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Race and the Race for the White House: On Social Research in the Age of Trump

Abstract

As it became clear that Donald Trump had a real base of political support, even as analysts consistently underestimated his electoral prospects, they grew increasingly fascinated with the question of who was supporting him (and why). However, researchers have also tended to hold strong negative opinions about Trump, and have approached research with uncharitable priors about the kind of person who would support him and what they would be motivated by. This essay presents a series of case studies showing how analyses of the roles of race and racism in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election seem to have been systematically distorted as a result. However, motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, prejudicial study design, and failure to address confounds are not limited to questions about race (a similar essay could have been done on the alleged role of sexism/ misogyny in the 2016 cycle, for instance). And while Trump does seem to generate particularly powerful antipathy from researchers – perhaps exacerbating negative tendencies – ideologically-driven errors likely permeate a good deal of social research. Presented evidence suggests that research with strong adversarial or advocacy orientations may be most susceptible to systemic distortion. Activist scholars and their causes may also be among those most adversely impacted by the resultant erosion of research reliability and credibility. Ultimately, however, these are problems which all social scientists must remain vigilant against, and which we all have a stake in working to address.

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Notes

  1. There is seems to be a peculiar asymmetry on social research related to racial discourse: while it is taken for granted that many statements which seem to be about other topics can really be about race (e.g. Bonilla-Silva 2017), this principle does not seem to be reflexive. No statement that seems even tangentially related to race is understood to really be about anything else – especially if the remarks in question can be used as evidence of racism or xenophobia (in which case they must also reflect something pathological about the person who uttered them). This interpretive tendency seems to play a key role in driving uncharitable interpretations of the words and actions of Trump and his supporters.

  2. Those from disadvantaged groups are often held to have higher moral standing too. As Richard Rorty described it (1994, p. 104–5):

    The cultural Left has a vision of an America in which the white patriarchs have stopped voting and have left all the voting to be done by members of previously victimized groups, people who have somehow come into possession of more foresight and imagination than the selfish suburbanites. These formerly oppressed and newly powerful people are expected to be as angelic as the straight white males were diabolical.

  3. e.g. Atran 2012

  4. Rather than promoting epistemological humility or flexibility, increased levels of knowledge and/or intelligence tend to render people significantly less likely to change their beliefs when faced with evidence or arguments that contradict them (Hatemi and McDermott 2016; West et al. 2012; Kahan 2013). This is in part because those who are more intellectually or rhetorically capable are just better-equipped to punch holes in inconvenient facts or arguments, or finding ways to justify ‘sticking to their guns’ regardless (Flynn et al. 2017). However, experts also tend to be far more ideological in their thinking, and far more extreme in their ideological leanings, than the general public (Achen and Bartels 2016; Kinder and Kalmoe 2017) – most of whom are not particularly ideological (RePass 2008). Highly-educated people also tend to be more politically partisan (Joslyn and Haider-Markel 2014) and are more likely to engage in political research and communication for the purpose of self-gratification (Hersh 2017).

  5. Of course, political and ideological commitments also deeply inform how researchers understand what the most pressing social problems are, what the best methods and frameworks are to understand those problems -- and ultimately, that sorts of interventions are best suited to address agreed-upon problems (Kahan and Braman 2006).

  6. We are using Google Scholar because it has been demonstrated as being perhaps the most comprehensive measure for citation tracking – especially for the social sciences (Harzing and Alakangas 2016). However, among other limitations, there is a “lag” between the time a citing article is published and the time that citation shows up in Google Scholar’s search results. As a result, we expect that the “true” citation count for all of these works may be significantly higher than indicated here. The quoted figures should be understood as the “floor” estimate of their impact.

  7. The First White President" also appears in Coates' (2017c) bestselling anthology, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. The book has been cited at least 9 times so far (Google Scholar). One other way to understand the impact of Coates’ thought for scholarship about the election would be to look at co-occurrence between “Donald Trump” and “Ta-Nehisi Coates” in post-2016 scholarship. More than 200 results appear (Google Scholar).

  8. The reason Anderson’s book is not the primary subject of analysis (instead of Coates’ essay) is because it was written and published just prior to the 2016 U.S. general election and is not about that election per se. However, in interviews after the election Anderson has repeatedly emphasized her conviction that the ‘white rage’ thesis best explains its outcome (e.g. Goodman 2017).

