Fear of losing status, not economic hardship, drove voters in 2016 presidential election

Credit: Karen Arnold/public domain

It has been a well-worn postmortem of the 2016 presidential election: the white working class, having faced job losses and stagnant wages under President Obama, voted with their pocketbooks when they chose Donald Trump.

Strong new evidence published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences supports the idea that many Trump voters are feeling left behind, but not for reasons related to personal financial problems or economic anxiety about the future.

Based on survey data from a nationally representative panel of the same 1,200 American voters polled in both 2012 and 2016, University of Pennsylvania professor Diana C. Mutz found that traditionally high-status Americans, namely whites, feel their status in America and the world is threatened by America's growing and a perceived loss of U.S. global dominance. Under threat by these engines of change, America's socially dominant groups increased their support in 2016 for the candidate who most emphasized reestablishing status hierarchies of the past.

Mutz, the Samuel A. Stouffer Professor of Political Science and Communication and Director of the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics, followed voters over a four-year period to assess their changing views of trade, the threat posed by China, their sense of group threat, and perceptions of their own personal finances, as well as experiences of unemployment and the economic conditions in their local communities. As in previous elections, most voters in 2016 simply supported the candidate of the same party that they voted for in 2012. But the key to understanding the 2016 outcome lies in what changed from 2012 to 2016 that predicted changing vote choice.

Trump's rhetoric during the 2016 election capitalized on the fears of Americans who currently enjoy dominant status in society, most notably those who were white, Christian, male, or some combination of the three. Many of those Americans, Mutz found, switched from voting for the Democrat in 2012 to the Republican in 2016. Particularly those who found societal changes threatening voted for Trump in an effort to maintain their perceived social dominance in the country and the world.

The status threat experienced by many Americans was not only about their place in American society. In contrast to the conventional wisdom in that "voting ends at the water's edge"—that international affairs don't matter to how people vote—Mutz found that Americans feel increasingly threatened by the interdependence of the United States with other countries. Their sense that America is no longer the dominant superpower it once was influenced their vote in 2016.

"Political uprisings are often about downtrodden groups rising up to assert their right to better treatment and more equal life conditions relative to high-status groups," Mutz writes. "The 2016 election, in contrast, was an effort by members of already dominant groups to assure their continued dominance and by those in an already powerful and wealthy country to assure its continued dominance."

Interestingly, Mutz found that Americans' own positions on issues such as trade, China, and immigration did not change dramatically between 2012 and 2016. In fact, Americans on the whole became more open to citizenship for undocumented immigrants than in 2012.

What did shift, however, were their perceptions of where the Republican candidate stood in 2016 relative to 2012, particularly on issues such as free trade and the threat posed by China. The greater the distance voters perceived between their own positions and those of the Democratic candidate on these issues, and the closer they were to the Republican candidate's position, the more likely they were to switch their votes from how they had voted in 2012.

Despite exhaustive data analysis, the study did not show any relationship between financial hardship and voting for Trump. In addition, those whose financial situations declined between 2012 and 2016 relative to others' economic well-being were no more likely to switch to Trump.

Trump's victory also occurred during a time of economic recovery, during which unemployment was falling and economic indicators were trending positively. Those who had lost a job between 2012 and 2016 were no more likely to support Trump than Clinton. But those who felt besieged by globalization and the rise of a majority-minority America were quite likely to vote for Trump. For example, those who thought whites were discriminated against more than blacks, Christians more than Muslims, and men more than women were most likely to support Trump.

In much of the punditry surrounding the election, lack of a college education was noted as a strong predictor of support for Trump, and often cited as evidence that voters were responding to their own pocketbooks. Education, Mutz explains, is also the strongest predictor of support for international trade. Negative attitudes toward racial and ethnic diversity, she points out, are also correlated with low levels of education. Once attitudes toward racial diversity and the perceived threats posed by globalization are taken into account, education no longer matters.

Post-election narratives structure people's understanding of what happened and why, says Mutz, deciding for posterity how the people have spoken in the voting booth. Accuracy in those narratives has important implications for the future.

