Voting With Your Middle Finger

There is one truth that has endured through the first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency: he has kept the support of the core voters who propelled him to the White House. This week on Hidden Brain, we explore two competing perspectives on the motivations of Trump supporters, and what they can tell us about the state of our union.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.


Heads up, parents. This episode contains strong language, so if you're listening with small kids, you may want to save this one for later. This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In all of the drama of current politics in the United States, there is one truth that has endured through the first two years of Donald Trump's presidency. He has kept the support of the core group of voters who propelled him into the White House.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) We love Trump. We love Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There's only one person, and that's the Donald.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Finally, we get someone that's not a politician.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: He is not afraid to say what we're all thinking.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: He's the screw-you-Washington vote. That's all he is.

VEDANTAM: The approval of these voters, often white and often working class, has meant the Republican Party as a whole has stayed loyal to Trump. Few Republicans running for high office can expect to win without the Trump base. As Trump himself once famously said...


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters, OK? It's, like, incredible.

VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, we explore two competing perspectives on Trump supporters and their motivations. One paints a sympathetic picture, focusing on class divisions and economic pain.

JOAN WILLIAMS: This is a group that feels belittled and ignored. And you know what? At some level, they're right.

VEDANTAM: The other is more critical.

MARISA ABRAJANO: Race, as we all know, is such a fundamental cleavage in our society. I think Republicans are using it to their advantage.


VEDANTAM: Joan Williams studies gender, class and work in the United States. She is currently professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. She's also the author of the book "White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness In America." Joan, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

WILLIAMS: Delighted to be here.

VEDANTAM: We've heard a lot about the white working class since the 2016 election. I'm wondering if you could paint a picture for me, Joan, of who you include in this group, and how you distinguish them from the very wealthy and the poor.

WILLIAMS: In order to understand American politics, really, for the past 40 years, you need to define three different groups. One is the poor with a median annual income of around $19,000. That's the bottom 30 percent of Americans by household income. And then the top - the professional managerial elite - is the top 20 percent by household income. And I define that as top 20 percent by household income with one college grad. The group that's being called the working class is the group in the middle. It's the middle 53 percent with a median household income in the 70s. That's the group that's called the working class. Although, they actually are the middle class.

VEDANTAM: You have some startling statistics about wages in this middle group over the last half century. What's happened to them economically starting, let's say, in 1970?

WILLIAMS: Since 1970, the wages and economic prospects of this group have absolutely tanked. Actually, more recent statistics have come out since the book. And the most dramatic is that virtually all Americans born in the 1940s did better than their parents - virtually all. But today, it's less than half. And this is the group whose economic prospects has really collapsed. And that's actually true not only in the U.S. - it's true in advanced industrialized countries throughout the world, a more recent study showed. And that's one of the reasons you find these populist politics arising in many places around the world, not just the United States.

VEDANTAM: I want to spend some time talking about your own journey wandering across these different class boundaries, And I want to start with when you were a fairly young girl. You came from a relatively well-off background, certainly by education. Your family was very highly educated. But you had a boyfriend who came from the white working class, and you went over to his house for dinner when you were 16. Tell me what happened next.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I was very much a silver spoon girl. The boyfriend that I had when I was 16 - he was actually extremely wealthy, but he came from a strictly working class family, and his parents had grown up working class. And so I went over to dinner. I was madly in love with him at the time and very eager to impress his parents. And so I asked afterwards, how did they like me? And he said, my father said she looked at us like a fucking anthropologist. And I was really shocked. First of all, I'd never heard an adult use that word. That's a class distinction right there. And secondly, I was really hurt because I realized that it was really true.


VEDANTAM: What Joan didn't realize at the time was that her boyfriend's father had reason to see her with suspicion. As she was to later learn as a researcher, white, working-class men had experience with social elites studying them, judging them and finding them lacking. Today, Joan would describe what her boyfriend's father was experiencing as a loss of social honor. I asked her what she means by the term.

