During the 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden talked about restoring the soul of the nation. After the networks had projected him to be the winner, the president-elect said, “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, to lower the temperature, to see each other again, to listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy.”
While it’s important for leaders to articulate aspirational ideals, cynicism leads us to doubt whether those sentiments are realistic during a time of such heightened asymmetric political polarization. But if there is any chance of lowering the temperature of our political rhetoric, it is important for us to understand how the heat got turned up.
In a column titled, “The Resentment That Never Sleeps,” journalist Thomas Edsall identifies the heart of the problem as anxiety over declining social status—a subjective perception that is tied to a person’s sense of identity. As such, it represents how individuals gauge their status based on the cultural hierarchies we’ve constructed around things like class, gender, race, religion, geography, education, etc.
Writing in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Rebecca Traister captured what has been happening in an article titled, “The Election and the Death Throes of White Male Power.”
This moment, this election, these years represent the death throes of exclusive white male power in the United States…The public spectacle of this presidential election, and the two that have preceded it, are inextricably linked to the racialized and gendered anger and violence we see around us…Whatever their flaws, their political shortcomings, their progressive dings and dents, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton mean a lot. They represent an altered power structure and changed calculations about who in this country may lead.
To the extent that we are witnessing the death of white male power, those who have constructed their identities around it are feeling threatened. That anxiety is what drives people who are attracted to Trump’s politics of resentment. White supremacist Richard Spencer was actually one of the first to identify what Trump was tapping into back in 2015. Here’s what he told Evan Osnos of the New Yorker:
“Trump, on a gut level, kind of senses that this is about demographics, ultimately. We’re moving into a new America.” He said, “I don’t think Trump is a white nationalist,” but he did believe that Trump reflected “an unconscious vision that white people have – that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren’t able to articulate it. I think it’s there. I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon.”
Note that Spencer said that Trump was exploiting a fear white people have about what might happen as a result of changing demographics. Some of the experts Edsall consulted for his piece pointed out that the loss of social status is not something Trump supporters actually experience. It’s something they fear. For example, here is how Peter Hall, a professor of government at Harvard, described those who are affected:
The people most often drawn to the appeals of right-wing populist politicians, such as Trump, tend to be those who sit several rungs up the socioeconomic ladder in terms of their income or occupation. My conjecture is that it is people in this kind of social position who are most susceptible to what Barbara Ehrenreich called a “fear of falling” — namely, anxiety, in the face of an economic or cultural shock, that they might fall further down the social ladder,” a phenomenon often described as “last place aversion.
To the extent that the 2020 exit polls are accurate, they back up Hall’s contention. Trump lost voters making less than $50,000 a year by 11 points, and those making between $50,000 and $100,000 by 15 points. The only income group Trump won was those making over $100,000, where he prevailed by 12 points.
This obsession with a perceived loss of social status explains why neither the president nor the Republican Party felt the need to campaign on an actual platform of proposed policies. Here is what Thomas Kurer, a political scientist at the University of Zurich, told Edsall about that:
It is almost exclusively political actors from the right and the radical right that actively campaign on the status issue. They emphasize implications of changing status hierarchies that might negatively affect the societal standing of their core constituencies and thereby aim to mobilize voters who fear, but have not yet experienced, societal regression. The observation that campaigning on potential status loss is much more widespread and, apparently, more politically worthwhile than campaigning on status gains and makes a lot of sense in light of the long-established finding in social psychology that citizens care much more about a relative loss compared to same-sized gains.
It isn’t that Trump supporters voted against their own interests. It’s that their interests are in having a president who validates their fears and lashes out at those they’ve identified as a threat. That is why Democratic policies to address their concerns tend to fall on deaf ears.
So can anything be done to “heal the divide?” When one side assumes that their social status is threatened by a pluralistic democracy, the answer is, “not much.”
What these folks are experiencing is actually more psychological than political. Their identities have been built on a foundation of supremacy—which is on a collision course with change. Unless they find it within themselves to adapt, a crash is inevitable. In fact, it is already underway.