The Midterms Are Days Away. What Will Drive Trump Voters: Race or Class?

Political scientist John Sides debates The Intercept’s senior politics editor Briahna Joy Gray on whether Trump voters were motivated by race or class.

Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses supporters in Dallas, Texas, on Sept. 14, 2015, and in Akron, Ohio, on Aug. 22, 2016.
Photos: Angelo Merendino/Getty Images, LM Otero/AP; Photo Illustration: The Intercept

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The midterm elections are almost here and there’s a specter of the loyal, committed Trump voter haunting them. Two years ago, in 2016, angry, white, working-class voters in the key swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin pulled the lever for Trump as a way of expressing their anger over economic injustice — and a populist blue-collar wave swept the billionaire property mogul into office. But a range of studies published since then from political scientists, economists, and pollsters have found that it was racial resentment and cultural anxiety — not economic anxiety — on the part of white voters that got Donald Trump into the Oval Office. In his new book, “Identity Crisis: the 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America,” political scientist John Sides marshals extensive evidence to show that it was white identity, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim sentiment that best predicted support for Trump, while economic anxiety played a much smaller role. Briahna Joy Gray, The Intercept’s senior politics editor, differs, arguing that economic anxiety was white, working-class voters’ primary motivation. They join Mehdi Hasan in D.C. to debate their opposing views on the 2016 elections.

John Sides: A central dimension of conflict in the 2016 election was about issues that had to do with immigration with Islam and with race. What does that mean for 2018? More of the same.

Medhi Hasan: Welcome to deconstructed. I’m Medhi Hasan. On the eve of the most important U.S. midterm elections of our lives, we’re gonna do something different on the show today. It’s a longer show and it’s much more of a debate. My colleague Briahna Joy Gray joins me, as does author and political scientist Professor John Sides. The question I’m asking today is what’s driving the millions of Americans especially the white working class Americans who support Donald Trump, who voted for him in 2016 and will vote for his party again next week in the midterms?

BJG: Of course the appeal is racist.


BJG: He’s appealing to people’s racism, racistly.

MH: Good to hear you say that.

BJG: But what’s also true —

MH: But what’s dominating, is what I’m going to get to the bottom of. Is it race or class?

BJG: So first of all anybody who wants to bifurcate them is usually and I’m not saying this about you—

MH: I’m not saying bifurcate, I’m saying pick one that has a dominant…

BJG: And I will not do that. Nor will I sit here and tell you which was worse slavery or the Holocaust

MH: So today on deconstructed— Is it race or class? What’s really driving American politics right now?

Newscaster: Up next, the midterms just days away now!

Anderson Cooper: Intensity on both sides is getting pretty close to 100%.

Chris Stirewalt: Everybody’s up. All the numbers are up. The intensity is huge.

Sean Hannity: The single most important midterm of our lifetime.

Donald Trump: This is our most important midterm election perhaps ever.

MH: They’re finally—almost—here: the midterms. In which the Democrats are going to take back the House and maybe even the Senate too. Or will they? There is a spectre haunting these elections. The spectre of the loyal committed Trump voter.

Carrie Sheffield: The blue collar voters who maybe were traditionally Democrat who crossed over to vote for President Trump.

Steve Kornacki: Blue collar— we talk about non college educated white voters. This was where you saw that swing to Trump.

Kamala Ahmed: A lot of people who voted for Donald Trump was around the issue of jobs, jobs particularly in the Rust Belt in the old manufacturing areas.

MH: Two years ago angry white working class voters in the key swing states of the Rust Belt — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, pulled the lever for Trump as a way of expressing their anger over economic injustice over the outsourcing of their jobs and the stagnation of their wages. A populist blue collar wave swept the billionaire property mogul into office and it was all because of economic anxiety. At least that’s one popular theory. Or —

Van Jones: This was a whitelash. This was a whitelash against a changing country. It was a whitelash against a black president.

Zerlina Maxwell: It wasn’t economic anxiety. There’s a lot of data now that shows that there was racial resentment at play.

MH: The thing is that a range of studies from political scientists, economists, pollsters published in the last two years have found that it was racial resentment and cultural anxiety on the part of white voters — rich and poor— that got Donald Trump into the Oval Office, not economic anxiety, not poverty, not inequality. That’s what polling from Gallup and from Pew has shown. That’s what a poll from The Atlantic found last year. It found that financially troubled voters in the white working class were more likely to prefer Clinton over Trump, as were of course working class people of color who didn’t vote for Trump in big numbers. That’s what political scientist Diana Mutz found in a study for the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year. She found no evidence that white working class voters backed Trump because of a decline in their income or a worsening personal financial situation or a decline in manufacturing or employment in their local areas. Instead she found “those who felt that the hierarchy was being upended with whites discriminated against more than blacks, Christians discriminated against more than Muslims and men discriminated against more than women, were most likely to support Trump. Surprise.

DT: Build that wall. Build that wall. Build that wall. Build that wall!

