Status Whoa

A new study finds that Obama voters who went Trump were motivated not by economic anxiety, but by a fear of losing power.

Donald Trump supporters at the Colorado GOP Election Night Party in Greenwood Village celebrate after he is declared winner of the 2016 U.S. election on Nov. 8, 2016.
Donald Trump supporters at the Colorado GOP Election Night Party in Greenwood Village celebrate after he is declared winner of the 2016 U.S. election on Nov. 8, 2016.
Photo edited by Slate. Photo by Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images.

“Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote.” So says an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Diana C. Mutz, a political science and communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania. The piece is based on a study Mutz recently conducted and is the latest entry in this long-running debate, which has been crudely boiled down to “economics or bigotry” as the possible factors driving Trump’s shocking victory. But Mutz’s approach is different. “The way this analysis is framed,” she explained when we recently spoke by phone, “is that we are looking at what caused people to change their minds and not vote for the candidate of the party that they traditionally do. So what we are looking at is the relatively small number of people who voted Democrat in 2012 and Republican in 2016.”

This is an edited and condensed version of our conversation about her results.

Isaac Chotiner: What do you mean by “status threat”?

Diana C. Mutz: “Status threat” means that you feel your group in society is no longer on top, no longer doing as well as it once was. And doing as well in this case doesn’t mean doing as well economically so much as having primary social and political status. Dominant groups that feel discriminated against in today’s society have historically had the most advantages in our country. And things have changed. And while things are generally better for women and minorities, I think the change associated with that is threatening. People see it as a zero-sum game: If you are doing better, I must be doing worse.

How did that show up in your results?

In several different ways. One indicator that people feel increasing threat is social dominance orientations: the extent to which you feel your group should be put above others. We don’t define the groups for people. It is whatever groups they think they are. That [feeling] went up between 2012 and 2016. In addition, though, we have measures that ask people to what extent they think men are discriminated against in American society, to the extent women are, and the same with whites, blacks, Hispanics, Christians, Muslims, etc. And it’s those who are particularly likely to see the dominant groups—whites, Christians, men—as currently being discriminated against that are supporting Trump.

But this is just among the smaller slice of voters you surveyed, right? More broadly, the overwhelming driver is partisanship, yes?

Yes, absolutely. The reason these voters are the focus is because it’s kind of pointless to explain why the person who always votes for the Republican candidate votes for the Republican candidate. Because we have the same people interviewed before both 2012 and 2016, we can look at people who changed. What’s different in this case among the people who moved are the indicators of both global and racial status threat.

What is your response to people who say, “A lot of these people voted for Obama in 2012. It can’t be race.”

It’s not racism of the traditional variety that we think of. This is status threat. It’s not thinking blacks are poor and uneducated. It’s the idea that they are actually doing better and may threaten the control of dominant whites in society, and have more control of our political process, and so forth. And this is something that having Obama as president actually highlighted. Here we have a very well-educated, very accomplished, and very powerful black man in the White House. That doesn’t suggest the usual negative stereotypes about minorities. It suggests instead that the status quo hierarchical nature of our national culture is changing in some ways. And it’s the same kind of thing with “Make America Great Again”—that we aren’t the superpower we once were, and we need to regain that superior, dominant status in the world.

Having all this publicity about the rise of majority-minority America at the same time as the news about the rise of China—all of these things make people feel like, “Gosh, we need to fight back.”

Can you explain the role that opinions about trade play in your analysis?

For most of my lifetime, the pro-trade party was really the Republican Party. What’s interesting is that this flipped before Trump. It flipped as far back as 2008, when Democrats became a lot more pro–free trade than Republicans among members of the mass public.

What did the voters who switched think about trade?

They were much more anti-trade than either candidate in 2012. Trump was the first candidate to move his position to the far more anti-trade stance, and it appealed to members of the public who felt threatened. And when you are threatened you want to do things like put up walls, hunker down, and not have anything to do with the rest of the world. And that’s what you see here.

How do you disaggregate opinions on trade? Is it an economic issue or about status anxiety? Because Trump plays on both: He says our economy is hurting because of trade deals, and other countries are taking advantage of us.

It could be either, but this study shows that the degree to which you have been personally affected had absolutely no change between 2012 and 2016. It’s a very small percentage of people who feel they have been personally affected negatively. It’s not that people aren’t being hurt, but it wasn’t those people who were drawn to support Trump. When you look at trade attitudes, they aren’t what you’d expect: It’s not whether they were in an industry where you were likely to be helped or hurt by trade. It’s also driven by racial attitudes and nationalistic attitudes—to what extent do you want to be an isolationist country? Trade is not an economic issue in terms of how the public thinks about it. It definitely is when elites think about it.

What does this make you think about the campaign Democrats should run against Trump in 2020?

Obviously I am guessing here, but I think the public needs to be reassured. When changes occur like the development of an international economy, and our interdependence with the rest of the world, or the changes in our demographics, people need reassurance.

It is really about who we are as a people and how we think of our country. Are we a melting pot, the nation of immigrants, or are we a white Christian nation? The idea of the big umbrella is something that some other nations have incorporated into how they define themselves. One of the fascinating things is that nationalistic attitudes in Canada predict being pro-trade and pro-immigration. In the United States, they predict the opposite. And that makes a great deal of sense because if the way you think of what your country represents is not white Christians but a nation of immigrants, then you are going to be much more open to those kinds of involvements.

So it seems like what you are saying is Democrats need to change the entire perception people have of America. Should be easy.

It’s already the way many Americans do. You can overstate this, given that Trump did not win the popular vote and so forth. But when we go through changes like this, people get scared.