VEDANTAM: Well, I mean, in many ways, the way to understand this is to think about WPA murals in post offices across the country. I mean, if you've ever seen them - there are murals all over. And they celebrate the dignity of blue-collar work. You have strong, you know, effective guys doing important, dirty work, building the country. And they're really held up as kind of one of the ideals of manliness and strength. And that was very much the cultural image of the blue-collar guy until, you know, the '60s or '70s, when it began to wane, and we had a flip in the cultural imagery of blue-collar men. And I think of this - you can see this, actually, through situation comedies. I mean, you think of Homer Simpson...


DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Mmm, doughnut.

WILLIAMS: ...As an emblematic of the stereotype of white, working-class men today. He's kind of dimwitted, amiable, fat and ineffectual. Or if you think of Archie Bunker, a famous TV character in the 1970s...


CARROLL O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Oh, let me tell you something. I am so sick of Washington and all its works...

WILLIAMS: ...Who also was dimwitted and fat - also racist and sexist. So you have this sharp fall from social honor of blue-collar men, and it's felt very deeply as a personal affront.

VEDANTAM: When you speak with people from the working class, one of the things you say in the book is that they feel that they are often stereotyped. They're stereotyped as being poorly educated. They're stereotyped as being ugly, coarse. They have bad teeth. They're fat. I mean, these are very, very personal sort of charges, if you will, that in some ways must be experienced as a form of humiliation.

WILLIAMS: I think they are a form of humiliation. I think the American elite has put a lot of thought into self-correcting our stereotypes of the poor. And so we - it would be considered bad taste in my circles to stereotype the poor as, you know - I think that we stereotype the working class, especially the white working class, as sort of stupid, racist losers. And we use that kind of as a mute button to say, I'm not going to listen to anything they say. But that's really a misuse of anti-racism as an excuse for snobbery. You have elite white people refusing to listen to the legitimate economic complaints of less elite white people on the grounds that those other white people are racist. You know, there's a lot of racism. You know, where you have white people, you're going to have racism. That's the very sad history of this country. But using anti-racism as a mute button is not helping the situation.

VEDANTAM: You mentioned Homer Simpson a second ago. We actually found some tape with Homer Simpson. I want you to listen to this exchange.


CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Well, time to go to work. Little do they know, I'm ducking out early to take the Duff Brewery tour. Roll in at 9, punch out at 5. - that's the plan. (Laughter) They don't suspect a thing. Well, off to the plant, then to the Duff Brewery. Uh oh, did I say that or just think it? I got to think of a lie, fast.

JULIE KAVNER: (Marge Simpson) Homer, are you going to the Duff Brewery?

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson, screaming).

VEDANTAM: So there's a lot here to unpack, Joan. And it's not just the narrative of stupidity, but it's also a narrative of people who don't really care about their work - people who are not really motivated. And it, of course, is all packaged in sort of an overall - you know, the overall picture is one of humor, right? I mean, this is - these are elites making fun of people who are blue-collar people.

WILLIAMS: That's right. And I mean, one of the things that blue-collar people are - that ethic of self-discipline and hard work is so central to them. And they're - you know, they're very proud of their ability to go to these, often, not very fulfilling jobs day after day after day for 40 years straight. And I think here of my father-in-law who went - did exactly that. He worked in a factory that made those machines that measure the humidity in museums, and he was an inspector. He hated his job. He went to it for 40 years. And he was proud of doing a good job while he was at work. He was proud of the work that he did. And he took it seriously, and he worked very hard, and he deserved dignity for that. And one of the things that I've been trying to explain to people is that these jobs are important jobs. You know, when I get up in the morning and I turn on the tap, it's not because of some knowledge worker that water comes out. It's because of some blue-collar person.

Another thing that strikes me - and this is actually from a really fascinating article studying class in sitcoms - is Marge in "The Simpsons" is depicted as smarter and more responsible and more grown up than Homer Simpson is. And that's a pattern in American sitcoms where in - if you look at professional managerial families in sitcoms, it's father knows best, and mother is a good support. But if you look at working-class families in sitcoms, the woman is smarter, and often the children are smarter than the dimwitted dad. So it's, like, kind of a class affront and a gender affront exacerbating the class affront.