MH: Look don’t get me wrong, I’m to the left of Bernie Sanders when it comes to economic policy. I think the Democrats putting the interests of Wall Street over Main Street both under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama was a political, economic and moral disaster. But it isn’t the main reason why people voted for Trump and why they’re going to vote Republican again next week in the midterms and why they’re going to try and re-elect Trump in 2020— God help us all. And those of us on the left shouldn’t be so naïve to think that just raising the minimum wage or bringing in universal healthcare will win them over. Not if what’s driving them at their core is racial and cultural resentment rather than economic anxiety or financial distress. Look at a new book Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, which marshalls extensive evidence to show, yet again, that it was white identity and anti-immigrant anti-Muslim sentiment that best predicted support for Donald Trump. Whereas economic anxiety played a much, much smaller role. The book’s co-author Professor John Sides of George Washington University one of the nation’s top political scientists and editor in chief of The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage political science blog is here with me in the studio today but to make sure you get another point of view, because I don’t just want you to hear my views or John’s views, so too is my colleague Briahna Joy Gray, senior politics editor here at The Intercept, who isn’t willing to let go of the economic anxiety argument. She and I have been going back and forth on this on Twitter for the past few weeks, so it’s great to have her here with John to try and resolve our disagreements in person and maybe even find some areas of common ground in the race versus class debate.

MH: John, Briahna thanks both for joining me on deconstructed.

John Sides: Thank you very much.

BJG: My pleasure.

MH: John, what is the main thesis of your new book Identity Crisis co-authored with Lynne Vavreck and Michael Tesla? What is it that you all concluded was so special about the 2016 election and about the people who voted in the 2016 election and how does that affect the coming midterms and, of course, the next presidential election in 2020.

JS: So the subtitle of the book is “The Battle for the Meaning of America” and it is essentially arguing that the central dimension of conflict the 2016 election was about issues with about inclusion and exclusion into the American polity and especially around issues that had to do with immigration with Islam and with race. And these issues which of course percolate throughout American politics and history became uniquely salient in 2016 because of the way that Trump and Clinton campaigned. And then therefore the people’s feelings about those issues, their feelings about African-Americans, their feelings about immigration, their feelings about Muslims became more strongly associated with whether they voted for Trump versus Clinton or for Trump in the primary than was true in 2012, in 2008, in other recent presidential elections. What does that mean for 2018? More of the same.

MH: And the conventional wisdom —well, I’m not going to use conventional wisdom—a common view you hear often when the 2016 election is discussed, the shock win of Donald Trump, is discussed that this was a lot of it was to do with white working class voters who went to Trump because he was talking about trade, he was talking about globalization. He was talking about the system being rigged against them and a lot of it was to do with class and economics. You say in your book, “the apparent impact of economic anxiety was much smaller in recent elections, and not particularly distinctive compared to earlier elections.” This activation of racial attitudes is what helped Trump more than Clinton. How can we know that? Just explain to our listeners how you can even know that one factor played more of a role than another.

JS: One of the central data sets in the book is a survey that interviewed the exact same group of people in 2011-2012, before and after the 2012 election. And also, we interviewed them again in 2016— it’s the same exact group of people. What we’re able to do by comparing these people is to look to see if their attitudes about issues like race and immigration were associated with how they voted in ’12, with how they voted in ’16, and did that relationship change over time. And what we were able to show is that the relationships got stronger. Your views of immigration, your views of Muslims, your views of African-Americans. In a parallel survey project, again, comparing twelve ’12 and ’16, we have another set of questions, which I think capture the thing that people mean when they talk about something like economic anxiety. It’s how concerned are you about losing your job and not being able to make a rent or mortgage payment or a healthcare payment? There’s a whole series of these questions and you can sort of sum up the number of questions where people give you an answer that reflects a real sense of fear or insecurity or anxiety about their economic situation and that is just not really strongly related to people’s choices between either Obama and Trump—excuse me, Obama and Romney or Clinton and Trump. If you want a quick riff on trade, I’ll say that the most important thing to know about people’s views on trade is they don’t really have strong views about trade. People did once they heard Trump criticize trade, change their views about trade if they were supporters of Trump. So in some sense views of trade is a consequence of the campaign but it’s not really a causal factor.

MH: Briahna, when you read Identity Crisis by John Sides and his co-authors or when you look at the work done by other political scientists have put out studies since the election that have got lots of news coverage like Diana Mutz in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, work by Jonathan Rothwell at Gallup, that all of the studies, based on some of the nerdy political science that John alluded to, do seem to suggest that race trumped economics in 2016, that it wasn’t the economy stupid in 2016. Do you buy that?

