Opinion | How We Think About Politics Changes What We Think About Politics

In an email, Enns contended that

regardless of the precise underlying mechanisms (and multiple mechanisms could be at work), the evidence suggests that Trump’s rhetoric had a meaningful effect on the views his supporters expressed about these issues. We are definitely arguing that the attitudes individuals express can be changed by what candidates they support say and do. Although we cannot observe actual beliefs, to the extent that expressing previously unexpressed beliefs has a reinforcing effect, that would also provide evidence of a deepening or potential changing of racial attitudes.

The strong association between Trump support and whites’ views on racial issues, Enns and Jardina argue in their paper,

was not merely a result of Trump attracting racist whites by way of his own racist rhetoric or a reflection of partisan racial sorting that had already occurred; it was also a result of white Trump supporters changing their views to be more in line with Trump’s over the course of his presidential campaign. In other words, Trump not only attracted whites with more conservative views on race; he also made his white supporters more likely to espouse increasingly extreme views on issues related to immigration and on issues like the Black Lives Matter movement and police killings of African Americans.

Andrew M. Engelhardt, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, developed a similar line of analysis in his January 2020 paper, “Racial Attitudes Through a Partisan Lens.”

In an email, Engelhardt wrote:

Part of the reason White Democrats and White Republicans hold increasingly different views about Black Americans is due to their partisanship. It’s not just that Democrats with negative views became Republicans, or Republicans with more positive views became Democrats. Rather, people are changing their attitudes, and part of this, I argue, is due to how politicians talk about Black Americans. Republicans, for instance, could have internalized Trump’s negative rhetoric, and increasingly held more negative views. Democrats, similarly, hear Trump say these negative things and they move opposite, holding more positive views.

In his paper, Engelhardt wrote that undergirding past studies of the role of race in politics and policymaking

is an assumption that racial animus feeds political conflict. I turn this conventional wisdom on its head by arguing that political conflict can shape racial attitudes — people’s views and beliefs about groups understood to be racial. Political scientists have failed to examine this possibility, perhaps because racial attitudes are seen as persistent and influential predispositions that form during childhood, long before most Americans become political animals. According to this line of reasoning, individuals use these early formed attitudes to make sense of politics; racial attitudes lead to partisanship.

The ever-growing divide between left and right extends well beyond racial issues and attitudes. In his email, Engelhardt wrote that his results are “suggestive of partisanship motivating changes in other orientations which we might presumably see as more stable and core to individuals.” He cited research showing that “partisanship influences religiosity and religious affiliation” and other studies linking “political concerns to changes in racial self-identification.” Engelhardt added that he has “some unpublished results where I find partisanship leads Democrats to hold more positive views of gay men and lesbians, transgender individuals, and feminists, over time, with Republicans holding more negative views of these groups in the same period (data range 2016-2020).”

In their January 2022 paper, “The Origins and Consequences of Racialized Schemas about U.S. Parties,” Kirill Zhirkov and Nicholas Valentino, political scientists at the Universities of Virginia and Michigan, make an interesting argument that, in effect, “Two parallel processes structure American politics in the current moment: partisan polarization and the increasing linkage between racial attitudes and issue preferences of all sorts.”

Zhirkov and Valentino continue:

Beginning in the 1970s, Democratic candidates in presidential elections started to attract large shares of nonwhite voters whereas Republicans increasingly relied on votes of racially conservative whites. Over the same period, voters’ positions on seemingly nonracial political issues have gradually become more intertwined with racial resentment.

Overall, the two scholars write,

the growing racial gap between the Democratic and Republican support bases leads to formation of racialized stereotypes about the two parties. Specifically, a non-trivial share of American electorate currently views the Democratic Party as nonwhite and the Republican Party as white, though in reality whites continue to be a majority of both parties.

This “imagined racial coalition of each party,” in the view of Zhirkov and Valentino,

carries profound implications for the ongoing discussion in the discipline about affective polarization in American politics: whites feel colder toward the Democratic Party when they imagine its coalition to be more heavily made up on nonwhites and feel warmer toward the Republican Party when they perceive it to be dominated by their racial group. As a consequence, rather than a cause, they may then come to accept a more conservative issue package advocated by the modern Republican Party.

Racial attitudes, the authors argue persuasively, “are now important predictors of opinions about electoral fairness, gun control, policing, international trade and health care.”

There are, Zhirkov and Valentino note, long-range implications for the future of democracy here:

As soon as ethnic parties start to compete for political power, winning — rather than implementing a certain policy — becomes the goal in and of itself due to associated boost in group status and self-esteem of its members. Moreover, comparative evidence suggests that U.S. plurality-based electoral system contributes to politicization of ethnic cleavages rather than mitigates them. Therefore, the racialization of American parties is likely to continue, and the intensity of political conflict in the United States is likely to grow.

I asked the authors how they would characterize the importance of race in contemporary American politics. In a jointly written email, they replied that in research to be published in the future, “we show that race is at least as strong, and often stronger, than cleavages such as religion, ideology, and class.”

The pessimistic outlook for the prospect of a return to less divisive politics revealed in many of the papers cited here, and the key role of racial conflict in driving polarization, suggest that the ability of the United States to come to terms with its increasingly multiracial, multiethnic population remains in question. This country has been a full-fledged democracy for less than 60 years — since passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the changes wrought by three additional revolutions: in civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights. These developments — or upheavals — and especially the reaction to them have tested the viability of our democracy and suggest, at the very least, an uphill climb ahead.

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