"Elected officials who embrace the 'left behind' narrative may feel compelled to pursue policies that will do little to assuage fears of less educated Americans," Mutz writes. In other words, addressing economic anxieties may not be the path to winning future elections.

"The 2016 election was a result of anxiety about dominant groups' future status rather than a result of being overlooked in the past," she writes. "In many ways, a sense of group threat is a much tougher opponent than an economic downturn, because it is a psychological mindset rather than an actual event or misfortune. Given current demographic trends within the United States, minority influence will only increase with time, thus heightening this source of perceived status threat."

The paper, "Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote," was published today in PNAS.

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More information: Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2018). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1718155115
Citation: Fear of losing status, not economic hardship, drove voters in 2016 presidential election (2018, April 23) retrieved 15 October 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2018-04-status-economic-hardship-drove-voters.html
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User comments

Apr 23, 2018
It is sad and disheartening to see so many biased and skewed research articles showing up on this site as the weeks go on.

When it is time for my subscription to be renewed, I am turning my ad-blocker back on and I am not giving you people one more cent. If I wanted to be manipulated I would have a facebook account.

I am Mestizo, so don't try to pull the race-card on me.

Apr 23, 2018
You cannot fear of lost once you have nothing to lose already. I can see the failure of American voters in fact that in their well minded effort to avoid state blahhhhhh
Dude. The US has been under an unprecedented onslaught of misinformation from all directions. The above article and the study it cites are 2 such examples.

So what might that say about the info youre being fed? Do you really think you can trust what you read, hear and see?
Of course as the result USA has lost an influence in Korea on behalf of China
Apparently you werent even aware of this

"Various reports in American and South Korean state media Friday evening indicated that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un announced the halt of nuclear and missile tests in his country. The reports did not specify whether the tests would conclude permanently."

Apr 23, 2018
No one has the ability to criticize this article without a full understanding of the underlying data and the details of the statistical analysis. People attempting to do are committing the "judging a book by its cover" logical fallacy.

I have not done the analysis myself, or looked at the underlying data. So I personally do not have the basis for judgement. For those who believe they can dismiss it, I will only note that It is not surprising how well correlated thinking and analysis is with accuracy.

Apr 24, 2018
In general, you should be wary of any study's claims, especially in sociology. This one makes a number of assumptions and then assimilates answers under what they call 'Social Dominance Orientation'. For instance:

"immigration captures the perceived threat of allowing those who are racially different into one's country" - or, people might conceivably be genuinely concerned about the economic or social effects of large numbers of people coming from different cultures (not that I necessarily agree with that position, but it's incorrect to discount those concerns or just attribute them to racism). There are similar points to be made about eg. the claim that opposition to trade with China is a proxy 'racial opposition based on resentment of "others," including foreigners and businesses in countries that are racially different '.

There are also variables which are omitted from the study, such as opposition to war.

Apr 24, 2018
Why doesn't ScienceX just open up a political and social science hub? That will give a place for all these political scientists and social commentators to publish their articles.

In regards to the content, places like Netflix push "Dear white people" youtube pushes "29 things white people ruin in 201x", educated democrats telling working class people that there's now 63 genders, stuff like this just doesn't ring true outside of a college or university setting. White males don't want special status, they want the same status being afforded to minorities, namely the ability to call themselves proud of their background without being told they are bigoted. In a age where "toxic masculinity" is preached, is it any wonder why working men flock to a caricature of a successful man?

Apr 24, 2018
It is easy to perceive a loss of status when you are afflicted with the three "diseases of despair": drugs, drinking and suicide. Coupled that with wide spread availability of guns and you have a deadly combination.

Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century

Apr 24, 2018
Wow! A lot of yellow-bellied perpetual-white-boys. Terrified that the clock keeps ticking. Whining that their special privileges & entitlements would loose their value if they had to share.

Against Globalism? Hah! Now proud subordinates to The Global Fascist Axis. The altright fairytails grovelling before fuhrer Putin. Giving his jackboots a nice shine with their tongues.

