Why do working-class Americans vote as they do?
The question has long bedeviled analysts on the left, troubled that people who would largely benefit from a more robust government seem so often to vote for right-leaning politicians eager to cut federal programs to pay for tax cuts for the rich.
The unusual Republican presidential primary, evolving from one surprise to the next, has revived the debate, but with an important racial coda. As Donald Trump and Ted Cruz surge in the polls, buoyed by the enthusiastic support of angry white men, they raise a narrower question: What’s going on with working-class whites?
Though subtle, this variation reflects an important shift in American politics: Perhaps even more than economic status, racial, ethnic and cultural identity is becoming a main driver of political choice.
It suggests that the battle over the purpose and configuration of the American government — what it’s for, who it serves — may become more openly about “us” versus “them,” along ethnic lines.
Consider the Trump phenomenon. While polls find that he also leads the Republican pack among women and higher-income voters, by far his most solid support comes from less educated, lower-income white men, according to a Pew Research Center analysis conducted in October.
Donald Trump is backed by 43 percent of Republicans with at most a high school education, but only 28 percent of those with bachelor degrees and 21 percent of those with some graduate school, according to an analysis of the most recent New York Times/CBS poll.
Similarly, a Quinnipiac University poll last month found that Hillary Clinton would readily beat Mr. Trump in a general election among college-educated voters, while Mr. Trump would eke out victory among those without a college degree. This is also true of the other angry Republican at the top of the list, Senator Ted Cruz.
Their supporters are overwhelmingly white. White non-Hispanics are the only ethnic group that leans Republican, according to a study of party affiliation by the Pew center. White men who have not completed college favor the G.O.P. over the Democratic Party by 54 to 33 percent.
President Obama and Bernie Sanders have speculated that frustration over lost jobs and stagnant wages can explain much of the blue-collar support for Mr. Trump and conservative populists more generally.
The explanation, however, is not quite satisfactory. As Matthew Yglesias at Vox suggests, many white Americans are most likely drawn to Mr. Trump’s xenophobic, anti-immigrant message because they agree with it.
Such voters are nostalgic for the country they lived in 50 years ago, when non-Hispanic whites made up more than 83 percent of the population. Today, their share has shrunk to 62 percent as demographic change has transformed the United States into a nation where others have a shot at political power.
Their fear is understandable. In general, the concerns of Hispanic and black American voters are often different from those of white voters. But the reaction of whites who are struggling economically raises the specter of an outright political war along racial and ethnic lines over the distribution of resources and opportunities.
Race, of course, has shaped political choices for a long time. The Republican takeover of the South is understood by scholars as a reaction to whites’ sense of betrayal after the Democratic push for desegregation under President Lyndon Johnson.
Racial animosity has long helped foster a unique mistrust of government among white Americans. Nonwhite voters mostly like what the government does. But many white Americans, researchers have found, would rather not have a robust government if it largely seems to serve people who do not look like them.
Americans owe their unusually minimalist state in large measure to racial mistrust. As the economists Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser put it in an important paper, European countries are much more generous to the poor relative to the United States mainly because of American racial heterogeneity. “Racial animosity in the U.S. makes redistribution to the poor, who are disproportionately black, unappealing to many voters,” they wrote.
The eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson described two decades ago how race and economics collided. In the United States, he wrote, white taxpayers have opposed welfare because they see themselves “as being forced, through taxes, to pay for stuff for blacks that many of them could not afford for their own families.”
Scholars have found evidence for these attitudes all over the place.
For instance, Julian Betts of the University of California, San Diego and Robert Fairlie of the University of California,Santa Cruz found that for every four immigrants entering public high schools, one native student switched to a private school.
Daniel Hungerman from the University of Notre Dame found that all-white congregations became less charitable as the share of black residents in the community rose.
Perhaps because they have relied more on government programs and protections, members of minority groups have decidedly different beliefs about supporting social solidarity. Another study published by the Pew center in November found that 62 percent of white Americans would like the government to be smaller and provide fewer services. Only 32 percent of blacks and 26 percent of Hispanics agreed.
Notably, minorities in the United States have never held much power. They are unlikely to feel that political influence to direct and constrain what government does is slipping away.
The rich democracies of the West are living through strange times. In Europe, voters are increasingly drawn to xenophobic politics, driven, according to the former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, by fear “based on the instinctive realization that the ‘white man’s world’ — a lived reality assumed by its beneficiaries as a matter of course — is in terminal decline.”
Right-wing parties, Mr. Fischer added, are replacing the notion of a nation built on a shared commitment to a common constitutional and legal order with an ethnic definition of nationhood, derived from common descent and religion. White Europeans, in other words, are circling the wagons.
A few years ago it looked as if the United States — long more tolerant of immigration, with a more fluid sense of national identity that readily allowed for hyphenation — could avoid this turn.
But judging by this year’s political debate, held against the background of improving but still insufficient prosperity, Americans are moving in the same direction. Racial identity and its attendant hostilities appear to be jumping from their longstanding place in the background of American politics to the very center of the stage.