We need to take a fresh look at how and why America votes

Political pundits and operatives used to believe they knew how to win or lose a Presidential election. But the election of 2016 changed all that.

Clinton’s defeat, Trump’s win: Rethinking the unthinkable

Hillary Clinton held all the cards that should have predicted an easy victory. She was the best qualified candidate. She presented the most optimistic vision for America. Her campaign had more money than her opponent. She produced better advertising and was able to spread it across more states. She had the best ground game, with dozens more offices and hundreds more volunteers in key states. She had an all-star cast of popular and charismatic surrogates. She achieved three overwhelming debate victories. And she seemed to be winning throughout the campaign, with pollsters giving her anywhere from a 64% to 99% chance of beating Trump in the Electoral College.

Meanwhile the Trump campaign presented a textbook case of how to lose a Presidential election … not just lose-lose, but Barry Goldwater-lose. The candidate was obnoxious, overbearing, divisive, and pessimistic about America. He spent little money and was abandoned by traditional Republican big money donors, as well as by most of the traditional Republican leadership. His nominating convention was a scary joke. He mounted essentially no advertising and had no ground game. He fielded an inexperienced, incompetent campaign team.

And if these temperament and operational execution failures were not enough, he was hit by one scandal after another: getting caught bragging about sexual assault, failing to pay taxes, running fraudulent businesses, lying about his charitable giving, and misusing funds from his own charity, to name a few. He displayed ignorance and indifference to the functions and norms of government. He trafficked in racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny. He incited violence among his followers and suggested they consider shooting his opponent if she won. Perhaps most amazingly, his campaign was aided by Russian cyber-espionage attacks that selectively leaked stolen documents to discredit his opponent, and his response was to encourage further Russian attacks on American institutions and offer praise and admiration for the leader who ordered them, Vladimir Putin. Investigative reporting published two days after his election revealed that the Trump campaign had secretly been in contact with the Russian government for months.

Despite all this, Trump won. How could this possibly have happened? There is only one place to look for an answer, and it is in the thought processes and behavior patterns of the American electorate.

Say goodbye to the folk theory of democracy, say hello to identity group politics

For decades, there has been a “folk theory of democracy” that ascribes great powers of analysis and wisdom to the American people. The idea is that people have opinions on issues and policies. They then compare those opinions to the positions of candidates for office and choose the candidate who comes closest to their preferences on issues they care most about. By this theory, enough voters in the right states assessed the political positions of Clinton and Trump, found Trump to be more in line with their preferences, and voted for him. The people listened, learned, and rendered their judgment. That’s the great engine of democracy at work, the essence of the folk theory of democracy.

Unfortunately for this inspirational story of a thoughtful and deliberative electorate, a large body of political research has confirmed that it is bunk. Most voters have only limited political knowledge, and even those who are most informed and active do not vote on the basis of objective political information, but rather on the basis of “motivated reasoning” that biases their information processing to conform with “who they are”; that is, on their social and political identity. Put another way, most people vote in ways that align with their group and partisan loyalties. Their choices are first and foremost influenced by their understanding of what “people like me” care about. And what the research shows is that people don’t pick their group loyalties based on their candidate and policy preferences, they pick their candidates and preferences based on their loyalties. Political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, in their book Democracy for Realists, describe the emerging picture of how voters actually choose:

“Numerous studies have demonstrated that most residents of democratic countries have little interest in politics and do not follow news of public affairs beyond browsing the headlines. They do not know the details of even salient policy debates, they do not have a firm understanding of what the political parties stand for, and they often vote for parties whose long-standing issue positions are at odds with their own. Mostly, they identify with ethnic, racial, occupational, religious, or other sorts of groups, and often— whether through group ties or hereditary loyalties— with a political party. Even the more attentive citizens mostly adopt the policy positions of the parties as their own: they are mirrors of the parties, not masters. For most citizens most of the time, party and group loyalties are the primary drivers of vote choices.”

