Are white people ready to bail on democracy? These researchers say the danger is real

Steven Miller and Nicholas Davis on the research linking racial intolerance to a longing for authoritarian rule

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 2, 2018 7:00AM (EDT)

 (APEvan Vucci)
(APEvan Vucci)

Donald Trump's combination of racism and authoritarianism, made repeatedly clear through his words and deeds, has not been disqualifying for his voters and most Republicans. Indeed it is central to his appeal and has lured tens of millions of Americans into his movement.

In an increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan America, this combination is like a dagger pointed at the heart of the country’s democracy. Whether our republic can survive changing racial demographics and white racial paranoia, and how much Donald Trump’s racist and authoritarian movement is really a deviation from America’s historic norms, is very much in question. It seems clear that white identity politics has helped the Republican Party maintain control over its voters and that a large number of white Americans value the privilege conferred on them by skin color more than they value democracy.

In an effort to address these questions and many others, I recently spoke with Steven Miller, a professor of political science at Clemson University, and Nicholas Davis, a research scientist at the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University. They are the authors of the new research paper “White Outgroup Intolerance and Declining Support for American Democracy.

As the title suggests, Miller and Davis' work reveals a strong and disturbing connection between racial intolerance and potential support for military rule, or a strongman leader who could dispense with inconveniences like elections, courts or legislative oversight. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you explain how Donald Trump was able to win the 2016 presidential election?

Steven Miller: There was a potent cocktail of partisanship and out-group prejudice that, when combined with its geographic concentration in swing states like Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, propelled Trump to the White House with an absolute minority of the popular vote. Trump's electoral win was the end result of a concerted effort to prime opposition to Obama and his policies through a racial filter that ultimately paid off for Republicans in a fairly short turnaround. They had to go four years without a House majority and eight years without control of the Senate or White House to get united government again.

I have conducted other research which shows that racial resentment may have had a stronger effect on Democrats than Republicans. In other words, Republicans who scored the lowest on racial resentment still voted for Trump, while Obama voters and registered Democrats who scored the highest started to break for Trump.

One of the dominant narratives was that the 2016 election was a story about "economic anxiety." Given that there is a large and growing amount of empirical, polling, experimental and other work showing that story to be incorrect, why does it linger?

Miller: I think the simplest answer here is that the bottom line of journalism depends on not addressing the nature of this problem. Our most prominent journalists and journalistic outlets are largely concentrated in major metropolitan areas like New York and Washington, D.C. These are diverse cities in which multiple different groups help these cities thrive and make these cities great. However, the business model for these outlets importantly depends on subscriptions, clicks and ratings from people in far less diverse places who would feel alienated by being called racist or xenophobic, even if it may accurately describe their policy beliefs.

To be clear: Not all Trump voters are racist or xenophobic. However, Trump's racism and xenophobia were not enough to dissuade them from voting for him, and even bringing that up is going to alienate potential subscribers, readers and viewers.

It's easy to mollycoddle some of the more corrosive aspects of Trump's voting bloc by misdiagnosing the root of their behavior because the alternative would hit the corporate news media in the pocketbook.

How do you define authoritarianism? How is it operationalized in your work?

Miller: Authoritarianism can mean different things in different fields of political science. It can refer to a form of governance or a disposition or worldview privileging conformity, submission to authority and aggression toward minorities or out-groups that is activated under a perceived sense of threat.

Our analysis measures attitudes in favor of autocratic, non-democratic governance. We leverage three questions widely used in the World Values Survey on attitudes toward democracy that ask whether a particular form of government would be a good way of running the country. The prompts include 1) having a strong leader who does not have to bother with the legislature or regular elections, 2) having the army rule the government, or 3) having a democratic political system. The respondent can say if these are very good, good, bad or very bad ways of running their country. We code responses of "very good" and "good" on the first two as an anti-democratic sentiment and code the "bad" and "very bad" responses in the third item as an opposition to democracy.

How do you conceptualize racism as well as racial resentment and racial animus?