VEDANTAM: You and your husband come from different backgrounds. You're the fourth generation of lawyer in your family, and you went to Yale and Harvard and MIT. Your husband came from blue-collar roots. He's what you call a class migrant. Tell me about a high school reunion he once attended and the question he asked of a former classmate and what this exchange revealed to you.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, so we went back to his high school reunion. And, you know, I'm the anthropologist. He's not. So he did what he had come to be used to in upper-middle-class circles. He asked one of his classmates, what do you do? Absolutely the standard question in my crowd. And his classmate was really offended. The classmate put his face very close to my husband's face. He got beet red, and he said, I sell toilets. And he obviously felt that the what-do-you-do question was a class insult from, virtually, the only member of their high school class from this blue-collar, Rust Belt town that had made it. And what that really shows you is - again, going back to the class culture gap. Well, why does my crowd - why do we ask each other, what do you do? Well, we do because it's a form of social display. What do I do? I'm a law professor. That's a form of social honor. What the I-sell-toilets comment meant is that I'm not just the man who sells toilets. Don't just boil me down to my job. My job is not who I am. And also it shows that that guy needed to keep close to home in a small circle of friends and acquaintances who knew, no, he's not just the guy who sells toilets. His social honor is not portable.


VEDANTAM: One of the things that people have often noticed is that there is a political gap between urban areas and rural areas. But one of the things I took away from your book is that the gap is really between people who are cosmopolitan in their outlook and people who are not. So they are going to be people who are very much at home working in Washington or New York or working tomorrow in London or Shanghai. But there are also people in the U.K. and in the U.S. who are rooted to their community in a way that's very different. And in some ways they resent the people who are cosmopolitan because they can pick up and leave, and they don't have sort of the same ties or the same obligations to local communities that they feel that they do.

WILLIAMS: That's very, very true. I mean, there is - it does map onto class. But Brexit and Trump's election were both a revolt of the areas that have been left behind. For example, if you look at the counties that voted for Clinton, roughly 500 counties did; 2,600 counties voted for Trump. But the 500 counties that voted for Clinton represent two-thirds of GDP. The 2,600 counties that voted for Trump represent only one-third. The people who voted both for Brexit and for Trump were those people who were left behind economically and left behind culturally, as you point out, because these are people who have these small, very localized, very deep enrooted clique networks of family and friends they've known forever. They actually - social science studies show that this group is more focused on community and solidarity in contrast to the professional managerial elite, who are more focused on individual achievement and self-development.

VEDANTAM: When you think about the ways blue-collar America and the elites relate to their work, I want to go back, in some ways, to the exchange that your husband had with his former classmate. In some ways, by asking what do you do, elites are asking one another - yes, it's a form of social display, but it's also a form of saying work is really how you define who you are.


VEDANTAM: It's an important part of your identity whereas, as you point out in the book, for blue-collar America, work is really a means to an end.

WILLIAMS: Work is what you do to support your family. So it's complicated. Hard work is valued among both groups, and that's one of the key ways we should begin to forge a bridge between these two groups. But the hard work is a matter of persevering and staying in that job, despite the fact that you may kind of hate it, in order to support your family and provide them with a settled family life. Elites are completely defined by their jobs. You know, what am I? I am a lawyer. I am a techie. This total self-definition in terms of your job is one of the emblematic elements of the elite. Many people - many blue-collar folks think the elite is just a bunch of sort of pathetic, power-hungry, pencil pushers who spend their whole life sucking up to each other and confuse their jobs with their lives.


VEDANTAM: There's also a huge class divide when it comes to the value of education. Many well-to-do people believe that education is the key to a better life - that if you want to get ahead, you need to get a good education. But as you point out in the book, Joan, this idea is a much more controversial idea among the white working class. Why?