BJG: I don’t think that any of those studies show that at all. I think that they show, what is pretty apparent to anybody who was paying attention during any of this process, which is that of course race is a significant factor. Trump ran a case — a campaign that was so flagrant that it’s hard to even call it race baiting. It’s explicit. And I don’t think that anyone, perhaps some very early articles following the election, perhaps that one Mark Lilla article that seems to be the bane of my existence actually tried to downplay the relevance of race. My concern is that, quite the opposite, what’s being downplayed now and what has over the course of the recent history the Democratic Party been downplayed, is the relevance of class in these debates. So a lot of the evidence that has marshaled to characterize Trump voters as racism which, of course, do intersect with racial bias are also related strongly to what I would consider to be economic anxiety. So you can’t talk about immigration in a vacuum. Often in the course of the book there are references to the fact that people — that Trump voters not only were antagonistic toward immigration but that they had attitudes like— we’re concerned that people are cutting in line. That basically people are taking a place that they don’t deserve because they haven’t been here and they haven’t earned it. The statements which to me reflect, in addition to racial bias potentially, a feeling that, as an American, you are not able to take advantage of the opportunities or be or be benefited by the opportunities that you feel you should have in this country. Which, to me, is core, central, to economic anxiety. And one other point I want to mention is that there seems to be, there’s a little bit of cherry picking of the data. So there is a point at which — the fact that the economy has recovered post recession is pointed to as a — as evidence that people aren’t suffering from economic anxiety. But while income is drawn out in the book and the income graph is highlighted, the wealth gap, which has always been more significant which was more deeply impacted by the recession given that the recession hurt people’s 401K’s and raised foreclosure rates on their home value. That’s the kind of thing that you want to look at. And in fact 85% of the recovery from the recession has gone to the 1% and both Trump and Bernie Sanders — I think their popularity is rooted in drawing out those kinds of distinctions.

MH: And I want to bring John back in but just before I do, there are lots of studies out there and we’ll try and put some of the links up actually on the Deconstructed site so people can go and look for themselves — I think some of the authors would disagree with your representation, saying they don’t downplay economic anxiety. Diana Mutz very clearly says she looked at the different factors not just income and didn’t find any evidence that sent Trump voters — working class voters into the arms of Trump — I take your point on wealth but surely income is a factor when the majority of Americans earning less than 50 grand a year, according to the exit polls, voted for Clinton not Trump. When the plurality of voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania — the key Rust Belt states — who said the most important issue facing the country is the economy. When the plurality of those voters voted for Clinton not Trump, it’s hard to say is it not, that the economy was what was driving those Trump voters in those areas.

BJG: It’s funny that voters whose average income is fifty thousand dollars a year — that there’s any world in which the economy could be perceived to not be central to their voting choices. Anecdotal evidence and research including a lot of great research that was put together in a recent article by Malaika Jabali in current affairs shows that when you talk to those voters — the issue of trade is just not isolated. They talk about trade because they are from states where industry was a significant portion of the workforce — including a lot of black voters in Milwaukee for instance — 54% of whom black men there were employed by the industrial facilities that completely went away in the last 20 years. These voters are necessarily driven by their most immediate concerns. I don’t understand how when you see 75,000 black voters staying home in Milwaukee and scads of Obama to Trump voters existing.

MH: I want to come back to both those issues — definitely — so people staying at home and Obama to Trump — just sticking with Trump voters — people actually did go and vote for Trump — all I’m saying is — if the people who were the poorer people just on income basis and the people who said the economy is what’s driving us are going for Clinton not Trump — doesn’t that undermine the thesis that it’s economics not race or identity as John says?

BJG: Well first of all, that looks at — that’s imagining numbers as though every single person who has — earns from 0 to $50,000 dollars voted for Clinton and every single person votes from $50,000 — $100,000 dollars. But that’s—

MH: No, the majority. That’s how democracy works. You’re never going to get 100% of anything. We’re not in Saddam’s Iraq.

BJG: — that’s not how it is. This right here is a critical fallacy. Economic anxiety is not poverty. It’s not.

MH: How do you define it?

BJG: I define economic anxiety as concern about one’s status — one’s current status in American society slipping. And that’s relevant because we live in a capitalist society where if you increase the voting — if you increase the share of the pie that people who have historically not benefited from the American dream like marginalized communities like Blacks and Hispanics and women — if you increase their share of the pie that necessarily means that something’s going to get cut from white voters. Democrats want to dance around that issue but that’s what happens in capitalism. There is a limited slice of the pie. That’s why people who seem to be operating outside of the system, people like Bernie Sanders who said, “we’re going to enlarge the pie” resonated with voters. Meanwhile the alternative is someone like Trump that says we’re not actually going to give those pieces of the pie to those brown people and women — and that can attract the same people who have those same concerns.

MH: So, John bringing you back in here. It’s interesting defining our terms. How would you define economic anxiety? You did a recent report for the voter study group, where you talked about economic distress and you said that people who think the economic anxiety narrative is what drove voters into the arms of Trump, “flawed and misplaced.” You said, “economic anxiety was actually decreasing, not increasing, in the run up to the election.”

JS: That’s what people were saying in surveys. I mean they were expressing more confidence in the economy and in their more satisfaction with their own financial circumstances. The report that you’re referring to looks at a similar set of questions in terms of satisfaction with in common savings and a variety of aspects of their financial circumstances, as well as , whether or not they report having this kind of acute events like the loss of a job or specific kinds of financial struggles. Where I think Brianna’s quite right is to think about the ways in which the operating factor here is not just a pure economic anxiety that’s just a reflection of how you see your savings account in your pocketbook right now. But it has to do with status, which I think is an important word that she used, and it has to do with a set of comparisons that you’re making — not between you and everyone else, but between your group that’s losing out — losing status and other groups that are benefiting status.