How identity groups experience an election

Here we see the beginnings of an explanation of how Trump won. The great majority of voters were simply not listening to all the terrible things Clinton and the media were saying about him. Nor were they listening to Clinton’s policy speeches, reading her dozens of policy papers, or tuning in to her warnings about the utter insanity of Trump’s few stated policy ideas: the 2,000 mile wall, the 12 million person deportation, the 1.6 billion person immigration ban, the 45% tariff barriers, etc. But they did respond to a much simpler, more emotional cue: which candidate is favored by people I care about, by “people like me”? For the great majority of American voters, the answer to this question was known before the campaign even began, and was not changed by the daily noise of the campaign.

This explanation runs counter to what we see in the public opinion polling during every election cycle. As portrayed by the media and the pollsters, the campaign is a horserace with each side’s numbers rising or falling as the public takes in and reacts to each unfolding revelation or incident – an inspiring convention, a definitive debate win, a damning recording, an illness at a public event, an ambiguous announcement by the FBI Director. The polling numbers clearly go up and down. Doesn’t that mean people must be listening, and reacting?

Actually, it doesn’t. As early as 2001, studies by political scientists and statisticians were showing that the kinds of swings seen during an election campaign are not the result of people changing their minds in response to events, but to changing patterns in survey nonresponse rates. What appear to be big shifts in public opinion turn out changes in the inclinations of Democrats and Republicans to respond to polls. When the news is generally good for your Party’s candidate, you’re more likely to participate in a poll, when it is not, you’re more likely to pass. In an analysis of 2016 polling, Rothschild and Gelman determined that two-thirds of Clinton-Trump swings in polls came from changes in response rates, not changes in preferences.

So, if people are not responding to the horserace, what are they responding to? For the vast majority of voters, campaigns are experienced as a series of vague moods and feelings about a very distant political world. People do not so much listen to what candidates say as they “feel” what candidates are expressing in terms of moods and emotions. The key question is not “what do I think about their views and positions?”, but rather “how do they make me feel?”

These moods and feelings tend to come from two sources:

  • First, people gather cues and clues from a highly superficial exposure to the media, not just the Free Press, but all forms of media they encounter in their daily lives, including advertising on TV and online, and real and fake news on Facebook, Google, and elsewhere. If you imagine what you would learn from a nightly news broadcast if you turned off the sound, then you have a good idea of what the average American “knows” about politics from all these sources.
  • Second, they listen to leaders and members of the groups they identify with. These are people they talk to, not just listen to, people they respect and whom they want to be respected by. A group consensus emerges from shared feelings , shared stories, and mutual reinforcement of beliefs and values. Once formed, group beliefs become the “badge” of membership, and are almost impossible to change. This is how the group identities that drive voting behavior in the American electorate gain their power.

The burning heart of identity groups: emotions and enemies

Two additional points about group identity are important. First, group connections are highly emotional, not rational or logical. Second, in order to be a part of an “in-group” humans must be able to define an “out-group.” These two features often combine in toxic and combustible ways, a concern first noted by James Madison in his argument against factions in the Federalist No. 10:

“A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for preeminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for the common good.”

As identified by Madison two centuries ago, and validated by numerous psychological studies over recent decades, social identity groups can be recognized by four basic attributes: clear criteria of membership, shared beliefs and values, emotional investment, and an enemy.

What is not required is that the group’s beliefs and values be an accurate reflection of reality. On the contrary, as long as beliefs are shared by members of the group, that is normally enough to ensure resistance to any outside “truths” that might contradict those beliefs, no matter how well supported those truths are by independent facts and evidence.

There are only two ways groups become susceptible to outside evidence and belief correction. The first is if the group’s values include valuing openness to new evidence and a willingness to change beliefs in the face of new facts. This is a basic value of science, for example, and of the American legal system. It is not a prime value of most social, religious, or ethnic groups, however. The second way groups become susceptible to belief correction is if members are confronted with undeniable evidence in their immediate lives that their beliefs are mistaken. Words and arguments to the contrary are not enough, group members must experience the error of their beliefs in a tangible, physical way. For example, members of a family may believe their new financial advisor is honest … until they discover that all their bank accounts have been cleaned out.