WILLIAMS: Going to college is really, really risky for these groups. First of all, of course, college debt has - what? - quadrupled in recent years, so it's very risky to start to go to college. Many of them, ultimately, drop out. There's very - a much higher dropout rate among class migrants, people from non-elite backgrounds. So often, they end up paying back large college debts on the wage of a high school graduate. And they see that. They see it as very, very risky - in addition that they typically don't get into the same colleges. And social science studies show that if you give people an identical school record, one from an elite family and one from a white, working-class family, the white, working-class family has to - kid has to actually be about three times as good as the elite family kid in order to get - to be seen as equally strong.

VEDANTAM: It doesn't end there. In one study, Joan says, researchers sent out two sets of resumes to employers. The resumes were identical except for one difference.

WILLIAMS: One set off blue-collar signals like pick-up soccer, like country music. The other set off elite signals - water polo, classical music. Mr. Water Polo got 16 times the number of callbacks as Mr. Country Music. So you may go through all of this process, incur all of this debt. And then because, you know, so to speak, you don't know what fork to use, you may not get a professional job anyway.


VEDANTAM: Joan Williams argues that these class differences, rooted not just in economic hardship but in psychological shame and cultural humiliation, play out in politics. When we come back, we'll explore different theories about why the white, working class tipped the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We're talking with Joan Williams, a law professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. She's also the author of the book "White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness In America."


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: The man is worth $9 billion.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Trump is different because he doesn't have to answer to any donors.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: And he said everything I've always dreamed someone would say.

TRUMP: Today, the American working class is going to strike back - finally.


VEDANTAM: So in 2016, a New York billionaire comes along and tells the white working class they're going to be forgotten no more. How does the story that you tell intersect with the rise of Donald Trump?

WILLIAMS: I think the most important insight into why the white working class broke so strongly for Donald Trump, particularly in these left-behind areas, is epitomized by a sign that said, we voted with our middle finger. Donald Trump is their middle finger. They see the warts in Donald Trump that anybody with eyes sees. But I think that they voted for him and they have been so loyal to him because that's what he is for them. He is a big fuck you to the elites in the United States. And he's really effective at that.

Now, that is why these middle-class guys are very, very loyal to Trump. He is not as popular among blue-collar women or women in blue-collar families. So there's that sense of not being able to be a full man because you couldn't get that blue-collar, breadwinner job and because you're - been insulted by lots of cultural artifacts.

VEDANTAM: A lot has been written about the white working class since the 2016 election, Joan. And I would say there are two main lines of argument. The first that's espoused by you and researchers like Arlie Hochschild, whom we previously featured on HIDDEN BRAIN, is that Trump was white working-class America's response to years of humiliation and neglect. But there's also another theory. And it goes all the way back to Archie Bunker.


O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) American history lesson - you don't know nothing about Lady Liberty standing there in the harbor with her torch on high, screaming out to all the nations in the world, send me your poor, your deadbeats, your filthy.


O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) And all the nations sent them in here. And they come swarming in like ants. Your Spanish PRs from the Caribbean, your Japs, your Chinamen, your Krauts and your Hebes and your English fags. All of them come in here and they're all free to live in their own separate sections where they feel safe. And they'll bust your head if you go in there. That's what makes America great, buddy.

VEDANTAM: So, Joan, how much does racial resentment or xenophobia explain the political choices of the white working class?

WILLIAMS: I think the economic deprivation, the class culture gap and the racial anxiety - they are different sides of the same coin. Certainly, for someone who's spent much of my life studying gender and race, where you have - where you have white people, you have racism. That's just a fact. And it is not my job description to condone racism, no matter who expresses it. And it is not my job to deny the the influence of racism in American life. That would be insane. On the other hand, I think that it's a lot easier to decry someone else's racism than to face your own class advantage. I think that - really, for me, the nub is that if people can't access their hope, they live by their fear. And that's the link between the economic anxiety and the racism.