Miller: We created a measure we label "white out-group intolerance." We select white respondents in the World Values Survey from 1995 to 2011 and leverage questions that probe what kinds of neighbors these white Americans would not like to have. Available responses include criminals, members of a different race, heavy drinkers, emotionally unstable people, Muslims, immigrants or foreign workers, people with AIDS, drug addicts, homosexuals, Jews, people of a different religion, people of the same religion, militant minorities, political extremists, unmarried couples living together and people who speak a different language. The respondent could select all of these as unwelcome neighbors or select none of them.

We want to emphasize the variety in the available responses. It does not coerce a response easily construed as prejudiced toward an ethnic or racial minority unless this represented the respondent's earnest preference. Ultimately, we select responses of "people who speak a different language," "immigrants or foreign workers" and "members of a different race." We select for white out-group intolerance if a respondent would not want one or more of those groups as neighbors. We note in the appendix that we experimented with different measures that included responses to Jews, Muslims and "militant minorities," but they ultimately didn't change our findings.

How are racism and authoritarianism connected?

Miller: We put forward an argument rooted in the social identity framework to link white out-group intolerance, as we measure it, with opposition to democracy among white Americans. We start by identifying that simple attachment to a group is not a sufficient condition for out-group prejudice; i.e., white Americans can self-identify as white with zero implication for how they evaluate minority groups. Instead, other factors like relative status, the context of inter-group relations and other psychological forces shape prejudices to follow.

In the case of the United States, this would be the demographic shifts that will make the country a "minority-majority" country in the intermediate future, along with the election of the first black president. This constitutes a sense of threat to white Americans with a sufficiently high attachment to their white identity and who also fear what this change in relative status will do to their material well-being.

This leads to a negative evaluation of democracy because democracy, by design, empowers the minority with the same opportunity of access to politics and power as the majority, even if the governance that follows is still some form of majority decision-making. Democracy is a compromise that empowers the minority beyond its actual numerical endowment. For the subset of white Americans we describe, democracy ultimately empowers their source of perceived threat.

This leads them to abandon "the false dreams of equality and democracy" -- borrowing that expression from noted white supremacist Richard Spencer -- and makes them more open to autocratic alternatives for the country if it would lock in the relative status of whites over nonwhites in the United States.

How do we locate Trumpism and the resurgence of overt white supremacism and the extreme right in the United States, relative to what is happening in Europe and elsewhere? 

Miller: Trump successfully launched a minority-scapegoating campaign to win the White House. Marine Le Pen's National Front made it to the presidential runoff in France. The Tories [the British Conservative Party] and UKIP had a symbiotic relationship in which UKIP was able to coerce an in-or-out referendum on the EU from [former Prime Minister] David Cameron, resulting in a successful Brexit campaign animated largely by concerns over immigration. The AfD in Germany [a far-right party] is barely five years old and now has 13 percent of the seats in the Bundestag. Italy's populist parties just got the OK to form a government.

These movements share a similar theme. They have outsized views of past glory and target immigrants as responsible for real or perceived downturns in national status. They're targeting the same international governmental organizations and supranational institutions responsible for post-World War II peace and prosperity, to the extent that they coincide with perceived loss of status and increases in immigration.

The American case strikes me as anomalous for two reasons. One, the immigration aspect in American populism is recent, at least as a Republican priority. Previous presidents have dog-whistled on the threatening presence of racial out-groups -- Nixon's "law and order" and the "Southern strategy," Reagan's "young bucks" and "welfare queens," George H.W. Bush's Willie Horton ad -- and I'd remiss if I didn't bring up Mitt Romney's "self-deportation" proposal because it's easy to forget how draconian that message was.

However, George H.W. Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990 to bring in more immigrants to the U.S. and Reagan was pro-amnesty and even pro-proto-NAFTA in 1979. He wanted free movement across what would become the NAFTA countries. Contrast this older GOP with, say, the National Front in France, which has been loudly anti-immigrant since its formative years.

