This piece was co-written with Jason McDaniel, an assistant professor of political science at San Francisco State University.
The success of Donald Trump and other “outsider” candidates this election cycle picks up on a trend perhaps best pioneered by the Tea Party.
Though the Tea Party has moved back to the margins under the shadow of Trump’s success, it has demonstrated the enduring power of racial resentment in American politics. For decades, social scientists have found that attitudes about race, particularlytoward African Americans, persistently impact political attitudes and opinions toward government services, spending, and welfare.
Trump does not fit the profile of a Tea Party candidate, but he does build on their anti-establishment attitudes and rhetoric surrounding people of color. Trump also recently won the endorsement of Sarah Palin, a Tea Party favorite, and polls that include Tea Partiers show that Trump has consistently been a favorite among the group.
Amid this, we present new and powerful evidence that support for the Tea Party, opposition to government spending, and opposition to aid to the poor are motivated by racial attitudes, not economic anxiety.
How to measure racial resentment and economic peril
We analyzed individual Tea Party support using data from the 2012 American National Election Study, which surveyed the political attitudes and behaviors of more than 5,000 respondents before and after the 2012 presidential election. We created a five-question scale to measure each individual’s level of racial resentment — a subtle form of racism that hinges on the belief that African Americans tend to get “more than they deserve,” that they should “try harder” and should not be granted “special favors,” and disagreement about the level of discrimination faced by blacks.
For economic insecurity, we created a scale from five questions that asked whether each respondent knew anyone who had lost a job, worried about his or her financial situation, and whether he or she would be able to make necessary housing and health care payments. The analysis included statistical controls for a variety of individual characteristics and beliefs that tend to be related to political attitudes, such as race/ethnicity, partisanship, ideology, income, education level, gender, age, and religiosity. The model also included controls for overt racial stereotypes and attitudes toward illegal immigrants.
The graph illustrates a comparison of the effects of racial resentment and economic peril.
As racial resentment increases, there is a sharp increase in support for the Tea Party. At the highest levels of racial resentment, Tea Party support is strong. While economic peril does appear to have a modest effect in increasing support for the Tea Party, the effect is not statistically significant. At the highest levels of economic peril, Tea Party support is in line with national averages, closer to opposition than support. Those like Thomas Frank who want to chalk up the success of the Tea Party to economic anxiety are missing the key variable: race.
It’s worth noting what else the model suggests: Ideological conservatism (based on self-response), more than identifying as a Republican, strongly predicts Tea Party support. Even more important, however, is partisan independence.
It has been shown that partisan independents tend to behave just like strong partisans. Nonetheless, it is those who identify as independents who are most likely to strongly support the Tea Party.
Next we examined attitudes toward government spending, with the same controls. Here we find that black voters are far more likely to support larger government, while independents and Republicans support a smaller government.
Again, we find that racial resentment has significant explanatory power; higher levels of racial resentment are correlated with a preference for decreased government spending and services. Increased economic insecurity does appear to move people toward a preference for increased government spending and services, but the effect is not statistically significant.
According to these results, if we compare the government spending preferences of a person who expresses zero economic peril with those of a person at the highest level of economic peril, we cannot be certain that there is a real difference of opinion between the two.
What all this tells us about economic anxiety versus racism
These findings suggest that economic peril, or economic anxiety more broadly, are not driving opposition to government and the Tea Party. Instead, these views are rooted in racialized views on who is helped by government programs. Our findings may seem surprising, but they are rooted in a wide literature.
Racism strongly correlates with state-level TANF benefits, even after controlling for state-level revenues and ideology. Political scientists Richard Fording, Sanford Schram, and Joe Soss note in their book Disciplining the Poor, “Concerns over welfare were significantly more likely to be activated among respondents who perceived ‘most blacks’ as lazier than ‘most whites.’”
Political scientist Martin Gilens also finds that “racial considerations are the single most important factor shaping whites’ views of welfare.” He finds that whites hold far more negative stereotypes of black mothers on welfare than white mothers on welfare.
It’s worth noting that the research above examines the effect of racial stereotyping (i.e., “are black people lazier than whites”), which does not have a significant effect after controlling for other factors. This is likely because outright stereotyping has declined and “colorblind” racism has become the main way racism is expressed. By examining measures of resentment, we can see how racism has mutated as a political weapon. These days those who oppose welfare don’t say, “Black people are lazy,” but rather, “Black people need to work harder to be as successful as whites.”
Why might racial resentment be the cause?
Why does race so strongly affect attitudes toward government but not economic peril? It is certainly the case that right-wing politicians have opportunistically exploited race to weaken the welfare state, as legal scholar Ian Haney-López has shown. Attitudes of racial resentment are more prevalent on the right, though they also certainly exist among Democrats.
Mass media is certainly part of the explanation. In another paper, Gilens finds, “Network TV news and weekly newsmagazines portray the poor as substantially more black than is really the case.” He also finds that black people are most frequently shown when discussing the “undeserving” poor, while white people are shown when discussing the working poor.
He notes, “I found that the elderly constitute less than 1 percent of the black poor shown in these magazines (compared with 5 percent of the nonblack poor) and the working poor make up only 12 percent of poor blacks (compared with 27 percent of poor nonblacks).”