An alternative way of giving people a mechanism for understanding why they feel so dissed, so economically bereft, so adrift, is to say, you haven't been well-treated by the economy. You haven't been well-treated in popular culture. You have been disrespected because you are of a different class. And it's not because you're white people. It's because you are blue-collar people. And we're going to stop doing that.

VEDANTAM: Joan Williams studies gender, class and work in the United States. She's the author of the book "White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness In America." Joan, thank you for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

WILLIAMS: My honor and my pleasure. Thank you.


VEDANTAM: We're going to turn now to another perspective on the motivations of the Trump base. The white working class is working class, but it is also white. And something dramatic has happened with white voters over the last half-century. Marisa Abrajano is a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. Along with Zoltan Hajnal, she is co-author of the book "White Backlash: Immigration, Race, And American Politics." Marisa says the shift of white voters from the Democratic to the Republican Party has been dramatic over the last 40 years.

ABRAJANO: Yes, indeed. So one of the biggest shifts, I think, that we have experienced in the last three to four decades are the racial and ethnic compositions of who makes up Democratic and Republican voters today. And much of that has to do with the fact that whites are defecting away from the Democratic Party and solidly aligning themselves to the Republican Party whereas the Democratic Party is the party that has become much more ethnically and racially diverse today.

VEDANTAM: So the fact that people of color are gravitating toward the Democratic Party, and whites are gravitating toward the Republican Party - this isn't a new finding. But you argue, Marisa, that a significant portion of this trend is being driven by one specific political issue.

ABRAJANO: Yes. So my colleague Zoli Hajnal and I - that is the main thesis of this book - is that the issue of immigration is one of the main factors that's driving white voters away from the Democratic Party. And as a result of what we're seeing, we are definitely having this realignment, if you will, of the ethnic and racial makeup of our two major political parties.

VEDANTAM: So you are not the first scholars to identify that immigration matters in politics. But as I read your book, it struck me - you've come to a new understanding of just how much immigration matters.

ABRAJANO: That's right. So it's not - it's not this novel finding that immigration matters. We've known that for a long time. But I think what we're really trying to push forward is that this very essential piece of American politics, partisanship, and something that we hold so central to every sort of explanation of how people behave in politics - that that is really - it's being tremendously shaped by how folks think about immigration.

VEDANTAM: There's been a long-standing debate in political science about the effects of partisanship. I remember talking to a number of experts over the years who have said partisanship and party loyalty is such a powerful force, and many of us often arrive at our views on policy matters after we have pledged our allegiance to one side or the other. It's almost like following a sports team. You know, you decide to follow a sports team, and then you start to like all the things that the sports team does. And this thesis would argue that people's views on immigration are shaped by their partisan loyalties. In other words, people decide their party loyalties first, and that decides how they think about immigration. In some ways, you are arguing the opposite. You're saying how people think about immigration shapes the way they think about party.

ABRAJANO: Yes. So any time any researchers choose to study partisanship, it's always this very intimidating force because, as you said, there's so much research on it, and we feel like this is the one thing that we know so much about. But again, when we started doing all this data analysis looking at how American voters behaved over the past 20 years, it was really remarkable - that even if we took, say, how they felt about immigration two years prior to a presidential election, or any election, that that would still be a very strong predictor of their vote choice in that subsequent election, which means to suggest, then, that it was immigration that was explaining partisanship as opposed to vice versa.

VEDANTAM: Let's step back for a second and just paint a picture of how you've arrived at this thesis. You say that since 2000, the United States has absorbed an extraordinary number of immigrants. And in some ways, it would be very surprising if this surge did not have a profound effect on politics.

ABRAJANO: Exactly. States like California, Texas - we already are majority-minority states, meaning that the majority of the population are made up of people of color, most of whom are immigrant descendants. So the U.S. Census predicts that by 2050, 1 out of every 4 Americans are going to be of Latino or Hispanic origin. I mean, that's quite astonishing.

VEDANTAM: So while there are these large numbers of immigrant families in the United States, these families, as you point out, account for a relatively small share of the voting population. And in some ways, this is the source of the friction and tension that's at the heart of your book.

