Since 2016, there has been a great deal of speculation from the mainstream media in the United States about why 62,984,825 American voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump. Much the speculation has revolved around the economic disenchantment that many Americans have experienced since the Great Recession and the fact that Hillary Clinton was a less than palatable candidate to many voters. Recent research by Diana Mutz gives us a different yet intriguing explanation for Donald Trump’s electoral victory.
Dr. Mutz’s paper opens by noting that the popular narrative attributes Donald Trump’s victory to a strong relationship between economic status (i.e. the working class) and the lack of a college education, in other words, the “left behind” thesis does not necessarily explain Donald Trump’s popular appeal and ultimate victory. In other words, voters reward the party that has benefitted them financially and punished the party that did not benefit them. This narrative fits well into the “Hillary Clinton lost because she ignored the working class” mantra that has been adopted by the liberal side of the spectrum.
The author notes that there are two main reasons why we should be skeptical about the relationship between personal economic hardship and Trump support:
1.) over many decades, evidence of voters politicizing personal economic hardship has been very rare. On an aggregate basis, the voting public will blame incumbents for general economic downturns and reward incumbents for economic gains, on a individual basis, the relationship between individual economic hardship and voting pattern does not hold up.
2.) throughout the year before the 2016 presidential election, the economy was improving with unemployment dropping and manufacturing employment has increased as shown on this graphic:
There is no doubt that it was surprising that Donald Trump was able to wax philosophically on women, immigrants and minorities, particularly given that American voters had voted an African American president into office for two terms. The author of the paper notes that there is a possible explanation termed the “dominant group status threat”. Here is a quote from the paper:
“When members of a dominant group feel threatened, several well-established reactions help these groups regain a sense of dominance and wellbeing. First, perceived threat makes status quo, hierarchical social and political arrangements more attractive. Thus, conservatism surges along with a nostalgia for the stable hierarchies of the past. Perceived threat also triggers defense of the dominant ingroup, a greater emphasis on the importance of conformity to group norms, and increased outgroup negativity. It is psychologically valuable to see one’s self as part of a dominant group; therefore, when group members feel threatened, this prompts defensive reactions.”
There are two forms of group status threats that are prominent in today’s America:
1.) declining white share of the national population with white Americans soon to be in the minority for the first time since Europeans arrived in North America. In a zero-sum world, white Americans perceptions that less antiblack bias means more anti white bias becomes dominant
2.) increasing interdependence of the United States on other nations as the era of American global domination ends. Both China and Russia are seen as the dominant threats to America’s position in the unipolar world that has existed since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. With the rise of China and the other BRICS nations, Americans also feel that they are no longer getting their fair share of the global economy; once again, in this zero-sum game, Americans are losing out to jobs being created in other economies.
Given that the prototypical American has been a white, male Christian for many decades, this group has the most to lose if their status in American society declines.
To complete the study, the author assembled a panel survey which evaluated the following hypotheses:
1.) does being left behind with respect to personal financial wellbeing predict change in the direction of Republican support in 2016?
2.) did issue positions reflecting perceived racial or global status threat increase the likelihood of shifting toward the Republican presidential candidate in 2016?
The national representative panel survey asked identical questions to the same individuals in both October 2012 and October 2016 to make it possible to examine whether these opinions evolved between 2012 and 2016. The individuals were asked the following:
1.) Please rate (Donald Trump/ Hillary Clinton/Mitt Romney/Barack Obama) on a thermometer that runs from 0° to 100°. Rating above 50° means that you feel favorable and warm toward him/her, and rating below 50° means that you feel unfavorable and cool. Democratic candidate ratings were subtracted from Republican thermometer ratings, and this scale from −100–100 was collapsed into 20 evenly spaced categories.
Each person was also asked about changes in family income over the four year period, whether they are looking for work, their subjective perceptions of their family’s finances and whether they believed that trade has influenced their family’s financial situation positively or negatively.
