Trump has revealed the racism underlying our politics

Trump has revealed the racism underlying our politics

This year’s election has a lot to teach us about the relationship between parties, race, and campaigning.

That statement probably sounds obvious, but I’ve just returned from the Western Political Science Association convention in San Diego, and we political scientists are still trying to figure out precisely what’s going on – even amid the usual lobby bar bragging, I didn’t hear anyone claim to have seen Trump coming, for example – but one thing we can see is an enormous amount of clarity surrounding a relationship that Americans usually don’t feel comfortable discussing.

Before I get to this year, I need to clarify something about American political parties. We interpret out parties as ideological movements, or as conspiratorial cabals; both of these readings give parties far too much credit for organization. Our parties are a side effect of our elections system, which is geographical and winner-take-all. If the Democrat in district 12 gets 40% of the vote and no one else gets more, he wins, period; if the Republican in District 2 gets 36%, and no one else gets more, she wins, period. The winners in Congress and the White House are whoever survives the winner-take-all scrimmage, and our parties are designed to collect the most votes possible before election day.

Our interest groups, therefore – those committed to the profits of the energy industry or environmental protection, civil rights or secure borders, religious legal associations or patients’ rights groups – need to band together in the largest possible coalitions in order to have potential access to policy-makers. They often are forced to coalesce with other groups that they mistrust, or even oppose, in order to bundle together the money and votes they require.

Race has been a central, defining part of the coalitions within our political parties, as it has been a central, defining part of America. Some of our most consequential nineteenth century interest groups were organized around support for, and opposition to, slavery, for example. The interest groups devoted to preserving racial segregation formed one of the largest and most powerful coalitions within the Democratic Party until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Even then, those groups – the former “Dixiecrats” – remained coy about joining the Republican Party until the Reagan Administration. (I’ll save that horrifying story for another day.)

Before the Dixiecrats moved to the GOP, our parties had a certain racial diversity. The Democratic coalition included the white south, but also the nation’s largest cities, which have always been more diverse, while the Republican Party was largely associated with white political and financial elites, but was very much the “Party of Lincoln” until the 1970s. Now, however, the racial divide between our parties is, frankly, scary. The PEW Research Center has found that Republicans have a 49% to 40% lead over Democrats in whites; that 9% lead becomes 21% among white southerners and white men who have not completed college. Democrats have a 3-1 lead among Asian Americans, 2-1 among Hispanics, and a 69% lead among African Americans. (One assumes the lead among Latinos will go up if Trump is the GOP candidate.)

Now, keep all of this in mind, think about this year’s election, and you’ll see why political scientists are thinking about this. The inexplicable support for Trump that we all found shocking would have been less surprising if we had paid more attention to the incredibly enduring power of white racial grievance. The American National Election Study found that the belief that whites are treated unfairly, and the claiming of a white racial identity are very, very good predictors for Trump supporters. As I said, our parties are cumbersome mega-coalitions, and they have intense divisions; one part of the party has been arguing for years that the GOP needs to reach out to the growing non-white electorate, but Trump’s candidacy suggests that the party is about to build its 2016 strategy on appealing only to non-college educated white men (by alienating every possible other constituency in the country). You can understand why some party elites dread that possibility; that’s a minority party strategy. But Americans as a whole should dread that possibility too. GOP state legislatures have labored tirelessly in the last few years to suppress non-white votes, and Trump’s “only angry white men need apply” strategy might actually succeed.

Meanwhile, in the Democratic Party, both candidates have committed to racial inclusion. And both candidates also have mapped out different paths to the nomination. Senator Sanders has been successful with a variety of interest groups within the party, but his base is younger, whiter, and more rural than Secretary Clinton’s. That’s a serious problem. Not because I think a Sanders Administration would be hostile to non-whites (as a Trump Administration promises to be), but because it is beginning to suggest that the Sanders campaign can’t win over an important part of the Democratic coalition. That problem suggests a larger problem across some of the most consequential divisions in American politics.

The 2016 election year has made a lot of issues that are usually half-concealed painfully obvious. The “post-racial” twenty-first century has, of course, been a myth; but as we spend the waning days of the first African American presidency contemplating a racially divided primary struggle in one party and a proudly racist and xenophobic candidacy in the other, even political scientists can see what Americans usually try to hide.

Photo: Donald Trump announces polling results at a rally in Portland, Maine

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Ron Schmidt
Ron Schmidt 45 posts

Dr. Ronald Schmidt is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Southern Maine.

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