Viewing the American electorate in terms social and political identities rather than issue preferences, we can look back and see how an unqualified candidate like Trump could defeat a much more qualified opponent. For key groups who ended up having a decisive effect on the electoral outcome, his tone and demeanor, despite his many handicaps as a candidate and a human being, signaled greater alignment with what they cared about.

Nobody likes to be conned

The same group identity perspective can also be used to look forward. And here there is a real ray of hope for Democrats. If Trump does indeed fail to deliver on the campaign promises he made to key identity groups in the American electorate (and his cabinet selections and post-election statements show every sign of exactly that outcome), there is a good chance this betrayal can be leveraged by Democrats to change the beliefs of enough 2016 Trump voters to achieve three big goals simultaneously:

  • shut down any chance of another “Trump miracle” in 2020,
  • vanquish the current Republican Party, and
  • open up the possibility of a lasting Democratic realignment that will put an end to the current authoritarian moment that threatens the American Republic.

Although many groups made up the Trump electorate in 2016, one group had the greatest impact on the outcome: rural, white, non-college educated, working class voters who turned out disproportionately for Trump and were instrumental in flipping three critical states, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, from Blue to Red. Trump’s victories in those states were razor-thin. A difference of 11,000 votes in Michigan, 22,000 votes in Wisconsin, and 70,000 votes in Pennsylvania – that’s 0.08% of the 123,700,000 votes cast across the country – would have handed the Electoral College to Clinton. So if Democrats want to start making headway in 2018 and retake the Presidency in 2020, they must start changing the minds of precisely this group of voters.

According to the social identity theory of voting, Democrats must first understand the four defining characteristics of any identity group they wish to influence:

  • who its members are,
  • what its defining beliefs and values are,
  • what emotions it evokes, and
  • who its enemies are.

Understanding the politics of resentment

It’s not like this information is hard to find. For example, a detailed analysis of rural, white, working class political beliefs and values was recently published by Katherine Cramer, a political scientist who spent several years meeting with and listening to residents in rural Wisconsin. Although her research began and ended long before Trump appeared on the Presidential scene, Cramer managed to capture much of the mood and feelings that would propel Trump to victory in 2016. The title of her book, published earlier this year, summarizes the story: The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

For Cramer’s Wisconsin subjects, the core of their group identity was their rural, small town residency. Their education, their income, their race, and their ethnicity were all related to their physical location, of course, but it was their “rural consciousness” that defined their political identity. Their beliefs revolved around a feeling of neglect at the hands of government at all levels, and a perception that others – mostly in the big cities, poorer, and nonwhite – were getting benefits they were being denied. Their values focused on the dignity of hard work, especially physical work, which they felt big-city people not only didn’t share, but actually disrespected. Their driving emotions were resentment and anger. And their selected enemies were college-educated professionals, big city residents in general, and public employees. Of all these elements of group identity, the most dominant was the definition of the enemy:

“This book shows people making sense of politics in a way that places resentment toward other citizens at the center. It illuminates this politics of resentment by looking closely at the manner in which many rural residents exhibit an intense resentment against their urban counterparts.”

Long before Donald Trump came along, Scott Walker was exploiting and manipulating these beliefs and feelings as part of his own political ascendancy. Much like Trump did nationally in 2015-16, Walker won the governorship in 2010 and maintained his popularity thereafter by pitting rural towns against big cities and targeting public employees, school teachers, and unions as scapegoats. Also like Trump, Walker consistently lied to his supporters; for example, never acknowledging that rural areas in Wisconsin actually got a higher per capita return on their taxpayer dollars than the big cities. In the 2016 Presidential election, those angry and misinformed rural voters turned out overwhelmingly for Donald Trump.

How to get the American electorate back on course

In order to pry the rural, white, working class identity group out of the hands of the Republican Party, Democrats need to borrow some lessons from the Republican playbook, write some new rules of their own, and get some help from the Trump Administration. The stakes are high. Success could result in the destruction of the Republican Party as a viable force in national politics. Failure could usher in a Trump-led authoritarian era from which the American Republic might never recover.