MH: When you said groups — Briahna says class. Is it an economic group or a different type of group?

JS: We think a lot of this is somewhat racialized —.

MH: You used the phrase racialized economics in the book. What do you mean by that?

JS: Well what we mean is that people think about economic outcomes through a racial lens in terms of which groups are getting ahead and which groups are getting behind — they define those groups in part in terms of race and ethnicity.

MH: But my sense is and Briahna can correct me in a moment, is that — when she talks about the intersection — she’s not prioritizing one over the other or she hasn’t said so yet — I’ll bring her in in a second — whereas you specifically say in the book that racial anxiety was arguably driving economic anxiety and your co-author Michael Desmond has talked about the fact that everyone’s got it the wrong way around. It’s not people feeling economically under the weather and going “I’m going to blame those black people” — it wasn’t that that was driving it, it was the other way around. It was, you had hostile views of other groups and therefore you thought the economy was doing worse.

JS: I mean certainly there is some evidence from Michael’s work that people’s views of African Americans started to affect their views of how the economy was doing once Obama became president. If you look at some of the ethnographic work that Arlie Russell Hochschild and others have done — you know, there is just a story that people have in their heads that has to do with how they’ve worked and played by the rules and — but still perceive that they’re not getting their fair share. And the reason that they think that is because they see that other groups are cutting in line. That’s exactly the phrase that, I think, Hochschild uses in her book. People’s interpretation about economic outcomes inevitably comes back to — not like “am I doing better than my neighbors?” or “am I doing better than some hypothetical wealthy person or the the average person?” but it comes back to these stories about racial and ethnic groups is because it’s somewhat baked into our history and culture but to be honest — to be clear like it’s also oftentimes the way that the candidates themselves talked. I mean you can go and you can look at things that Trump said like “Democrats care more about illegal immigrants than they do about veterans.”

MH: Briahna, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ wrote that essay, “The First White President”, he said in that “Trump assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the dishwasher to Joe the plumber to Joe the banker.” And it was cross-class to ease use your — I mean he won every white demographic male and female, young and old, rich and poor. So why do we focus so much on these, almost, romanticized working class white voters. I mean I get why — because the three swing states. But why do we put so much attention that and forget that actually he won more — he won a lot of rich people as Republican candidates tend to do. And of course working class people of color, as you well know, didn’t vote for Trump in the same numbers as working class white people.

BJG: Well, I can’t speak for anybody else but my interest in working class whites is only because my interest is in the working class. I don’t think that my politics have very much to offer the wealthy whites in this country. And so I’m not interested in speaking to them, messaging to them and I think that if you do in the way that Hillary Clinton endeavored to — saying that for every, you know, blue collar voter we lose — we’ll pick up one in the suburbs. I think that’s how you start to get your politics corrupted by having to court interests that are ultimately not beneficial to working class people. My view is working class politics benefits working class people of all races and that should be the priority of the Democratic Party. I think it was — it used to be a party that privileged labor interests and back in those days it didn’t feel the need to hit identity so hard because it had something in addition to being protective of marginalized groups to offer people but over time what has happened is after new Democrats decided to redefine the party — what you got is a party that is largely empty and driven by these kind of symbolic gestures and you get a president like Donald Trump who can, lying through his teeth, run to the left of a Democratic candidate on a number of issues.

MH: But did he run to the left? See I’d never buy that for a second.

BJG: I do.

MH: Hillary ran the most left-wing economic platform of any Democratic candidate — more left than Obama. Trump said a few words about trade — that’s not a left-wing platform.

BJG: A few words about trade meant an awful lot to hundreds of thousands —

MH: Healthcare? Childcare? Taxes? That’s more important?

BJG: —during the campaign he spoke a lot about not wanting people to die in the streets, about never attacking Medicare or cutting Social Security. He talked about those things a lot. And you mentioned this in your book a lot —

MH: But that doesn’t make any sense because Hillary also talked about those issues and offered much more to these working class voters.

BJG: Not in a clear direct way —.

MH: She did. She offered a $15 minimum wage, she offered. I mean — it was the most left-leaning economic platform—.

BJG: She offered a $12 minimum wage is what I seem to recall.

MH: On the platform that went into — with Bernie Sanders, who we both like — Bernie Sanders helped push her to the left. We know that.

BJG: Right.

MH: The idea that Donald Trump ran a left wing economic platform against the Democrats is just not reality.

BJG: This is something that you can speak to as well because you talked about this a lot in your book. The reality was that you had one candidate who was offering more in terms of, kind of, lefty lingo while also saying I see you, I see that America is not great for you, we’re going to make it again, I respect you. You had another candidate who was out here saying — I’m going to shut all the coal plants down in West Virginia and half of you are deplorables. So you have to take that with a grain of salt. You have to not just see what the message is but who’s giving the message and how credible they seem—

MH: A billionaire sitting in a gold apartment if that’s credible —

BJG: Well there was two billionaires in gold— Well I don’t know what color apartment Hillary Clinton had.

