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Survey: the poor white working class was, if anything, more likely than the rich to vote for Clinton

It wasn’t the economy, but racism and xenophobia, that explains Trump’s rise.

President Donald Trump. Ron Sachs/Pool via Getty Images

The evidence just keeps growing: It wasn’t simply the economy that led to Donald Trump’s rise. Instead, another survey has confirmed that racism and xenophobia were much bigger factors.

The new survey, by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) for the Atlantic, focused on white working-class voters (those without a college education or salaried jobs), who were part of the key demographic behind Trump’s rise. It looked at how much of their support for Trump correlated with, among other factors, “fears about cultural displacement” — a polite way of describing fears of immigrants from other countries and people of other races.

PRRI concluded: “White working-class voters who say they often feel like a stranger in their own land and who believe the U.S. needs protecting against foreign influence were 3.5 times more likely to favor Trump than those who did not share these concerns.”

Economic factors played a much smaller role, suggesting that Trump’s rise was shaped more by cultural and racial concerns than by economics. For example, white working-class voters who displayed economic fatalism — measured through the belief that getting a college education is “a gamble” — were only twice as likely to prefer Trump.

And economic hardship among white working-class Americans actually predicted more support for Hillary Clinton, not Trump: Although not highly statistically significant, the survey found that “[t]hose who reported being in fair or poor financial shape were 1.7 times more likely to support Clinton, compared to those who were in better financial shape.” This finding rebukes the common sentiment that poor white Americans came out in droves to put Trump over the top in 2016.

Identifying as a Republican, as one would expect, played a massive role in predicting support for Trump, with white working-class voters who identified as Republican being 11 times more likely to back the GOP candidate. Other factors, including gender, age, region, and religious affiliation, were not significant in PRRI’s model — which Dan Cox, research director at PRRI, said is likely explained by the fact that white working-class voters are “already somewhat homogenous,” creating less room for attributes like region and religious identity to stick out.

PRRI reached its conclusions through a series of four focus groups in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a national survey of more than 3,000 adults living in the US — a fairly large sample size. PRRI researchers then broke down the survey into different demographic weights to pull out lessons from the data.

Together, the PRRI findings contribute to a consistent theme in the story of Trump: While economic struggles may have played a role in his rise, the bigger factors seem to be racial and cultural resentment. If Democrats hope to defeat Trump, then, they’re going to have to find a way to deal with that resentment — hopefully in a way that doesn’t pander to it.

White working-class voters report lots of racial and cultural resentment

The PRRI survey uncovered several signs of racial and cultural resentment among white working-class Americans:

  • About 65 percent “believe American culture and way of life has deteriorated since the 1950s.”
  • About 48 percent say that “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country.”
  • About 68 percent “believe the American way of life needs to be protected from foreign influence.” In comparison, 44 percent of white college-educated Americans reported a similar view.
  • About 68 percent “believe the U.S. is in danger of losing its culture and identity.”
  • About 62 percent “believe the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens American culture,” while 30 percent “say these newcomers strengthen society.”
  • About 60 percent “say because things have gotten so far off track, we need a strong leader who is willing to break the rules.”

Much of this isn’t totally new information. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild uncovered a similar theme in her 2016 book on Tea Party members in Louisiana, which is, notably, titled Strangers in Their Own Land.

In the book, Hochschild provides an apt analogy to explain the feeling of neglect that many white working-class Americans feel: As they see it, they are all in this line toward a hill with prosperity at the top. But over the past few years, globalization and income stagnation have caused the line to stop moving. And from their perspective, people — black and brown Americans, immigrants, women — are now cutting in the line, because they’re getting new (and more equal) opportunities through new anti-discrimination laws and policies like affirmative action.

In this view, many white working-class Americans have seen their stature fall in the past few years, while they think that other demographic groups have continued rising. One can pick the basic facts here — particularly since black and Latino Americans still trail white Americans in terms of wealth, income, and educational attainment. But this is how many white working-class Americans feel, regardless of the facts.

The PRRI survey suggests this type of sentiment is common: It found that only 17 percent of white working-class Americans who still live in their hometowns said the quality of life in their hometown has improved since their childhood days, while 45 percent said that quality of life has gotten worse and 37 percent said it’s about the same.

This sentiment has created a lot of cultural and racial resentment. Based on PRRI’s new survey, this all played a big role in the lead-up to Trump.

This isn’t the first analysis to suggest Trump’s rise was driven by racial and cultural resentment

Generally, you shouldn’t make too much out of one survey or study. Any single analysis, after all, could be influenced by statistical bias or unscrupulous methodology.

But PRRI is very reputable, and its findings are far from the first to suggest racism and xenophobia led to Trump’s rise.

For one, PRRI’s findings are very similar to an analysis from last year by Jonathan Rothwell at Gallup. That survey also found that Trump supporters are actually richer, not poorer, than average, although they tended to be blue-collar and less educated. Trump supporters also tended to live in racially segregated areas, particularly those that were not especially hard hit by trade or immigration. As for their socioeconomic struggles, they weren’t about income inequality, but rather relatively high mortality rates and worse intergenerational mobility. All in all, this suggested that something else — not typical economic hardship — was behind Trump’s rise.

