White fear elected Trump: Political scientist Diana Mutz on the "status threat" hypothesis

"Economic anxiety" had nothing to do with the 2016 election, study finds. White people felt they were under threat

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 7, 2018 5:00AM (EDT)

Supporters of President Donald Trump rally for him. (Getty/David McNew)
Supporters of President Donald Trump rally for him. (Getty/David McNew)

Bad ideas have a life all their own. Speaking last Saturday at a rally in Washington Township, Michigan, Donald Trump was in rare form. He worked his audience into a fever pitch with threats to shut down the government and punish the Democrats and his other enemies. He spread more irrational fear about a "caravan" of "illegal immigrants" who will somehow "invade" America. He grossly exaggerated his policy successes, which is nothing new, and in ominous tones targeted "Hispanics" in one of his tirades, to which his almost uniformly white audience responded with a mix of boos and disdainful silence.

Despite the news media's obsession with the "white working class" and its purported "economic anxiety," that did not seem to be the prime motivating factor for Trump's supporters at this rally. The median household income in Washington Township is almost $80,000 a year; average household income there is more than $100,000. Both amounts are higher than the respective national averages. Like most Trump voters, those attending his rally were motivated by other factors, which hardly need to be spelled out.

The evidence that racism, sexism and nativism motivated Trump's voters is overwhelming. Political scientists, pollsters and other researchers have repeatedly demonstrated how he won white voters across all income groups, all educational levels, and both men and women.

Voters who were more more concerned about the economy actually supported Hillary Clinton, while white voters who demonstrated more bias and hostility to nonwhites overwhelmingly supported Trump. First and foremost, it was white identity politics -- centered on a deep fear of losing social status and political power in a changing America -- that propelled Trump into the White House.

New research by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Diana Mutz sheds further light on the influence that anxiety about power, identity and group superiority hold over Trump's voters.

In Mutz's new article, "Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote," which appears in the April 23 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, she summarizes the debate about Trump's victory: The "dominant narrative," she writes, has been that working-class voters who "lost jobs or experienced stagnant wages" punished the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton.

These claims were made on the basis of aggregate demographic patterns tied to voters’ education levels, patterns that could occur for a multitude of reasons. This study evaluates the “left behind” thesis as well as dominant group status threat as an alternative narrative explaining Trump’s popular appeal and ultimate election to the presidency. Evidence points overwhelmingly to perceived status threat among high-status groups as the key motivation underlying Trump support.

White people's "declining numerical dominance" and the rising status of other groups, especially black people, Mutz writes, combined with "insecurity about whether the United States is still the dominant global economic superpower." The result was what she calls "a classic defensive reaction among members of dominant groups."

Mutz cites two reasons for skepticism that economic desperation was the primary factor driving voters toward Trump. "First and foremost," she writes, "evidence of voters politicizing personal economic hardship has been exceedingly rare." That may sound counterintuitive, but the social science is robust: Voters rarely make their electoral decisions based on personal factors. She further explains that unemployment fell during 2016 and "economic indicators were on the upswing," which would typically be very good news for the party in power. As for the decline of American manufacturing jobs, nearly all of that occurred before 2010; under Barack Obama, factory employment in the U.S. actually ticked upward. So it is a mistake, she concludes, to interpret the 2016 election "as resulting from the frustration of those left behind economically."

Those who felt that the hierarchy was being upended — with whites discriminated against more than blacks, Christians discriminated against more than Muslims, and men discriminated against more than women — were most likely to support Trump. . . . Political uprisings are often about downtrodden groups rising up to assert their right to better treatment and more equal life conditions relative to high-status groups. The 2016 election, in contrast, was an effort by members of already dominant groups to assure their continued dominance and by those in an already powerful and wealthy country to assure its continued dominance.

The implications of Mutz's research for an increasingly pluralistic and cosmopolitan society are very troubling in a number of ways. First, a need to maintain (racial) group superiority at all costs supersedes any negotiation of shared power between different interests. As a result, "consensus politics" -- which is the beating heart of a healthy democracy -- becomes impossible.

I recently spoke with Diana Mutz about why the news media has insisted on an incorrect analysis of Trump's voters, what role the economy plays in voters' decision-making and the power of racial attitudes in a historical moment when many white Americans are afraid of losing power and privilege.

There seems to be a huge divide between social scientists like yourself and the news media regarding Donald Trump's voters and the narrative that his election was driven by white working-class anxiety. How do you explain this?

Journalism values quick and timely interpretations of election outcomes. People are most interested in these interpretations immediately after the election, so they tend to be simple, single-factor explanations based on demographics. Reality tends to be a lot more complicated. Academe values slow, careful analyses of data, reviews by anonymous peers, revisions and eventual publication. For example, I wrote and presented the original version of this paper at a conference in January 2017.

Your work is another blow against the narrative that the 2016 election was a function of pure "economic anxiety." The evidence for the claim that Trump had some unique appeal separate from racial animus simply is not there. Why does that narrative remain so seductive?

The idea that people are rational actors who vote their pocketbooks is very appealing. We’d all like to consider ourselves rational, right? I’d bet that journalistic interpretations of almost all elections carry this as a prominent theme, regardless of available evidence.

