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Should Trump Voters be Left Behind?

A study published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds new light on the reasons for Trump’s victory in the presidential election of 2016. The major takeaways from the study are 1) personal economic hardship did not predict increased support for Donald Trump 2) feelings of threats to dominance, either related to personal identity on race and religion, or to national dominance in the world, particularly  in trade, predicted support for Donald Trump. These results were interpreted by the study’s author, Diana C. Mutz, from the University of Pennsylvania, as rejecting an explanation for Trump support as being that less educated, blue-collar, white workers felt “left behind” economically because of job loss or wage stagnation and saw Trump as offering an antidote to this. Instead, voters in general, and particularly less educated, white males, felt increasingly threatened by the fact of a declining white majority in the U.S. and declining American economic power, particularly with regard to China and partly attributable to free trade agreements. These voters saw Donald Trump as being closer to their views on these issues than was Hillary Clinton. Interestingly, immigration was not a salient issue for most voters, who were generally favorable toward immigration and Trump’s position was markedly different from theirs and may not have gained him significant support, despite the “build a wall” rhetoric of his most ardent fans.

This study stands out because it was carried out with a sample of just over 1200 people representing a cross-section of Americans, asked questions either online or by telephone in 2012 and 2016, so that the question of whether voters’ attitudes changed over time or whether candidates of the two major political parties changed positions relative to voter preferences could be answered, as well as whether the salience of certain issues changed from one election to another.

The findings show that the fear of losing dominance either with regard to one’s personal identifications on race, and religion, or with regard to the position of America in the world (which is intimately related to attitudes toward the threat of China and the negative value of free trade agreements), characterizes many less educated, white Americans, who saw Donald Trump as closer to them on these issues than was Hillary Clinton. What does this mean with regard to Democratic Party strategizing for 2018 and 2020?

Economic prosperity, particularly for those who are not enjoying as much of it as the rest of the country, is not likely to be a wedge issue upon which the two parties can distinguish themselves from one another in a way that secures extra votes. Free Trade and agreements such as NAFTA and TPP are salient to voters, but given neither party’s interest in the TPP and Trump’s failure to withdraw or make material changes in NAFTA, despite his promises to do so, as well as the unanimous bad press given to his attempts to engage America in trade wars by raising tariffs, it is not clear that the rhetoric that worked in 2016 will still be viable in 2018 or 2020. However, it seems likely that a block of voters, who feel threatened by losing American dominance, will still be receptive to messages that promise to strengthen the United States’ position as a world economic power, however these are phrased. If free trade and global cooperation are to be a position of the Democrats, then they will have to do some re-education to the American voter to convince him that these are not mechanisms by which America loses dominance (the fact that China may be surpassing America as the dominant economic power in the future needs to be taken into account, as any viewpoint that takes a zero-sum, winners vs. losers position on world economics—as Trump has—will raise feelings of threat for many voters, who will vote for candidates who promise to reverse this outcome).

As we have seen with widespread support for DACA, immigration, including proposals for a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, is not the hot button issue that many conservative pundits and the president think it to be. On the other hand, a focus on identity issues, which appears to portray people of color and religious minorities as maligned, and which attacks white privilege and Christian hegemony, is just the kind of rhetoric likely to raise the fears of white, Christian voters that they are being displaced. 

Educating the citizenry about the actual racial biases and discrimination that exist in our country and the continuing prejudices against Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians that remain part of our culture is a necessary obligation of all of those who want to live in a more inclusive, fair society. Democrats, liberals and progressives must be aware that many of their efforts to educate are seen as elitist, “identity politics” that alienate those voters who were responsible for putting Trump in office in the last election. This presents a dilemma for those who want to capture that group of Trump supporters in order to win the next election. Denial of ongoing inequalities and discrimination may bring in some voters, but in the long run will hamper efforts that need to be made to remedy these factors. White, Christian privilege is not necessary for white Christians to live happy lives in America. So long as privilege rests upon discrimination against others and advantage for one’s group, it has to remain a target for removal from our society. The task of Democrats, liberals and progressives will be to address this issue in a way that doesn’t alienate those they want to convince. For those who cannot be convinced, they are probably better left behind.

Reader Comments (5)

It would be interesting to see if this study controlled for the age of white males. Just from casual observation, It appears to me that Millennials and First Globals are less inclined toward fear of losing dominance than the generations before them. Afterall, they have the term "global" right there in their group's name! :)

April 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBillie Kelpin

I read the Mutz "study." It's a typically schlocky, leftist fantasy built on an inherent (although certainly not unavoidable) bias. The premise that Mutz can simply label a broad contingent of people operating as a uniformly privileged subset of society all of whom seem to somehow be experiencing a homogeneous "status threat felt by the dwindling proportion of traditionally high-status Americans (i.e., whites, Christians, and men)" is both laughable and absurd.

Nothing would please me more than to have progressives continue to proclaim that the "formally educated" need to teach their "practically educated" brethren that these blue collar, non-academic (yet somehow still privileged) people are all harboring unconscious racial bias. This is why President Trump will win again in 2020. The progressive left constantly attempts to talk down to and hector the right into admitting that conservatives are just simpletons who really don't understand what's best for them. Furthermore, the radical liberals don't seem to understand that they are in fact the ones getting left behind. Why would someone from California claim to know what is best for someone in the Midwest, and then reject them as inconsequential if they cannot be won over? It's both preposterous and arrogant. It's also a shame. The left actually has some decent ideas, which, if properly implemented, could in fact result in actual "progress." But denouncing ones fellow citizens and voters as either "deplorables" or "racists" is really just a shut down tactic. Said slightly more kindly, one might even suggest that there are some Americans of so little value that they are in fact worthy of nothing more than being "better left behind." What a sad, desperate and disunited thought.

April 24, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

Yes, leave them behind. They're dying out, and this is why their mentally ill children armed with assault rifles are trying to kill us and our children. There are no conservatives in the U.S. anymore. The right is a group of "true believers," who faced with treason, destruction of democracy, of clean air, water, and healthy earth, of fiscal responsibility, of any value that makes a responsible and decent human being, choose to goose-step to the call of the most vicious, incompetent, willingly uninformed, and stupid unelected president this country has ever suffered.

April 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

Anca, you're the one who seems to be defending your "religion" using absolutist identifiers, moral invective and ad hominem attacks without offering any evidence whatsoever. It seems like stereotypical religious fervor. And as for conservatives dying out, you appear to be missing the most important movement going on right now. As academia, the media and Hollywood have attempted to force feed a progressive orthodoxy into the country's gullet, the post-millennials have been rejecting this blatant conditioning in great numbers, many of whom will come of age prior to the next presidential election. It's actually the holier-than-thou ultra-progressives who are quickly dying out. In 2024, Ben Shapiro will have a better chance at becoming president than Kamala Harris. And for the record, as a conservative, I believe in the rule of law and that any person, no matter who they are, that has violated the law should be held accountable in front of an impartial jury of their peers. I don't defend or overlook criminal actions, nor do I condone immoral actions. But allegations and speculation, rumor and innuendo, hold no interest or merit with me.

April 25, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

I'm with you, Anca! Count me in. I'd probably leave out the term "mentally ill" when describing the children because so many of my own relatives who are nice, sane people who have lovely sane children can't see how unkind and dangerous their views of the world are. That is quite disturbing, especially since they're NOT mentally ill. At least then there would be an excuse!

June 7, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBillie Kelpin

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