It’s worth remembering, particularly when the Hillary Clinton recrimination news cycle is in full swing, that Donald Trump is president today because of a margin of fewer than 80,000 votes spread across three states.
“The most important states, though, were Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin,” Philip Bump in The Washington Post wrote in December. “Trump won those states by 0.2, 0.7 and 0.8 percentage points, respectively — and by 10,704, 46,765 and 22,177 votes.”
Those three states, however, had been comfortably won by Democrat Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012. Much of the recent shift, however tiny, was due to slightly more white working-class voters voting Republican than before. This, in turn, has prompted an ugly and ongoing fight between two progressive factions: those who believe those voters were primarily motivated by a sense of economic insecurity and people who think the shift occurred because racist appeals are prompting more white people to vote for Republicans.
Sean McElwee, a policy analyst for Demos and frequent contributor to Salon, published a statistical analysis last week, based on data collected by the American National Election Studies that clearly demonstrates that racism, rather than economic insecurity, was the primary factor that helped push Trump over the top. This is just the latest in a growing body of research demonstrating that Trump’s racist appeals were what moved his voters. “Economic anxiety” may exist to some degree, but it was not what drove so many white people to vote for Trump in November.
“It is definitely true that racism has been a thread throughout American politics,” McElwee said in a phone interview. “But it’s very clear that with the election of Obama in 2008 and then the campaign of Donald Trump, there’s been an increasing sorting along racial lines in the parties. Trump both benefits from those existing trends and is also accelerating them.”
For people who pay close attention to politics, McElwee argued, it’s been clear for decades that Democrats have been more progressive than Republicans on the issue of racial justice. But for the less informed voters, the “election of a black president, the reaction to that and then the Trump campaign” made race and racism more salient as electoral issues than they have been in recent political memory. The result is that people with racist attitudes are rapidly shifting toward becoming Republicans, and people with more progressive views on race are flocking to the Democrats.
This, in turn, helps explain the small number of voters who voted for Obama once and maybe even twice but then turned to Trump. They may have initially perceived Obama to be “post-racial” candidate whose color was not important. But after years of racist vitriol aimed at Obama, as well as the increase in racial justice movements like Black Lives Matter, those voters have turned to more racialized thinking and flocked to Trump. The constant complaining of Trump supporters about the pernicious influence of “political correctness” also suggests this reading.
What McElwee did not find was a link between economic stress and Trump voting. He examined this question by looking at people’s answers to questions about their own problems, such as their ability to obtain a job or pay the bills, instead of generic questions about the economy.
“If you ask them about their views on the economy, as a proxy for economic anxiety, you’re going to get deeply racialized views about how the economy is doing under, say, a President Obama,” McElwee explained. When voters are asked about the economy, in other words, they may be inclined to be disapproving if they don’t like the man in the White House, not because they have any experiential or empirical reason to believe things are getting worse. This effect, whereby people’s views on “the economy” are dramatically affected by partisan or racial prejudices, has been independently confirmed by other research.
None of this, McElwee hastened to add, should suggest that Democrats ought to return to the bad old days when racial justice was de-emphasized and Democrats tried to appeal to white working-class voters by favoring white male candidates with Southern accents rather than embracing racial and gender diversity. The key is not to shun nonwhite candidates like Obama but to ideally put forth more of them — and more candidates, of whatever race and gender, who are comfortable speaking about racism as a serious problem that must be overcome.
McElwee suggested that Democrats should embrace and promote the image of their party as the organization for racial justice, and by doing so they can build a winning coalition that encompasses people of color and racially progressive white people. He noted that a similar partisan sorting happened in the 1980s and ’90s around the issue of abortion, to the point where, in 2017, pro-choice Republicans and anti-choice Democrats have pretty much become extinct. In branding themselves as the pro-choice party, Democrats didn’t hurt their electoral chances. The same thing, McElwee suggested, could happen with the issue of racial justice.
As McElwee observed, Republicans have made clear where they stand on racial issues by electing Trump and getting to work on deporting immigrants and halting or reversing criminal justice reforms. Moving back to the center and attracting more voters of color — as the GOP pledged to do after Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat — is likely impossible for that party now, he argued, at least for the next couple of decades. Referring to the Iowa congressman whose racist remarks have sparked widespread outrage on the left, McElwee said there will be “more Steve Kings in the future, who say absolutely terrifying things.”
By highlighting racial justice as a defining issue, McElwee said, Democrats can offer voters a real choice, which could help drive turnout. “There’s nothing about having a racially progressive message that precludes having a discussion about expanding Social Security,” he noted. If anything, a progressive economic message dovetails perfectly with a racial justice message.
As for targeting white voters to join the Democratic coalition, McElwee suggested that framing the party as firmly anti-racist could actually help. Dividing up white voters by class and education isn’t working, he suggested, “because there are racially progressive college-educated whites [and] there are racially progressive working-class whites.”
Most economically progressive policy proposals, like universal health care or affordable college education, McElwee said, have wide appeal across class and racial lines. Instead of trying to chip off a few white working-class Trump voters by convincing them to set aside their racist attitudes and focus on the benefits of Obamacare, Democrats could offer a positive vision — one where people from a variety of backgrounds join together to overcome racism and fight for a better, fairer economy that benefits everyone. That, he argued, would be a more productive use of limited resources than focusing on a handful of angry Rust Belt white people at the expense of everyone else.