Second, and most curious: Other right-wing populist parties are trying to bundle anti-immigration measures with greater investments in social spending and welfare. Notice the reason why: White people are getting older everywhere in the West and immigrants are responsible for plugging gaps in the social safety net's spreadsheet, ensuring that governments can afford to pay out these benefits. At some level, voters probably know this, and these right-wing parties needing to come up with unequivocal assurances, whether or not they are genuine, to mollify these concerns.

Republicans in America kind of stand out by trafficking in the same anti-immigration hysteria while also proposing policies to dismantle social spending and the welfare state. These are incidentally policies that disproportionately benefit rural white Americans. Indeed, most Republican voters hate their party’s fiscal policies but will vote for them anyway when bundled with the white identity politics the Republican Party has been offering for the past few decades.

As a practical matter, white identity politics is so closely conjoined with the Republican Party and conservatism at present. Is it even possible to find common ground to address shared public concerns?

Nicholas Davis: The problem with the idea of “common good” and “shared interest” is that these concepts are core features of “folk democracy” – the idea that committed, knowledgeable and civil citizens engage in a collective partnership to produce good public policy that will benefit the masses. The reality is uglier than that. Citizens don’t pay attention to politics. They possess unconstrained policy preferences that only weakly approximate “ideology,” and they fail to think probabilistically and, by extension, rationally.

When coupled with the raw fact that social and political identities drive behavior, it seems highly unlikely that our current set of electoral and political institutions are well-suited to produce anything that approximates “the common good.”

Even then, who defines the nature of the common good? Matters of “public interest” have almost always been defined by whites in the United States and the West more broadly. This complicates how we think about compromise and what it means to historically disenfranchised groups.

READ MORE: Right's attack on birthright citizenship: A new front in the battle for the Constitution

You make a critical intervention: America has been a racial democracy, or Herrenvolk democracy, for most of its existence. Racial authoritarianism has been the rule rather than the exception. Can you elaborate on how that history relates to your findings?

Davis: It is hard to divorce the concept of American exceptionalism from Herrenvolk democracy, so I think it [is] good to consider them together. The colonies prospered as a direct function of chattel slavery, and beyond the brutality of the antebellum South, we know that legacy has a great many economic and social ramifications today. The “settlement” of the western United States was made possible by a brutal combination of the displacement of native peoples and immigrant laborers cutting paths for railroad barons. The agricultural industry, the “backbone” of the American economy, would likely collapse without migrant labor.

When the average citizen thinks about the sustainability of American democracy, they do not grapple with the country’s historical exploitation of nonwhites. It’s why many whites balk at the term “privilege.” It undercuts the very individualism that weaves the strands of the mythos of American exceptionalism together.

Some scholars have pointed out that no modern democracy has survived a transition where the dominant ethnic or racial group has become less than the majority group. Are we being too cynical by concluding that American democracy will be in crisis because of these shifts and the racist, authoritarian response to them?

Davis: When you ask people about their attitudes toward democratic governance, they are still wildly supportive of it, on balance. No matter how you slice the data, Americans exhibit robust support for democracy.

But many citizens perceive that the United States' democracy is ill-functioning. They perceive that free speech is under threat, that facts don’t matter, that special interests have tainted governance and that not all votes matter equally.

On the one hand, this is obviously a problem. But one person’s glitch is another person’s feature. In some real sense, democracy’s practical expression in the United States works as intended, insofar as it provides a veneer of popular inputs while isolating power among the wealthy. That is, quite literally, the story of the founding. If democracy is “in crisis,” then I think it’s a crisis of prevailing institutions being ill-suited to quietly maintain the status quo.

The question you’ve posed is this: Will democracy persist when it runs headlong into demographic changes that make it improbable that a party can win by solely relying on the sort of aggrieved white voters who elected Donald Trump to the White House? I don’t know. Probably, yes. Americans don’t really have a good grasp on the terror and pain involved in actual regime change. The burgeoning “crisis-of-democracy” literature may oversell the problem but only in the sense that the “problem” seems to be that the Trump administration has simply removed the veneer and revealed that American democracy, by design, is sincerely dysfunctional.

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By Chauncey DeVega

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

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