There was a favorite example I used in my classroom when we were discussing the challenges posed by living in a country whose citizens increasingly occupy wildly different realities: if I say this particular piece of furniture is a table, and you insist it’s a chair, how do we have a productive exchange about its use?
Americans are continually having that maddening–and worthless– conversation. But it has taken a long time for the people who live in the reality-based community to recognize the basis of the problem.
In the wake of the 2016 election, well-meaning observers grasped for rational, evidence-based reasons to explain votes for a man who exemplified everything those voters claimed to detest. It was economic distress. It was an effort to “blow up” a system that wasn’t working for them. It was an inability to cross party lines.
Some of us suspected what has since become too obvious to ignore: Trump’s racism resonated with Americans whose chosen reality was being threatened by the increasing intrusion of “uppity” women and people of color. In Trump voters’ reality, White Christians enjoyed an obvious entitlement to cultural dominance, and that dominance–the position of “real” Americans– was being eroded.
Most of my friends are liberals (although many of them would have been classified as conservatives before the political spectrum lurched so far to the right that sanity is now a “liberal” marker…), and many of them are simply too nice to believe what the data so clearly confirms: America is split between those who live in a world where people are people, no matter their gender, skin color or religion, and those whose worldview assigns worth solely on the basis of those categories.
The data is unambiguous. Just look at this recent report by Alan Abramowitz from Sabato’s Crystal Ball. The article was about the prospects of Democrats winning back White voters without college degrees, and Abramowitz concluded that appealing to the economic interests of White non-college voters wouldn’t be enough for Democrats to win back their support, because the realignment among those White voters isn’t being driven by economics.
If the increasingly obvious argument is correct– that “economic discontent has little to do with the flight of white working class voters from Democrats”– economic policies aren’t going to prompt their return. As Abramowitz notes, the research strongly suggests that the “main factor behind the shifting party allegiance of these voters is the success of Republican leaders like Donald Trump in appealing to the racial resentments and grievances of non-college white voters.”
In this article, I use evidence from the 2020 American National Election Study to examine the effects of various political attitudes on the candidate preferences of college and non-college white voters in the 2020 presidential election. In line with the arguments of racial resentment theorists, I find that economic insecurity had very little impact on white voter decision-making in 2020. However, I find that the rejection of the Democratic Party by white working class voters goes beyond racial resentment alone. Instead, I find that support for Donald Trump among white working class voters reflected conservative views across a wide range of policy issues including social welfare issues, cultural issues, racial justice issues, gun control, immigration, and climate change. In other words, the rejection of the Democratic Party by white working class voters is fundamentally ideological. This fact makes it very unlikely that Democrats will be able to win back large numbers of white working class voters by appealing to their economic self-interest.
Those “conservative views,” of course, are also driven by racial bias. Sociological research has demonstrated, for example, that negative views on social welfare are connected to the belief that (“lazy”) Black Americans will primarily benefit. In the body of his analysis, Abramowitz notes that non-college whites “leaned to the right in every issue area but especially on social welfare, racial justice, and immigration issues.”
Abramowitz applied a regression analysis to the data, and found that
Racial resentment and party identification are by far the strongest predictors of conservative ideology. Evangelical identification has a significant impact as well, but its effect is not nearly as strong as the effects of racial resentment and party ID. Family income has almost no effect on ideology and economic insecurity has a negative effect.
So–back to that argument over whether the furniture is a table or chair. How do we talk to (never mind debate) people who occupy a wildly different reality–not just the looney-tunes who take horse de-wormers and/or accept QAnon fantasies, but the seemingly normal Americans who harbor stubborn hatreds and resentments untethered to fact or evidence (or for that matter, the Christianity they proclaim)?