One of the problems with the current political climate is that, if you’re anything like me, your experience of the daily news cycle is much like your childhood relationship with horror movies. For more than a year now, my tactics for staying informed have switched between (i) watching the TV news through the gaps between my fingers, while cowering behind the sofa, and (ii) avoiding current affairs altogether in favor of a good book. (Top reading tip of the year so far: the wonderful and quite odd Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.)
The problem with this approach to self-care in the face of an exploding clown car posing as a government is that one might on occasion miss something that is both serious and important. Last week was one of those weeks when, distracted by porn stars, pay-offs and pee tapes, one could easily have missed a signficant report published at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The report was written by Diana Mutz, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, and edited by Jennifer Richeson, professor of psychology at Yale. I mention those specifics simply to show that even those who don’t like the conclusions of the study will nevertheless have to admit that the academics responsible have the bona fides to arrive at them.
Those who are interested in the methodologies of academic research can get their kicks by reading about the details in the above link. For the rest of us, my simplistic summary is that Mutz commissioned two rounds of interviews of a large, representative cross-section of respondents, one just before the 2012 election and another with the same people exactly four years later, just before the 2016 election. She then analyzed the results in detail to ascertain the reasons for the shift in voting behavior.
The starting point for the analysis was a now well-known piece of logic that Mutz calls the “left behind” thesis. This will be familiar to anyone who paid attention to the 2016 election and its aftermath. Countless journalists and political pundits took to print and to the airwaves to persuade us – as Mutz points out, with very little data – that voters had switched to the GOP and to Trump in particular because they were tired of being left behind economically. The depressed areas of the Rust Belt, so the story goes, had voted for the candidate who seemed to be most likely to understand their economic struggles and do something to restore their former glories.
The problem with this theory, argues Mutz, is that “left behind” reasoning is almost entirely absent when the voting intentions of real people are examined. She points out that evidence of voting in line with personal economic hardships is extremely rare and, contrary to popular opinion, that truth remained unchanged in 2016.
So, if that’s not it, what is? Whilst Mutz found almost no correlation between voting intentions and the left behind thesis, she found an overwhelming correlation with a phenomenon she summarizes as “dominant group status threat”.
Again, those who want the serious academic version can find it via the above link. My simple explanation of dominant group status threat goes like this: I’m a white, Christian man, and we all know that white, Christian men are in charge around here, don’t we? In other words, I have nothing against women, non-white folks or foreigners per se, as long as they stay in their proper place and don’t threaten my God-given right to be in charge.
Interestingly, Mutz says that this sense of dominant group threat doesn’t apply just to personal beliefs but also to foreign affairs. From an American perspective, this means that those white, Christian men who take the above view about their personal politics are also most likely to believe that the status of the US as the world’s dominant country is under threat from non-white and non-Christian countries, because of what they perceive as unfair trading arrangements, for example.
After she has laid out the results of the study in considerable detail, Mutz concludes with this: “Political uprisings are often about downtrodden groups rising up to assert their right to better treatment and more equal life conditions relative to high-status groups. The 2016 election, in contrast, was an effort by members of already dominant groups to assure their continued dominance and by those in an already powerful and wealthy country to assure its continued dominance.”
For me, that is the most succinct and believable explanation yet of why so many people were prepared to hold their noses and cast their vote for a vulgar, bigoted narcissist who has already done much to encourage ugly, jingoistic nationalism in a country that needs anything but that.
The obvious next question is to ask what can be done about this. As Mutz herself points out, attitudes of this sort – which are closely correlated with low levels of education – seem like a more formidable foe than economic hardship. Practical measures can be taken, of course, to tackle economic issues. But what, if anything, can be done about a lurch towards nationalism and away from diversity (and multilateralism) based on fear and insecurity?
In short, I have no idea. But neither do I believe that such attitudes are held by the majority of people. They are not, for example, embraced by most younger voters, only 40% of whom turned out in 2016. They might more often be held by the oldest voters, whose turnout was closer to 70%.
Even if we can’t change some deeply-felt insecurities, we can certainly do more to encourage everyone to turn out to vote when the times comes. If we fail to do so, then we might have to spend another six years, and not just two years, hiding behind the sofa.