    The book was based on her widely-circulated Washington Post essay (see Anderson 2014). Both the article and the book have been highly influential – both in the academy and beyond. Her book has already received at least 50 citations (Google Scholar), and the original article an additional 5 citations (Google Scholar). Checking for co-occurrence between the terms “Donald Trump” and “white rage” resulted in more than 80 results since 2016 (Google Scholar). As an indicator of its popular success, the original article was also liked or shared more than 385 k times on Facebook. Therefore, given the similarity of their overall theses, mutatis mutandis, the critiques applied to Coates’ essay should also be considered in evaluating the relevance of Anderson’s work vis a vis the 2016 general election.

  9. For an exploration of how the ‘white working class’ is misrepresented and misunderstood in popular discourses – including as it relates to their alleged racism and xenophobia -- see Williams (2017).

  10. In fact, while Trump won most income categories among whites rather decisively, including many upper-middle class and the low-range of the upper-classes, Clinton overwhelmingly won the white vote in all income brackets over $175 k (Goldberg 2018). Trump may have (as Coates put it) “formed a broad coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker” – but Joseph the derivatives trader et al. voted for Clinton. Put another way, the 2016 election was not an instance of the ‘sociological wages of whiteness’ pushing working class whites to unite with white elites against ‘others.’ In this case, the preferences of white elites seem to have been confounded. See footnote 21 for further elaboration on this point from Wood’s study.

  11. The other 30% of why Clinton lost includes differences between people who sat out the previous race but voted in this one (or first time voters) – who went more for Trump than Clinton in some pivotal states and districts. Also, there were those who did vote in the last election but sat this race out: decreased turnout in 2016 as compared to 2012 disproportionately (and adversely) affected Democrats in key districts and states. These suggest an “enthusiasm deficit” among Democratic constituencies was the key driver of the 2016 electoral outcome, beyond Democratic defections.

  12. Obama himself has suggested that he likely would have won against Trump (Schmidt 2016) and blamed Clinton’s loss on her campaign taking key votes for granted (Thrush and McCaskill 2016). Our analysis suggests that Obama’s story fits much better with the available data than the prevailing narratives about race and racism.

  13. ;According to Gallup, even a year into Trump’s presidency Barack Obama remained America’s ‘most admired man’ (Jones 2017).

  14. Most of the ‘lost’ Republican white votes did not go to Hillary Clinton. They went to third-party candidates instead. This is further evidence that the electoral outcome was not driven by antipathy for Obama, or even support for Trump, but largely by public aversion to Hillary Clinton.

  15. Most prominent white supremacists did strongly support Trump (e.g. Holley and Larimer 2016). However, just as the endorsement of prominent neocons didn’t entail that most Clinton supporters were neocons or neocon sympathizers, the support Trump got from white supremacists does not mean most Trump voters were, themselves, white supremacists or sympathizers. Put another way, while most ethnic nationalists likely did vote for Trump (just as most neocons likely did vote for Clinton), it would be a mistake to assume that they represent his primary base – especially in light of the aforementioned confounds.

  16. An analysis by Kriner and Shen (2017) suggests that Clinton may actually have lost because of her hawkishness. Their analysis suggests that the areas that flipped from Obama to Trump suffered the most casualties from recent U.S. wars abroad. Even controlling for race, gender and other popular explanations, this relationship remains significant. They posit that Hillary’s pronounced support for past interventions (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) and declared intent to escalate U.S. involvement in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere during her term was unappealing to those sectors of American society that have experienced loss from war – especially relative to Trump’s campaign position of disentangling from the affairs of other nations and focusing on “America First.”

  17. As with any scale-based analysis, a good deal rests on which variables are selected to define concepts like “authoritarianism.” For instance, a recent study in Personality and Individual Differences finds that both Trump and Clinton supporters seem to be driven by support for authoritarianism – albeit different strains of authoritarianism and to different degrees (Ludeke et al. 2018). Within the Democratic coalition, Clinton supporters were shown to be dramatically more authoritarian across the board than Sanders voters. In terms of the general election, the authors’ “authoritarian submission” scale predicted support for Clinton over Trump, while the other two variants on authoritarianism (conventionalism, authoritarian aggression) predicted support for Trump.

  18. People’s actions and interactions very commonly, and often sharply, diverge from their espoused values and preferences (Jerolmack and Khan 2014). To the extent that there is not a tight correspondence between self-reported attitudes and actual racist behaviors, it becomes problematic to interpret a given action as racially motivated just because many people who carried out that action appear to be ‘racist’ in surveys.