MH: Well I don’t think—is Hillary Clinton a billionaire?

BJG: She’s extraordinarily wealthy.

JS: Is Trump a billionaire?

MH: Well, that’s a good point John — bringing us back to the reality of Trump. But just to drill down very good point, very interesting points that are made by Briahna and I just want to come back to this. So let’s say—you talked in your first answer about where we go from here — what happens in 2018, 2020. You’re saying identity is getting worse. There’s a big school of thought on the left and I’m probably part of it which thinks Bernie Sanders would’ve done better against Trump than Hillary Clinton. We can — that’s probably a whole show for another day.

BJH: (laughs) Bernie would’ve won.

MH: But the issue I have with Briahna. Briahna and I both agree that the Democratic Party should be to the left on economics. I want to see more left wing economics. The difference I think between us is I don’t think that I’ll win back some of these Trump voters especially the new ones who went from the Democrats in 2016 and 2012 because reading books like yours and reading other studies seems to suggest that that’s not what driving them. It’s not the level of the minimum wage. Is not why they pulled the lever for Trump. Briahna’s point is actually people did hear the left-wing lingo of Donald Trump and that was appealing to a lot of people who are underwater or in distress or anxious whatever you call it — whatever status they were in and that was appealing to them. You didn’t find evidence of that or did you?

JS: Our best evidence for that’s in the primary. What we discovered — not we, the social scientists — we knew this — but the world discovered — is that there is a substantial fraction of Republican voters who are not orthodox conservatives. And, you know, the fact that Trump would say these things like “we have to save Medicare and Social Security”, you know, kind of the anti— Paul Ryan agenda.

MH: But it didn’t translate to the general.

JS: I don’t — you know I’m not sure —.

MH: In general, it was more Mexicans or Muslims?

JS: I’m not sure that the factors around economic policy were distinctively important in the general election relative to the recent elections where we know that the effect of these, disguised economic liberalism among Republican voters was helpful for Trump in generating support in the primary.

MH: Briahna, just to come to me I mentioned earlier which we didn’t go into — briefly I want to get into it. This argument the people have about this race-class-economic anxiety-racial resentment. What was driving Trump voters. A lot of people say, well hold on white working class voters did go for Trump in big numbers but that was more because they were white than because they were working class and the evidence they point to that is to say, “how come people of color who are working class black and latino didn’t go for Trump?” They didn’t hear the lefty lingo and run towards the billionaire in the gold apartment. You said recently on Twitter, “that’s literally the dumbest argument”— I think I’m paraphrasing.

BJG: That sounds right. (laughs)

MH: Why is that a dumb argument? To me it seems like a pretty sensible argument. If your argument is working class people went for Trump— why is it only the white ones did? That seems to be race not class.

BJG: Because Trump is racist. Like no one here is denying that Trump is a race-baiting President.

MH: It’s not about Trump being racist — that’s easy to say — it’s about the voters appeal is racist. That’s what you don’t want to say.

BJG: Well here’s the thing. Let me bring some facts up from this book— of course the appeal is racist.


BJG: He’s appealing to people’s racism, racistly.

MH: Good to hear you say that.

BJG: But what’s also true —

MH: But what’s dominating, is what I’m going to get to the bottom. Is it race or class?

BJG: So first of all anybody who wants to bifurcate them is usually and I’m not saying this about you—

MH: I’m not saying bifurcate, I’m saying pick one that has a dominant…

BJG: And I will not do that. Nor will I sit here and tell you which was worse slavery or the Holocaust because, generally speaking, when people want you to make those kinds of decisions it’s because they want to try to minimize one or the other or both.

MH: Yes, because you’re trying to build a strategy! If people are led—

BJG: No, because they are inextricable from each other!

MH: For you.

BJG: If you try to address one without addressing the other you’re going to get absolutely nowhere which is why I’m so frustrated with this insistence on minimizing the relevance of economics.

MH: But I don’t get this—you say it’s inextricable but then I’m pointing to people who are working class who didn’t vote for Trump. The only difference is that they’re not white, so it clearly isn’t inextricable.

BJG: And I’m pointing to the 40%—from your book, I’m pointing to the 40% of Democrats who are islamaphobic—.

MH: Not my book. It’s John’s book. People at home who can’t see— I haven’t written a book on 2016 —.

BJG: I’m pointing to the 40% of Democrats who are — have anti-Muslim sentiments according to the stats in this book. I’m pointing to the 25% of Hillary voters who believe black Americans are more lazy than whites. There are — no one points that their racism to explain why they voted for Hillary Clinton. 25% of Hillary voters, the study that came from was much ballyhooed but it’s not that much lower than the trump number number at 33% — something like that.

MH: Let’s put that to John. There were lots of racially resentful Clinton voters. Does that mean the racial resentment argument falls apart?

BJG: I don’t even think it falls apart. I just think it’s complicated. You can’t divorce these things from each other.


