White racial resentment and the 2016 election

Yesterday, I got to hear Michael Tesler present about his forthcoming book with John Sides and Lynn Vavreck: Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America. I don’t want to give away the content based on yesterday’s presentation; the book is due early next year. But promotional materials already say: “Identity Crisis reveals how Trump’s victory was foreshadowed by changes in the Democratic and Republican coalitions that were driven by people’s racial and ethnic identities. The campaign then reinforced and exacerbated those cleavages as it focused on issues related to race, immigration, and religion.”

The 2016 election can’t have a single cause, but this book adds weight to the thesis that White racial identity played a major role–more so in 2016 than at any point since 1968. Tesler made me think of an argument by Manuel Pastor, who has noted that White identity peaked in California when Whites saw their majority control nearing its end. In 1994, Californians passed Prop. 187 to block undocumented people from getting state services and to establish a “citizenship screening system.” Governor Pete Wilson made support for Prop. 187 his hallmark issue and used it to win reelection. Incumbent Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein tried to position herself as a critic of immigration as well.

California is no utopia today, but defensive White identity seems to have passed its peak there. I suspect that facing the prospect of losing majority status triggered a sense of threat. Once Whites actually became a minority in California, the sky didn’t fall, and the sense of threat passed. Whites retain their social and economic advantages despite representing just 48% of the votes cast in the 2016 election. I would contrast Texas, where a White-majority coalition still dominates the electorate but the demographic trends are against them. In 2016, 57% of Texas voters were still White (and they preferred Trump by 43 points), but they must know their electoral control won’t last.

It would be valuable to look in more detail at major cities where Whites lost majority control after 1970. Often, White racial identity peaked around the point when the first Black mayor was elected, which marked a threat to White control. The next mayor was sometimes propelled by White backlash, but then a racially diverse coalition came to dominate, and most Whites adjusted to it.

Earlier this year, Pastor told the New York Times, “The United States just went through its Prop. 187 moment.” That period in California was ugly and lasted a while. Pastor asked, “Why go through all of our pain? That was no fun, and it dashed a lot of people’s lives. We underinvested in education. We over-imprisoned, so we got a lot of people locked out of the labor market. We broke apart a lot of families because of anti-immigrant sentiments. We did a lot of stupid things to ourselves.” The good news is that if the country follows California’s trajectory, we will ultimately reach a better place, but we need to get there much faster and with less damage.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • David Jacobs

    Southern states have followed a different trajectory, Populists and the labor movement in the nineteenth century built inter-racial coalitions that threatened to sustain the gains of Reconstruction. The elite response was violent repression with enough suppression of the vote to produce one party authoritarian government.

    I think Trump’s victories in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were produced by the limitation of voting and the demoralization of voters as much as by an increase in white identity. Michigan has faced the suspension of democratic government in the cities and defunding of basic infrastructure.

    • PeterLevine

      It’s worth checking out the book once it appears. It make a pretty strong empirical case for the importance of white resentment. That doesn’t fit my ideological priors or my preferred narrative, but the evidence should be taken seriously.