I realize that you dopey quislings are proud of your ignorance of history. More important to be ideologically pure than accurate or correct. But blaming China for North Korea is like blaming your Uncle Jethro for your genetic defects. For nearly seventy years the North Koreans have been Russian puppets. Dancing to their tune.

After the disasters caused by Stalin's unrequited bromance on Hitler? Putin deludes himself that he can dictate to the senile buffoon Trump. A warning sign that Putin is not aging well. Unfortunately his regime of kleptocrats are too cowardly to retire him.

Apr 24, 2018
I'm indeed aware that for example pro-Trump reddits were driven by pro-russian trolls from their very beginning because I can spot their methods and technology, but all smart people would resist such a misinformation easily
So you believe 1) that their revelations about clinton werent true... because they all WERE_TRUE; and 2) that people who voted for trump were somehow influenced by whatever it was the russian hacks revealed. They werent.

We already knew that she is a lying psychopath who destroyed evidence under subpoena, that she paid russians $millions for a fake dossier, and that her server - you know, the one she kept in her bathroom - was hacked because keeping secrets was more important to her than national security.

And she and all her cronies are soon going to be paying for their deception and incompetence and treason. And if russia can be credited with assisting us in that effort, then they deserve our thanks.

Apr 24, 2018
So you believe 1) that their revelations about clinton werent true... because they all WERE_TRUE; and 2) that people who voted for trump were somehow influenced by whatever it was the russian hacks revealed. They werent....blah blah...

Oh yeah...aren't you one of those great big 'ol Russian bot posters, who thinks Einstein and his relativity are fake news? Or maybe your that poster who thinks black holes and dark matter were part of some electric aether universe theory (also where Relativity is fake news)...I forget all the jargon you throw without the math to back it up.

Sir, you attack science and now defend those Russian bots hypnotizing the Facebook-addicted masses!---your social engineering tactics know no bounds!

Apr 24, 2018
Oh otto, one would hope that by your age, you would have finally learned the difference between 'belief' and 'knowledge'.

Your subconscious is in deep hysteria. Knowing how much you are lying & denying to yourself, your frenzied hatred of your unconscious Big Mama figure. (fixation? or fetish?)

Pity that you are boring everyone else with your tantrums.

Apr 24, 2018
You've rare gift to contradict yourself in a single sentence. The russian hackers revealed something and people (including you) started to believe it without deeper investigation
Naw people knew it was true despite the lying liberal media, and subsequent 'deeper investigation' confirmed it.
This is what actually did happen there
This is what is actually happening here

"Nearly a dozen Republican members of Congress on Wednesday sent a criminal referral to the Justice Department and FBI seeking an investigation of former bureau boss James Comey, his deputy Andrew McCabe, ex-Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Hillary Clinton in connection with 2016 campaign controversies... potential violations that cover everything from the handling of the Clinton email probe to the anti-Trump dossier's funding to the Uranium One controversy..." As of 04-18-18

- Which of course you haven't heard about. Maybe when they request political asylum?

Apr 24, 2018
The point here isn't if russian hackers were true or not
Really? We KNEW about her felonies from conservative talk shows and fox news, not blogs and Facebook. And the evidence THEY gave us panned out.

Libs loved wikileaks and assange when they were exposing govt secrets... until they began exposing liberal secrets. They hated comey until the lying media explained that he was trying to save pres Hillary from post-election illegitimacy

- So now they love him.

Shit will happen in the next few months in time for midterms. They WILL be indicted, they WILL be arrested, they WILL be convicted, they WILL end up in jail.

Apr 24, 2018
These conservative outlets are by far the most popular in the US. Few conservatives read blogs or waste their time on facebook. We listen to hannity and limbaugh every night on the radio. And we watch fox.

It's interesting to watch CNN and fox together. CNN will lie through their teeth, consistently. Fox and radio hosts will take what CNN and MSNBC and the rest say, give you the ENTIRE story, and expose their lies. It's EASY.

Liberal radio and tv will never do this. Their lies are too fragile, and trying to dismantle the info from the other side would only expose them.

They depend on your willful ignorance and ideological preconceptions. Ie your bigotry.

The width, breadth, and depth of their deception is astounding.

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