The U.S. in 2017 is still a country that has deep problems with racism. Black families have less wealth than white families, black Americans are less educated than other demographics, and black Americans still suffer discrimination in the workplace. Racism influences how people interact, work, and vote.
But as the primary lens to view the 2016 election, it’s complicated at best, and largely incomplete.
According to the data, the electorate in 2016 was less racist than it was in 2012 – and this includes less racism from Republicans, and it includes the fact that the coalition that voted for Barack Obama was much more racist than the one that voted for Hillary Clinton.
There is value to many of the analyses of racism in the electorate in 2016 that show that racism is still a powerful force in the U.S. and a powerful electoral signal. Many people believe racism is a thing of the past, which is not true. In some of the most serious rigorous studies of racial bias, researchers have shown that people with “black”-sounding names (researchers have used names like Jamal, Darnell, and Tamika) experience discrimination in school, in the workplace, and in the government. Racial inequalities in schooling and housing persist to the present day. The U.S. still struggles with racism.
In both 2008 and 2012, Americans went to the polls and voted for a black American named Barack Obama for president, putting him in the White House over a white war hero and a white scion of a powerful political family, respectively. In 2016, voters elected President Trump over Clinton, and the biggest reason given by many for this result is the racism of that electorate.
Yes, Trump’s appeals on the campaign trail were more tinged with bigotry than previous candidates, explicitly framing his immigration proposals as a “Muslim ban” and characterizing a large swath of the minority illegal immigrant population as violent and criminal. Recently, both Ross Douthat and Adam Serwer interrogated these propositions, with Serwer arguing that Trump’s campaign promises and his governing priorities fit right in with his bigotry. Indeed, he has pursued his “Muslim ban,” aggressively pursued restrictions on voting conditions that disproportionately affect minorities, and rolled back some Obama-era Department of Justice practices that protect black Americans.
But these policies, absent Trump’s rhetoric, aren’t too different from that of Mitt Romney. Romney’s immigration proposals were called “heartless” by the Republican governor of Texas, and Republicans up and down the ballot support voter ID laws. If Trump’s political bigotry was about policy rather than effect and overrode other concerns, Mitt Romney would have been president.
The makeup of the electorate tells a different story, that it was simply a story of white supremacy.
It’s likely that, if we could magically remove all of the racist voters from the electorate, Clinton would be president right now. According to measures of symbolic racism devised by political science professor Thomas Wood of Ohio State University, Republican voters coded as roughly twice as racist as Democratic voters in 2016. GOP voters, however, scored lower on measures of racism in 2016 than they did in 2012. Democratic voters in 2012, despite voting for Obama, scored much higher on measures of racism in 2012 than they did in 2016.
Indeed, on the symbolic racism measure that Wood analyzes, the electorate as a whole was less racist in 2016 than it was in 2012, when President Obama won reelection. If the end result of 2016 is attributable to racism, it suggests either that the data were wrong or a more subtle definition of racism than can be captured by quantifiable metrics and surveys.
But if Wood’s data can be believed, they also suggest that Obama was able to win a much larger proportion of the racist vote than Clinton did. It would be odd to suggest that Obama won by pandering to racists, which is a common critique of those who say the Democratic Party failed in outreach to some of its working-class voter base that abandoned 2016 – even though the coalition that elected Obama was more racist than the one that voted for Democrats in 2016.
A much more plausible reading of the data is that the Democratic Party succeeded in 2012 by attracting people who harbored racist views but were willing to vote for a black American because their belief in his agenda outweighed their racism. Hillary Clinton, had she been able to devise a vision for America that attracted the same belief, might have done the same.
If the progressive movement and the Democratic Party are serious about examining why Clinton lost and Trump won, the delusion that the answer is primarily white nationalism is a road to ruin. Barack Obama won with a more racist coalition in an electorate that was more racist on the whole than the one in which Trump beat Clinton.
Kevin Glass (@KevinWGlass) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. Previously he was director of outreach and policy at The Franklin Center and managing editor at Townhall. His views here are his own.
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