Individuals are also questioned about the extent to which they felt threatened by the world beyond America’s borders. To better understand this aspect, individuals were asked about their support for international trade, support for immigration and whether the U.S. relationship with China is considered a threat or an opportunity. By asking these questions, the panel was able to better appraise an individuals social dominance orientation or SDO which measures animus toward outgroups. Individual levels of SDO are likely to increase when people feel threatened, indicating increasing group status threat levels. Individuals were also asked for their perceptions of where the candidates in the 2012 and 2016 elections stood on these issues.
Here is a graphic which shows the shift on the three key aspects of the outside world for Democrat and Republican candidates between 2012 and 2016:
Here are the findings of the study:
1.) an overwhelming number of voters voted for the same party in both the 2012 and 2016 elections.
2.) the average party identification for the American public shifted in a slightly but significantly more Republican direction from 2012 to 2016, in line with the hypothesis that threat leads to greater conservatism.
3.) the average American voter became more supportive of a path to citizenship between 2012 and 2016, especially among Democrats.
Here are the issues which had little impact on voters’ preferences:
1.) contrary to conventional wisdom, there is little to no evidence that those who incomes declined or increased to a lesser degree than others were more likely to support Donald Trump.
2.) those American voters who lost a job between 2012 and 2016 were no more likely to vote for Donald Trump.
3.) changes between 2012 and 2016 in the extent to which a voter perceived that trade had influenced their family’s financial situation mad no difference to which presidential candidate was preferred.
The author goes on to note that changes over the period from 2012 to 2016 that related to indicators tied to racial/global status threats were far more likely to predict the movement of votes toward the Republicans. As a whole, the American public became significantly more negative in its views on international trade from 2012 to 2016, again, as would be expected with an increased perception of threat to the dominant group. The author also notes that when a person’s desire for group dominance as measured using the social dominance orientation measure (SDO) increased between 2012 and 2016, that person was more likely to vote for Donald Trump.
The issue of trade proved to have the greatest impact on support for Donald Trump. By 2016, the Democratic candidate had become much further from an average American voter on the issue of international trade, increasing the probability that a voter would vote for a Trump presidency. The threat of China also had somewhat of a positive impact on Donald Trump. That said, Donald Trump’s stand on immigration moved him further away from the views of an average American voter, negatively impacting his vote count. Finally, as I noted above, the rise in social dominance orientation meant that there was a higher probability of voting for Donald Trump.
Here is a graphic which summarizes how five issues positively and negatively impacted voting for the Republican presidential candidate in 2016:
“The 2016 election was a result of anxiety about dominant groups’ future status rather than a result of being overlooked in the past. In many ways, a sense of group threat is a much tougher opponent than an economic downturn, because it is a psychological mindset rather than an actual event or misfortune. Given current demographic trends within the United States, minority influence will only increase with time, thus heightening this source of perceived status threat. Although whites will likely still be the best-educated and most well-off racial group, by 2040, they are unlikely to dominate in numbers. Likewise, despite US status as an extremely wealthy country relative to those countries perceived to threaten it economically, many Americans find that small comfort….
Public opinion on trade in particular has been assumed not to matter, because politicians are not held accountable for low salience issues. Trump’s emphasis on these particular issues in his campaign increased the salience of international affairs. In politicizing these issues, he put greater distance between the candidates of the two parties on international issues. Elections are always structured by the candidates who happen to be in play at the time. However, in 2016, large changes in the nominees’ issue positions relative to their predecessors in the previous election made this an especially important factor. Because globalization itself is unlikely to wane, these are likely to remain important electoral issues for the foreseeable future.
Most critically, these results speak to the importance of group status in the formation of political preferences. 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.” (my bolds)
In examining this research, we can see that American society and politics are in a state of flux that is unlikely to end anytime soon. Given the demographic changes that the United States is experiencing, it is quite likely that populist political candidates will continue to play on voters’ perceptions of social vulnerability.
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