditional political elite. They share his authoritarian views on crime and justice. But most importantly, they share his xenophobia: They despise immigrants, vowing to close the borders to refugees and economic migrants alike, and are open in their belief that Muslims are inherently dangerous.

Beauchamp dismisses the notion that this wave of anti-immigrant activism is rooted in economics or even rejection of globalization. In his analysis, what is driving this is something far more primal: fear of difference and social change.

A vast universe of academic research suggests the real sources of the far-right’s appeal are anger over immigration and a toxic mix of racial and religious intolerance.

Beauchamp cites research done by Roger Peterson, who wanted to understand why social change led to attacks on minorities in some situations, but not others. Peterson argued that in order to understand what triggers ethnic violence, we need to understand and appreciate the role of resentment, which he defined as “the feeling of injustice on the part of a privileged portion of society when it sees power slipping into the hands of a group that hadn’t previously held it.”

Peterson concluded that a major cause of ethnic violence was change in the legal and political status of majority and minority ethnic groups, change that is met with a sense of injustice, because members of dominant groups believe they deserve to be dominant, and deeply resent it when members of other groups advance their status or pose a challenge to their pre-eminent positions.

During the 2016 campaign, that resentment–against minorities, against immigrants, and especially against women–was repeatedly found to be a more reliable predictor of support for Donald Trump than any other personal or economic characteristic.

It is that fury over social change that offers the best explanation we have for why the forces of intolerance are currently on the rise in the West. If we want to understand the world we live in today — and the one we’ll be inhabiting for years to come — we need to understand how immigration and intolerance are transforming the way white Christians vote. We need to understand that the battle between racist nationalism and liberal cosmopolitanism will be one of the defining ideological struggles of the 21st century. And we need to understand that Donald Trump is not an accident. He’s a harbinger.

People of good will have our work cut out for us.

What Do We Do?

Early in my lawyering career, the partner I was assigned to said something I still remember: “There is only one legal question, and that’s ‘what do we do.'”

That is also the basic question at issue in all policy debates. We citizens can only hope that what policymakers will decide to do will be informed by fact, rather than by emotion, partisanship, disinformation from those with a stake in the outcome, or fixed ideologies that make reasoned decision-making impossible. In less hot-button matters,at least, that goal still seems achievable.

But what do we do when we are faced with distasteful realities about the electorate–realities that determine the behaviors of elected officials chosen by those voters? Dylan Matthews at Vox recently addressed one such unpleasant reality.

Noting the efforts of essayists and pundits to “take the concerns of Trump voters seriously,” he pointed out that, in fact, these would-be sympathetic observers are actually tiptoeing around the real concerns of Trump supporters, which are not rooted in economics:

There is absolutely no evidence that Trump’s supporters, either in the primary or the general election, are disproportionately poor or working class. Exit polling from the primaries found that Trump voters made about as much as Ted Cruz voters, and significantly more than supporters of either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Trump voters, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver found, had a median household income of $72,000, a fair bit higher than the $62,000 median household income for non-Hispanic whites in America.

It is very hard to disagree with what Dylan pinpoints as the actual motivation of a troubling number of Trump supporters:

So what is driving Trump supporters? In the general election, the story is pretty simple: What’s driving support for Trump is that he is the Republican nominee, a little fewer than half of voters always vote for Republicans, and Trump is getting most of those voters.

In the primary, though, the story was, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp has explained at length, almost entirely about racial resentment. There’s a wide array of data to back this up.

UCLA’s Michael Tesler has found that support for Trump in the primaries strongly correlated with respondents’ racial resentment, as measured by survey data. Similarly, Republican voters with the lowest opinions of Muslims were the most likely to vote for Trump, and voters who strongly support mass deportation of undocumented immigrants were likelier to support him in the primaries too.

In April, when the Pew Research Center asked Republicans for their views on Trump, and their opinions on the US becoming majority nonwhite by 2050, they found that Republicans who thought a majority nonwhite population would be “bad for the country” had overwhelmingly favorable views of Trump. Those who thought it was a positive or neutral development were evenly split on Trump.

Matthews notes–with examples–why policies providing more substantial economic security (which he supports) are unlikely to ameliorate racial animus, and then he addresses the “what should we do?” question:

One thing this analysis decidedly does not imply is “Hey, Trump supporters are just racists, let’s give up on them.” Trump’s nomination is a threat to America that must be addressed and never allowed to happen again. Giving up is not an option. We have to figure out some way to respond….

Any solution has to begin with a correct diagnosis of the problem. If Trump’s supporters are not, in fact, motivated by economic marginalization, then even full Bernie Sanders–style social democracy is not going to prevent a Trump recurrence. Nor are GOP-style tax cuts, and liberal pundits aggressively signaling virtue to each other by writing ad nauseam about the need to empathize with the Trump Voter aren’t doing anyone any good.

What’s needed is an honest reckoning with what it means that a large segment of the US population, large enough to capture one of the two major political parties, is motivated primarily by white nationalism and an anxiety over the fast-changing demographics of the country. Maybe the GOP will find a way to control and contain this part of its base. Maybe the racist faction of the party will dissipate over time, especially as Obama’s presidency recedes into memory. Maybe it took Trump’s celebrity to mobilize them at all, and future attempts will fail.

But Donald Trump’s supporters’ concerns are heavily about race. Taking them seriously means, first and foremost, acknowledging that, and dealing with it honestly.

Agreed. But how?