Another paper, published in January by political scientists Brian Schaffner, Matthew MacWilliams, and Tatishe Nteta, found that voters’ measures of sexism and racism correlated much more closely with support for Trump than economic dissatisfaction after controlling for factors like partisanship and political ideology.

Brian Schaffner, Matthew MacWilliams, and Tatishe Nteta

As the paper acknowledged, clearly economic dissatisfaction was one factor — and in an election in which Trump essentially won by just 80,000 votes in three states, maybe that, along with issues like the opioid epidemic and poor health outcomes, was enough to put him over the top. But the analysis also shows that a bulk of support for Trump — perhaps what made him a contender to begin with — came from beliefs rooted in racism and sexism.

Several polls also found that Trump supporters were more likely to profess negative views of black people, Muslims, and Latinos, as well as concerns that immigrants threaten US values. One telling study, conducted by researchers at UC Santa Barbara and Stanford University shortly before the election, found that if people who strongly identified as white were told that nonwhite groups will outnumber white people in 2042, they became more likely to support Trump.

Another set of studies, conducted by researchers Carly Wayne, Nicholas Valentino, and Marzia Oceno, found that measures of benevolent sexism — meaning more traditional, chivalrous views of women and men’s proper roles in society — didn’t correlate closely with support for Trump. But measures of hostile sexism did, suggesting that sexism in support of Trump seems to be more about hostility toward women than old-fashioned views on gender roles.

There is a reasonable question about whether economic anxiety led to racial resentment or vice versa. But as University of California Irvine political scientist Michael Tesler explained in the Washington Post, the evidence suggests that racial resentment came first:

Partisan identities aren’t the only thing that matters. In my book, Post-Racial or Most-Racial?, I show that racial attitudes have increasingly structured public opinion about a wide array of positions connected to Barack Obama, including subjective perceptions of objective economic conditions.

For one, racially sympathetic white Americans were far more likely than racially resentful whites to correctly conclude that the unemployment rate was declining in the year leading up to the 2012 election. Before Obama’s presidency, racial attitudes were uncorrelated with perceptions of the election-year unemployment rate.

None of this is too surprising, given that Trump ran a campaign in which he made explicitly racist and sexist appeals.

He characterized Mexican immigrants as criminals and “rapists.” He called for banning Muslims — an entire religious group — from the US. He said a US judge should recuse himself from a Trump University case due to his Mexican heritage. He referred to black and Latino people’s lives as hell, calling for police to adopt “stop and frisk” — a practice deemed unconstitutional in New York City because it was used in racist ways — to help protect “inner cities.” He suggested Fox News host Megyn Kelly was tough on him at a debate because she was menstruating. He was recorded on tape bragging that he could sexually assault women (“grab ’em by the pussy”) because he’s a celebrity. And that’s far from all.

Why the racism and sexism behind Trump’s win matters

At some point, you might start to wonder why journalists keep writing about the link between Trump’s support and bigoted beliefs. The election is over. Do we really need to analyze what happened over and over again?

The point, at least for me, is not to demonize Trump voters. The point is to understand them in order to better grasp what motivated them to vote for someone who ran a clearly bigoted campaign and who most voters agreed is unqualified for the nation’s highest office.

As Schaffner, MacWilliams, and Nteta write in their paper, there’s growing evidence that 2016 was unique — in that racism and sexism played a more powerful role than in recent presidential elections. “Specifically, we find no statistically significant relationship between either the racism or sexism scales and favorability ratings of either [previous Republican candidates] John McCain or Mitt Romney,” they write. “However, the pattern is quite strong for favorability ratings of Donald Trump.”

The concern, then, is that this is the beginning of a modern trend in which politicians like Trump directly and explicitly play to people’s prejudices to win elections — and it works.

If that’s really what’s happening, it’s important for progressives and anyone interested in limiting the power of bigotry in US politics to know and demonstrate what’s going on. Studies like this put a bigger imperative on getting to the root of the problem and figuring out ways to reduce people’s racial or gendered biases.

To this end, the research also shows it’s possible to reach out to Trump voters — even those who are racist or sexist today — in an empathetic way without condoning their prejudice. The evidence suggests, in fact, that the best way to weaken people’s racial or other biases is through frank, empathetic dialogue. (Much more on that in my in-depth piece on the research.) Given that, the strongest approach to really combating racism and sexism may be empathy.

One study, for example, found that canvassing people’s homes and having a 10-minute, nonconfrontational conversation about transgender rights — in which people’s lived experiences were relayed so they could understand how prejudice feels personally — managed to reduce voters’ anti-transgender attitudes for at least three months. Perhaps a similar model could be adapted to reach out to people with racist, sexist, or other deplorable views, although this possibility needs more study.

But all of this involves a lot of legwork, outreach, and a kind of empathy that people may not be comfortable with in an era of highly polarized politics. Knowing what caused Trump’s win is crucial to gauging whether all of this work and effort is worth doing. And given the growing amount of research showing the major role of bigotry in Trump’s win, it certainly seems like the work and effort are needed.

Watch: Fear and loathing at a Trump rally

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