March 7, 2017— Farai Chideya, Joan Shorenstein Fellow and senior writer at FiveThirtyEight, and Zack Exley, Joan Shorenstein Fellow and senior advisor to Bernie Sanders’ campaign, discussed the role of race and class in the 2016 presidential election. Below are some highlights from the conversation as well as the full audio recording.
Surprising stories from the American electorate
The story of this election is about white voters, in particular, falling in line with Donald Trump, even though many were reluctant.
Chideya: “All of the people who I interviewed who were reluctant to vote for Trump because they thought he was crazy came around and decided he was the best of the two candidates…I went to the south and interviewed white Evangelicals—they did not like Trump. So really, the story of this election is about white voters, in particular, falling in line with Donald Trump, even though many were reluctant. It’s also about sometimes believing what we want to believe. There was this emphasis that white college-educated Americans would not vote for Trump when in fact, they did vote for Trump…which gives the lie to the idea that it’s just the white working class.”
Exley: “I actually live a little bit outside of Springfield, Missouri…when I go into Springfield and work, I usually hang out at this hipster Christian coffee shop…the day after the election I was in there…they weren’t really freaking out, and I know they were progressive on a lot of stuff like economic issues, social justice issues, but they were also theologically conservative…they didn’t vote….I said, ‘but what about the tapes, all the stuff that came out over the last few weeks, didn’t that just disgust you, weren’t you tempted to go in and vote for Clinton or vote for somebody else?’”
“And they said ‘what tapes?’ They literally had not heard about the Access Hollywood tapes where Trump was bragging about sexual assault. And I was like, how is that possible? But they don’t watch TV, don’t listen to the radio, they spend a lot of time on Facebook…this filter bubble concept is leaving something out. It’s not as simple as people being in these filter bubbles—in this case, these folks had never heard about this.”
The role of race in the 2016 election
Racial resentment is a powerful motivator…Donald Trump was a master of it…
Chideya: “Ta-Nehisi Coates…said ‘we think of slavery as a bump in the road, but it was the road.’ When it comes to America and politics, we think of race as a bump in the road, but it’s the road. Almost every major political development in American society has been shaped by race…I took Trump seriously in late 2015. Not that he could win, but that his rhetoric would fundamentally reshape the race…Racial resentment is a powerful motivator…Donald Trump was a master of it and to treat him as some goofy, weird celebrity was a fundamental miscalculation.”
“A lot of people point to voter of color turnout as if that alone would have swung the election. The reality is that there was voter suppression in places like North Carolina…but also, you can’t expect people of color to step up when they don’t connect with the messaging…there’s this expectation that voters of color have to make do with what they can get…for young black men in particular, it was concern about how Clinton would handle the criminal justice system and mass incarceration… Millennials of color were super voters for Sanders…there were a lot of voters of color who just wanted something different than what was being dished up.”
White privilege and the American dream
Especially in a lot of these new, right-wing media sources, a big explanation that I hear a lot for why people, where I live, are doing worse is that black people, immigrants, Muslims, refugees are doing better.
Chideya: “Trump voters are not poorer than most people in America—[they] actually are slightly better off—tend to be older, closer to retirement, have secure jobs—but worry about their kids, and see the American landscape getting worse. The intersection of race and economics is this idea that is called the American dream: that your kids should live better than you. And I think that a lot of people of color have wanted that, but never expected it would necessarily be true in the way that white Americans felt it would be true. It felt like a blood oath to white Americans, whereas many people of color were like, it could happen, or you could get shot.”
Exley: “Remember, it doesn’t have to happen to you—Trump voters are better off—yeah, but their brother-in-law just lost his job, and they could be next. They see people like them going over. There’s no worse freakout than the freakout of the middle class who feels like it’s about to not be in the middle class anymore.”
“Especially in a lot of these new, right-wing media sources, a big explanation that I hear a lot for why people, where I live, are doing worse is that black people, immigrants, Muslims, refugees are doing better…It sounds crazy, but there are stories that a lot of people believe—of Latin American immigrants coming over and getting a check for $35,000…refugees get $3,500 a month and a car, all black people, when Obama became president, got a phone.”
Reasons for low voter turnout
Chideya: “What are you going to get from voting? A lot of people think the answer is nothing. They either think they’re going to get nothing, because somebody’s got their back, therefore they don’t have to turn out, someone else will vote in their interest, or they think, more often, that they’re going to get nothing because politics doesn’t solve anything. We’ve been electing people forever, look at how bad the roads are, look at how bad the schools are.”
“My family was full of civil servants—post office, social security, my mom was a Baltimore city school teacher—and we understood that everything from our employment to my education, to our ability to fix our used car relied on having a functional government…Some people don’t feel the same way. They feel that the government is the enemy.”
Media narratives about overlooked voters
Exley: “This ‘forgotten man’ narrative is so strong…remember that feeling in 2008? It was the forgotten person, and that forgotten person was who had elected Obama, on soaring rhetoric on Main Street, not Wall Street, and hope and change…there was this feeling of ‘wow,’ this new majority that’s multiracial, men and women, has stood together and done something incredible.”
Chideya: “The American media, which I’ve been in for a quarter of a century, has never been as interested in the lives of working class people as middle class and above, has never been as interested in the inner lives of people of color as whites, so why should we be surprised now that the conversation is privileging whiteness?”
“I want a rising tide of attention to lift all boats. Let’s look more deeply into the deep social conservatism in the black and Latino communities. Let’s look more deeply into how certain progressive ideals in working class white communities meet up against certain regressive ideals. We have to realize that this is a great moment to really open up, to look at the lives of working class people across race, and across national origin, and not just focus on one group.”
Article by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.