ABRAJANO: That's right. And, you know, I think part of it is that it is an issue that is easily understood by the public. The fact that undocumented immigration is a very easy issue in the sense that - for the average American voter, you can understand somebody who breaks the law and enters the country without proper documentation, and that is a violation of our laws and orders - that that can easily animate people.

VEDANTAM: And it seems to me that's closely connected with what polls show, Marisa. Half of white Americans seem to believe that immigrants are a burden to U.S. society, and a slight majority think that Latinos add to the crime problem.

ABRAJANO: That's right. And again, if you actually look at the data itself - right? - those perceptions are not the reality, particularly when it comes to crime. So just like many things that's happening right now in politics, what people perceive what the truth is and what the facts are, are very different from what the actual evidence is.

VEDANTAM: Rapid demographic shifts, Marisa Abrajano and Zoltan Hajnal argue, have created feelings of threat among white voters, especially the white working class. These threats come in different forms. Cultural threat...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: If you don't speak English and don't contribute, get out.

VEDANTAM: ...Economic threats...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: As far as I'm concerned, they're stealing jobs.

VEDANTAM: Political threats.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Why don't Republicans on the Hill understand the threat that these policies pose to the country and to them?

VEDANTAM: So you have multiple trends happening at the same time. On the one hand, you have these rapid demographic shifts. You also have these increasing feelings of threat among many white voters. And simultaneously, you also have a situation where one political party is seen as being more responsive to the anxieties of white voters than the other one.

ABRAJANO: That's right. I think the Republicans have really taken all of these multiple factors into consideration and used it to capitalize on a central message and theme that can really, again, mobilize their voters. And the fact that their base is overwhelmingly white means that they can have a central message, such as immigration, that can activate and mobilize their voters into not only supporting their candidates but also supporting the kinds of issues that they want to advocate for. There's been some criticism that, well, this is a short-term strategy, and they're going to suffer in the future. And that may be the case. But for the present, it's an extremely successful strategy, as we've seen.

VEDANTAM: You've also looked at what happens in states as the demographics of states start to change. So as the Latino populations in states starts to increase, for example, what do you find in terms of the behavior of white voters?

ABRAJANO: Well, what you typically see is that as the population of Latino voters have increased, you start to see the shift in the political behavior of white voters to support the Republican candidate. And that would be consistent with the theory that immigration is explaining the voting preferences of white voters. You know, we wrote this book before the 2016 election, so for better or worse, some would say that it was prescient of the outcome. But it was just remarkable to us that when we were putting together this book and our analysis - is that from all these different angles - not just of, you know, who white voters supported but also the kinds of policies that they favor - that it was really just - that immigration was such a strong and important predictor in all of these different political outcomes that we were exploring. And so I think that's where this idea that it was really this white backlash towards immigration - that's currently the political climate we live in today.

VEDANTAM: When we come back, what Marisa Abrajano's thesis about a white backlash means for politics and elections. Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We're talking with Marisa Abrajano, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. She's the co-author, along with Zoltan Hajnal, of the book "White Backlash: Immigration, Race, And American Politics." Marisa, your book came out in 2015, but as you said, in many ways, it anticipated the central issue in Donald Trump's presidential campaign.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Build a wall. Build a wall.

VEDANTAM: At the time, Marisa, many pundits said Trump was running a campaign that was out of touch with a diverse America. But in many ways, your book shows he was actually running a campaign that was perfectly in touch with the anxieties of white voters.

ABRAJANO: That's right. I think what pundits missed is that Trump wasn't trying to attract all voters across the United States. He knew exactly what demographic and what base he was speaking to. And so again, with these kinds of emotional appeals that are tied to a specific group of individuals, that pitch, that message, resonated, as we all know now, extremely well with his supporters. And I think it was compounded also by the fact that we had eight years in Obama presidency. And so it's immigration also tied in with the issue of race. And this is why the subtitle of our book is "Immigration, Race And Politics" because the two things, at least in the context of the United States, they go hand in hand with one another.

