As much as Republicans blast the identity politics of the left, it is white identity politics that unites much of the conservative base and has found in President Donald Trump’s brash racism and authoritarianism a comfortable and welcoming home.
It is this exact combination that researchers Steven Miller of Clemson University and Nicholas Davis of Texas A&M University say could lead white Americans to reject democracy as changing racial demographics in the U.S. help feed white racial paranoia.
Miller and Davis recently published a study called “White Outgroup Intolerance and Declining Support for American Democracy”, which, as the title suggests, reveals a strong connection between racial intolerance and support for strongman rule.
Though such a blend of traits is generally thought to characterize conservative Americans alone, Miller told Salon his research reveals “that racial resentment may have had a stronger effect on Democrats than Republicans”.
In other words, Republicans who scored the lowest on racial resentment still voted for Trump, while Obama voters and registered Democrats who scored the highest started to break for Trump.
How did the researchers determine racial resentment and racial animus?
We created a measure we label "white out-group intolerance." We select white respondents in the World Values Survey from 1995 to 2011 and leverage questions that probe what kinds of neighbors these white Americans would not like to have. Available responses include criminals, members of a different race, heavy drinkers, emotionally unstable people, Muslims, immigrants or foreign workers, people with AIDS, drug addicts, homosexuals, Jews, people of a different religion, people of the same religion, militant minorities, political extremists, unmarried couples living together and people who speak a different language. The respondent could select all of these as unwelcome neighbors or select none of them.
We want to emphasize the variety in the available responses. It does not coerce a response easily construed as prejudiced toward an ethnic or racial minority unless this represented the respondent's earnest preference. Ultimately, we select responses of "people who speak a different language," "immigrants or foreign workers" and "members of a different race." We select for white out-group intolerance if a respondent would not want one or more of those groups as neighbors. We note in the appendix that we experimented with different measures that included responses to Jews, Muslims and "militant minorities," but they ultimately didn't change our findings.
And how did they gauge authoritarianism?
Our analysis measures attitudes in favor of autocratic, non-democratic governance. We leverage three questions widely used in the World Values Survey on attitudes toward democracy that ask whether a particular form of government would be a good way of running the country. The prompts include 1) having a strong leader who does not have to bother with the legislature or regular elections, 2) having the army rule the government, or 3) having a democratic political system. The respondent can say if these are very good, good, bad or very bad ways of running their country. We code responses of "very good" and "good" on the first two as an anti-democratic sentiment and code the "bad" and "very bad" responses in the third item as an opposition to democracy.
What were the results?
Shifts in racial demographics — to the degree that America eventually becomes a “minority-majority” country — and the election of the nation’s first black president “constitutes a sense of threat to white Americans with a sufficiently high attachment to their white identity and who also fear what this change in relative status will do to their material well-being.”
This leads to a negative evaluation of democracy because democracy, by design, empowers the minority with the same opportunity of access to politics and power as the majority, even if the governance that follows is still some form of majority decision-making. Democracy is a compromise that empowers the minority beyond its actual numerical endowment. For the subset of white Americans we describe, democracy ultimately empowers their source of perceived threat.
This leads them to abandon "the false dreams of equality and democracy" -- borrowing that expression from noted white supremacist Richard Spencer -- and makes them more open to autocratic alternatives for the country if it would lock in the relative status of whites over nonwhites in the United States.
President Trump rode a wave of racial resentment and white paranoia into the Oval Office, and Miller and Davis don’t see that wave receding in the near future.
Davis noted in the Salon interview that America has long been a racial democracy — or Herrenvolk democracy — and it is foolish to pretend otherwise.
It is hard to divorce the concept of American exceptionalism from Herrenvolk democracy, so I think it [is] good to consider them together. The colonies prospered as a direct function of chattel slavery, and beyond the brutality of the antebellum South, we know that legacy has a great many economic and social ramifications today. The “settlement” of the western United States was made possible by a brutal combination of the displacement of native peoples and immigrant laborers cutting paths for railroad barons. The agricultural industry, the “backbone” of the American economy, would likely collapse without migrant labor.
When the average citizen thinks about the sustainability of American democracy, they do not grapple with the country’s historical exploitation of nonwhites. It’s why many whites balk at the term “privilege.” It undercuts the very individualism that weaves the strands of the mythos of American exceptionalism together.
What happens next?
There remains vast support for democracy in the United States, the researchers said — even though “many citizens perceive that the United States' democracy is ill-functioning … that free speech is under threat, that facts don’t matter, that special interests have tainted governance and that not all votes matter equally” — and it is unlikely that our democratic republic will fully fail any time soon.
Will democracy persist when it runs headlong into demographic changes that make it improbable that a party can win by solely relying on the sort of aggrieved white voters who elected Donald Trump to the White House? I don’t know. Probably, yes. Americans don’t really have a good grasp on the terror and pain involved in actual regime change. The burgeoning “crisis-of-democracy” literature may oversell the problem but only in the sense that the “problem” seems to be that the Trump administration has simply removed the veneer and revealed that American democracy, by design, is sincerely dysfunctional.