In reaction to his provocations, many white Democrats are seeing race relations in a new light.
by Thomas B. Edsall
Early on, after the votes were counted, the dominant political narrative about the 2016 election was straightforward. Donald Trump mobilized racially resentful whites to build an army of angry supporters determined to constrain minorities and halt the flood tide of immigrants from south of the border.
“The triumph of Trump’s campaign of bigotry presented the problematic spectacle of an American president succeeding at best in spite of his racism and possibly because of it,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in October 2017. “Trump moved racism from the euphemistic and plausibly deniable to the overt and freely claimed.”
As time passed, however, a more complicated situation materialized.
A groundswell of hostility on the political left to Trump’s rhetoric and policy initiatives gained strength as Trump moved from the periphery of American politics to the Oval Office. And while the percentage of racially conservative Republicans has remained constant, the percentage of racially liberal Democrats has grown rapidly.
This shift did not significantly raise the overall number of Democrats, but it did intensify liberal commitments, reflecting a process of internal sorting. The defection of conservative Democrats to the Republican Party continued a long-term trend — at the same time, many moderates have moved leftward and many liberals further left still.
In a major 2017 study of the American electorate, Pew Research reported that partisan divisions have
grown over the last several decades, as the public shift in these views is largely driven by Democrats who are increasingly likely to take racially liberal and pro-immigrant positions.
The Democratic electorate in 2018 was 61 percent white and 39 percent minority, including 19.2 percent African-American and 14.4 percent Hispanic voters, according to exit polls.
It is not surprising that black and Hispanic Democrats moved to the left in response to Trump’s racist goading and baiting. Pew found that the percentage of black Democrats who agree that “the country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights to whites” rose from 82 percent in 2014 to 90 percent in 2017. The percentage of Democratic Hispanics who agreed with that statement grew from 59 to 76 percent.
More surprising was the increase in support among white Democrats, many of whom are professionals with college degrees, for the view that the “country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights.” According to Pew, their support grew from 57 percent in 2014 to 80 percent in 2017.
Let’s take a deeper look at the numbers.
In a working paper, “Trumped by Race: Explanations for Race’s Influence on Whites’ Votes in 2016,” Andrew Engelhardt, a postdoctoral research associate in International and Public Affairs at Brown, makes the case that the percentage of racially liberal white Democrats grew from 19 percent in 2012 to 40 percent in 2016, as shown in the accompanying chart.
Conversely, the percentage of racially resentful white Republicans fell slightly, from 51 percent in 2012 to 48 percent in 2016, a statistically insignificant difference.
In an email, Engelhardt pointed out that in recent decades, “the proportion of Republicans holding more racially resentful attitudes is increasing slightly over time, but not by much.” Looking at the 16-year period from 2000 to 2016, Engelhardt wrote, “I don’t find any evidence that the distribution of racial resentment for white Republicans reliably differs between 2000 and 2016.”
In his paper, Engelhardt argues that in the Trump era
White nationalist rallies may gain the most attention, in part because they may play on pundits’ priors about the Trump administration’s bases of support. But this neglects the effects these events may have on the formation of more positive racial attitudes among those opposed to Trump and his administration.
In fact, Engelhardt continues, “White Democrats are actually the unique group in this period. They increasingly hold a perspective that acknowledges racism and discrimination as obstacles to black success.”
A number of scholars who study race and politics agree with Engelhardt’s conclusions. Ashley Jardina, a political scientist at Duke and the author of the book “White Identity Politics,” wrote by email that Engelhardt’s “findings are consistent with some of my own analysis. I’ve found, as have others, that there was a notable shift in racial resentment in 2016, but only among Democrats, who became more racially liberal on the racial resentment scale.”
At the same time, one of the most striking facts to emerge from Engelhardt’s analysis is how far white Democrats have moved in a liberal direction on issues of race over the last three decades.
In the period from 1988 to 1990, the level of racial resentment was almost the same among both white Democrats and white Republicans. In 1992, they began to diverge, as Republicans moved to the right and Democrats to the left on issues concerning race.
For example, in 1988 the mean level of racial resentment, on a scale of 0 to 1, was .65 for white Republicans and .61 for white Democrats. By 2016, the mean for white Republicans rose to .70, but fell for white Democrats to .41. While the proportion of racially resentful white Republicans grew only slightly, the Trump campaign’s rhetoric raised the salience of race. Democrats, by contrast, grew increasingly liberal.
Daniel J. Hopkins, author of the forthcoming article “The Activation of Prejudice and Presidential Voting: Panel Evidence from the 2016 U.S. Election,” argues that Trump “activated” racially hostile whites, using divisive language to increase his margin of victory among them.