JS: What we can show in the book is the relationship between a factor like your views of immigration or whatever and the likelihood you’re voting for the Democratic or the Republican candidate. But there is no way that you can reduce people’s choice in election to one factor or that you should characterize a group of voters with a label like racist — it obviously doesn’t advance the conversation.

MH: You guys use the phrase racial resentment. Do you want to explain to listeners what that means?

JS: Well — I mean — racial resentment as it’s used in the scholarly literature really gets down to how how do you explain racial inequality. Do you think that racial inequality is mostly about structural forces like discrimination and slavery that have held back African-Americans for generations or do you think that it’s more about the fact that blacks don’t try hard enough don’t work hard enough — it’s kind of a critique of the work ethic of African Americans. And so I really feel like the value of that measure for the 2016 election is it directly taps into this notion of deserving this and you know this sense that African Americans may be getting things they don’t deserve because they’re not working hard enough.

MH: Just to be clear — so our listeners don’t get confused because we’re very — I appreciate all of us being very polite to each other but Briahna’s made it very clear that she doesn’t want to unpack these issues and it’s wrong to bifurcate these issues. Whereas you’ve written a book, correct me if I’m wrong, where you have said one issue dominated over the other. Am I wrong in saying that?

JS: I mean we — I would not be faithful to our argument if I disagreed. I mean yes, I think we do think that factors around race and immigration were a larger factor than a pure economic anxiety but we do see that the racialized economics or the linkage of these two things as being important. So we’re not trying — I don’t want to — again I don’t want to have just two buckets one for race and one for economics.

MH: Agreed and everyone should read the book for themselves — let’s give a big plug to the book — it’s a fascinating book. It’s written very well. Not just like — not that academic books aren’t written well—

JS: No they’re usually not written very well.

MH: —but it’s written much more interesting in tone and approach than an academic book — Identity Crisis. But John, whenever we have this discussion, the first thing people do — and to be fair Brianna hasn’t done this but many others who have this argument — the first fallback is “you can’t say it’s about race because what about all those voters who switched from Obama to Trump?” And on the face of it, it does seem like a pretty good counterargument. What is your response to people who say, “it can’t be anything to do with race” or “can’t be mostly to do with race because they voted for a black guy in 2008-2012 so how can you say it was race when they went to Trump in 2016?”

JS: I think one of the things that people underestimate is the extent to which white Obama voters had views about race and immigration that were not what Obama himself thought and not what the Democratic Party was standing for at that point in time. They were willing to endorse blacks’ lack of work ethic as the reason for racial inequality. That’s maybe 25% of white Obama voters. A third of them wanted to reduce immigration. We live in a world where you know every relationship between what we think about issues and how we vote is probabilistic there are people who are mismatched — that they’re voting based on other things. You know Obama’s running as the incumbent president in a growing economy. It’s a pretty good year for the incumbent to win re—election. Maybe that’s kind of the central factor for these voters. And moreover, Obama and Romney were not fighting about these same racialized issues in the same way. But these voters are sitting there and once the axis of debate shifts to some extent to focus more on issues like immigration, then that gives these voters a reason to shift from Obama to Trump and to a lesser extent some voters from Romney to Clinton

MH: And can they shift back. Or is the sorting now heading in one direction, this is a quite key question. Briahna is — if you’re all — I plugged the book, I’m going to plug Briahna’s twitter feed which is always fascinating. And one of Brianna’s points — I know sorry to put words in your mouth and correct me if I’m misquoting you but Briahna’s point was if they voted before they can vote again. There’s no reason you can’t get some of these people back. Is that a fair summary?

BJG: Yeah. Particularly because Barack Obama was a black president but he ran largely on this race-neutral, he talked about race as you say in your book less than any other Democrat in recent history and actually highlighted that 2012 election was actually about class — about the 1% versus the 99%.

MH: Lucky guy who never had to run against trump. John, so can you get these people back? Or does it look like it’s heading into — this is the new fault lines of U.S. politics.

JS: We’ve tracked these people. Obama-Trump voters are not as staunch Republicans as a Romney-Trump voter. They’re they’re not as strongly tied to the party. Early on when we asked them how do you plan to vote in the U.S. House race let’s say they were a lot — much larger fraction that was uncertain. Didn’t know. They’re not as strongly supportive of Trump overall which is maybe surprising to some but in terms of the percentage you said they strongly approve of the job he’s doing or something like that. So I think there is some potential to win back some. Now, you can tell I qualified that 20 different ways because I don’t know how many and I don’t know exactly what it would take. I think it would depend a lot on who the candidates are, the district they’re running in and how central it is for those candidates to win those voters in order to win—as opposed to mobilizing the Democratic base or some other strategy.

MH: And just one quick question before I bring Briahna back in just to bring full circle, Obama voters who didn’t vote for Clinton either went to Trump or to third party candidates to a much smaller extent or they stayed at home. The folks who stayed at home. Did they stay at home for “identity reasons” or was that more economic? Can we unpack the difference between those who went to Trump and those who stayed at home?