First, Democrats need to let Trump fail. There should be no collaboration and no normalization. No deals and no compromises. Democrats need to be consistent and unrelenting in their condemnation of Trump an unfit, illegitimate, and corrupt President. When Trump betrays his working-class supporters, Democrats need to be sure those supporters hear about it, every time, loud and clear.

Second, Democrats need to learn from Republicans (and the Bernie Sanders movement) that emotions in politics are both inevitable and good. Identity groups – all identity groups – are fueled by emotions. And because those emotions are usually directed toward opposing groups, they are often negative. This is the reality recognized by Madison. The American system he helped design was not meant to curtail emotions in elections, it was meant to offset them in governing. Emotions are the drivers of political motivation and action. Ideas without emotions underlying them do not stir action. Politics is not a cognitive, rational game, it is a visceral, emotional contest. Democrats need to take to heart the words of Maya Angelou:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Third, Democrats need to realize that while negative emotions in politics are inevitable, the enemy toward which they are directed is not. Democrats need to embrace an idea that may be alien to them, but natural to Bernie Sanders and the movement he created: resentment and anger are good, they just need to be directed at the right target.

Fourth, the right target for all constituencies in the Democratic coalition, including the rural, white, working class, is economic inequality. And economic inequality can be traced to two sources: the “1 percent” who have not paid their fair share of taxes, and the Republican Party, which has been engaged in decades-long conspiracy to rob the middle-class and working-class to enrich the upper-class. The Democrats’ positive message is that they will reverse the growth of income inequality. But this message must be delivered in conjunction with a louder, angrier message: “the rich have gotten an unfair share of our country’s wealth for years, and it is time for them to pay some of that back to the rest of us.”

Fifth, the Democratic Party must speak to the positive beliefs and values of the identity groups it wants to win over. On this front, it has much to learn about the beliefs and values of the working class. Democrats need to show respect for the dignity of work, including physical work. They need to show empathy for the life experiences of workers who have not received a meaningful wage increase in 20 years, or who have lost their jobs and suffered the shame of unemployment. They need to help the working poor and the struggling middle class realize that their beliefs and values have much in common, because Trump and the Republicans will surely try to divide them against each other.

The values of the working class (not just the white working class) and the needs that flow from them are not that difficult to figure out. Nor are they unique in comparison to other identity groups Democrats want to keep in their tent. As Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell recently wrote, in an editorial titled “I said Clinton was in trouble with the voters I represent. Democrats didn’t listen”:

“The ordinary working man or woman in this country isn’t asking for a lot. They want to make a decent living. They want to be able to provide for their family, buy a home in a safe neighborhood, put food on the table, go to the doctor when they need to, afford their medicines and educate their children. What many don’t understand is how these things are in danger of becoming unattainable for too many Americans.”

That the Democratic Party has struggled to communicate solidarity with these aspirations is somewhat astounding. Republicans have a long track record of thwarting every one of these goals. Yet, a majority of working-class Americans still believe they are better represented by Republicans than Democrats.

Sixth, Democrats need to recognize that it is not logical arguments or policy proposals, but only life experiences, reality on the ground, that will cause Trump supporters to break away from him. So far, Trump has produced nothing but promises, often very specific and highly dubious promises. But only when those promises remain unfulfilled, or are denied to have ever been made (another common Trump tactic), will those energized identity groups who put Trump in office be forced to acknowledge that they have been conned. And when that moment arrives, the Democratic Party must be ready to step in, not to dampen the anger, but to redirect it to its proper targets: Donald Trump, the rest of the billionaire class, and the Republican Party.

Seventh, and finally, Democrats need to introduce the American electorate to a new generation of leaders, not already demonized by the Republican propaganda machine, to carry their message forward.

In summary, here is what Democrats need to learn about the American electorate:

  • Most Americans do not care about issues and policy positions.
  • They vote primarily based on the beliefs and values of the social groups to which they feel most attached.
  • To motivate voters, you have to activate their emotions and call out their enemies.
  • Don’t be afraid to embrace strong negative emotions in the electorate.
  • Don’t ask people to calm down and look at the facts. Support and acknowledge their right to be angry. They have earned it, and Donald Trump deserves it.
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