“The marginal role of anti-black prejudice in 2016 was markedly stronger than it was in 2012, when Barack Obama was on the ballot,” Hopkins wrote in an email, adding that
Anti-black prejudice has the strongest predictive power for the 2016 elections involving Trump. I certainly don’t think that anti-Black prejudice is the entire explanation for Trump’s 2016 victory. But my evidence indicates that it was clearly an element in Trump’s electoral support, and that its role in 2016 was notably different than in prior elections.
The combustible mix of race and immigration was crucial for Trump. As Hopkins wrote,
It’s clear that Trump’s support in the 2016 primaries was concentrated among Republicans who were especially concerned about immigration and who expressed higher levels of anti-Black racial prejudice.
Among all whites, however,
It’s a different story. For them, Trump’s racially charged appeals have had polarizing impact: they pushed millions of Americans to express lower levels of anti-black prejudice and to worry more about discrimination. But those appeals also galvanized a smaller fraction of highly prejudiced Americans to express and act on that prejudice.
What has been going on within the universe of whites who rank high in racial resentment?
I posed this question to Michael Tesler, a political scientist at the University of California-Irvine who has focused much of his research on the role of race in politics, including as one of the authors of the book “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Election and the Battle for the Meaning of America,” which he wrote with Lynn Vavreck and John Sides, political scientists at U.C.L.A. and Vanderbilt.
Tesler replied that the share of the electorate made up of resentful white voters
has declined somewhat — as the country diversifies, whites have become more racially liberal. Their partisanship has also changed — particularly among low-educated whites who score high in racial resentment. Highly educated whites who score high in racial resentment have long been strongly Republican. This makes sense since they’ve long been aware of the fact that Republicans are the more racially conservative party.
Many less educated whites, in contrast,
were unaware of the parties’ differences on race before Obama’s presidency. Obama and Trump have helped simplify the politics of race by making it clear to even non-college voters who don’t pay much attention to politics where the two parties stand on race.
The result, according to Tesler:
Low-educated white voters in general, and low-educated voters who score high in racial resentment in particular, fled the Democratic Party.
Tesler wrote that while they were doing the research for “Identity Crisis,” he and his co-authors, using panel studies that tracked the same voters over time, found that measures of racial resentment, anti-Muslim attitudes and anti-immigrant sentiments “were all stronger predictors of vote choice in 2016 than in 2012.”
I do not think Trump has made people more racist, but I do think that he has helped make explicit what was once implicit; namely his willingness to attack racial minority groups has led to a sharpening of the party divisions on attitudes related to race.
In a 2018 paper, “Understanding White Polarization in the 2016 Vote for President: The Sobering Role of Racism and Sexism,” Schaffner, Matthew C. MacWilliams and Tatishe Nteta, political scientists at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, demonstrated that
while economic dissatisfaction was an important part of the story, racism and sexism were much more impactful in predicting support for Trump among white voters.
Schaffner and his colleagues continued:
Trump’s willingness to make explicitly racist and sexist appeals during the campaign, coupled with the presence of an African-American president and the first major party female nominee made racism and sexism a dividing line in the vote.
Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America foundation and contributor to the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group, noted in an email that analysis of the voting of key subgroups is critical to understanding “the role of racial attitudes in the 2016 election.”
From this vantage point, Drutman argued, the critically important ballots were cast by vote-switchers from one party in 2012 to the opposite party in 2016:
By almost every account, Obama-to-Trump voters were pivotal in rust belt states that swung the Electoral College, and by almost every account, these voters had high racial resentment and anti-immigration attitudes.
In other words, Trump’s ability to convert and turn out these voters was the engine driving his election.
Going into 2020, Trump has clearly decided to continue and expand upon his 2016 strategy of mobilizing white voters high in anti-black affect, strongly opposed to immigration and resistant to liberalizing social mores — just as Democrats are aiming to turn out Obama voters who sat out 2016.
Democrats find themselves in what Cristian G. Rodriguez, a doctoral candidate in the department of psychological science at the University of California-Irvine, calls “a social comparison process in intergroup conflict.”
This means that Democratic “group self-definition is a function of how the opposition party is behaving.”
More specifically, Rodriguez continued,
When Democrats perceive G.O.P. politicians as “going all in” with anti-immigration policies, for example, it is not psychologically enough for Democrats to keep the same positions on the matter. The social and political environment is pushing toward a redefinition of the group to keep up with the G.O.P. Moderate leadership is unlikely to be seen as what could face down the rise of Trumpism.
This is just the kind of push me-pull-you politics of provocation at which Trump excels. If they want to turn Trump into that rare bird, a one-term president, Democrats must be wary of getting stuck in his web.
Thomas B. Edsall is a Professor, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and contributor to The NY Times Opinion section on strategic and demographic trends in American politics and he is a . @edsall