Trickle-Down Tolerance

Trickle-Down Tolerance
By Wade Lee Hudson

A review
Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America
John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck

Princeton University Press, 2018
352 p., $29.95

Human beings are a bundle of contradictions. Multiple instincts compete. Then, from time to time, external factors trigger particular inner experiences and the national mood fluctuates. Politicians, especially the President, amplify one human potential or another. To garner support, new leaders contrast themselves to old leaders. The pendulum swings.

In Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck examine this dynamic. They argue:

Simply being a member of a group is not the same thing as identifying or sympathizing with that group. The key is whether people feel a psychological attachment to a group….

The…power of group identities…depends on context. One part of the context is the possibility of gains and losses for the group…,[which] can be tangible…or symbolic, such as psychological status….

Another and arguably even more important element of the context is political actors. They help articulate the content of a group identity, or what it means to be part of a group. Political actors also identify, and sometimes exaggerate or even invent, threats to a group. Political actors can then make group identities and attitudes more salient and elevate them as criteria for decision-making.

Group loyalties “can and often do” create hostility toward other groups. But relationships to other groups “do not have to be competitive.

Prior to the 2016 election

several high-profile incidents between the police and communities of color made Americans more pessimistic about race relations than they had been in decades…. Moreover, there was no recession or major war, either of which tends to dominate an election-year landscape…. This created more room for different issues to matter….

Another crucial part of the context: even before 2016, group identities and attitudes were becoming more aligned with partisanship…. The party coalitions were increasingly “racialized….”

Because Trump, Clinton, and the other candidates focused so much on issues tied to racial and ethnic identities, it is no surprise that those identities and issues mattered to voters….

Economic and political dissatisfaction…was powerfully shaped by political identities. With a Democrat in the White House, Republicans had much less favorable opinions about conditions in the country. But dissatisfaction also reflected racial attitudes: under Obama, white Americans’ feelings about blacks became associated with many things, including whether and how they felt about the economy. “Racial anxiety” was arguably driving economic anxiety…..

Since the election, many commentators have analyzed whether race or class was most important in tipping the election to Trump. As I take Identity Politics, the answer is both, with each interwoven with the other.

Republicans who said that “both their personal finances and the national economy had gotten worse over the past year” were more likely to support Trump during the primary campaign.

But “their actual income” was not the key factor. Rather, it was “how people felt…. Trump’s support was tied more to people’s economic dissatisfaction.” A sense of “competition with minority groups” was key. As Arlie Russell Hochschild reported in Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, many on the hard-right are very concerned about others “cutting in line” and getting more public support than they are.

The importance of economic insecurity was most apparent when economic sentiments were refracted through group identities. Worries about losing a job were less strongly associated with Trump support than were concerns about losing jobs to minorities…. This idea…predated Trump. He just leveraged it to his advantage.

With many Trump supporters, their hostility toward minorities may not be rooted in racism. According to Identity Crisis, that issue “remains a hotly debated topic in the social science literature. People may be hostile without being “racist.” They may not consider certain groups to be genetically inferior.

Regardless, “perceptions of deservingness” is critical. Many believe

African Americans no longer face much discrimination and are receiving unearned special favors. Indeed, whites who hold these beliefs often cite “reverse discrimination” as being a more serious problem…. [That sense] increases whites’ solidarity with other whites and opposition to minority groups….

Consistent with a long line of research showing that group interests are more potent politically than self-interest, economic anxiety was channeled more through white identity politics than it was through Trump supporters’ concern for their own well-being…. This is  “racialized economics”: the belief that undeserving groups are getting ahead while your group is left behind….

Economic insecurity was connected to partisan choices when it was refracted through racial grievances…. The dividing line between Clinton and Trump…was whether a racial minority deserved help….

After the election, Clinton acknowledged that her campaign “likely contributed to heightened racial consciousness.” “As a result,” she wrote,” some white voters may have decided I wasn’t on their side.” This is a tidy summary of what happened…. The campaign magnified this polarization…. It was also remarkable for how it crystallized the country’s identity crisis: sharp divisions on what America has become, and what it should be.

While reading about the backlash among Trump supporters to the ascendance of an African-American to the White House, I kept thinking about Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s work on Reconstruction’s attempt to promote racial justice by restructuring Southern society. White backlash led to Jim Crow and the restoration of white supremacy. Then, decades later, the civil rights movement, a Second Reconstruction, reversed some of that injustice and the election of Obama. That led to a second backlash, Trumpism.

Now, Trump has provoked another backlash, which Identity Politics identifies as “trickle-down tolerance.” Trump has exposed ugly sides of the American character and most Americans don’t like it. They want America to live up to its highest ideals. Trump’s statements “may have emboldened some people to act on their prejudice.” But overall

Trump was actually having the exact opposite effect on public opinion…. It is common for public opinion to shift against the president in what the political scientist Christopher Wlezien has call a “thermostatic” fashion…. From late 2015 through 2017, {compared to previously] more Americans rated Muslims favorably, thought that discrimination was a major cause of racial inequality, supported athletes kneeling, and thought gender discrimination and sexual harassment were serious problems.

And only distinct minorities of Americans support Trump’s signature border wall, perceive immigrants to be a burden, and want to decrease immigration.

But that shift has come at a cost. These changing attitudes on race, immigration, Islam, and gender were driven primarily by Democrats. The result has been accelerated partisan polarization over the same identity-inflected issues that helped make the 2016 election so divisive…. These growing divisions…threaten to make political conflict less about what the government should do and more about what it means to be an American.

In the American public writ large, there is also a definition of “acting like an American” that is inclusive. It defines American identity by values  — such as believing in the country’s ideals, working hard to achieve success, and contributing to your community — rather than by race, nationality, religion, or partisanship…. Political leaders…can also ask us to welcome others, to find common ground, and even to heal the country.

So far, it seems Democratic candidates for President may nurture this healing by leading with a focus on American values, rather than focusing on technocratic policy solutions. Policy is important, but values come first.

2 Responses to Trickle-Down Tolerance

  1. Sounds like a book worth reading. But the review doesn’t go into the way Clinton failed to address the genuine problems and grievances of working class white people. And her comment that those who would not vote for her were a “basket of deplorables…” I mean, really, how condescending can you get? Hopefully, the opposition to Trump will know better this time. Among the thousands of candidates for the Democratic nomination, some sound pretty good. Let’s hope they are as good as they sound, because our country is doomed otherwise.

    • Other than the obvious attempts, are you aware of attempts to address the genuine problems and grievances of working class white people, especially rural ones?

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