Protestors in Washington, D.C., on June 23, 2020. Photo credit: Allison C Bailey / Shutterstock.com.
There has been extensive commentary about the protests over the recent murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, with some suggesting parallels to the 1960s. But a number of observers have incisively pointed out differences as well, noting the racial diversity of today’s protesters compared to those who took to the streets after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
The racial diversity of the protesters is noteworthy for many reasons. But one reason is worth stressing: Its apparent confirmation that the views of many Americans on race have rapidly liberalized since Trump became president in 2016 — one topic of our forthcoming book, Hard White: The Mainstreaming of Racism in American Politics (Oxford University Press, 2020).
In the course of doing our research, we found that a crucial factor in Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election was his success in mobilizing disaffected white people in critical swing states, largely by appealing to their racial resentments as expressed in a generalized “outgroup hostility” toward African Americans, Latinos, and Muslims.
Our research confirms what other studies have found — that much of that resentment was fueled by the election of Barack Obama as president, the first African American to ever hold that office.
Yet U.S. politics is often cyclical. Just as the Trump campaign profited from a reaction to Obama’s presidency, Trump’s election almost instantly produced a counter-movement, starting with the global grass-roots protests organized around the Women’s March in January 2017, and climaxing in the Blue Wave election of 2018, which gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives.
Our research shows that the Blue Wave, like the Trump campaign, was successful to a significant degree by mobilizing non-voters based on racial attitudes. However, in reaction to the racism manifested in Trump’s presidency, Democrats responded by mobilizing racial liberals to vote for their party’s candidates in 2018.
Evidence of this fact can be found in the form of two trends. First, there has been a marked decrease in hostility toward Black people, Latino immigrants, and Muslims among white people over the last decade. Most significantly, though, the magnitude of this decrease in outgroup hostility varies by partisan identification. The trends are particularly striking for the racial resentment scale, the most commonly used measure in the social science literature of hostility toward African Americans.
The racial resentment scale shows that white attitudes have remained largely stable for Republicans and Independents for the past three years, while there has been a significant decrease in the number of Democrats expressing racial resentment towards Blacks.
The research in our book further indicates that the growth among Democrats of sympathy toward the racial outgroups most frequently targeted by Trump since 2015 — Black people, Latino immigrants, and Muslims — played a significant role in the 2018 Democrat midterm victory. In that off-year election, there was a striking increase in the political participation of racial liberals, precisely in order to oppose Trump’s racism.
Anti-racist views among Democrats had gradually increased from the Obama years to Trump’s time in office. But what made the critical difference was not just the change in attitudes but the rise in the actual political participation of racially liberal Democrats in reaction to the election of Trump in 2016.
Two sources of evidence support this conclusion. First, using data from the 2016 and 2018 American National Election Studies (ANES) surveys, we examined the relationship for the complete sample between a measure of outgroup hostility toward Black people, Latino immigrants, and Muslims; and a measure of political mobilization constructed by summing the number of political activities reported by each respondent over the preceding 12 months, where the activities included (1) posting a political comment on social media, (2) giving money to a political candidate or organization, (3) attending a political meeting, (4) attending a political protest, (5) displaying or wearing campaign materials, or (6) trying to persuade others to vote one way or another. Our findings and the details of our methodology can be found in the longer version of this essay posted online.
Ordinarily, we would expect that the level of mobilization in 2018 would be lower than what it was in 2016, due to the fact that participation usually drops off during midterm elections. Remarkably, this did not happen.
The level of participation remained the same for those with high levels of outgroup hostility, even if the evidence indicates that enthusiasm for Trump by 2018 may have dampened a bit among racial extremists.
Most importantly, however, we can see that there was a significant increase in participation among those who score low in outgroup hostility, with the upswing in participation most dramatic among those who were the most liberal in attitudes toward outgroups.
Our second source of confirmation about the rise in political participation by racial liberals comes from focusing on white turnout at the polls in 2018. Using validated turnout data from the most recent version of the VOTER panel survey for 2016–2018, we were able to track the same voters over time, to see if attitudes toward racial outgroups affected turnout among white people in the 2018 midterm. For this analysis, we focused on two processes that affected the composition of the midterm electorate — the mobilization of new voters (defined as those who voted in 2018 but had not voted in 2016), and the demobilization of 2016 voters (defined as those who voted in 2016 but then did not vote in 2018). We hypothesize that racial liberals with low levels of outgroup hostility were more likely to be mobilized and less likely to be demobilized. Again, the details of our methodology appear in the online version of this essay.
The results for this analysis of white voters are consistent with our analysis of overall political participation of the complete sample and provide strong support for our argument regarding the importance of outgroup sympathy in the process of white mobilization and demobilization in 2018. Specifically, we find that outgroup hostility had a statistically significant effect in the expected directed for both the mobilization and demobilization analyses and in both cases it was the primary factor predicting white turnout.
Our research reinforces the idea that if the recent protests are any indication, it may be that the Blue Wave is not done washing over our politics. The research highlights how many white people are appalled by Trump’s racist rhetoric, including his encouraging police brutality against communities of color.
At the same time, our research underscores how a broad, multi-racial coalition of people with liberal attitudes on issues of race and diversity is available for successful mobilization to defeat Trump and the Republicans in the fall.
Some people might disagree with our analysis by suggesting that there is little-to-no relationship between protest and electoral politics.
It is true that protest movements and turn-out-the-vote efforts often involve different leaders and actors. It is more than readily apparent to even the casual observer that most often protesters appear to be younger and less well-off, and also — it turns out — more alienated from the conventional political system.
A growing body of political science research in fact has found evidence of the connection between protests and elections. In particular, protests publicize grievances, heighten consciousness about them, intensify conflict over them, and mobilize support for taking action regarding them. At the same time, elected officials at critical moments can feel pressure that if they do not respond, voters will make them pay.
In fact, our own past research showed that the connection between protests and welfare policy responses in the late 1960s and early 1970s was greatest when policymakers were more likely to face electoral consequences. In other words, choosing to emphasize either protest or electoral politics at the expense of the other is a false choice and a strategic mistake.
So it is with the relationship of the George Floyd protests and the coming 2020 election. In fact, their relationship may be stronger than the connection between previous protests and elections.
Today’s racially diverse set of protesters, who are often young and unlikely to be active voters, are a key target group for mobilizing non-voters to extend the 2018 midterm Blue Wave into the fall presidential election.
Victory in the upcoming election may depend not just on responding to the cries of the diverse protesters, but mobilizing them as a multi-racial coalition of voters to repudiate the structural racism and white supremacist ideology that continues under Trump to define our politics.
Sanford F. Schram is professor of political science at Hunter College and professor of sociology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.
Richard C. Fording is Marilyn Williams Elmore and John Durr Elmore Endowed Professor of Political Science at the University of Alabama.