The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog has an eye-grabbing headline up today: “Racism Motivated Trump Voters More than Authoritarianism.” Predictably, the headline oversells.
Thomas Woods, a professor of political science at Ohio State University, uses the just-released 2016 American National Election Study — an in-depth survey of 1,200 nationally representative voters — to consider the part that racial attitudes played in November’s presidential election. Woods uses a “symbolic racism scale,” which he explains as follows: “This scale measures racial attitudes among respondents who know that it’s socially unacceptable to say things perceived as racially prejudiced. Rather than asking overtly prejudiced questions — ‘do you believe blacks are lazy’ — we ask whether racial inequalities today are a result of social bias or personal lack of effort and irresponsibility.” Respondents agree/disagree, agree/disagree strongly, or neither agree/disagree with the following statements:
1. Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
2. Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve.
3. It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.
4. Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.
The results in the ANES look like this:
From this, Woods draws the following conclusion:
The statistical tool of regression can tease apart which had more influence on the 2016 vote: authoritarianism or symbolic racism, after controlling for education, race, ideology, and age. Moving from the 50th to the 75th percentile in the authoritarian scale made someone about 3 percent more likely to vote for Trump. The same jump on the SRS scale made someone 20 percent more likely to vote for Trump.
Racial attitudes made a bigger difference in electing Trump than authoritarianism.
There are several problems here.
First, the “symbolic racism scale.” A 2010 paper by Joshua Rabinowitz, David Sears, Jim Sidanius, and Jon Krosnick (Sears is one of the political scientists who developed the scale generally in use) acknowledges that the scale is not airtight:
Adherence to traditional values—without concomitant racial prejudice—could drive Whites’ responses to SR [symbolic racism] measures and their opinions on racial policy issues. For example, Whites’ devotion to true equality may lead them to oppose what they might view as inherently inequitable policies, such as affirmative action, because it provides advantages for some social groups and not others. Similarly affirmative action may be perceived to violate the traditional principle of judging people on their merits, not their skin color. Consequently, opposition to such policies may result from their perceived violation of widely and closely held principles rather than racism.
The authors maintain that controlling for the potentially disruptive variables can prevent any confusion, but L.J. Zigerell, a professor of politics and government at Illinois State University, disagrees. In a paper published in the September 2015 issue of Political Research Quarterly, Zigerell, looking at the 2012 ANES Time Series Study, suggests that “the characterization of the residual effect of symbolic racism as racial animosity is stronger than warranted by the data.”
In their recent working paper “Conservatism, Just World Belief, and Racism: An Experimental Investigation of the Attitudes Measured by Modern Racism Scales,” Riley K. Carney and Ryan D. Enos, both of Harvard’s government department, compared rates of “resentment” toward blacks with rates toward non-blacks, using a simple test of their own design. They found that conservatives express similar rates of racial resentment regardless of the racial group at issue. Conservatives are about equally likely to resent whites and blacks — or Bhutanese or Nepalese or Lithuanians. According to Carney and Enos, what racial-resentment tests actually seem to show is the predilection of conservatives toward “just-world belief,” the “general political orientation that perceives the world as consisting of people who work hard and those who do not.” Conservatives, the authors suggest, tend to “apply this same just-world belief regardless of whether they are asked about Blacks or non-Black groups.”
Carney and Enos make allowance for the reality of racial animus and acknowledge that just-world belief may cause conservatives to ignore genuine historical and contemporary injustices to black Americans, but their findings are clearly suggestive.
Second, in this particular case, the historically strong “correspondence between vote choice and radical perceptions” that Woods identifies is due almost entirely to shifts among Democratic voters, not Republican ones — that is, Republican voters did not become more “racist” (as measured by the SR scale), Democrats became less so. Drawing a robust conclusion about Republican voters from that fact seems unwarranted, especially given the fact that, according to the same ANES data, Republican voters were generally less “racist” than they were in 2012.
Finally, even if Woods’s assessment of the data is correct, it’s not clear what the takeaway is. The ultimate conclusion (pace the headline) is very narrow: “Racial attitudes made a bigger difference in electing Trump than authoritarianism.” Okay. But perhaps neither made remotely as big a difference as income levels or, as Nate Silver has suggested, levels of education. And, of course, all of this must be considered in the context of Nate Cohn’s finding: “Overall, almost one in four of President Obama’s 2012 white working-class supporters defected from the Democrats in 2016, either supporting Mr. Trump or voting for a third-party candidate.”
Figuring out what motivated Republican voters is a valuable enterprise. But it’s not clear that this contribution is worth much — besides, that is, a clickbait headline.