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Study of the Week: Status Threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote: Closet Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia characterize 1/3 of the US voting public


A study by Diana C. Mutz published in a preprint version on April 23, 2018 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) argues that the votes by white, relatively well-to-do, but poorly educated Americans for Donald J. Trump were motivated by a perceived threat to their status rather than economic hardships.  This quote summarizes the significance of the research findings:

 Using a representative panel from 2012 to 2016, I find that change in financial wellbeing had little impact on candidate preference. Instead, changing preferences were related to changes in the party’s positions on issues related to American global dominance and the rise of a majority–minority America: issues that threaten white Americans’ sense of dominant group status.

The people who voted for Mr. Trump were seen in this research to be motivated by status anxiety rather than economic anxiety– that is, they feared that their dominant group status as “white” (Anglo-Saxon, mostly Protestant and male) was in danger from “non-white” (Mexican, Latin American, African-American, even Asian– and female) groups who threaten to eliminate their privileges (which they do not perceive as privileges, merely their rightful place in society) by supporting policies like “affirmative action”, “transgender human rights” and “equal pay for equal work.”  In addition, we elsewhere see that poorly educated people respond to perceived threats (and actual disdain) from better educated and inevitably more “liberal” or at least tolerant people, by demeaning the value of education and even the precedence of “facts” or science.

These reactionary trends among “whites” who felt their dominant status to be threatened, especially by an African-American president and his administration, resulted in a better showing in the 2016 presidential election than was expected by those who could see that Mr. Trump is a narcissistic, threatening, constantly lying bully whose claims to business success were completely fabricated.  The people who were aware of the claims of Mr. Trump’s venality, and believed them, could not understand how others could vote for him.

The explanation as to why 46% of the electorate voted for this damaged candidate lies in the policies and position statements he endorsed: first, a view that nonwhite people and women were threatening to do away (unfairly, from their point of view) with the dominant status of white males (probably accurate), and second, the perception (completely belied by the actual facts) that immigrants, both legal and illegal, were threatening to inundate the United States with nonwhite individuals and destroy its most cherished institutions.  A policy of relying on wealthy white males (those who coincidentally fawned upon him) for positions in his election campaign and later, in his administration, shows that Mr. Trump believes that only wealthy white males are worthy of exercising power and influence.

[I should note that the Russians interfered subtly in the election and it is impossible to determine to what extent– that is, what percent voted differently than they otherwise would have because of Russian Facebook ads and other tricks– and whether the outcome would have been different without Russian “help”.  There is some argument that Russian Facebook ads merely reinforced tendencies that were already present in susceptible individuals.]

The idea that the dominance of white males is unjustly under threat is a conservative one, and the other policies that Mr. Trump endorses show an equally conservative tone.  For example, the administration has been reported to be returning to teaching secondary school students a form of sex education known as “abstinence-only”.  This teaching holds that contraception is ineffective and in any case unnecessary when youths refrain from sexual activity entirely, presumably until marriage.  Thus contraception, if discussed, is described as undesirable (from a moral point of view.)

Unfortunately, scientific research has shown that “abstinence-only” sex education is totally ineffective in preventing or reducing pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases among youth.  This research is completely ignored or even ridiculed by the proponents of “abstinence-only”.  It would seem that the actual prevalence of sexual activity and the issue of whether the education is in any way effective is secondary to the appearance of sexual propriety and the support of conservative taboos on sexual activity by school personnel.  This sort of blinkered thinking is typical of those whose dominance is threatened by the facts.

I digress. The point is that the Trump candidacy was tailored to appeal to a certain type of voter: conservative, closet racists and homophobes.  It’s time that they admitted that.  Because I think a pretty good estimate of the prevalence of closet racism in the United States is about 35-40%.  I think it’s time that we all admitted that.

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