It has long been established that party polarization can contribute to democratic erosion. As Steven Levitsky and Deniel Ziblatt have pointed out, when extremists emerge as serious electoral contenders, it is imperative that mainstream politicians unite with their ideologically distant opponents in order to preserve the democratic political order . However, with an intense partisan divide, politicians might view victory over their opponents as more important than shutting out a would-be autocrat, and consequently join forces with said autocrat with whom they share some ideological similarities.
Given the relationship between polarization and democratic erosion, it is understandable why many are still worried about the future of democracy in American after seeing hyperpartisanship on full display in the recent election. Against this backdrop, it is important to take a look at white women, especially suburban white women, and why they could act as a buffer against party polarization and even democratic erosion.
Political scientists have understood that the impact of party polarization can be reduced by cross-cutting cleavages, which are attitudes and identifies not commonly found in a person’s party . In other words, if a voter is a member of a political party and a member of a social group that is typically associated with the opposing party (a crosse-pressured voter), the impact of partisanship can be dampened .
White women are a great example of cross-pressured voters because while they have consistently voted for the Republican candidate in presidential elections since 1952 (with the exception of Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton), women as a whole group tends to lean towards the Democratic Party. As Lilliana Mason notes in Uncivil Agreement, having cross-cutting racial, gender, regilious, and partisan identities tend to allow voters to be more prepared in engaging socially with their partisan opponents compared to voters with highly aligned social identities . Hence, cross-pressured voters are an important source of flexibility in American electoral politics and can even act as a buffer agaisnt polarization .
The perceived flexibility of white women, especially suburban white women, is very evident in this election cycle. Various news outlets and magazines have produced coverage on suburban white women switching from Trump to Biden, such as this New York Times article that reads, “In 2016, white women in the suburbs helped deliver President Trump the White House. Four years later, they could be the ones to take it away from him.” In fact, President Trump himself has recognized suburban white women as a highly responsive group who might turn their backs against him. At a rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, he openly implored for the support of suburban women—most of whom are white—by saying, “[C]an I ask you to to me a favor, suburban women? Will you please like me? Please. Please. I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?”
Their responsiveness likely did not exist only in theory or the media’s imaginery. Four years ago, Trump won suburban voters 47 percent to 45 percent, yet he lost them 48 percent to 50 percent in 2020. While exit polls do not break down suburban voters by race and gender, a five-thirty-eight analysis of polling data suggests that suburban white women are likely the reason that this shift happened: 54 percent of them supported Biden and 45 percent surpported Trump.
Even more importantly, the five-thirty-eight analysis also shows that among likely Republican voters in suburbs, white women disagreed with Trump’s policy on immigration or broke away with the Republican party-line more so than white men. For example, while 45 percent of white men supported child seperation at the border, only 25% of white women did. On the issue of deportation, 64 percent of white men supported the deportation of all undocumented immigrants and 52 percent of white women did. While this poll only focuses on the issue of immigration policy, it offers a glimpse into how the cross-cutting identities of these white women in the suburbs might have contributed to their tendency to break away from the party they were leaning towards, which puts them in a position to mitigate party polarization in electoral politics.
Given than suburban white women can act as buffers against party polarization, it is likely that they could play a role in deterring democratic erosion too. When mainstream politicians have failed their responsibility as gatekeepings, it is crucial to have a group of voters that is flexible and responsive to changing social conditions and large enough to make an impact on electoral outcomes. Their cross-cutting identities and willingness to break away from their parties would be key in voting out autocrats. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018).  Lilliana Mason, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).
I very much enjoyed reading this blog post and thought that it was very well written and researched. I have been very aware of the partisanship in the United States and the different demographics who tend to disagree with each other but have not considered the demographics that might be more flexible when it comes to policy and partisanship. I think that looking at areas where people overlap rather than where people are divided could help cure some of the partisanship in the United States as well as create dialogue with people who might not have had conversations.
Hey Darcy, interesting post! This recent election has proven to be a very interesting one to study, especially in terms of voting demographics. At the beginning of your post, you mention the relationship between party polarization and democratic erosion. Would you say that polarization is a symptom of democratic erosion or a cause, and at what point does the level of polarization become threatening? Looking at suburban white women as buffers against polarization is quite an interesting analysis. I was wondering what the basis of your argument would be and I would agree that the importance of cross-cutting cleavages proves suburban white women’s role as buffers. What are some examples of cross-cutting cleavages for these women that would be strong enough to make the shift from voting Republican to Democrat? Likewise, are there other significant issue areas in addition to immigration in which women differ from Republican men? And what about women living in rural areas? Overall, I think the idea that suburban white women are a source of flexibility is really cool – if we didn’t have sources like them, electoral results would always map onto the same demographic and would always be the same.
I really enjoyed reading your blog post about how suburban white women vote. I think you make a compelling argument that this voting group acts as “buffers against party polarization” and will continue to do so. I think these types of analyses highlight intersectionality of voting groups. Is this area of research an interest of yours? If so, have you had a chance to read this piece on “The Ivanka Voter”? I remember back in 2016 it made a big impression on me. (https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/annehelenpetersen/meet-the-ivanka-voter)
Hi Darcy, I really liked reading your post regarding the voting practices of suburban white women. I strongly agree with your statement that ‘it is crucial to have a group of voters that is flexible and responsive to changing social conditions and large enough to make an impact on electoral outcomes. ‘ One thing that I’d be interested to learn more about is what makes this group of women more likely to act as ‘buffers’ than women in rural areas or in cities. Furthermore like Madison in the post above id be interested to learn whether this groups of white suburban women have enough political power that could strongly influence the outcome of the election.
Darcy, first of all, I love the title. It drew me in immediately. Second of all, this was well-written and you articulated your points quite well. I’ve always been interested in voting demographics, and this election’s turnout was fascinating. I have never read a piece just about the flexibility of the white suburban woman. The data you presented was interesting – especially about family separation at the border. I knew that there would be a difference in opinions between men and women, but I did not realize that it would differ that greatly. Your conclusion left me wondering about women of color and communities of color that have a harder time gaining access to voting. Voter suppression is a large threat to our democracy, as the voices that are being ignored are those that would most likely act as another defense against democratic erosion. While suburban white women have shown their flexibility when it comes to voting across party lines, if voting was made more accessible in communities of color, would Biden have had an even larger turnout?