And so you have eight years of a presidency of the first African-American president in this country coupled with the specific campaign message of immigration altogether tying in a lot of that racial resentment that happened in that past eight years, I think, just is what galvanized his campaign and his presidency.

VEDANTAM: So one disturbing implication from your thesis, Marisa, is that we're heading to a situation where we have different political parties for people of color and people who are white. And increasingly, what this means is that our political divides become racial divides.

ABRAJANO: Indeed. And that's one of the, again, more pessimistic outcomes of this research is that really, you know, race, as we all know, is such a fundamental cleavage in our society. But I think also Republicans willingly took on that strategy and are using it to their advantage, clearly.

VEDANTAM: There's an interesting tension here, it seems to me, for both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. You know, we alluded to this some time earlier. But what might be in the interest of each party in the short term might not be in its interest in the long term. Can you talk about that from the point of view of both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party?

ABRAJANO: Sure. I mean, for the Republican Party right now, they're an overwhelmingly white party. And as we know, with the way demographics are shifting in the United States, we're going to become increasingly a majority-minority country. That - at some point, that strategy's going to be short-lived, right? So - but again, for the time being, for the next five to 10 years, it works. So I think their sense is, well, let's just go with it, right? They're not looking further beyond 20, 30 years from now. On the other hand, the problem that Democrats faced is yes, they're the most diverse party that - more diverse than Republicans. But one thing that they really are struggling with is that the voting behavior of voters of color differ in the sense that so many of them are not engaged in the political process, meaning that it is very time intensive and it's very costly to get voters of color to turn out to vote, right?

So again, we still have a good 20 to 30 percentage point difference in turnout rates between voters of color and white voters. And so the problem that Democrats have is, how do they actually get their voters to get out there and participate in politics so that their numbers actually match their rates of turnout? That's the biggest thing that Democrats are struggling with.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering if you can tell me a little bit about this other work you've done, Marisa, that looks at this idea that things that happen at certain moments in our lives, especially when we're young adults, have these profound effects on our political allegiances over the next several decades. And you've studied the effects of various immigration bills starting with a bill in 1965 and one in the 1980s and one in the 1990s and one in the early 2000s. And you look at how the debate over those bills has reshaped the political allegiances of young people in each of those eras in a way that's very profound and very long-lasting. Can you talk about this process of how this crystallization of political attitudes happens?

ABRAJANO: Yeah. I'm glad you raised that point because it's - I think it's a very important thing to bring up, especially if you think about long-term, future effects. And what my research has shown is that these galvanizing, these really major moments, for example - the election of President Trump I would say would mark one of them, and particularly the anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-Mexican sentiment that he's taken on really has the ability and power to shape how young voters think about politics and affiliate themselves politically, not just now but for the rest of their future. And so the research typically thinks about this as called these moments of political crystallization - right? - so really major events like this. The Vietnam War has been something that's been studied.

And so young folks who've been socialized in this current era, young folks - generally, we think about that between the ages of 18 to 35. If they were of that - that age in this time period, that's really going to have a very strong predictive power in how and who they support politically for the rest of their lives. So you can imagine that an 18-year-old senior Latino in high school somewhere in Los Angeles who - it was his first time voting in this 2016 presidential election, hearing all this anti-immigrant sentiment is really going to shape his political views from now until the future.


VEDANTAM: Marisa says that she experienced this in her own life. When she was in college, California's Republican governor, Pete Wilson, pushed for what was known as Proposition 187. It attempted to cut off health services and public education for undocumented immigrants. It passed overwhelmingly, although it was later found to be unconstitutional. Marisa, whose family immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in the 1960s, says the anti-immigrant sentiment behind the bill had a profound effect on her.

ABRAJANO: You know, in a lot of immigrant homes, you don't really talk about politics all that much, or if you do, you talk about politics in your homelands. So that conversation really wasn't present at home. But it was evident in schools and in your communities and especially on college campuses where you started to see what activism meant and what activism was. That's really what - I started to witness how immigration played such a central role in the lives of many folks and of many Californians. And so for me, that really opened my eyes to the fact that immigration really affects so many individuals at so many different levels.

