One of the greatest paradoxes in politics that has stirred up in the United States for several years has been trying to understand why a large portion of the working class began voting against its economic interests. In the 2016 election, economically and socially disadvantaged voters were willing to oppose redistributive policies designed to help when choosing to support Donal Trump. Although it makes no sense to support policies that will ultimately disadvantage you as a citizen, voters demonstrated that there is something more powerful than logic that can make them vote against their material self-interest. So, a lingering question that arises from the 2016 election is: what is the matter with many American voters?
In a perfect political world, we can dream about decisions being exceptionally rooted in logic and empirical knowledge. However, politics has consistently demonstrated that it is not always rational decisions that are made, but decisions mobilized by emotions. An interesting part about Trump’s presidency is that many voters who delivered him to the White House will ultimately suffer from his policies. Trump advocated for small government policies such as tax cuts and reducing public assistance. Most of his proposed policies heavily skewed towards the rich’s gains rather than the working class’s benefit. Statistically, working-class voters will not benefit from tax cuts policies. If we relate it directly to what will better them off economically, these groups of citizens should support big government policies commonly advocated by the Democratic party. After all, Democrats are the ones who support higher minimum wages, expanded unemployment insurance, generous Social Security, and government-sponsored health care. On the contrary, the Republican party is not much of a material friend. So, why did economically hardship voters who need and use public services still voted for Trump who wanted to cut those very services?
A prominent explanation for the paradox is the increasing cultural division in America’s politics and each party’s approach to it. Mutz uses the status threat theory to accurately describe the illogical behavior of relatively poor individuals who supported Trump . She describes the status threat as the fear of white Americans being taken away from their status quo . They fear that minority groups might take their spot on the social ladder and undermine their historical majority-group power. The theory embraces a type of discrimination where instead of perceiving minority groups as inferior, citizens perceive them as powerful enough to threaten the equilibrium of their status quo .
Over the last 30 years, the US has experienced many demographic changes. As immigration has become greater, minority groups have become more predominant. Riviera explains that a critical element of immigration is that it is noticeable and salient . This suggests that people can easily notice when immigration is happening. The rising demographic change is the fuel for the status threat theory. White Americans are anxious about their status quo because they feel, perceive, and see in real life how they are being replaced by the entrance of new social groups into the picture. The status threat theory becomes extremely powerful because it involves a psychological mindset. It is rooted in emotion and the feeling of fear.
Now, why did people love Trump? The very first reason for his support is his ability to appeal to the voter’s emotions. In other words, to tap into the status threat fear of many citizens. Trump had a radical vision of immigration and advocated for radical policies toward the rising demographic change in America. As a populist leader, he wisely used weaponizing rhetoric to trigger people and tap into their emotional pools. According to Amanda Taub, when social change and physical threats coincide at the same time, it could awaken a potentially enormous population of Americans who demand extreme policies in their view to meet the rising threats . Whites are projected to become a minority group over the next few decades. This fear has increased the salience of issues such as race and immigration. Issues that Trump was able to tap into with excellency with his rhetoric.
However, the status threat theory is not the sole factor of the mystery. Hochschild’s argument about the rising resentment towards minority groups also contributes to explain the great paradox. The deep story suggests that the American Dream has been slowly taken away from many citizens . White Americans feel left behind because while they are waiting in line to achieve the American Dream, minority groups are cutting the lines and pulling them further away. They feel that although they are working hard, the dream of achieving prosperity is passing them by. It is something emotionally felt and seen as a moral unfairness . These citizens feel like strangers in their own land because they conceive themselves as not being respected . Trump, however, gave them respect when he acknowledged their cultural values by rejecting minority groups. By publicly denigrating minorities, he made these left behind citizens feel emotionally well by legitimizing what previously would have been seen as unacceptable.
The relationship between Mutz and Hochschild is that voters who supported Trump cared about cultural-oriented issues rather than economic ones. Trump’s supporters not only feel that their status quo is in danger, but also have accumulated resentment towards minorities from feeling left behind because of them. These citizens looked up to a leader that validated their thoughts. The key to explaining what is the matter with American voters is to understand that politics in America has switched from an economic-based one to a value-oriented one. Pipa Norris’ argument about the change from the materialistic to the post-materialistic world adds up to explain the shift in the axis of politics. The clash of cultural ideas between the older, more conservative generations (materialistic) with the younger, more liberal generations (post materials) creates the desire for materialists to retreat toward more extreme views . Citizens are willing to harm their economic interests just because they believe cultural issues are more significant .
The working-class voters are partnering up with their own rival and considering it their ally because of the dominant role cultural indicators play in politics. Highly saline issues explain why lower socioeconomic status voters are willing to vote against their material self-interest. If the Democratic party wants to be successful, they need to stop underestimating the power of cultural values and emotions. Otherwise, we might see, just like Kansas, how other states turn from Blue to Red.
Works cited Diana Mutz, “Status Threat, Not Economic Hardship, Explains 2016 Presidential Vote,” PNAS, March, 2018.  Zoltan Hajnal and Michael Rivera, “Immigration, Latinos, and White Partisan Politics: The New Democratic Defection,” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 58, No. 4, 2014.  Amanda Taub, “The Rise of American Authoritarianism,” Vox, March 1, 2016.  Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 2016. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: The New Press. Chapters 1, 9 and 15.  Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, “Trump and the Populist Authoritarian Parties: The Silent Revolution in Reverse,” Perspectives on Politics: American Political Science Association, June 2017.  Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Cultural Backlash, chapter 10—”Trump’s America.”
Hi Cristi, thanks for writing this piece; I enjoyed reading it. I particularly liked your inclusion of Hochschild’s “deep story” and how it relates to Trump, because I think that analysis is particularly accurate, including – as you mentioned – Trump’s appeals to these voters’ feelings that hadn’t been validated proved effective. I think another interesting input to include in this discussion that my class read this year is Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. It’s another interesting analysis of why some (rural) voters vote against their own economic self-interest. It includes an analysis of the “rural consciousness” and how the perception of being rural and hardworking and isolated from “city people” creates a sort of shared bond among these people, along with a shared distaste for the urban elite. This is another line of reasoning that helps support the illogical – as you put it – choices of some voters.
Additionally, I wrote a blog piece on a similar topic that you may find interesting: https://www.democratic-erosion.com/2022/05/03/voting-with-the-head-or-the-heart-empathy-as-a-tool-to-promote-discourse/. One other one that was recently published here was this one (https://www.democratic-erosion.com/2022/04/30/is-empathy-really-an-effective-tool-for-reducing-polarisation/), which disagrees with some of the conclusions I draw about empathy’s role in fighting some of the polarization-related issues we face.