JS: Our data are not as strong on capturing the turnout dynamic. What we do know about the turnout dynamic that’s, I think, the most clear from other data sources is just that Clinton struggled to mobilize the Obama coalition and that may be just a simple fact that she’s not Barack Obama. And some of these declines in support — declines in turnout — excuse me — among core Democratic groups — African-Americans is one example — it was certainly consequential for her and I think it reflects the fact that she was never able to muster as much enthusiasm from them as Obama himself did.

MH: So Briahna, I would say to you and you might disagree with me now — I don’t have data for this, this is just my hunch — although I’m sure there’s some data out there. If you look at what the Democrats could offer going forward in 2020, again you and I think we’d both agree that we would like to see a much more to the left economic platform. That platform though, I would hope, would mobilize a lot of the people you mentioned earlier who stayed at home in Wisconsin — a lot of black voters and say, offer them something real, tangible — red meat in terms of economic policy. But at the same time given what we’ve been discussing for the last half hour about racialized economics, which even you conceded the inextricable link that people are cutting in line — that actually might turn away some of the people that you might want to win back from Trump. So, for example there have been focus groups done by the Institute for Family Studies where they’ve interviewed some of these white working class voters and they say, “What do you want, what you mean a higher minimum wage? That means that guy who doesn’t work as hard as me gets almost as much money as I do.” So there’s a lot of — there is a great sense of extra government programs extra welfare higher minimum wage is actually resented by a lot of these poorer white people because I think it goes to those black undeserving folks.

BJG: So what’s really great is that the policies that are are kind of backed by the Bernie Sanders wing of the left — let’s say — are overwhelmingly popular not just with Democrats but with Republicans. Universal healthcare is — has something like 70 odd percent among Democrats. It has a narrow majority like 51, 52% among Democrats [sic]. These are not — you don’t — this is not an either or. The beauty of universal policies is that you don’t have to make a choice. There is a big difference between how means tested programs like welfare are perceived by the public versus the “universal — “.

MH: Especially by white, working class voters who feel it’s going to the undeserving poor.

BJG: Exactly. Yes. This is why we — this is why Bernie Sanders has been so astute in focusing on so-called universal programs. They in fact disproportionately benefit all of the groups that are disproportionately marginalized in the current system. Benefits would disproportionately accrue, as I wrote in a recent piece, Beware of the Race Reductionists in The Intercept to exactly those communities that are most stigmatized without having all of that stigma and what a Demos study from earlier this year showed interestingly is that the message that what they call persuadable voters — voters who when you ask them questions about left politics and right politics sometimes agree with the left and sometimes agree with the right — the message that is most likely to make them want to get on board with left policies is to say the one percent in this country wants you to fight against people of other races so they can hoard wealth for themselves in the one percent. If you make it if you give them an enemy, which Trump was so good at doing—

MH: Yeah, yeah.

BJG: —if you give them an enemy the other race but in fact class-based — the one percent — and said that in fact I know you can rise above this and be better than this. You’re not actually a racist deplorable, you’re just fighting for scraps and you don’t have to. That’s exactly how you win. And my concern is I’m desperately afraid that they will do exactly what they did in 2016 and that they will overemphasize and, as I wrote again for Intercept, fetishize race to the extent that they ignore that voters at the end of the day do have some insight to what they actually want and not just who they are.

MH: So, before we finish and throwing forward, I just want to say I agree with a lot of what you just said. My only issue, probably, with what you said is I feel like you emphasize what the Democrats got wrong on economic policy while under-emphasizing all the stuff that Trump did on race as outlined by John Sides and his colleagues in his book, as outlined by all these other studies we mentioned, which you disagree with or you don’t agree with what their conclusions purport to be. And my worry then is, for example, midterm elections coming up we’re recording the show on the eve of the midterms. You say Trump pushed left-wing lingo which I disagree with. And here’s what he’s saying right now about the midterms, this is what the New York Times called his closing argument. He said at a recent rally, this is what he says the midterms are going to be about: Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order, and common sense. I don’t see economics in there at all. I see race and culture wars. He knows what his base wants. Why do you think you know what his base wants more than him. He seems to get it that it is race and identity for his base not minimum wage or welfare policy.

BJG: There is a difference between what Trump is able to offer and what his base is willing to accept. Trump is only willing to offer race because now he is the actual president. He doesn’t have the same, I think, flexibility to sit around saying that he is going to expand Medicaid and never cut Social Security. He has different pressures on him now. He has in fact attacked Social Security and made attempts to cut Medicaid, right? So this is what he has left.

MH: Interesting. So you think he’s switching.