VEDANTAM: Did you feel, in some ways, the rhetoric at that time was personally directed at you, that you felt, in some ways, that you were the target of attack?

ABRAJANO: Sure. I don't think anybody who (laughter) doesn't look - who's a non-white person, you know, didn't feel that way. I mean, it's just the way of - it is growing up in this country.


VEDANTAM: In the quarter-century since Pete Wilson pushed forward Proposition 187, it isn't just Marisa whose views have cemented against the Republican Party. As white ceased to be a majority in California, the state has now swung so far to the left that the Republican Party has been nearly reduced to third-party status. Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1. Marisa says California offers a sobering lesson for the future of the Republican Party across the country.

ABRAJANO: Yes. Having, again, grown up in this state for all my life, it's really remarkable to see such a rapid change in my lifetime. And if you think the national parties were really paying attention to what's happening in states like California, you would think that they wouldn't be advising their Republican candidates to use immigration, this issue, to mobilize their voters because - where it alienates such a large percentage of the population. So you think it would be obvious that they would say, hey, guys, this strategy is just going to, you know, come back to bite you in the next 20 years. Don't do it. But currently, we don't see Republicans, you know, paying any attention or acknowledging the fact that this could very well be their future in the next 20 to 30 years.

VEDANTAM: But there's a tension - isn't it? - which is if you're a Republican politician today, you are not necessarily interested in winning election 25 years from now. You need to win election today.

ABRAJANO: That's right. They are, you know, current election-seeking office seekers. And so they just want - all they focus on is the next election, which is typically two years or four years from now, right? - so not to say that Republican strategists haven't conceded the fact that their strategies are short termed. I remember after the 2012 election, the RNC memo came out with this acknowledgement that the party needed to do a better job at being much more inclusive. But given that that was the minority position, we haven't really seen any kind of meaningful efforts towards that direction today.

VEDANTAM: Marisa Abrajano is a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. Along with Zoltan Hajnal, she's co-author of the book "White Backlash: Immigration, Race And American Politics." Marisa, thanks for joining me on HIDDEN BRAIN today.

ABRAJANO: Thank you for having me.


VEDANTAM: Joan Williams and Marisa Abrajano have looked at the very same phenomenon - the shift of white people away from the Democratic Party and toward the Republican Party - and drawn very different conclusions. For Joan Williams, class prejudice against working-class whites, especially from liberal elites, explains why these voters have deserted the Democratic Party. For Marisa Abrajano, racial prejudice and xenophobia are the answer. There is evidence to support both contentions. Indeed, as Joan Williams says, it may be that the loss of social honor experienced by working-class whites might itself explain their shift toward the nativist vision of Donald Trump. When you can't access your hopes, all you have to live by are your fears.


VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Thomas Lu and edited by Tara Boyle and Camila Vargas Restrepo. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah and Laura Kwerel. Today's episode is the second in a two-part look at American politics and our political identities. If you didn't catch last week's episode about the biology of our political preferences, check it out. It's the episode in your podcast feed called Red Brain, Blue Brain.

Our unsung hero this week is Taara Savage-El. For years, Taara has run NPR's amazing internship program and brought literally hundreds of young journalists and public radio enthusiasts into the organization. Some of NPR's most senior reporters, hosts and managers started out as interns, so the internship program is really a way for the organization to renew itself. Taara managed the immense logistics of reviewing applications and organizing interviews - truly the definition of an unsung hero.

For more HIDDEN BRAIN, find us on Facebook and Twitter. If you love our show, please tell one friend about us this week. In fact, try and do it right now. Think of someone who might like us and send them a note. And thanks. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Subscribe to the Hidden Brain Podcast on your favorite podcast player so you never miss an episode.

google podcast subscribe
spotify podcast subscribe


Go behind the scenes, see what Shankar is reading and find more useful resources and links.