Countering Cultural Anxiety

I voted for [Donald Trump], and he’s the one who’s [shutting down the government]. I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting. — Crystal Minton, Marianna, Florida, quoted in The New York Times.

A Donald Trump campaign rally in Alabama in 2016

Voter studies from the 2016 presidential election reveal that less-educated whites were Donald Trump’s core supporters. Why? Was it some sense among these voters that the changing global economy had left them behind? Or were they motivated by complex changes in American society? If the latter, how will candidates respond?

While economic anxiety cannot be dismissed as a motivation for Trump voters, there is a growing body of evidence that cultural anxiety drove millions to vote for Trump for president. University of Pennsylvania political scientist Diana Mutz has marshaled data to support the conclusion that fear of demographic and sociological change, not worries about economic hardship, influenced Trump voters. The election, she writes in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “was about dominant groups that felt threatened by change and a candidate who took advantage of that trend by positioning himself closer than his opponent to Americans’ positions on status threat-related issues.”

Mutz’s analysis may be the key to understanding the rage expressed by Crystal Minton in the quotation above, “He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.” Minton’s anger should not be taken too literally. Rather, it may be symbolic of the fear motivating groups of Americans threatened by demographic change. “For the first time since Europeans arrived in this country,” Mutz says, “white Americans are being told that they will soon be a minority race.” Studies like this indicate that Trump supporters keenly believe “the American way of life is threatened” by demographic change.

A section of the border wall between the United States and Mexico

In this analysis, Trump’s vaunted wall on the U.S.-Mexican border has become a symbol for the fears of Trump supporters. Objectively, the wall is a false solution to a non-existent problem, but, symbolically, building it is the reason why millions voted for Trump: To keep out hordes of immigrants who potentially undermine the dominance of white Americans. The government shutdown over the wall has been, of course, a sham: Everyone knows it will never be built. Yet, Trump’s core supporters believed he must fight for the wall, and Trump knew caving on the wall could undermine his support within his base.

Understanding the fears of Americans who are afraid of coming changes helps clarify why voters supported Trump. What can Democrats do with this knowledge? They have a dilemma. After all, if a majority of Trump voters believed they had been victimized by changes in the global economy, politicians might campaign on overcoming capitalism’s cruelties. They might, for example, offer programs to retrain out-of-work steelworkers or laid-off coal miners. But, how does a politician convince Trump supporters to embrace demographic changes, to accept the browning of America and LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage?

This is not an easy question to answer. But, one thing should be obvious: Democrats cannot win the 2020 presidential election by writing off rural and Rust Belt voters. After all, Trump won in 2016 by beating Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Rural and Rust Belt voters are overrepresented in the Electoral College. While whites may be a minority in the nation by mid-century, 37 states will remain majority white well into the 2040s.The good news for Democrats, of course, is that in the 2018 midterms, they won key elections in the Rust Belt and even captured the governorship in Kansas.

Of course, winning in Trump country might be more difficult if Trump is on the ballot in 2020. So, what is the message for whomever is the next Democratic presidential candidate? As the Democratic Party moves to the left and widens its already expansive reach, how does it appeal to the disaffected Trump voter? One school of thought suggests writing off those who respond to cultural anxiety. But, that means writing off a great many states and might narrow chances for Democrats in the Electoral College. 

I suspect, and it is only a suspicion, that one key is a carefully calculated economic appeal. While it is true that central to Trump’s 2016 electoral triumph was cultural anxiety and not economic hardship, it is also true that most Americans suffer from the widening wealth inequality that plagues the American economy. It is not just that the wealthy are getting wealthier, but that the poor are also getting poorer. The American middle class is disappearing, and social mobility has declined precipitously in the last several decades. 

Trump won by offering a form of populism laced with bigotry. The key for progressives is to devise a populism — programs that counter inequality — that makes economic sense to ordinary Americans and explains that inequality is caused by the rapaciousness of the wealthy and structural changes in the American economy, not by immigrants crossing the border with Mexico.

Finding the right recipe will not be easy, but it is necessary.

Posted January 25, 2019

One Response to “Countering Cultural Anxiety

  • Deborah Smith-Cohen:

    Three thoughts:
    1) The president’s campaign team absolutely understood the power of that fear in shaping a message that posed as addressing working class economic needs but inflamed social /worldview fears.
    2) Elizabeth Warren may not be able to pull it off, but she clearly does have “a carefully calculated economic appeal”. She vilifies different players (corporate and plutocrat exploiters) and refuses to pit one struggling group “identity” against others.
    3) Pay attention to the obstacles to collaboration and conversation listed in Justin Lee’s Talking Across the Divide : a) ego preservation b) team/tribe loyalty c) comfort/inertia d) misinformation e) worldview preservation. There’s a case that all of these get used in political arguments to subvert real problem-solving by both conservatives and liberals far too often. How can candidates outflank these tools to encourage real political discourse?