Trump, Race, and the GOP

Really great piece from Zack Beauchamp in Vox summing up political science literature on ethnic conflict, immigration, race, etc., to put Trump in proper perspective.  And, it’s been endorsed by Steve “ethnic conflict” Saideman, aka Big Steve, so it definitely gets the political science right.  It was actually a really useful primer on the ethnic conflict literature:

Roger Petersen, a political scientist at MIT, decided to try to find one. A year after arriving at MIT he published a book, 2002’s Understanding Ethnic Violence, that contained the first truly solid framework for understanding the difference between Kaunas and Vilnius — and, as it turns out, the right-wing backlash we’re seeing across the world today.

Prior to Petersen, scholars often thought of ethnic violence in terms of threat (one group turns to violence when it feels threatened by another) or in terms of “ancient hatreds” (long-simmering resentments that have left the groups wanting to kill each other). Petersen argued that while these explanations were correct in some cases, they were incomplete. Clearly, neither theory can explain the difference between Kaunas and Vilnius. Nor did they fit several other case studies in Petersen’s book.

In order to fully understand why ethnic violence happens, he argued, we need to appreciate the role of resentment: the feeling of injustice on the part of a privileged portion of society when it sees power slipping into the hands of a group that hadn’t previously held it. Drawing on social psychology, he theorized that one of the underappreciated causes of ethnic violence was a change in the legal and political statusof majority and minority ethnic groups.

According to Petersen, that change in status comes from a sense of injustice. Members of dominant groups simply believe they deserve to be the dominant force in their societies, and resent those challenging their positions at the top of the pyramid.

“Any group that’s been dominant — well, it’s not that easy for them not to be dominant anymore,” Petersen tells me. [italics in original; bold is me]

Well, there you go.  I’ll let you make the Trump connection on your own.  Beauchamp also brings in some research closer to home:

University of Michigan’s Nicholas Valentino and Berkeley’s David Sears looked at 40 years of election data in the US, starting in the 1970s and running until 2005, focusing on “racial resentment” scores — a test political scientists use to measure racial bias. They found that whites living in former Confederate states scored consistently higher on this test of racial bias than whites in other parts of the country.

Moreover, they write, “racial [resentment] has become linked more closely to presidential voting and party identification over time in the white South, while its impact has remained constant elsewhere.” As the years have gone on, voters with high levels of racial resentment have become more and more likely to pull the lever for Republicans in the South — but not in other parts of the country. That suggests the post-1964 move toward the GOP in the South really was motivated by the parties’ shifting stances on race.

Plenty more good stuff.  I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing.

And, while I’m at it, it reminds me of a Lee Drutman piece from a while back that hits at many similar themes:


To summarize briefly, politics is about shifting the line of conflict. Coalitions and majorities are both made and unmade depending on the line of conflict. Losers are always trying to shift the line of conflict; winners are always trying to maintain the line of conflict.

How civil rights realigned American politics — slowly

With this basic bit of theory in place, we are now better poised to tackle the history of how we got to 2016.

Our story effectively begins in 1932, when Democrats formed a majority coalition that included Northern liberals and Southern conservatives. The Great Depression had made economics the fundamental dividing line of conflict. And with Republican President Herbert Hoover getting the blame for the collapse, Democrats were on the winning side of the issue.

Now, if the median voter theorem explained the world, Republicans would have simply become the party of the New Deal as well — as some would say Eisenhower attempted to do. But Eisenhower’s New Deal–light Republicanism angered the activists and economic elites in the Republican Party, who still wanted to undo the New Deal and who were sure that if they really truly opposed the New Deal, public opinion would miraculously move to their side.

When the far-right economic conservative Goldwater lost in 1964, however, it became clear Republicans couldn’t win purely on limited government as a defense of liberty. They would have to attach limited government to a winning position on some other issue that would split the Democratic Party…

Like all majorities, the Democratic majority from 1932 to 1964 contained within it the seeds of its own destruction — in particular, an internal conflict between Northern liberals and Southern conservatives over the issue of civil rights. Eventually, Northern liberals became the majority faction within the Democratic Party and exerted pressure, and Democrats passed a series of civil rights bills into law.

And with that, the Democrats effectively lost their winning political hand for the sake of moral principle. The civil rights laws created a backlash among Southern white Democratic conservatives and Northern working-class whites who were most directly affected by urban riots, and housing and school desegregation.

This gave Republicans the cross-cutting issue with a clear majority they needed: race and identity. With Nixon’s strategic guidance, Republicans went full steam ahead in making it the central dividing line in American politics.

They were certainly aided in this effort by Democrats, who struggled to speak to the urban unrest that drove many former Democrats to the Republican Party, or to acknowledge some of their own hubris in the power of a government run by Ivy League intellectuals to solve deep social problems. Democrats also nominated George McGovern to be their standard-bearer in 1972, whose label as the effete candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion” stuck, and also stuck with Democrats…

Beneath these shifting positions at the top was a significant cross-party swapping of voters. Republicans and Democrats essentially underwent a four-decade exchange program. Democrats sent Republicans their non-college-educated, culturally conservative white voters, mostly in declining rural and exurban areas, who had once been the core of the New Deal. In return, Democrats got culturally liberal wealthy professionals, largely in prosperous urban and suburban areas, many of whom were once “Rockefeller Republicans” and had once opposed many elements of the New Deal…

For Republicans, this initially looked like a really good deal, more like a two-for-one swap. And it largely was, from the early 1970s until about the mid-2000s.

But the deal had a long-term liability. America was steadily becoming more diverse, and more highly educated. And the younger generation was much more culturally and socially liberal than the previous generation. Republicans might have been converting more Democrats to Republicans than vice versa. But Democrats were making greater gains among new voters, and also doing better and better among increasingly cosmopolitan wealthy Americans. What looked like a losing coalition for Democrats in 1972 would be a winning coalition for Democrats nationally in 2008.

Drutman’s follow-up on why this should persist, is really good, too.

It’s really kind of amazing that in 2016 race is so central to American politics.  But, clearly, race and ethnic/cultural conflict are the best lens to understand what’s going on right now.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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