BJG: We could steal those. If we focus instead of — if Democrats continue to highlight Medicare for all which has overwhelming support from the American people and a number of these other progressive programs that similarly had this number of support. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to have employees have a voting ownership over who sits on the board of companies. All of these kinds of things — $15 minimum wage are incredibly popular. The thing is for us not to get caught up in the culture war is not because the culture wars aren’t important or these marginalized groups don’t need defending but because there is —

MH: I don’t think it’s about being caught up, the culture wars have been brought—

BJG:  Right, they’re always here! And there’s racism — my response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article that you brought up earlier — I wrote a response in New York mag at the end of last year and basically my point was that he’s not wrong when he articulates, so well, the overwhelmingness of racism in this country and how it continues to be manipulated to this day. What I — where I depart from him is this idea that because identity got us to this place, white identity,` racist identity politics got us in this place — that by highlighting identity and focusing on identity going forward is the only way to get out. Because the only resolution if you think that the world is all this way primarily and perhaps exclusively because of racism is to say well let’s cure everybody of racism. And I don’t know about you but I’m not particularly optimistic about that prospect.

MH: Ok, but that’s a bit of a straw-man because as John explained earlier, he’s not saying everyone is racist — there’s other measures of resentment.

BJG: Well, I am. I do.

MH: Racial resentment and cultural resentment.

BJG: Including democrats. I think we’re all racist.

MH: Let me — let me put this before we finish. Let me try and get that — to the bottom of some of our disagreements and some of our agreements. I’m from the UK. I think it’s madness that your country doesn’t have universal healthcare. Of course I want to see the Democrats offering Medicare for all and I’m glad to see that polling. Where I, again, differ with Briahna — I want to put this to you John as a final word to you — is I believe that Democrats should offer Medicare for all going into midterms, which they’re not, and going into the presidential election in 2020. But I don’t think that will solve some of the problems you’ve raised in your book in terms of the voters that Trump has mobilized especially from the working class. That’s my understanding that things like Medicare For All won’t get them back. Am I wrong?

JS: I don’t want to make a strong prediction. How about that for a non-answer. I’ll say this, I mean —

MH: I’m trying, listeners. I’m trying to get—

JS: —there’s no doubt that Trump’s actual agenda as president in terms of his economic policies has been more conservative than a lot of his campaign rhetoric. He’s been he’s become a traditional Republican in many respects.

MH: And yet his white working class support hasn’t fallen away in the kind of numbers you would expect if it was about economics.

JS: So here is the ultimate question right — this is why I don’t have an answer but I’ll just pose the question right — so there is an opportunity for Democrats to distinguish their economic message more strongly from Trump’s given his record as president. There is a set of policies that are being proposed where, you know, their universalistic nature could mitigate some of the racialized dimensions of people’s views of those policies if Democrats can make that case persuasively and if they don’t lose that argument based on a set of accusations about who those policies would ultimately, actually benefit. Where I’m uncertain is the extent to which that message works as an electoral strategy and I’m uncertain as to whether they need it to win back the White House. They may not. That’s clearly the direction the party’s going. So in some sense, if we want to know whether it works we’re probably going to get a good test case in 2020.

MH: And that’s the direction the party is going in. Just one final thought. What direction are the voters going in — how do you leave your book, optimistic or pessimistic?

JS: I mean we’re pessimistic in the following sense : that the alignment between people’s views of race and immigration and their partisanship is stronger and it was getting stronger before Trump ran — since he won, it’s gotten even stronger still as Democrats have shifted to the left on immigration and related issues. The challenge for, I think, our thinking about American electoral politics is that it does give politicians a greater incentive to distinguish themselves from each other on those issues knowing that it’s going to unify and mobilize their base. And I don’t know exactly how a Democratic candidate in 2020, let’s say, you know how easy it is to stick to a purely economic message when Trump is going to come and make a set of arguments around race and immigration as much as he’s making in 2018. So I think I would like to have a politics that can be oriented around issues that are not as emotionally charged where we can have a debate about the marginal tax rate or cost of living adjustments in Social Security payments and other quaint things we debated during the Obama years. But I’m afraid that increasingly the incentives for our politics are to compete around issues regarding race, immigration and things like that. And that makes for I think a continuation of the identity crisis.

MH: John, Briahna thank you both for joining me on Deconstructed.

BJG: Thank you.

JS: Thank you very much Mehdi.

[Music interlude]

MH: That was John Sides and Briahna Joy Gray. And that’s a debate which is going to go on for a while, way past these midterms all the way to 2020. Briahna makes a passionate and eloquent case for why she thinks economic anxiety is driving a lot of these folks. But I happen to disagree with her and we’re going to post some links to some of the studies I cited earlier which I think show best why it’s about race not class on the Deconstructed episode page at You can read them, decide for yourselves.

That’s our show. Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept and is distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Zach Young. Dina Sayedahmed is our production assistant. The show was mixed by Brian Pugh. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor-in-chief. I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @Mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice — iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already please do leave us a rating or a review. It helps people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Thanks so much. See you next week.

Studies mentioned in this podcast:

Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote
Diana C. Mutz, April 2018

Beyond Economics: Fears of Cultural Displacement Pushed the White Working Class to Trump
PRRI/The Atlantic, May 2017

Explaining Nationalist Political Views: The Case of Donald Trump
Gallup, August 2016

More ‘warmth’ for Trump among GOP voters concerned by immigrants, diversity
Pew Research Center, June 2016

Top image: Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses supporters in Dallas, Texas, on Sept. 14, 2015, and in Akron, Ohio, on Aug. 22, 2016.

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