Racism matters, to be sure, and Trump’s statements signaled his racial attitudes more than any recent Republican presidential candidates. But there is naturally a strong negative reaction to saying that all people who supported Trump must be racists. Most of Trump’s supporters voted for him because he was the Republican nominee, and they always vote for the Republican candidate, regardless of who he or she is and what he or she says.

Negative racial attitudes are more common among Republicans than among Democrats, so it could be part of why people are Republicans to begin with. But that does not necessarily mean that all Republicans are racists, so people tend to get their dander up.

Social scientists and others know a great deal about the black and brown poor (the "ghetto underclass"). Now, with Trump, there is a renewed focus on the white working class and white poor. But we don't know as much about the white upper class, rich and elite. It is so easy to go out to the hinterlands of TrumpLandia and write a story or book. What about a profile of white Trump voters on Long Island or in Chicago who do not fit that caricature? Trump won every demographic of white voters. How does your new research speak to that story?

The few analyses in which economic considerations mattered were all in the direction you suggest: It was well-off people who were more likely to support Trump. But anecdotes make for powerful reading, so I share your concern about the unwarranted emphasis on the white working class. The real issue is not income so much as education. Education increases tolerance for people different from oneself. The less educated exhibit more racist attitudes of the domestic variety as well as more anti-foreigner attitudes. This makes less educated areas of the country logical places for these sentiments to emerge.

Perhaps people don’t write books on rich Trump supporters because it is in some ways an old, well-known riff on how corporate America is full of wealthy Republicans. It has been fascinating how quickly that refrain has changed to that of “underclass” Republicans. What’s particularly baffling is how an unabashedly rich person like Trump became a mascot for the working class.

I have received a good number of emails claiming that the 2016 election was really about the white working class and not about race. The objection generally focuses on the key areas that went to Trump in regions that can be described as Rust Belt America. I respond, that may be true but what motivated those voters? If this was about the "working class," what about black and brown folks in the same group who have been hit just as hard, if not worse, by globalization? Have you heard similar objections, and how do you counter them?

Yes, I’ve heard many such objections. They believe that people’s economic self-interest must logically trump other considerations. But what we know about American voters is that symbolic appeals matter a great deal. Minorities are much more pro-trade and pro-globalization than whites, despite the fact that they are more economically vulnerable. They are less prejudiced toward out-groups than whites are as well. These characteristics mean that Trump’s issue positions were primarily appealing to less-educated whites. The decline in manufacturing jobs in the U.S. was most dramatic between 2000 and 2010, long before the 2016 election; the number of manufacturing jobs actually increased from 2010 to 2016. Why would voters in 2016 just now react to this huge decline?

How do we disentangle white racial resentment, if not outright racism, from concerns about social dominance?  

To social scientists, the term “racial resentment” has a very specific meaning. It is a specific concept defined as a conjunction of anti-black feelings and American moral traditionalism. This is a controversial concept in political science because it conflates attitudes toward racial policies and moral traditionalism with negative feelings about blacks. I do not use this measure in my study because it makes it difficult to tell whether racial attitudes are changing, or [to measure] the desire for traditionalism, that is, the nostalgia for status hierarchies of the past that Trump emphasized.

I find that those who believe dominant groups such as men, whites and Christians are now discriminated against were very attracted to Trump. Interestingly, the racial attitudes that mattered in 2016 were not the kind that first come to mind, such as racial animosity or the stereotyping of minorities as poor or unintelligent. Instead, in the post-Obama era, what many whites fear is successful minorities in powerful social and political positions. Because status is a relative concept, it is difficult for people to imagine that others’ group status has improved without hurting the status of their own group. Status, like international trade, tends to be perceived as zero-sum.

It is worrisome for many whites to think they no longer have the same advantages over minorities they had in the past. In reality, even in a majority-minority America, they will still have these advantages. And even if the American economy does not dominate the world as much as it has in the past, America will still be among the dominant superpowers. But these threats to the status of white Americans, both domestic and global, are significant changes.

If this moment is increasingly about race and identity, and not about policy issues and horse trading among political elites, how does that shape the future of campaigns and elections?

I don’t think you can separate issue attitudes and identity politics. For example, in my other research I find that the major predictor of trade policy preferences is domestic racism – not what kind of job you have or what industry you work in. To the extent that you think of the prototypical American as a white Christian, non-American products are seen as threats to the American way of life.

Likewise, we know that attitudes toward the social safety net are heavily racialized. It is particularly interesting to me that Trump supporters have such strong opposition to extending the social safety net. If these poor folks previously employed in manufacturing are being left behind, why would Trump supporters not want to help them? The answer is that they think such policies primarily help minorities and foreigners. This is not accurate: Such policies would in fact help left-behind workers as they do in other countries.

What are your hopes and concerns about America's future and the health of our democracy in the age of Trump? 

I hope for a clear outcome from the Robert Mueller investigation one way or the other. Americans sorely need a sense that their system is working as it should, and that outcomes are legitimate. I remember when Watergate was "fake news" or a "conspiracy theory," and it took a long time for the truth to come out. But after that, partisans on both sides came to agree that it was the truth. I worry whether contemporary partisans can ever be on the same page again.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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