This op-ed is based on a report by the same authors, published on May 13, 2020.
Many people are alarmed by the renewed salience of racial identification in American politics. After declining largely into electoral irrelevance over the second half of the twentieth century, race steadily returned as an electoral force in the 2000s. Indeed, according to Identity Crisis, a prominent recent accounting of the political science literature, “racialized economics” was the decisive factor in securing Donald Trump the Presidency in 2016. What explains this revival?
In a new background paper for the Brookings Institution, we argue that rising anxiety coupled with declining sources of social support, especially in left-behind parts of America, are at least partly responsible.
Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a body of literature from clinical and social psychology, argues that people have three basic psychological needs: for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy is the feeling of being volitional and in charge of your life. Competence is a sense of skillfulness at tasks you need to flourish. And relatedness reflects security and fulfilment from one’s social connections.
Empirical work in SDT demonstrates that nourishing basic psychological needs promotes wellbeing in the form of vitality, positive mood, and life satisfaction, among other items. Similarly, thwarted needs promote illbeing in the form of depression, anxiety, and other psychopathologies.
Those whose needs are threatened or unmet will try to compensate. We speculate that negative economic shocks in the form of factory closures and cultural shocks in the form of declining status among whites, Christians, and men, have undermined autonomy and competence in rust belt communities.
The drivers of these shocks are mostly exogenous to the affected communities. Deindustrialization is a consequence of globalization and technological change. Status threat is partially a product of cultural changes and innovation in coastal, liberal, cosmopolitan regions.
As they have little control over these threats to their autonomy and competence, voters in affected counties look to bolster relatedness instead. They rally around group identities and look for social support.
This is a common response to perceived threats observed in studies of so-called “worldview defense”. Social psychologists have noted that people induced through a variety of means into a state of anxiety display exaggerated loyalty to their in-groups, including race and nation, and disdain for outgroups.
People are more likely to identify with their racial in-group when other groups are not available in their community. Unfortunately, so-called social capital—a conception of community health—has declined precipitously across America since the 1970s. This is especially the case in the swing states of the rust belt that were instrumental to Trump’s success.
Trump spoke to the anxieties of these electorates with his anti-globalization message and the nostalgia of his slogan: “Make America Great Again”. He activated and leveraged the need for relatedness and worldview defense among these voters with his racial and nationalistic rhetoric and policies, notably “build a wall”.
In our empirical analysis using a large, representative sample of Americans from the Gallup Daily Poll, we found that Trump was more successful in counties with relatively high rates of anxiety and relatively low levels of relatedness. Where community is strong, people don’t need racial identification to feel secure.
Perhaps more importantly, we found that racial animus on its own, measured using the intensity of Google searches for the N-word, was positively associated with Trump’s vote share. But this association lost significance and was replaced by relatedness once we introduced it into the model. It seems that rising racial animus is not so much about prejudice. It is about racial identification and solidarity to feel part of a group for social support (though prejudice may be a second-order effect).
Importantly and curiously, we found a strong, positive association between social capital and Trump’s vote share. We use the Joint Economic Committee’s definition of social capital, which items to capture community health using items like the ratio of NGOs to population in a county. Our result reflects cohesive rural and religious counties that typically vote Republican—it is a partisan effect. It suggests that racial animus did not play a role in these counties breaking Republican.
In an importance robustness check of our results, we replicated our analysis for the Republican party primaries in 2016. Only worry and relatedness where significantly associated with Trump’s performance in these primaries. This suggests that social capital is associated with Republican party partisanship, but not Trump specifically.
One study should not be the basis for strong policy conclusions. However, we will cautiously make three points. First, while racial prejudice may follow from rising racial identification, it is a consequence, not a cause. The main drivers are fear and social disintegration. Anti-racism efforts aimed at formerly moderate whites should thus be directed at these psychological triggers, rather than racism itself.
Second, policymakers must become more sophisticated in their valuation of community. Sustaining community health against economic headwinds is often financially costly and raises complex normative issues. But the costs of following a crude economic (neo)liberalism approach arguably outweighs the benefits.
Finally, cultural actors like intellectuals, artists, and politicians urgently need to refresh shared identities that can reach across the many fissures in contemporary American life.
The authors did not receive financial support from any firm or person for this article or from any firm or person with a financial or political interest in this article. The authors are not currently officers, directors, or board members of any organization with a financial or political interest in this article.