  19. There is evidence that ‘racist’ views were also fairly common among Clinton supporters (e.g. Voorhees 2016).

  20. Because Wood’s study was not designed to compare the relative significance of these factors among Republican voters – but instead to test whether these factors made one more likely to vote Democrat or Republican -- even the more careful description of his findings presented above would remain somewhat prejudiced by the extreme drop in the SRS indicators among Democrats. In order to eliminate this effect, Wood could run a multivariate regression testing income, symbolic racism and authoritarianism restricted only to Republican voters across time.

    Under this method, it may still be the case that racial attitudes explain more than authoritarianism or income for the 2016 race (in part because even though there was a drop in symbolically racist sentiment among Republicans, there was also a drop in authoritarian sentiment, and a large movement in terms of elite voting preferences towards the Democrats – so if these latter shifts ended up being more dramatic than the drop in SRS indicators, symbolic racism could still end up looking relatively more significant than these other factors as compared to previous years). However, the significance of symbolic racism would certainly appear to be much, much smaller -- perhaps to the point of negligibility – without the Democratic drop driving the results.

  21. For instance, a scale which would likely predict support for Trump over Clinton far better than racism or authoritarianism might include measures for “opposition to the status quo,” “opposition to the political establishment,” “desire for major social change,” and/or “distrust of major social institutions.” Indeed, Wood’s own data suggests that the antipathy between Trump voters and social elites was mutual: “the degree to which the wealthy disdained the 2016 Republican candidate was without historical precedent.”

  22. There are model syllabi being prominently circulated and widely put to use for teaching entire college courses about how the election of Trump is “a product of the American lineage of racism, sexism, nativism, and imperialism” (e.g. Connolly and Blain 2016). Again, it is taken for granted that those who voted for him must have been driven by some kind of moral depravity, false consciousness or other character flaws – and the purpose of the course seems to be to reinforce this view of the world in the minds of students, and equip them to better advance this narrative outside the classroom. There seems to be no robust or good-faith engagement with confounds or alternative explanations.

  23. According to Google Scholar, the essay has only been cited twice so far. However, this is certainly a grave underestimation. For instance, Hochschild’s response to a review of her book in the International Journal of Politics has been cited more than 200 times (Google Scholar). It seems likely that the book that said review was about made a much larger scholarly impact than Hochschild’s response that review. To understand Hochschild’s impact on thinking about the election we can check for co-occurrence between the terms “Donald Trump” and “Hochschild” – resulting in over 500 hits since 2016 (Google Scholar). The results seem to refer overwhelmingly to Strangers in their Own Land.

  24. Of course, ethnographic research is just as susceptible to bias of study design as quantitative or historical analyses – for instance, in the selection of which cases to study, which anecdotes to include or omit, how these anecdotes are edited and framed, etc.

  25. The overwhelming majority of voters, regardless of their political affiliation (or even their education level), seem to possess very little knowledge about the particular candidates or issues they are voting on. Indeed, most seem to lack even a rudimentary understanding of fundamental civic institutions and processes (Somin 2016). In other words, it is unlikely that most of those who vote for the candidates and policies Hochschild approves of are significantly more rational or politically informed than those who do not.

  26. Tetlock (2017) has shown that while most analysts are pretty bad at prediction, those who have some particular ideological or activist axe to grind are especially terrible – (literally) about as accurate in their forecasting as dart-throwing monkeys.

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Acknowledgements

There were many people who provided essential feedback and advice for this work at different stages in its development. It would be impossible to thank everyone. However, I would be remiss if I did not flag a handful of scholars who were particularly important for bringing this essay to fruition. At my home department, Columbia University Sociology, Shamus Khan and Diane Vaughn played critical roles in helping me develop and refine the argument and framing. Daniel D’Amico of Brown University’s Political Theory Project also provided very helpful feedback and encouragement in the formative stage of this project. Finally, I would like to thank Heterodox Academy for workshopping the paper with a group of scholars from different disciplinary and ideological backgrounds. I am particularly indebted to Jonathan Haidt (NYU Stern), Deb Mashek (Psychology, Harvey Mudd), Chris Martin (Sociology, Emory University) and Raffi Grinberg (Carroll School of Management, Boston College) for their questions, comments and criticisms in that process.

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al Gharbi, M. Race and the Race for the White House: On Social Research in the Age of Trump. Am Soc 49, 496–519 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12108-018-9373-5

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12108-018-9373-5

Keywords

  • Sociology of knowledge
  • Political sociology
  • 2016 Election
  • Donald Trump
  • Political bias
  • Race / racism