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How Racial Animosity Helped Republicans Take Control of the Post-Civil Rights South

The seeds of the Trump movement were laid more than 50 years before his bid for the White House, after Southern Democrats suffered a series of voter defections.
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A sign in Jackson, Mississippi, circa 1961.

A sign in Jackson, Mississippi, circa 1961.

Even now, two-plus years after Election Day, people still ask: How, exactly, did we find ourselves with Donald Trump at the helm of the most powerful government on the planet? Was is it really "economic anxiety," as everyone said, or did the 2016 presidential election unleash an unbridled wave of racial animosity and xenophobia?

The answer, according to a forthcoming study, lies in another landmark era in American politics, one that came more than 50 years before Trump's ascension to the White House. And, if the research is correct, it's a another clear reminder that economic anxiety can operate as a flimsy cover for the real hatred that's been slumbering beneath American civil society for decades.

The research, which appears in the American Economics Review, interrogates the ongoing "economic anxiety vs. racial animosity" question through the lens of the largest electoral metamorphosis in modern American political history: the departure of Southern whites in former Confederate states from Democratic Party electoral rolls—a trend that gained strength in the 1960s amid the upheaval of the civil rights movement. Using newly available data, Princeton University researchers Ilyana Kuziemko and Ebonya Washington argue that racial animosity played a far more significant roll in Republicans' post-civil rights electoral success than economic incentives like income growth.

A quick note on the researchers' methodology: Citing the American National Election Survey's relative inconsistency as a measure of racial attitudes, and the General Social Survey's belated start in 1972, Kuziemko and Washington opted to use textual analysis of Gallup polling questions that have been in place since 1958, namely: "If your party nominated a well-qualified man for president, would you vote for him if he happened to be a Negro?" They found that responses to that question, together with monthly "presidential approval" questions, predicted "racially conservative views" among voters and revealed an unusually strong relationship between the civil rights movement and its association with Democratic figures like President John F. Kennedy. The wave of civil rights legislation produced by the movement has ever since been a point of constant attack in the American culture wars—and not because of the legislation's economic consequences.

That inverted relationship between Southern whites' reaction to Kennedy and the civil rights movement, the authors note, came to supersede most other hot-button issue cited in the contemporary Gallup polling, including domestic policy third rails like Social Security, and foreign policy foes like Russia. And this pattern is particularly striking when contrasted against the income growth experienced by Southern whites during that same period.

"While white Southerners indeed enjoy faster income growth than whites elsewhere during our sample period, we find no evidence that it can explain much if any of their defection from the Democratic party," the authors write. "This income growth led to substantial disruption and dislocation—to borrow language from current debates—as whites (and others) in the region rapidly transitioned from agriculture to services and manufacturing. We show, however, that these trends have little to no power in explaining dealignment."

Equally striking are the parallels between the Trump moment of today and the Republican wave that slowly began to form amid the Southern defection of the 1960s. (In 1960, all United States senators from the South were Democrats, the authors note; today, all but three are Republican.) Objectively, there's little to complain about: Census Bureau data released in September of 2017 indicated that the incomes of middle-class Americans increased in 2016 to the highest level ever recorded by the agency, with median household incomes rising 3.2 percent in the second straight year of income growth since the start of the global financial crisis in 2007.

But even those who were actually facing economic anxiety found themselves turning toward Hillary Clinton over Trump. A May of 2017 report from The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute found "cultural displacement" was Trump supporters' primary fear—one that was particularly apparent on issues like immigration.

Ironically, these findings came as the majority of the gains from the economic recovery have flowed to white Americans. As Kuziemko and Washington found in their study of the 1960s, the economic realities of American society bear far less weight on the racially tinged conservative waves than pundits might hope.

Most recently, an examination in Sociology of Religion of the ideology of a Trump voter found that "other cultural commitments" transcended class-based concepts that fed the "economic anxiety" conversations in the national media. "Sexist attitudes were a stronger predictor of Trump support than authoritarian tendencies, ethnocentrism, or anxieties about the economy," write researchers Andrew Whitehead, Samuel Perry, and Joseph Baker. They note that even the flawed American National Election Studies data set revealed an attitude among whites of "blaming African Americans for their societal disadvantages or feeling that blacks have too much influence in society."

So what's the value of the new analysis in the American Economics Review? It highlights the fact that the Democrats' losses in the South in the 1960s set America on the course for Trump a half-century ago.